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A preeminent writer of experimental fiction, Donald Barthelme created humorous and often unsettling stories by juxtaposing incongruous elements of contemporary language and culture. Barthelme’s writing is characterized by the absence of traditional plot and character development, disjointed syntax and dialogue, parodies of jargon and cliche, and a humor, according to Thomas M. Leitch, that arises ”from a contract between outrageous premises and deadpan presentation.” Although some critics perceive a destructive impulse to subvert language and culture in much of his fiction, Barthelme has enjoyed widespread critical acclaim and is particularly praised as a stylist who offers vital and regenerative qualities to literature.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Never a Native, Always an Observer
Barthelme was slightly dislocated throughout his life, never quite a native of any particular place, however much he may have loved his adopted home in New York City. He was born on April 7, 1931, in Philadelphia, where his father, Donald sr., had met his wife-to-be, Helen Bechtold, at the University of Pennsylvania. The family moved to Houston when Donald Jr. was two years old. There his father worked both as a practicing architect and as a professor of architecture at the University of Houston. Helen, a former English major, helped her husband create a stimulating oasis of scholarly interests in the midst of what seemed to their son an intellectually barren culture in Texas.
He was reading and writing imitations of James Joyce and T. S. Eliot in his teens, and he began publishing while editing his high-school newspaper, The Eagle. His juvenile work brought him several awards. At the University of Houston, Barthelme contributed both fiction and nonfiction pieces to The Cougar, the student newspaper. In his mature work in the 1960s, his lasting interest in both kinds of writing was demonstrated in his contributions to the ”Comments” column in The New Yorker, where he published short pieces combining objective reportage and subjective impressionism in his own Barthelmesque form of New Journalism.
Barthelme indulged in both his writing ambitions and his interests in the visual arts, which was inherited from his parents, while working as a reporter on cultural events for the Houston Post, where he was hired after dropping out of his junior year of college in 1951. Even after he was drafted into active service during the Korean war two years later, he was fortunate enough to be assigned editorial work on the army newspaper. Arriving in Korea on the same day a truce was signed afforded him a non-threatening opportunity to observe military life. His observations of the absurdities of military bureaucracy resurface in his later stories.
An Unusual Literary Style Emerges
Barthelme’s first stories appeared in literary periodicals during the early 1960s. in these works, many of which were first published in the New Yorker and subsequently collected in book form, Barthelme incorporated advertising slogans, comic-book captions, catalog descriptions, and jacket blurbs from records and books into a style that features verbal puns, non sequiturs, and fractured dialogue and narrative. These volumes contain some of his best-known and most highly praised stories.
Barthelme’s first novel, Snow White (1976), is a darkly comic and erotic parody of the popular fairy tale. Composed largely of fragmented episodes in which indistinguishable characters attempt to express themselves in often nonsensical speech, Snow White has commonly been interpreted as an examination of the failure of language and the inability of literature to transcend or trans form contemporary reality. The Dead Father (1975) is often considered one of Barthelme’s most sustained and cohesive narrative works, but even then his developing prose style created a novel that was based upon an unusual and multi-layered technique. In this novel, a surrealistic, mock-epic account of the Dead Father’s journey to his grave and his burial by his son and a cast of disreputable characters, Barthelme weaves mythological, biblical, and literary allusions. In his third novel, Paradise (1986), Barthelme’s literary experiments continue, as he uses spare, formalistic prose marked by both a sense of playfulness and sorrow.
In addition to the critical acclaim accorded his adult works, Barthelme’s children’s book The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine; or, The Hithering Thithering Djinn (1971), received the National Book Award for children’s literature. Sixty Stories (1981) contains a selection of his short fiction as well as miscellaneous prose pieces and an excerpt from The Dead Father. Barthelme has also adapted his novel Snow White and seven stories from Great Days for the stage.
Works in Literary Context
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”; and Jack Hicks a “metafictionist.” Charles Molesworth, dubbing him ”perhaps the final post-Enlightenment writer,” locates him on the frontier between modernism and post modernism. In general, Barthelme’s worked is considered part of the broad category of postmodernist fiction. Modernist art and fiction were a reaction to World War I and revealed a loss of faith in nineteenth-century power structures, such as the European monarchies and organized religion, along with a simultaneous excitement over and fear of advances in science and technology. Postmodernism sprang from the further disillusionment of Western society after World War II. Postmodernist literature often reflects an extremely relativistic, amoral outlook; a breakdown of the traditional categories of high and low culture; and a general feeling that life is absurd or just impossible to interpret.
Barthelme’s fiction produces its effects by combining materials calling for different responses, a process called juxtaposition. Barthelme has called this structural procedure ”the principle of collage … the central principle of all art in the twentieth century in all media,” and explained:
—–New York City is or can be regarded as a collage, as opposed to, say, a tribal village in which all the huts … are the same hut, duplicated. The point of collage is that unlike things are stuck together to make, in the best case, a new reality. This new reality, in the best case, may be or imply a comment on the other reality from which it came, and may be also much else. It’s an itself, if it’s successful: [an] … ”anxious object,” which does not know whether it’s a work of art or a pile of junk.
Barthelme’s idiosyncratic humor is perhaps the one constant in his work, which coheres around his comic view of a tragically fractured cosmos. Much of that humor grows out of his topical references to recognizable developments on the newspaper front page and style sections: his weirdly warped echoes of currently fashionable ideas and consumer products, his surrealistically skewed sketches of familiar urban locales or banal current events, and his gleeful, albeit revisionary, deployment of current slang.
For example, in his short story ”The Indian Uprising,” Barthelme uses the familiar trope of Native Americans fighting against the U.S. Cavalry during the Indian Wars of the nineteenth century in a way that evokes the televised horrors of the Vietnam War, the first mass-media war, that was ongoing at the time the story was written. The story also features an intersecting flashback to the narrator’s girlfriend and female teacher, both of whom end up betraying him, that seems to paint ”the battle of sexes” in the same light as the cavalry versus the Indians.
Works in Critical Context
Two years after Donald Barthelme’s death, his friend Robert Coover observed that his name had achieved a new currency as an adjective: the term “Barthelmesque,” Coover wrote, refers not only to a style—”precise, urbane, ironic, rivetingly succinct, and accumulative in its comical and often surreal juxtapositions”—but also to a perspective familiar to Barthelme’s readers, a world-view ”bleakly comic, paradoxical, and grounded in the beautiful absurdities of language.” John Barth, another friend, noted that Barthelme’s view changed only slightly over the course of his career as editor, journalist, novelist, and short-story master, that he seemed as an artist ”to have been born full-grown.” In comments included in the Summer 1991 issue of Review of Contemporary Fiction, Barth speaks for most of Barthelme’s critics in noting further that his immediately recognizable voice found its most influential forum in the rigorously confined genre of short fiction: ”His natural narrative space was the short story, if story is the right word for those often plotless marvels of which he published some seven volumes over twenty years.”
Critic Mark C. Krupnick responded to Barthelme’s work with charges of ”self-congratulatory narcissism.” Other critics, however, hold that missing the occasional erudite allusion does not invalidate the pleasure of reading Barthelme’s work. Because of his reliance upon language to carry the theme of his stories, Barthelme has incurred the wrath of such traditional critics as Alfred Kazin and Nathan Scott. With Barthelme we have been ”sentenced to the sentence,” Kazin writes in Bright Book of Life (1973) and further complains that ”he operates by countermeasures only, and the system that is his own joy to attack permits him what an authoritarian system always permits its lonely dissenters: the sense of their own weakness.” Several of Barthelme’s most severe critics base their objections on moral grounds. Pearl K. Bell numbered Barthelme among ”those celebrants of unreason, chaos, and inexorable decay . . . a horde of mini-Jeremiahs crying havoc in the Western world.” Nathan Scott complained that Barthelme’s reinvention of the world ”offers us an effective release from the bullying of all the vexations of history,” but that such an aesthetic was too facile, the opting-out chosen ”by the hordes of those young long-haired, jean-clad, pot-smoking bohemians who have entered the world of psychedelia.”
By 1970 the New York Times Book Review began to give Barthelme longer and deeper reviews, probing the nature of his linguistic games and imaginative reinventions of social life, robbing negative critics of their strongest support. Still, Barthelme expected and duly received critical censure for his stylistic risk-taking, and he sometimes returned the sentiment. In one of his a historical revisions of literary history, ”Conversations with Goethe,” he makes Johann Wolfgang von Goethe himself intone against reviewers: ”Critics, Goethe said, are the cracked mirror in the grand ballroom of the creative spirit.”
As Barthelme continued his prose experiments well into his late career, critical reaction remained mixed. Michiko Kakutani found that in Paradise (1986) ”wit and intellectual one-upmanship dwindle into fun and games; detachment into mechanism; narrative fragmentation into mere absurdity for absurdity’s sake.” According to Kakutani, the novel’s structure is ”predict ably idiosyncratic” and that it ”has little of the vitality or inventiveness of the author’s earlier work and none of its provocative intelligence.”
Yet, Elizabeth Jolley, writing in The New York Times Book Review, found Paradise a ”shock and revelation.” ”It is a very funny novel; I laughed aloud, a rare thing while reading contemporary fiction,” said Jolley. ”It is also a sad book,” she concludes, ”a disturbing book because it is a fantasy of freedom in a world where there is none.”
- Couturier, Maurice and Regis Durand. Donald Barthelme. New York: Methuen, 1982.
- Gordon, Lois. Donald Barthelme, New York: Twayne, 1981.
- Klinkowitz, Jerome et al. eds. Donald Barthelme: A Comprehensive References and Annotated Secondary Checklist, Hamden, Conn.: Shoe String, 1977.
- Molesworth, Charles. Donald Barthelme’s Fiction: The Ironist Saved from Drowning, Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1982.
- Patteson, Richard F., ed. Critical Essays on Donald Barthelme, New York: G. K. Hall, 1992.
- Roe, Barbara L. Donald Barthelme: A Study of the Short Fiction, New York: Twayne, 1992.
- Stengel, Wayne B. The Shape of Art in the Short Stories of Donald Barthelme, Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.
- Trachtenberg, Stanley. Understanding Donald Barthelme, Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
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