Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Donald Barthelme was born in Philadelphia, where his parents had been students at the University of Pennsylvania. His father was an architect; his mother had studied English. A few years later, the family moved to Houston, where his father became a professor of architecture at the University of Houston.
Texas may seem an unlikely place for one of the most-discussed writers of nonlinear, “experimental” fiction to have developed, but Barthelme credits his father’s interest in what, for the time, were advanced architectural styles with fostering his interest in the avant-garde. The house they lived in was designed by his father, and it was remarkable enough for Houston that, Barthelme has said, people used to stop their cars and stare at it. It was this interest of his father that Barthelme credited with being the most influential clement of his early years on his later development. In high school, Barthelme wrote for both the newspaper and the literary magazine. In 1949 he entered the University of Houston, majoring in journalism. During his sophomore year (1950-1951) he was the editor of the college newspaper, the Cougar. During this year he also worked as a reporter for the Houston Post.
In 1953, Barthelme was drafted into the U.S. Army, arriving in Korea the day the truce ending the Korean War was signed, at which point he became the editor of an Army newspaper. Upon his return to the United States, he once again became a reporter for the Houston Post and returned to the University of Houston, where he worked as a speechwriter for the university president and attended classes in philosophy. Although he attended classes as late as 1957, he ultimately left without taking a degree.
Barthelme has said that he read extensively during this period in a number of fields that he later...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Barthelme was one of the most innovative and original writers of the second half of the twentieth century, drawing on and developing the themes and techniques of the modernists who preceded him. Avoiding plot and developed characters, his works are collages of the high and low, the sublime and ridiculous, of which modern society is constituted. In his short stories and novels, the fragmentary nature of modern society is both exemplified and exploited for comic effect, becoming both subject matter and technique of his writing.
Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Often praised and sometimes disparaged as one of The New Yorker writers, a narrative innovator, and a moral relativist whose only advice (John Gardner claimed) is that it is better to be disillusioned than deluded, Donald Barthelme was born in Philadelphia on April 7, 1931, and moved to Houston two years later. He grew up in Texas, attended Catholic diocesan schools, and began his writing career as a journalist in Ernest Hemingway’s footsteps. His father, an architect who favored the modernist style of Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe and Le Corbusier, taught at the University of Houston and designed the family’s house, which became as much an object of surprise and wonder on the flat Texas landscape as his son’s oddly shaped fictions were to become on the equally flat narrative landscape of postwar American fiction. While majoring in journalism, Barthelme wrote for the university newspaper as well as the Houston Post. He was drafted in 1953 and arrived in Korea on the day the truce was signed—the kind of coincidence one comes to expect in Barthelme’s stories of strange juxtapositions and incongruous couplings. After his military service, during which he also edited an Army newspaper, he returned to Houston, where he worked in the university’s public relations department (“writing poppycock for the President,” as he put it in one story), and where he founded Forum, a literary and intellectual quarterly that published early works by...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Donald Barthelme was born in Philadelphia, where his parents were students at the University of Pennsylvania. A few years later, the family moved to Houston, where his father became a professor of architecture at the University of Houston. In high school, Barthelme wrote for both the school newspaper and the school literary magazine. In 1949, he entered the University of Houston, majoring in journalism. During his sophomore year (1950-1951), he was the editor of the college newspaper, the Cougar. During this year he also worked as a reporter for the Houston Post.
In 1953, Barthelme was drafted into the U.S. Army, arriving in Korea the day the truce was signed, at which point he became the editor of an Army newspaper. Upon his return to the United States, he once again became a reporter for the Houston Post and returned to the University of Houston, where he worked as a speech writer for the university president and attended classes in philosophy. Although he attended classes as late as 1957, he ultimately left without taking a degree. When he was thirty years old, he became the director of Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum.
In 1962, Barthelme moved to New York to become the managing editor of the arts and literature magazine Location. His first published story appeared in 1961; his first story for The New Yorker appeared in 1963. After that time, most of his works appeared first in this magazine, and eventually Barthelme’s name became almost a synonym for an ironic, fragmentary style that characterized its pages in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
Barthelme taught for brief periods at Boston University, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and City College of New York, where he was distinguished visiting professor of English from 1974 to 1975. He was married twice. His only child was a daughter, Anne Katharine, born in 1964 to his first wife, Birgit. It was for Anne that he wrote The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine. At the time of his death from cancer on July 23, 1989, he was survived by his second wife, Marion.
The son of an avant-garde Houston architect, Donald Barthelme inherited his father’s sense of irony, humor, and iconoclasm and applied it to his writing. After serving as a reporter in the Army and for the Houston Post, he first became director for Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum, then moved to New York City to edit Location, an arts magazine. The formal techniques of painting, sculpture, graphics, and other fine arts influenced his writing.
Barthelme published his first short piece, “L’Lapse,” in The New Yorker, in 1963. Soon, he was publishing regularly in the magazine. A lapsed Catholic, Barthelme is skeptical about received systems of knowledge. The individual in Barthelme’s work is bombarded with a kind of information overload. Consciousness, he seems to say, is made up of dozens of influences; many of them are texts that come in expected, many times hackneyed, forms: newspapers, magazines, advertisements, television news programs, sitcoms, and so on. Some of the most powerful influences with which people are confronted come through the structures of the narratives (novels, plays, films, fairy stories) to which they are exposed. According to Barthelme, many, if not all, of these structures have lost the authentic meaning that was contained in their original contexts. This he calls “the Trash Phenomenon” in Snow White. By focusing on not only the what (the information) of what is carried by these texts, but also their how (their structures), Barthelme frees himself and the reader from a ready-made reality, full of worn-out expectations and limitations. Through the use of the collage technique, Barthelme playfully recombines clichéd ideas using irony and parody, forcing the reader into a new relationship with the texts to which he or she is exposed.
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Donald Barthelme (BAHRT-uhl-mee) was one of the most imaginative and innovative American authors, and arguably the most imitated short-story writer, of the twentieth century. He was born the oldest of five children; two others also became respected writers. His father was a successful architect. In 1933, the family moved to Houston, which would remain one of Barthelme’s part-time residences. During his two years at the University of Houston, he studied journalism; he then worked as a reporter for the Houston Post. After serving in the U.S. Army (he was drafted in 1953), Barthelme founded a literary magazine, Forum, in 1956 and began working at Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum, where, in 1961, he was...
(The entire section is 973 words.)