Place of Birth: Philadelphia, PA
Place of Death: Houston, TX, of cancer
Novels; Short Stories; Children's fiction; Fantasy fiction
- 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,
Jesse H Jones Award from Texas Institute of Letters, 1976, for The Dead F
nominated for National Book Critics Circle Award, PEN/Faulkner Award for
Fiction, Los Angeles Times Book Prize, all for Sixty Stories, all in
Table of Contents:
Further Readings About the
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:
- 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.
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
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
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
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
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
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
- Bellamy, Joe David, editor, The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative
American Writers, University of Illinois Press (Champaign), 1974.
- Bruss, Paul, Victims: Textual Strategies in Recent American Fiction,
Bucknell University Press (Cranbury, NJ), 1981.
- Contemporary Fiction in America and England, 1950- 1970, Gale
- Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, 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 City), 1982.
- The Devil in the Fire: Retrospective Essays on American Literature and
Culture, Harper's Magazine Press, 1972.
- Dickstein, Morris, Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties,
Basic Books (New York City), 1977.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 2: American Novelists
since World War II, Gale, 1978.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980, Gale, 1981.
- Fiction and the Figures of Life, Knopf (New York City), 1970.
- Gilman, Richard, The Confusion of Realms, Random House (New
York City), 1969.
- Gordon, Lois, Donald Barthelme, Twayne (New York City),
- Graff, Gerald, Literature against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society,
University of Chicago Press (Chicago), 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 City), 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), 1981.
- Karl, Frederick R., American Fictions, 1940-1980: A Comprehensive
History and Critical Evaluation, Harper, 1983.
- Kazin, Alfred, Bright Book of Life: American Novelists and Story Tellers
from Hemingway to Mailer, Atlantic/Little, Brown, 1973.
- Klinkowitz, Jerome, The American 1960s: Imaginative Arts in a Decade of
Change, Iowa State University Press (Ames), 1980.
- Klinkowitz, Literary Disruptions: The Making of a Post- Contemporary
American Fiction, 2nd edition, University of Illinois Press, 1980.
- Klinkowitz, The Self-Apparent Word: Fiction as Language/Language as
Fiction, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale), 1984.
- Klinkowitz, and others, editors, Donald Barthelme: A
Comprehensive Bibliography and Annotated Secondary Checklist, Shoe
String (Hamden, CT), 1977.
- Klinkowitz, Donald Barthelme: An Exhibition, Duke University
Press (Durham), 1991.
- Maltby, Paul, Dissident Postmodernists: Barthelme, Coover,
Pynchon, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia), 1991.
- McCaffery, Larry, The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover,
Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass, University of Pittsburgh
Press (Pittsburgh), 1982.
- Molesworth, Charles, Donald Barthelme's Fiction: The Ironist
Saved from Drowning, University of Missouri Press (Columbia), 1982.
- Patteson, Richard F., editor, Critical Essays on Donald Barthelme,
G. K. Hall (New York City), 1992.
- Peden, William, The American Short Story, Houghton (Boston), 1975.
- Roe, Barbara L., Donald Barthelme: A Study of the Short Fiction,
- Scholes, Robert, Fabulation and Metafiction, University of Illinois
- Stengel, Wayne B., The Shape of Art in the Short Stories of Donald
Barthelme, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge), 1985.
- Tanner, Tony, City of Words: American Fiction, 1950- 1970, Harper,
- Trachtenberg, Stanley, Understanding Donald Barthelme,
University of South Carolina Press (Columbia), 1990.
- Weaver, Gordon, editor, The American Short Story, 1945- 1980: A Critical
History, Twayne, 1983.
- Werner, Braig Hansen, Paradoxical Resolutions: American Fiction since
James Joyce, University of Illinois Press, 1982.
- America, December 10, 1981; December 22, 1990, 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, p. 637.
- 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, pp. 819- 820.
- Harper's, January, 1973.
- Hudson Review, autumn, 1967; autumn, 1988, p. 549; spring, 1991, p.
- 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.
- 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.
- Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 18, 1981; October 24,
1982; November 2, 1986, p. 3; October 18, 1987, p. 3.
- Life, May 26, 1967.
- Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, December, 1990, 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; August 6,
1983, 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, p. 38.
- Newsweek, May 22, 1967; May 6, 1968; November 25, 1974; October
12, 1981; November 3, 1986, p. 76.
- New Yorker, June 27, 1983, p. 75; July 9, 1990, 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;
February 18, 1982; June 18, 1983; December 9, 1983, p. C33; October 22, 1986,
p. C24; October 25, 1987, p. 14; May 31, 1988, p. C21.
- 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;
October 10, 1982; December 18, 1983, pp. 8, 22; October 26, 1986, p. 7; October
25, 1987, p. 14; April 23, 1989, p. 34; September 3, 1989, p. 9; December 6,
1992, p. 30.
- New York Times Magazine, August 16, 1970.
- Observer (London), 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, p. 30.
- Resources for American Literary Study, Number 7, 1977.
- Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 1991, p. 341.
- Saturday Review, May 9, 1970; November 25, 1972; March 3, 1979;
- 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, pp. 252-258.
- Style, summer, 1975.
- Time, May 26, 1967; November 11, 1974; September 21, 1981.
- Times Literary Supplement, June 17, 1977; May 13, 1988, p. 532.
- Tribune Books (Chicago), 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, p. A16.
- 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, p. 393.
- Xavier Review, Number 1, 1980-81.
- Yale Review, spring, 1976.
Obituary and Other Sources:
- Chicago Tribune, July 26, 1989.
- Detroit Free Press, July
- Los Angeles Times, July 25, 1989.
- New Yorker,
August 14, 1989, pp. 23-24.
- New York Times, July 24, 1989.
- Times (London), July 25, 1989.
- Washington Post, July 25,
Gale Database: Contemporary