General Assemblies

Victor Henry, a Monterey Public Library reference librarian, says Price Dunn was a prolific reader, checking out 10 or 20 books at a time.

It was a short notice from the Black-Cooper Sander Funeral Home:

Price A. Dunn - September 17, 1934 – July 18, 2018 Born in Trinity, Ala. Resided in Monterey, CA.

But the story behind that brief is more complicated.

Dunn, who led a (literally) storied life, as a lover of life, fine food and women, was the inspiration for Lee Mellon, the fictional protagonist of Richard Brautigan’s first novel, A Confederate General From Big Sur. Published in 1965, it put the novelist and poet, famed for his floppy blond mustache, signature brimmed hat and whimsical perspective on the universe, on the literary map.

Dunn, sometimes unwillingly, was along for the ride.

“When I first heard about Big Sur, I didn’t know that it was part of the defunct Confederate States of America, a country that went out of style like an idea or a lampshade or some kind of food that people don’t cook anymore, once the favorite dish in thousands of homes,” Brautigan wrote. “It was only through Lee Mellon that I found out the truth about Big Sur. Lee Mellon who is the battle flags and the drums of this book. Lee Mellon: a Confederate general in Big Sur.’’

The truth: After leaving the South, where his father moved so much that he attended 42 schools before dropping out of high school, according to Brautigan biographer William Hjorstberg, Dunn hitchhiked to California, landed in Big Sur, worked briefly for Henry Miller’s friend Emil White and then briefly for the nascent Esalen Institute. He first met Brautigan after moving to San Francisco, where he clerked at City Lights Books. Then Dunn headed back to Big Sur to help his friend Pat Boyd build a cabin.

After Dunn invited Brautigan and his first wife, Virginia, the rest is history – sort of.

They subsisted on abalone, rockfish and flatbread. The roof was so low you couldn’t stand up without hitting your head, and the Brautigans bedded down next to the broken pieces of a motorcycle Price never quite put back together.

At night, they could barely hear each other over the din of frogs croaking in a nearby pond. They tried to remedy this by throwing rocks and then firecrackers at the critters – then finally by bringing in an alligator from a local pet shop. That, too, failed to do the trick. Such stresses aside, it was a blast.

Dunn was a “handsome, robust, 6-foot-2, blondish, curly-haired Irishman,’’ recalls his ex-girlfriend, Raydiance Grace, who now lives on the Big Island of Hawaii. “I first met him in 1962, I was seeing Lawrence of Arabia near Cannery Row, and stopped off at the Palace Bar at intermission to get a glass of wine or something. I don’t know if you can print this, but the first thing he said to me, was, ‘I’d like to fuck you.’”

(She declined the offer, but the two did hook up when he returned to New Monterey after hiding out in Bodega Bay after being arrested in a bar fight.)

“On our first date, we drove down to Esalen, but [co-founder] Dick Price told him he’d been 86’d, for getting into a fight there too,” Grace recalls. She said Brautigan also visited the couple when they were living for a time at Cole Weston’s Trout Farm. (Lawrence Ferlinghetti was also a neighbor, living at Bixby Bridge and helping out at the Farm.)

But the friends fell out when Brautigan moved to Montana, and tragedy followed. “Richard thought he was involved with his girlfriend,” Grace says. “His alcoholism was rampant, and he went absolutely crazy, threatening him with a gun. It wasn’t too long after that Brautigan killed himself.”

Dunn discounted the mythology turning him into someone who was just a character in his friend’s book.

“If you brought up Lee Mellon, he would change the subject or make a sarcastic remark,” Grace says. “Maybe Richard had some kind of love affair with the Confederacy, since Price was such a character, and he was a womanizer in a way that Richard wanted to be, but couldn’t pull off as well.”

Although Dunn was a southerner, his grandfather did not fight in the Confederacy, despite a family fable about “Great Uncle John.” (Dunn acknowledged that tale was “a total myth,” according to Hjorstberg.)

Victor Henry, a reference librarian at the Monterey Public Library, added a coda to the funeral notice that was posted this summer: “I’m going to miss Price Dunn, the Confederate General from Big Sur. Over the years, we had superlative conversations about literature, music, society, etc. [He] was a voracious reader, checking out 10 to 20 books at a time. I will miss him.’’

“He was a great reader, with a big heart, but sadly never disciplined himself the way a writer needs to,” Grace says. “Think of the stories he could’ve told.”

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