Barthelme, Donald 1931–1989

views updated

Barthelme, Donald 1931–1989

PERSONAL: Born April 7, 1931, in Philadelphia, PA; died of cancer, July 23, 1989, in Houston, TX; son of Donald (an architect) and Helen (Bechtold) Barthelme; married (marriage ended); married, wife's name Birgit (marriage ended); married, wife's name Helen (marriage ended); married, wife's name Marion; children: (second marriage) Anne Katherine.

CAREER: Author of short fiction and novels. Worked as a newspaper reporter for the Houston Post, Houston, TX, and managing editor of Location magazine; Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, TX, director, 1961–62; distinguished visiting professor of English, City College of the City University of New York, 1974–75. Military service: U.S. Army; served in Korea and Japan.

MEMBER: American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, Authors League of America, Authors Guild, PEN.

AWARDS, HONORS: Guggenheim fellowship, 1966; Time magazine's 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 1982.


Come Back, Dr. Caligari (stories), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1964.

Snow White (novel), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1967. Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (stories), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1968.

City Life (stories), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1970.

The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine or the Hithering Thithering Djinn (for children), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1971.

Sadness (stories), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1972.

Guilty Pleasures (parodies and satire), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1974.

The Dead Father (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1975, with an introduction by Donald Antrim, 2004.

Amateurs (stories), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1976.

Great Days (stories; also see below), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1979.

Sixty Stories, Putnam (New York, NY), 1981, Penguin (New York, NY), 2003.

Overnight to Many Distant Cities (stories), Putnam (New York, NY), 1983.

Great Days (play; based on his story of the same title), produced at American Place Theater, New York, 1983.

Paradise (novel), Putnam (New York, NY), 1986.

Sam's Bar, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1987.

Forty Stories, Putnam (New York, NY), 1987.

The King, with wood engravings by Barry Moser, Harper (New York, NY), 1990.

The Teachings of Don B.: Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories, and Plays of Donald Barthelme, edited by Kim Herzinger, with an introduction by Thomas Pynchon, Turtle Bay Books (New York, NY), 1992.

Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme, Random House (New York, NY), 1997.

Regular contributor to the New Yorker.

SIDELIGHTS: Donald Barthelme was an original and influential American writer of short fiction. Richard Gilman, in a representative statement reprinted in The Confusion of Realms, called Barthelme "one of a handful of American writers who are working to replenish and extend the art of fiction instead of trying to add to the stock of entertainments, visions and human documents that fiction keeps piling up." Lois Gordon elaborated upon this idea in her Twayne volume, Donald Barthelme. Barthelme, she claimed, "rejects traditional chronology, plot, character, time, space, grammar, syntax, metaphor, and simile, as well as the traditional distinctions between fact and fiction. What used to organize reality—time, space, and the structure of language—is now often disjointed, and language, and the difficulties in 'using' it, becomes the very subject of his art. Most obvious is … its refusal to be an orderly reflection of, and comment upon, a stable, external world." The collections Sixty Stories and Forty Stories contain most of the short fiction for which Barthelme is remembered.

Bizarre incidents abound in Barthelme's world: a thirty-five year old man is placed by some inexplicable error in a sixth-grade class, a woman attempts to open a car rental agency in a city whose every building is a church, the nonsense poet Edward Lear invites friends to witness his death. But such experiences are all pointedly disengaged from the voice that recounts them and from the audience's emotional sympathies. Even the characters in the stories take the wildest dislocations for granted. When King Kong, "now an adjunct professor of art history at Rutgers," breaks through a window in "The Party," the guests simply utter "loud exclamations of fatigue and disgust, examining the situation in the light of their own needs and emotions, hoping that the ape was real or papiermache according to their temperaments, or wondering whether other excitements were possible out in the crisp, white night." As Maurice Couturier noted in Donald Barthelme, the writer's idiom is marked by a "high degree of impersonality…. 'Sadness' and 'equanimity' appear to refer to essences which the characters accidentally happen to run across. Man is like a chance visitor in a world teeming with universals." Charles Molesworth, writing in Donald Barthelme's Fiction: The Ironist Saved from Drowning, stated: "For the typical Barthelme character, it is just the variousness of the world that spells defeat, since the variety is both a form of plenitude and the sign of its absence. The realm of brand names, historical allusions, 'current events,' and fashionable topics exists in a world whose fullness results from the absence of any strong hierarchical sense of values, and the causal randomness of such things both blurs and signals how any appeal to a rigorous, ordering value system would be futile."

Underlying what Molesworth called Barthelme's three chief subjects—"the futility of work in a post-industrial society, the emotional disorientation of divorce (in both literal and metaphoric terms), and the impotent double-mindedness of the artist"—many critics perceive a horrified fascination with the dreck of cultural disintegration: advertising slogans, facts from the public media, objects arrayed like trash on a junkpile, and opinions and actions unmoored from any system of belief that might give them meaning. Barthelme's contradictory attitude toward the cultural debris his work both cel-ebrates and deplores is best revealed in an often-cited passage from Snow White, in which the "stuffing" of ordinary language is compared to trash by virtue of its leading qualities: "(1) an 'endless' quality and (2) a 'sludge' quality." The proportion of "stuffing" in language, the novel contends, is constantly increasing. "We may very well reach a point," Barthelme wrote, "where it's one hundred percent. Now at such a point, you will agree, the question turns from a question of disposing of this 'trash' to a question of appreciating its qualities."

In many stories, Barthelme concentrates on a single bit of cultural junk and speculates on its range of implications. But even in his best stories, he was constantly in danger of being engulfed by the cultural dreck—second-hand language, second-hand beliefs, second-hand emotions—he took as his subject, so that his work sometimes appeared to be a symptom of cultural malaise rather than a response to it. Molesworth believed that "Barthelme's work can be read as an attack on the false consciousness generated by meretricious sources of information that are accepted as commonplace in the modern, technologized, urban society of mass man." But he adds, "This is … to read the stories as more morally pointed than they are intended." In The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass, Larry McCaffery wrote: "If there is a sense of optimism in [Barthelme's] work, it does not derive from the familiar modernist belief that art offers the possibility of escape from the disorders of the modern world or that art can change existing conditions; Barthelme overtly mocks these beliefs along with most other modern credos. Instead, Barthelme posits a less lofty function for art with his suggestion that it is valuable simply because it gives man a chance to create a space in which the deadening effects of ordinary living can be momentarily defied."

Other critics have applied a variety of labels to Barthelme in an attempt to place him accurately in the context of contemporary fiction. Alfred Kazin called him an "antinovelist"; Frederick R. Karl a "minimalist"; Jack Hicks and McCaffery, a "metafictionist." Moles-worth, titling him "perhaps the final post-Enlightenment writer," located him on the frontier between modernism and post-modernism: "An absurdist like [Samuel] Beckett maintains the world is fundamentally ambiguous, whereas a playful surrealist like [Richard] Brautigan suggests it is ambivalent. For Barthelme, it is both…. Nowhere does Barthelme's fiction wholly reject or wholly assent to the contemporary world."

Following Barthelme's death in 1989, The King, a novel, and The Teachings of Don B.: Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories, and Plays of Donald Barthelme, a collection, were published. In The King Barthelme offered a farcical version of the King Arthur legend set in England during the Second World War. The legendary quest for the Grail is here presented as the competition between Nazi Germany and the Allies to develop the atomic bomb. Ultimately, "Arthur renounces the Grail-bomb as immoral," the reviewer for the New Yorker commented, transforming the farce into "a pacifist tract, a rueful travesty … and a dazzlement of style." On the other hand, writing in the New Statesman & Society, Robert Carver found that The King, "for all its wit and playful inventiveness, reads like a series of stories strung together…. It reads embarrassingly off-key and banal."

The pieces gathered in The Teachings of Don B., as James Marcus explained in the New York Times Book Review, are "a superb cross section of what Thomas Pynchon, in his fine introduction, calls Barthelmismo." Writing in Studies in Short Fiction, Gary R. Grund found that The Teachings of Don B. "show Barthelme at his most creative and decreative, irreducible, fragmented, and undigested." Marcus concluded that the collection "is a small education in laughter, melancholy and the English language."

By offering an alternative to the short story organized in terms of a traditional plot, characters, conflict, and resolution, Barthelme's fiction persuasively demonstrates the comparatively superficial dependence of the short story on these conventions. Because his own work, however, has typically resisted new descriptive categories, it is easier to define the formal tradition with which he is breaking than to say exactly what he is creating in its place. But the leading characteristic of all Barthelme's work is clearly its antithetical stance toward its materials, a stance that, without necessarily expressing hostility toward the world, frees the stories from commitment to the truth of any representation of that world.

Gordon suggested that Barthelme's most striking formal technique is a "shifting from one voice of authority to another, or manipulation or literalization of metaphor or cliche, or creation of open-ended or seemingly nonfixed situations" that "is noticeably dislocating (or disorienting)." She added that "because of the open-ended quality of his language—which always begins with a logical albeit extraordinarily unusual connection before it splits and widens into its several, moving parts—one never feels he 'finishes' a Barthelme story." As Molesworth wrote, "For Barthelme the highest success is not if the story strikes us as true, but rather if it shows us how it works."

Evaluations of Barthelme's achievement as a writer usually highlight his ability to work on the extreme fringes of literary convention. Herbert Mitgang, writing in the New York Times, called him "among the leading innovative writers of modern fiction," while John Barth described him in the New York Times Book Review as "the thinking man's—and woman's—Minimalist."



Barthelme, Donald, Snow White, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1967.

Bellamy, Joe David, editor, The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1974.

Bruss, Paul, Victims: Textual Strategies in Recent American Fiction, Bucknell University Press (Cranbury, NJ), 1981.

Contemporary Fiction in America and England, 1950–1970, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1973, Volume 2, 1974, Volume 3, 1975, Volume 5, 1976, Volume 6, 1976, Volume 8, 1978, Volume 13, 1980, Volume 23, 1983, Volume 46, 1987, Volume 59, 1990.

Couturier, Maurice and Regis Durand, Donald Barthelme, Methuen (New York, NY), 1982.

Devil in the Fire: Retrospective Essays on American Literature and Culture, Harper's Magazine Press (New York, NY), 1972.

Dickstein, Morris, Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1977.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 2: American Novelists since World War II, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1978.

Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1981.

Fiction and the Figures of Life, Knopf (New York, NY), 1970.

Gilman, Richard, The Confusion of Realms, Random House (New York, NY), 1969.

Gordon, Lois, Donald Barthelme, Twayne (New York, NY), 1981.

Graff, Gerald, Literature against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1979.

Harris, Charles B., Contemporary American Novelists of the Absurd, College and University Press, 1971.

Hendin, Josephine, Vulnerable People: A View of American Fiction since 1945, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1978.

Hicks, Jack, In the Singer's Temple: Prose Fictions of Barthelme, Gaines, Brautigan, Piercy, Kesey, and Kosinski, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1981.

Karl, Frederick R., American Fictions, 1940–1980: A Comprehensive History and Critical Evaluation, Harper (New York, NY), 1983.

Kazin, Alfred, Bright Book of Life: American Novelists and Story Tellers from Hemingway to Mailer, Atlantic/Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1973.

Klinkowitz, Jerome, and others, editors, Donald Barthelme: A Comprehensive Bibliography and Annotated Secondary Checklist, Shoe String (Hamden, CT), 1977.

Klinkowitz, Jerome, Literary Disruptions: The Making of a Post-Contemporary American Fiction, 2nd edition, University of Illinois Press (Champagne, IL), 1980.

Klinkowitz, Jerome, The American 1960s: Imaginative Arts in a Decade of Change, Iowa State University Press (Ames, IA), 1980.

Klinkowitz, Jerome, The Self-Apparent Word: Fiction as Language/Language as Fiction, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1984.

Maltby, Paul, Dissident Postmodernists: Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1991.

McCaffery, Larry, The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1982.

Molesworth, Charles, Donald Barthelme's Fiction: The Ironist Saved from Drowning, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1982.

Patteson, Richard F., editor, Critical Essays on Donald Barthelme, G.K. Hall (New York, NY), 1992.

Peden, William, The American Short Story, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1975.

Roe, Barbara L., Donald Barthelme: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne (New York, NY), 1992.

Sakrajda, Mira, Postmodern Discourses of Love: Pynchon, Barth, Coover, Gass, and Barthelme, Peter Lang (New York, NY), 1997.

Scholes, Robert, Fabulation and Metafiction, University of Illinois Press (Champagne, IL), 1971.

Stengel, Wayne B., The Shape of Art in the Short Stories of Donald Barthelme, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1985.

Tanner, Tony, City of Words: American Fiction, 1950–1970, Harper (New York, NY), 1971.

Trachtenberg, Stanley, Understanding Donald Barthelme, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1990.

Weaver, Gordon, editor, The American Short Story, 1945–1980: A Critical History, Twayne (New York, NY), 1983.

Werner, Braig Hansen, Paradoxical Resolutions: American Fiction since James Joyce, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1982.


America, December 10, 1981, Samuel Coale, review of Sixty Stories, p. 404; December 22, 1990, Alan R. Davis, review of The King, p. 517.

American Book Review, December, 1989, pp. 3, 18, 25.

Antioch Review, spring, 1970; spring, 1987, p. 247.

Atlanta Constitution, November 30, 1987, p. B2.

Books, April, 1967; April, 1988, p. 16.

Books and Bookmen, February, 1974.

Book Week, May 21, 1967; February 4, 1979.

Boston Globe, October 4, 1987, p. C3.

Boundary 2, fall, 1976; spring, 1977.

Chicago Review, number 1, 1973.

Chicago Tribune, November 27, 1986; October 23, 1987, p. 3.

Chicago Tribune Book World, January 28, 1979; September 27, 1981; October 17, 1982.

Christian Science Monitor, June 1, 1967.

Commentary, November, 1975; August, 1976.

Commonweal, December 29, 1967; June 21, 1968; November 8, 1991, Paul Giles, "Dead, but Still with Us: Barthelme's Fading Catholic Intuitions," pp. 637-640.

Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, number 3, 1969; number 3, 1975; fall, 1984, p. 11.

Denver Quarterly, winter, 1979.

Detroit News, October 4, 1981; December 11, 1983.

Fantasy Review, March, 1987, p. 32.

Fiction International, number 4/5, 1975.

Georgia Review, summer, 1974; winter, 1993, Irvin Ma-lin, review of The Teachings of Don B.: The Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories, and Plays of Donald Barthelme, pp. 819-820.

Harper's, January, 1973.

Hudson Review, autumn, 1967; autumn, 1988, p. 549; spring, 1991, Tom Wilhelmus, review of The King and Visionary Historians, pp. 125-132.

International Fiction Review, Number 6, 1979.

Journal of Narrative Theory, spring, 1982.

Kenyon Review, spring, 1967.

Language and Style, spring, 1975.

Library Journal, December 15, 1976.

Life, May 26, 1967.

Linguistics in Literature, Number 2, 1977.

Listener, December 6, 1973; April 7, 1988, p. 30.

London Review of Books, July 7, 1988, p. 20.

Los Angeles Times, December 7, 1983, Art Seidenbaum, review of Overnight to Many Distant Cities, p. 22.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 18, 1981; October 24, 1982; November 2, 1986, p. 3; October 18, 1987, p. 3.

Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, December, 1990, Orson Scott Card, review of The King, p. 90.

Michigan Quarterly Review, spring, 1977.

Milwaukee Journal, February 4, 1973.

Minnesota Review, fall, 1971; fall, 1977.

Modern Fiction Studies, spring, 1982, pp. 129-143.

Nation, June 19, 1967; April 7, 1979; October 17, 1981, Charles Newman, review of Sixty Stories, pp. 381-382; August 6, 1983, Richard Gilman, review of Great Days, pp. 124-125.

National Review, March 28, 1975.

New Leader, February 26, 1979.

New Orleans Review, summer, 1981.

New Republic, May 2, 1964; June 3, 1967; December 14, 1974; February 17, 1979.

New Statesman, December 7, 1973.

New Statesman & Society, March 1, 1991, Robert Carver, review of The King, p. 38.

Newsweek, May 22, 1967; May 6, 1968; November 25, 1974; October 12, 1981, Walter Clemons, review of Sixty Stories, pp. 100-101; November 3, 1986, Peter S. Prescott, review of Paradise, p. 76.

New Yorker, June 27, 1983, Edith Oliver, review of Great Days, p. 75; July 9, 1990, review of The King, p. 92.

New York Review of Books, April 30, 1964; August 24, 1967; April 25, 1968; December 14, 1972; December 11, 1975.

New York Times, April 24, 1968; January 31, 1979; October 24, 1981, Anatole Broyard, review of Sixty Stories, p. 13; February 18, 1982, Herbert Mitgang, "Barthelme Face-to-Face with His Own Fiction," section C, p. 15; June 18, 1983; December 9, 1983, p. C33; October 22, 1986, Michiko Kakutani, review of Paradise, section C, p. 24; October 25, 1987, p. 14; May 31, 1988, section C, p. 21.

New York Times Book Review, September 27, 1964; May 21, 1967; May 12, 1968; November 7, 1971; September 3, 1972; November 5, 1972; December 23, 1973; December 19, 1976; February 4, 1979; October 4, 1981, John Romano, review of Sixty Stories, pp. 9-10; October 10, 1982, review of Sixty Stories, p. 35; December 18, 1983, Joel Conarroe, review of Overnight to Many Distant Cities, pp. 8, 22; October 26, 1986, Jane Perlez, interview with Barthelme, Elizabeth Jolley, review of Paradise, p. 7; October 25, 1987, Caryn James, review of Forty Stories, p. 14; April 23, 1989, p. 34; September 3, 1989, John Barth, "Thinking Man's Minimalist: Honoring Barthelme," p. 9; December 6, 1992, James Marcus, review of The Teachings of Don B., p. 30.

New York Times Magazine, August 16, 1970.

Observer (London, England), April 3, 1988, p. 42; February 10, 1991, p. 54.

Orbis Litterarum, number 38, 1983.

Partisan Review, number 3, 1973.

Philological Quarterly, fall, 1983.

Prospects, number 1, 1975.

Publishers Weekly, March 18, 1968; November 11, 1974.

Quill & Quire, January, 1987, p. 33; January, 1988, review of Forty Stories, p. 30.

Resources for American Literary Study, number 7, 1977.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 1991, Barry Lewis, review of The King, pp. 341-342; summer, 1991, special issue dedicated to Barthelme's work; summer, 1998, Monique Dufour, review of Not-Knowing, p. 226.

Saturday Review, May 9, 1970; November 25, 1972; March 3, 1979; September, 1981, Carey Horwitz, review of Sixty Stories, p. 59.

Sewanee Review, summer, 1970.

Southwest Review, spring, 1982.

Spectator, December 8, 1973; February 16, 1991, p. 26.

Studies in Short Fiction, winter, 1981; summer, 1984, pp. 277-279; spring, 1994, Gary R. Grund, review of The Teachings of Don B., pp. 257-258.

Style, summer, 1975.

Time, May 26, 1967; November 11, 1974; September 21, 1981, John Skow, review of Sixty Stories, p. 82.

Times Literary Supplement, June 17, 1977; May 13, 1988, John Clute, review of Forty Stories, p. 532.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), May 7, 1989, p. 9; June 10, 1990, p. 3; December 13, 1992, p. 3.

Tri Quarterly, winter, 1973; spring, 1974; spring, 1975.

Twentieth Century Literature, January, 1972.

Village Voice, January 17, 1984, pp. 38-39; February 3, 1987, p. 51.

Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1975.

Wall Street Journal, May 1, 1990, Richard Locke, review of The King, section A, p. 16.

Washington Post Book World, November 5, 1972; November 3, 1974; November 28, 1976; February 11, 1979; October 25, 1981; November 27, 1983, pp. 3, 10; October 11, 1987, p. 8.

World Literature Today, spring, 1987, p. 285; spring, 1993, Robert Murray Davis, review of The Teachings of Don B., p. 393.

Xavier Review, number 1, 1980–81.

Yale Review, spring, 1976.



Chicago Tribune, July 26, 1989.

Detroit Free Press, July 25, 1989.

Los Angeles Times, July 25, 1989.

New Yorker, August 14, 1989, pp. 23-24.

New York Times, July 24, 1989, section C, p. 10, section D, p. 11.

Times (London, England), July 25, 1989.

Washington Post, July 25, 1989.