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Profile of Donald Barthelme
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|Date of Birth:
||7th April 1931
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||Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Donald Barthelme (April 7, 1931 - July 23, 1989) was an American author of short fiction and novels. He also worked as a newspaper reporter for the Houston Post, managing editor of Location magazine, director of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston (1961-1962), and a professor at various universities.
Donald Barthelme was born in Philadelphia in 1931 to two students at the University of Pennsylvania. The family moved to Texas two years later, where Barthelme's father would become a professor of architecture at the University of Houston, where Barthelme would later major in journalism. In 1951, still a student, he wrote his first articles for the Houston Post. Barthelme was drafted into the Korean War in 1953, arriving in Korea on July 27, the very day the cease-fire ending the war was signed. He served briefly as the editor of an Army newspaper before returning to the U.S. and his job at the Houston Post. He also returned to the University of Houston, now studying philosophy, but though he continued to take classes until 1957, he never received a degree.
Barthelme’s relationship with his father was a struggle between a rebellious son and a demanding father. In later years they would have tremendous arguments about the kind of literature Barthelme was interested in and wrote. Though his father was avant-garde in art and aesthetics in many ways, he did not approve of the post-modern and deconstruction. Barthelme’s attitude toward his father is delineated in the novels The Dead Father and The King as he is pictured in the characters King Arthur and Lancelot. Barthelme’s independence also shows in his moving away from the family’s Roman Catholicism (his mother was especially devout), a cleavage that bothered Barthelme throughout his life just as did the cleavage with his father. He seemed much closer to his mother and agreeable to her strictures. Having essentially an existential outlook, Barthelme looked hard at life and found much wanting, thus developing a sad, satiric outlook.
In 1961, Barthelme became director of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston; he published his first short story the same year. His New Yorker publication, "L'Lapse," followed in 1963. The magazine would go on to publish much of Barthelme's early output, including such now famous stories as "Me and Miss Mandible," the tale of a thirty-five-year-old sent to elementary school by a clerical error, and "A Shower of Gold," in which a sculptor agrees to appear on the existentialist game show Who Am I?. Barthelme collected his early stories the following year in Come Back, Dr. Caligari, for which he received considerable critical acclaim as an innovator of the short story form. His style spawned a number of imitators and would help to define the next several decades of short fiction.
Barthelme continued his success in the short story form with Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (1968). One widely anthologized story from this collection, "The Balloon," appears to reflect on Barthelme's own intentions as an artist. The narrator of the tale inflates a giant, irregular balloon over most of Manhattan, causing widely divergent reactions in the populace. Children play across its top, enjoying it quite literally on a surface level; adults attempt to read meaning into it, but are baffled by its ever-changing shape; the authorities attempt to destroy it, but fail. Only in the final paragraph does the reader learn that the narrator has inflated the balloon for purely personal reasons, and sees no intrinsic meaning in the balloon itself, a metaphor for the amorphous, uncertain nature of Barthelme's fiction. Other notable stories from this collection include "The Indian Uprising," a mad collage of a Comanche attack on a modern city, and "Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning," a series of vignettes showing the difficulties of truly knowing a public figure; the latter story appeared in print only two months before the real Kennedy's 1968 assassination.
Barthelme would go on to write over a hundred more short stories, collected first in City Life (1970), Sadness (1972), Amateurs (1976), Great Days (1979), Overnight to Many Distant Cities (1983), and the posthumous Teachings of Don B. (1992). Many of these stories were later reprinted and slightly revised for the collections Sixty Stories (1981) and Forty Stories (1987). Though primarily known for these stories, Barthelme also produced four novels characterized by the same fragmentary style: Snow White (1967), The Dead Father (1975), Paradise (1986), and The King (1990, posthumous).
Barthelme also wrote the non-fiction Guilty Pleasures (1974) and the collection Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme. With his daughter, he wrote the children's book The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine, and received the National Book Award for Children's Literature in 1972 for this effort. He was also a director of PEN and the Author's Guild, and a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Later life and death
Barthelme went on to teach for brief periods at Boston University, State University of New York at Buffalo, and the College of the City of New York, where he served as Distinguished Visiting Professor from 1974-75. He married four times, first to Brigit, with whom he had his only child, a daughter named Anne, and last to Marion, to whom he remained married until his 1989 death from cancer. Donald Barthelme's brothers Frederick (1943 - ) and Steven (1947- ) are also respected fiction writers and teachers at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Style and legacy
Barthelme's short stories are often exceptionally compact (a form sometimes called "short-short story," "flash fiction," or "sudden fiction"), often focusing only on incident rather than complete narratives. (He did, however, write some longer stories with more traditional narrative arcs.) At first, these stories contained short epiphanic moments. Later in his career, the stories were not consciously philosophical or symbolic. His fiction had its admirers and detractors, being hailed as profoundly disciplined or derided as meaningless and academic postmodernism. Barthelme’s thoughts and work were largely the result of twentieth-century angst as he read extensively, for example in Pascal, Husserl, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Ionesco, Becket, Sartre, and Camus.
Barthelme's stories typically avoid traditional plot structures, relying instead on a steady acculumation of seemingly-unrelated detail. By subverting the reader's expectations through constant non sequiturs, Barthelme creates a hopelessly fragmented verbal collage reminiscent of such modernist works as T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land and James Joyce's Ulysses, whose linguistic experiments he often challenged. Certain parallels have also been drawn between Barthelme and Franz Kafka. However, Barthelme's fundamental skepticism and irony distanced him from the modernist's belief in the power of art to reconstruct society, leading most critics to class him as a postmodernist writer. Literary critics have noted that Barthelme, like the French poet Stephane Mallarme, whom he admired, plays with the meanings of words, relying on poetic intuition to spark new connections of ideas buried in the expressions and conventional responses. The critic George Wicks called Barthelme “the leading American practitioner of surrealism today . . . whose fiction continues the investigations of consciousness and experiments in expression that began with Dada and surrealism a half century ago.” And Barthelme has been described in many other ways, such as in an article in Harper’s where Josephine Henden classified him as an angry sado-masochist – though I would question this. Barthelme was always humanistically, satirically, mild-mannered as he reflected on man’s limitations and foibles.
The great bulk of his work was published in The New Yorker, and he began to publish his stories in collections beginning with Come Back, Dr. Caligari in 1964, Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts in 1968, and City Life in 1970, a wonderful and characteristically insightful collection. Time magazine named City Life one of the best books of the year and described the collection as written with “Kafka’s purity of language and some of Beckett’s grim humor”. At times it seems that every story Barthelme published was unique, such is his formal originality: for example, a fresh handling of the parodic dramatic monologue in “The School” or a list of 100 numbered sentences and fragments in “The Glass Mountain”. Barthelme once wrote, “The only forms I trust are fragments”, an aspect of his writing which Joyce Carol Oates attacked in the New York Times Book Review essay of 1972 entitled “Whose Side Are You On?”: “This from a writer of arguable genius whose works reflect what he himself must feel, in book after book, that his brain is all fragments . . . just like everything else.”
Barthelme's legacy as an educator lives on at the University of Houston, where he founded the prestigious Creative Writing Program. Authors who were influenced by Barthelme at Houston include novelist Robert Clark Young. At the University of Houston, Barthelme became known as a sensitive, creative, and encouraging mentor to young creative-writing students while he continued his own writings.
- Come Back, Dr. Caligari (stories), Little, Brown (Boston), 1964.
- Snow White (novel), Atheneum (New York City), 1967.
- Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (stories), Farrar, Straus (New York City), 1968.
- City Life (stories), Farrar, Straus, 1970.
- The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine or the Hithering Thithering Djinn (children's book), Farrar, Straus, 1971.
- Sadness (stories), Farrar, Straus, 1972.
- Guilty Pleasures (parodies and satire), Farrar, Straus, 1974.
- The Dead Father (novel), Farrar, Straus, 1975.
- Amateurs (stories), Farrar, Straus, 1976.
- Great Days (stories; also see below), Farrar, Straus, 1979.
- Sixty Stories, Putnam (New York City), 1981.
- Overnight to Many Distant Cities (stories), Putnam, 1983.
- Great Days (play; based on his story of the same title), first produced off-Broadway at American Place Theater, 1983.
- Paradise (novel), Putnam, 1986.
- Sam's Bar, Doubleday (New York City), 1987.
- Forty Stories, Putnam, 1987.
- The King, Harper (New York City), 1990.
- The Teachings of Don B.: Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories and Plays of Donald Barthelme, edited by Kim Herzinger, Turtle Bay Books (New York City), 1992.
- Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme, Random House (New York City), 1997.
- Guggenheim fellowship, 1966
- Time Magazine Best Books of the Year list, 1971, for City Life
- National Book Award for children's literature, 1972, for The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine or the Hithering Thithering Djinn
- Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1972
- Jesse H Jones Award from Texas Institute of Letters, 1976, for The Dead Father
- Nominated for National Book Critics Circle Award, PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, Los Angeles Times Book Prize, all for Sixty Stories, all in 1982
- Jessamyn West's Barthelme page includes over a dozen Barthelme stories, reprinted by permission, along with biographical information and links
- The Scriptorium's Barthelme page discusses his life and work
- "On our street..." is a Barthelme story reprinted (by permission) at Strange Horizons
- Review of Sixty Stories
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