Barthelme, Donald

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Nationality: American. Born: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 7 April 1931; brother of the writer Frederick Barthelme. Education: The University of Houston. Military Service: Served in the U.S. Army, 1953-55. Family: Married 1) Birgit Barthelme; 2) Marion Knox in 1978; two daughters. Career: Reporter, Houston Post, 1951, 1955-56; worked on public relations and news service staff, and founding editor of the university literary magazine Forum, University of Houston, 1956-59; director, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, 1961-62; managing editor, Location magazine, New York, 1962-64; visiting professor, State University of New York, Buffalo, 1972, and Boston University, 1973; Distinguished Visiting Professor, City College, New York, from 1974; visiting professor, University of Houston, from 1981. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1966; National Book award, 1972; American Academy Morton Dauwen Zabel award, 1972. Member: American Academy. Died: 23 July 1989.


Short Stories

Come Back, Dr. Caligari. 1964.

Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts. 1968.

City Life. 1970.

Sadness. 1972.

Guilty Pleasures. 1974.

Amateurs. 1976.

Great Days. 1979.

The Emerald. 1980.

Presents, collages by the author. 1980.

Sixty Stories. 1981.

Overnight to Many Distant Cities. 1983.

Forty Stories. 1987.

Sam's Bar. 1987.


Snow White. 1967.

The Dead Father. 1975.

Paradise. 1986.

The King. 1990.


Great Days, from his own story (produced 1983).


The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine; or, The Thithering Dithering Djinn (for children). 1971.

The Teachings; The Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories, and Plays, edited by Kim Herzinger. 1992.

Not Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme. 1997.



Barthelme: A Comprehensive Bibliography and Annotated Secondary Checklist by Jerome Klinkowitz, Asa Pieratt, and Robert Murray Davis, 1977.

Critical Studies:

"Barthelme Issue" of Critique, vol. 16, no. 3, 1975; Barthelme by Lois Gordon, 1981; Barthelme by Maurice Courturier and Régis Durand, 1982; The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Barthelme, and William H. Gass by Larry McCaffery, 1982; Barthelme's Fiction: The Ironist Saved from Drowning by Charles Molesworth, 1982; The Shape of Art in the Short Stories of Barthelme by Wayne B. Stengel, 1985; Understanding Barthelme by Alan Trachtenberg, 1990; Barthelme: An Exhibition by Jerome Klinkowitz, 1991; Postmodern Discourses of Love: Pynchon, Barth, Coover, Gass, and Barthelme by Mira Sakrajda, 1997.

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In the postmodern age of largely maximalist novels, Donald Barthelme, along with Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, and others, perfected the countermovement towards minimalist attenuation and permutation. Equally, though more humorously, innovative, Barthelme was in a way just as influential as either Beckett or Borges, thanks to his long association with the mainstream The New Yorker magazine. Even as he made metafiction's leap from matter to manner, Barthelme managed to avoid the extreme self-reflexivity that characterized the more theory-inspired work of many like-minded writers. He understood, better than most perhaps, that contemporary fiction was under new pressure, in part because of the writer's and the reader's hyper-awareness of literary conventions as conventions and of competition with other narrative forms, film in particular. Barthelme, drawing especially on Beckett's example, explored fiction's possibilities while fully recognizing the difficulty of sustaining the interest of the easily jaded reader and no less easily jaded writer.

Like Beckett and Borges, Barthelme aimed at extreme brevity. His methods were as varied as they were self-consciously employed. There is the ironically detached, comically deadpan presentation of absurdity: Beckett wrote parts for Buster Keaton; Barthelme wrote stories that embodied Keaton's comic imperturbability. At times Barthelme reduces plot development to its barest form, as in the 100 numbered sections of "The Glass Mountain." More usually, his stories do not develop at all; instead, they accrete, like "Bone Bubbles" or his 2500-word sentence ("The Sentence"), forming a verbal bricolage. Despite the characteristic brevity and skeletal structure, his fiction often seems strangely excessive, even mockingly exhaustive, as in "Nothing: A Preliminary Account."

Both within individual stories and in all of Barthelme's works, the reader discovers an art based on small adjustments rather than special effects and literary leaps—a matter of fine tuning and formal manipulation of often slight material (or, as in the case of "Nothing," material that can be made to seem slight). Barthelme's art entails variations on a theme, a word used here in its musical rather than its literary sense, which is especially evident in his dialogue and extended monologue stories. Barthelme's relation to these and other forms is a matter less of parody than of mimicry and is generally closer to hommage than to satire, as in "Captain Blood," which recalls both the original Rafael Sabatini novel and the film based on it. What Barthelme as author experiences is not the anxiety of influence (Harold Bloom's term), but instead the pleasure of influence, and nowhere is this pleasure more evident than in his adapting various visual arts to his literary purposes: architecture, magazine layout, collage, pop art, action painting, and contemporary sculpture. The convergence, or rather juxtaposition, of verbal and visual modes (including the latter's "immediate impact") is most pronounced in City Life ("At the Tolstoy Museum" in particular) and in Guilty Pleasures.

Although Barthelme's stories, or anti-stories, are aggressively antirealistic, they render the texture of contemporary American life—at its most urbane and up-to-date—with remarkable fidelity, however fanciful certain details may be. To read a Barthelme story is in a sense to read the larger culture that it reflects and imaginatively transcends: the sensory overload, the omnipresence not of God but of "noise," including the abundant, indeed excessive, information that the reader, like the educated citizen, can access but never master. Spread out in a broadly democratic, seemingly indiscriminate way are the bits of popular and high culture, including debased myths ("The Glass Mountain," "The Emerald," Snow White), which the reader is too knowing to believe though not quite able to forget. Barthelme handles the absurd in a similar manner. Although recalling Kafka, the absurdity in a story like "Me and Miss Mandible" is no longer existential but instead intertextual; it is no more and no less important than Sabatini's Captain Blood: grist for the postmodern mill. This is not to imply that John Gardner (in On Moral Fiction) and other tradition-minded readers are correct in claiming that Barthelme's only message is "better to be disillusioned than deluded." If the title of his first collection, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, suggests the densely and playfully intertextual aspect of Barthelme's fiction, then the title of his fourth collection, Sadness, suggests another, equally important. This is the sadness to which the postindustrial consumer society and Barthelme's stories of "never enough" seem inevitably (but in the latter case never nostalgically) to lead. While the narrator of "See the Moon" may claim that "fragments are the only forms I trust," and the dwarfs in Snow White may prefer "books that have a lot of dreck in them," and while Barthelme's fictions may be filled with an abundance of both, his reflection of these two features of contemporary culture do not constitute an endorsement of them. Barthelme's aim is not merely to record and reproduce; rather, it is to respond constructively, which is to say imaginatively, in order (as he says in one interview) to make "music out of noise." This is "The New Music" (title of a 1978 story), which celebrates the momentary rather than the momentous, and which makes (as Barthelme says in another interview) "the Uncertainty Principle our Song of Songs."

How to proceed in the face of uncertainty: this is the situation in which Barthelme and his readers, as well as his characters, find themselves. Defying the usual ways of making do and making sense, his stories invite the reader's participation and cooperation and are as much about the reader's efforts to disambiguate them as they are about their ostensible subjects, and this is as true of those stories that, like his famous balloon, are so indefinite as to invite any and all interpretations, and those that seem so inclusive and exhaustive as to preclude any interpretive hypothesis that will account for more than a fraction of texts that seem at once too dense and too attenuated, overrich and undernourished.

—Robert A. Morace

See the essays on "The Balloon" and "The Indian Uprising."