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Place of Birth: Philadelphia, PA
Place of Death: Houston, TX, of cancer
Genre(s): Novels; Short Stories; Children's fiction; Fantasy fiction
Personal Information: Family: Born April 7, 1931, in Philadelphia, PA; died July 23, 1989, in Houston, TX, of cancer; son of Donald (an architect) and Helen (Bechtold) Barthelme; married wife Birgit; married second wife, Marion; children: (first marriage) Anne Katharine. Military/Wartime Service: U.S. Army; served in Korea and Japan. Memberships: American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, Authors League of America, Authors Guild, PEN.
Career: Writer of short fiction and novels. Worked as a newspaper reporter for the Houston Post 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.
WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
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 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 celebrates 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 writes, "where it's 100 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 concentrated on a single bit of cultural junk and speculated 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 believes 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 writes: "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 calls him an "antinovelist"; Frederick R. Karl a "minimalist"; Jack Hicks and McCaffery, a "metafictionist." Molesworth, titling him "perhaps the final post-Enlightenment writer, " locates 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." 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.
Lois Gordon suggests 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 adds 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 writes, "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." A writer for the London Times summed up Barthelme as "one of the very few writers of his generation to communicate the peculiarly modern sense of life as absurd and meaningless, without recourse to silliness or exhibitionism."
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