Authors: Donald Barthelme

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American short-story writer


Donald Barthelme (BAHRT-uhl-mee) was one of the most imaginative and innovative American authors, and arguably the most imitated short-story writer, of the twentieth century. He was born the oldest of five children; two others also became respected writers. His father was a successful architect. In 1933, the family moved to Houston, which would remain one of Barthelme’s part-time residences. During his two years at the University of Houston, he studied journalism; he then worked as a reporter for the Houston Post. After serving in the U.S. Army (he was drafted in 1953), Barthelme founded a literary magazine, Forum, in 1956 and began working at Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum, where, in 1961, he was appointed director. The next year, he moved to New York and began publishing in The New Yorker magazine, to which he would continue to contribute regularly. The majority of his short stories, and even his first novel, Snow White, first appeared in The New Yorker.{$I[AN]9810001345}{$I[A]Barthelme, Donald}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Barthelme, Donald}{$I[tim]1931;Barthelme, Donald}

Donald Barthelme

(Bill Wittliff)

Barthelme’s only child, a daughter, Anne Katharine, was born to his first wife, Birgit, in 1965. Barthelme won a National Book Award in 1972 for the children’s book he wrote for Anne, The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine: Or, The Hithering Thithering Djinn. Barthelme also was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1966 and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for the 1981 collection Sixty Stories. Although he lived primarily in New York’s Greenwich Village, he taught for brief periods at Boston University and the State University of New York at Buffalo; he also taught at the College of the City of New York.

Throughout his career, Barthelme rejected the conventional forms of fiction: traditional narrative plot and characterization, the unities of time and space. If the novelist’s task is to reflect and comment upon reality, then the novel must lack structure–since beginnings, middles, and endings are not “real.” Instead, Barthelme wrote fiction that evokes mood; frequently he wrote “metafiction,” fiction that takes as its subject the very act of writing. Verbs and nouns take the place of plot, event, and character (as in The Dead Father). He was also concerned with social themes and with the dilemmas of human interaction and loneliness.

Barthelme’s form is that of the verbal collage, juxtaposing the beginning, middle, or ending of a story–or a sentence–with bits of other beginnings, middles, or endings. Typically, he interrupts a narrative or dialogue with contradictory or self-reflexive material. Often, he re-creates slang or metaphor in new and outrageous terms. All these devices function to jar readers out of their complacent expectations of human response and language. Readers must reconsider language and communication in new, more authentic terms.

Barthelme’s early works are primarily concerned with social issues, depicting a modern, brainwashed society, narcotized by the media. They portray a world of zombies repeating texts and technological references in response to every emotional confrontation, as in Come Back, Dr. Caligari. The volumes City Life and Sadness treat, in addition, the unreliability of irony as a weapon against a spiritually sullied world. Guilty Pleasures, one of his most humorous books, contains numerous literary parodies as it satirizes the tinfoil nature of the contemporary United States.

Barthelme has been widely praised–and imitated–because of his innovative and witty use of language, specifically the dislocations of sentences through transformations of slang, metaphor, and grammar. As Barthelme utilizes a vast array of verbal pyrotechnics–changing parts of speech, creating new words and spellings, and employing puns and at times outrageous wordplay (“Jean-Paul Sartre is a Fartre”)–to draw the reader’s attention to impoverished human communication, he touches on larger existential issues. In a world devoid of ultimate assurances and meanings, the only valid way of asserting one’s identity and authenticity is through the authenticity of the word.

Barthelme has been criticized for not writing a body of longer, more sustained fiction. Yet if the novels Snow White and The Dead Father had been his sole publications, they would ensure him a permanent and honored place in American letters. Snow White details the plight of a legendary mythic figure in the modern world, playing out the script (the fairy-tale role) to which she was born in a world of small men within the sexual, social, and moral expectations of 1960’s America. The Dead Father focuses on the need for, yet repulsiveness of, authority, using the form of a gigantic, dying father figure who represents the aggregate of religious, mythic, historical, literary, and linguistic tradition. A third, less successful novel, Paradise, tells of a fifty-three-year-old New York architect and the three girls who invade his empty apartment.

As the 1980’s approached, Barthelme began, in Great Days, to experiment with a more poetic style that incorporates musical techniques–producing, for example, sonata-like structures (theme A, theme B, theme A) to evoke a certain mood. Great Days also utilizes a new dialogue form in its explorations of the serious issues of time and mortality. Barthelme’s characters here are less abstract, more human. Overnight to Many Distant Cities alternates short stories with dialogue-arias; here again one finds the Barthelme wit and the dislocations of traditional meaning in the service of eliciting an authentic response from the reader. He writes, for example, “Youth, Goethe said, is the silky apple butter on the good brown bread of possibility.”

Beginning in the mid-1960’s, American postmodern writers–including Robert Coover, William H. Gass, John Barth, and Thomas Pynchon (as well as Julio Cortázar, Italo Calvino, Robert Pinget, and Claude Simon outside the United States)–were concerned with language and the difficulty of utilizing it as an emblem of authentic participation in an alien universe. Barthelme’s work illustrates that words ultimately remain the only link with this vast and indifferent world: The creative and honest use of language is the most effective measure against isolation and loneliness.

BibliographyBarthelme, Helen Moore. Donald Barthelme: The Genesis of a Cool Sound. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2001. The author, a senior university lecturer, was married to Barthelme for a decade in the 1950’s and 1960’s. She traces his life from his childhood in Houston to his development as a writer.Couturier, Maurice, and Regis Durand. Donald Barthelme. London: Methuen, 1982. This brief study focuses on the performance aspect of Barthelme’s stories and considers them in relation to the multiplicity of varied responses that they elicit from readers. Readings are few in number but highly suggestive.Daugherty, Tracy. Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009. Argues that Barthleme was writing in the modernist tradition of Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, and that he used advertisements, sentences from newspaper articles, instruction guides, and popular and commercial elements in order to make literature, not to subvert it.Gordon, Lois. Donald Barthelme. Boston: Twayne, 1981. This volume, in Twayne’s United States Authors series, makes up in breadth what it lacks in depth. Although the book has no particular point to make about Barthelme and his work, it does provide useful and accurate summaries of most of his work. A comprehensive introduction for undergraduates unfamiliar with the fiction, as is Stanley Trachtenberg’s Understanding Donald Barthelme.Hudgens, Michael Thomas. Donald Barthelme, Postmodernist American Writer. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. This volume in the series Studies in American Literature examines Barthelme’s novels The Dead Father and Snow White and his short story “Paraguay.” Includes bibliographical references and an index.Klinkowitz, Jerome. Donald Barthelme: An Exhibition. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991. Klinkowitz is easily the best informed and most judicious scholar and critic of contemporary American fiction in general and Barthelme in particular. Building on his Barthelme chapter in Literary Disruptions (below), he emphasizes the ways in which Barthelme reinvented narrative in the postmodern age and places Barthelme’s fiction in aesthetic, cultural, and historical context.Klinkowitz, Jerome. Literary Disruptions: The Making of a Post-Contemporary American Fiction. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980. Informed, accurate, and intelligent, this work is the necessary starting point for any serious study of Barthelme and his work. The emphasis is on Barthelme’s interest in structure, his revitalizing of exhausted forms, his words as objects in space rather than mimetic mirrors, and the imagination as a valid way of knowing the world.McCaffery, Larry. The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982. After situating the three writers in their historical period, McCaffery provides excellent readings of individual works. Views Barthelme as a critic of language whose “metafictional concerns are intimately related to his other thematic interests.”Molesworth, Charles. Donald Barthelme’s Fiction: The Ironist Saved from Drowning. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982. Objecting to those who emphasize the experimental nature of Barthelme’s fiction, Molesworth views Barthelme as essentially a parodist and satirist whose ironic stance saves him from drowning in mere innovation.Nealon, Jeffrey T. “Disastrous Aesthetics: Irony, Ethics, and Gender in Barthelme’s Snow White.” Twentieth Century Literature 51, no 2. (Summer, 2005): 123-141. Nealon analyzes the ironic perspective in Snow White, demonstrating how Barthelme uses irony to reawaken the aesthetic experience. He argues that the beginning of the novel may cause readers to examine the failure of aesthetics and its relation to gender.Olsen, Lance, ed. Review of Contemporary Fiction 11 (Summer, 1991). In addition to the editor’s excellent bio-critical introduction and Steven Weisenburger’s bibliography of works by and about Barthelme, this special issue on Barthelme reprints an early story and offers seven new essays (including especially noteworthy ones by Jerome Klinkowitz on the uses to which Barthelme put his unsigned “Comment” pieces from The New Yorker and Brian McHale and Ron Moshe on “The Indian Uprising”) and shorter appreciations of and critical commentary on Barthelme from twenty critics and fiction writers.Patteson, Richard, ed. Critical Essays on Donald Barthelme. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992. A collection of critical essays on Barthelme from book reviews and academic journals. Provides an overview of critical reaction to Barthelme in the introduction. Essays explore Barthelme’s use of language, his fragmentation of reality, his montage technique, and his place in the postmodernist tradition.Roe, Barbara L. Donald Barthelme: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992. An introduction to Barthelme’s short stories, with discussion of the major stories arranged in chronological order. Also includes several interviews with Barthelme, as well as previously published essays by other critics.Stengel, Wayne B. The Shape of Art in the Stories of Donald Barthelme. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985. Discusses such themes as play, futility, stasis, affirmation, and education in four types of stories: identity stories, dialogue stories, social fabric stories, and art-object stories. Focuses on Barthelme’s emphasis on art in his self-reflexive stories.Trachtenberg, Stanley. Understanding Donald Barthelme. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990. A basic guide to Barthelme’s body of work, including brief discussions of his biography and major writings. Includes an excellent annotated bibliography.Waxman, Robert. “Apollo and Dionysus: Donald Barthelme’s Dance of Life.” Studies in Short Fiction 33 (Spring, 1996): 229-243. Examines how the interplay between the Apollonian search for order and the Dionysian longing for freedom from convention informs much of Barthelme’s work and is often embodied in the metaphor of music.
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