Donald Barthelme 1931-1989
(Also wrote under the pseudonym of Lily McNeil) American short story writer, novelist, essayist, and children's author.
The following entry provides an overview of Barthelme's short fiction works. For additional information on his short fiction career, see SSC, Volume 2.
A preeminent writer of experimental fiction, Barthelme created stories that are both humorous and unsettling by juxtaposing incongruous elements of contemporary language and culture. He typically structured a piece of short fiction in the form of a verbal collage by assembling disparate fragments of information, conversation, narrative, and wordplay and by detailing contemporary settings in which objects and abstract ideas proliferate and threaten to overwhelm his characters. Barthelme's writing is characterized by the absence of plot and character development, disjointed syntax and dialogue, parodies of technical, mass media, and intellectual jargon and clichés. His work contains allusions to philosophy, psychology, and various forms of art and popular culture. Barthelme entertained such themes as the ability of language to accurately convey thought and emotion, the function of art and the role of the artist in society, the complications of sexuality, the frailty and transience of human relationships, and the fragmentary nature of reality.
Barthelme was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and raised in Houston, Texas, where his father became established as an innovative architect. While sharing his father's respect for visual art and architecture, Barthelme developed a strong interest in literature. After serving as editor for a literary journal published by the University of Texas and as a journalist and a museum director, Barthelme traveled to New York City in the early 1960s and edited Locations, a short-lived arts and literary journal. His first stories were published in literary periodicals during the early 1960s. A prolific writer, several of his stories appeared in the New Yorker. In his later years, he divided his time between New York City and a teaching position in the creative writing program at the University of Houston. He died of cancer in 1989.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Believing that traditional forms and structures of art and literature are inadequate for addressing the peculiar needs and concerns of the modern world, Barthelme endeavored to promote new and inventive approaches. Rather than creating traditional, linear fictional forms that provide commentary on life by conveying meaning and values that readers expect and are prepared to find, Barthelme viewed each of his stories as an individual object. In his early stories, many of which originally appeared in the New Yorker and were subsequently collected in the books Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964) and Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (1968), Barthelme blended parodies of such media as advertising, comic books, and television shows with puns, non sequiturs, and disjointed dialogue and narrative. The publication of City Life (1970) solidified Barthelme's reputation as a major figure in contemporary literature. The stories in this collection exhibit such characteristic Barthelme devices as black humor, deadpan narrative tones, and experiments with syntax, punctuation, illustrations, and typography. In several stories Barthelme explored themes relating to art, including the positive and negative effects of irony, anxieties faced by artists who find traditional artistic approaches to life to be outmoded, and individuals whose search for meaning is complicated by a superabundance of objects, ideas, and random and incomprehensible events. Irony, anxiety, and sorrow are important motifs in the stories collected in Sadness (1972). The stories collected in Great Days (1979) and Overnight to Many Distant Cities (1983) feature several new elements along with Barthelme's various characteristic techniques and concerns. For instance, Overnight to Many Distant Cities is composed of stories juxtaposed with brief, dreamlike monologues. While some critics have faulted this collection for Barthelme's idiosyncratic use of literary devices, others note the presence of hope in many of the pieces as well as an uncharacteristic willingness by Barthelme to confront and reflect emotions. Sixty Stories (1981) and Forty Stories (1987) collect pieces from all phases of Barthelme's career.
The unconventional nature of Barthelme's work has provoked extensive critical debate. His detractors perceive in his work a destructive impulse to subvert language and culture and an emphasis on despair and irrationalism. These critics claim that he offers no remedies for the ills of contemporary life that he documents and that he refuses to convey order, firm values, and meaning. On the other hand, Barthelme enjoys widespread critical acclaim and is particularly praised as a stylist who offers vital and regenerative qualities to literature. There have been several commentators who have noted parallels between Barthelme's stories and those of Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges. They assert that like Kafka, Barthelme presents a surreal, irrational world in which the anxieties of his characters are amplified, and that he experiments with form like Borges to create fantastic and ironic scenarios that blur distinctions between the real and the imaginary. Some critics regard Barthelme as an insightful satirist who exposes pretentious ideas that purport to answer life's mysteries.
Come Back, Dr. Caligari 1964
Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts 1968
City Life 1970
Great Days 1979
Sixty Stories 1981
Overnight to Many Distant Cities 1983
Forty Stories 1987
The Teachings of Don B.: The Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories, and Plays of Donald Barthelme 1992
Snow White (novel) 1967
The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine; or, The Hithering, Thithering Djinn (children's book) 1971
Guilty Pleasures (satirical essays) 1974
The Dead Father (novel) 1975
Paradise (novel) 1986
Sam's Bar (novel) 1987
The King (novel) 1990
Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme (essays) 1997
SOURCE: Dickstein, Morris. “Fiction at the Crossroads.” In Critical Essays on Donald Barthelme, edited by Richard F. Patteson, pp. 59-69. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1992.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1977, Dickstein regards Barthelme's City Life as the apotheosis of fictional experimentation and ingenuity and compares it to other innovative fictional works of the late 1960s.]
When two publishers in 1962 brought out overlapping collections of the work of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges it was an important event for American readers, but few could have anticipated the impact it would have on our fiction. His work hardly fit into any traditional niche. The short story, even in the hands of Chekhov and Joyce, had always been the most conservative of all literary genres, the most tied to nineteenth-century conventions of incident and character, the least given to formal or technical innovation. Borges' stories hardly seemed to be stories at all; some of the best masqueraded as essays, laborious researches about nonexistent countries, ingenious commentaries on nonexistent books, mingled fantastically with the most out-of-the-way knowledge of real countries and real books. Where the traditional story took for granted the difference between the solid world out there and the imaginary world that tried to imitate it, Borges willfully confounded them. His stories were “fictions,” original creations, less reflections than subversive interrogations of reality. They were also “labyrinths” which, like Kafka's writing, dressed out their mystery in a guise of earnest lucidity and matter-of-factness.
Today there is not much life in the old kind of story, though some good ones and many bad ones continue to be written. This sort of well-crafted object, which used to be the staple of dozens of now-defunct magazines, became so moribund in the sixties that it will now probably experience a mild resurgence, since changes in culture often proceed like swings of the pendulum. But the publication in 1975 of anthologies like Superfiction by Joe David Bellamy and Statements by members of the Fiction Collective confirms that our younger and more talented fiction writers have by no means abandoned the experimental impulse, though it may sometimes take them in wayward and even fruitless directions. Like so much of what emerged from the sixties, fiction today is a lesson in the uses of liberation. Whatever the results (and I intend to stress their current limitations), they remain inherently superior to a return to the old stringent molds, which conservative pundits are always ready to reimpose.
The progress of American fiction in the 1960s conjoined two different but related insurgencies against the constraints of traditional form, and against the cautious realism and psychological inwardness that had been dominant since the second world war. The first rebellion gave rise to big, eclectic books like John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor, Heller's Catch-22, and Pynchon's V., as well as ribald free-form tirades like Mailer's Why Are We In Vietnam? and Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. In all these books the grand raw materials of history, politics, literary tradition, and personal identity were transposed into fantasy, black or obscene humor, and apocalyptic personal expression. …
These writers did not so much cease to be realists as seek grotesque or hilarious (but accurate) equivalents for realities that were themselves fantastic. Catch-22 not only did not lie about war, it scarcely even exaggerated. Portnoy is not fair to his mother but he is true to her, even as he caricatures and mythicizes her. These writers took advantage of the decline of censorship and of the constricting demands of formal neatness and realistic verisimilitude to broaden the range of fictional possibility, to discover new literary ancestors—Céline, Henry Miller, Nabokov, Genet—and to claim their legacy.
In the last three years of the sixties, however, culminating in the publication of Donald Barthelme's City Life (1970), but to some extent continuing right to the present day, a second insurgency came to the fore. Between 1967 and 1970 American fiction, following its Latin American counterpart, entered a new and more unexpected phase, which was also a more deliberately experimental one. For convenience we can call this the Borgesian phase, though Borges has not been the only model for the short, sometimes dazzlingly short, and multi-layered fiction that is involved. (Interestingly, Borges' example served to release the influence of others, including his own master, Kafka, and even such different writers as Beckett and Robbe-Grillet.)
In just these three years there were many significant collections of this new short fiction, including Barthelme's Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (the mock melodrama of the title is typical of him), Barth's Lost in the Funhouse (Barth's funhouse is the original American equivalent of Borges' labyrinth), William H. Gass's In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, Robert Coover's Pricksongs & Descants (subtitled “Fictions”), plus many of the impacted, truncated melodramas in Leonard Michaels' Going Places and some of the stories in Vonnegut's Welcome to the Monkey House (his novels were even more to the point). But the last of them, Barthelme's City Life, was more audacious and more successful than any of the other volumes, a book that went beyond experimental ingenuity to find new ways of connecting fiction with feeling. I'd like to use it as my positive pole in examining the uses of liberation in fiction, and I'll play it off against a larger number of other works, including some by Barthelme, which (to my mind) take experiment and liberation down less rewarding paths.
The collections I've listed all had a great deal in common, yet no two are alike. All tended to eliminate (or use ironically) the realistic matrix in which most works of fiction are embedded—the life-like quality that gives them credibility and coherence, the thematic explicitness that gives them the gratifying feel of significance. “We like books,” Barthelme once wrote, “that have a lot of dreck in them, matter which presents itself as not wholly relevant (or indeed, at all relevant) but which, carefully attended to, can supply a kind of ‘sense’ of what is going on.”1 But these writers sometimes pay a heavy price for excising or satirizing this dross, which is rarely dross in good fiction anyway. They fall into inaccessibility, abstraction, or mere cleverness, substituting the dreck of literary self-consciousness for that of popular realism.
Coover and Barth, for example, seem overwhelmed by their own freedom, by the writer's power to invent a scene, a character, a world, to choose which word and which sentence he will set down next. Take Coover's maniacally brilliant and finally oppressive story “The Babysitter” (in Pricksongs & Descants), an elaborate set of variations on a few deliberately banal and melodramatic characters and plot possibilities, all merging into one another, all going off at once—a fiction-making machine run amok with its own powers, threatening to blow up in our faces, or blow our minds.
Several of Barth's stories in Lost in the Funhouse do comparable things in a more playful and self-ironical way. The title piece, for example, interweaves a sharp-minded yet pedantic commentary on fictional technique between the lines of a story that can't quite get itself written. In “Title” and “Life-Story,” Barth can already subject this very manner of formal self-consciousness to a weary and ambivalent parody, which in turn gives the stories another layer of the same self-consciousness they criticize. Barth's fictions make the case against themselves neatly: “Another story about writing a story! Another regressus in infinitum! Who doesn't prefer art that at least overtly imitates something other than its own processes? That doesn't continually proclaim ‘Don't forget I'm an artifice!’?”2 At times the formalism and literary preciosity that were routed from the novel during the sixties seem to have returned with a vengeance in the new short fiction.
Self-consciousness has always been a key element in modern art, however, and in fiction (as Robert Alter has demonstrated anew in Partial Magic) it has a long ancestry that goes back beyond modernism to Diderot, Sterne, and Cervantes, a tradition that sometimes makes nineteenth-century realism look like a mere episode. (Fortunately we also have Erich Auerbach's book Mimesis to demonstrate the long and complex history of the realist method.) E. M. Forster once said that it's intrinsic to the artist to experiment with his medium, but in the twentieth century we've often seen how the spiral of self-consciousness can reach a point of diminishing returns. This happens when artists mimic other artists without fully appropriating them, or when they make their concerns as artists their exclusive subject. We need to hold fast to the distinction, often hard to apply, between experiment for its own sake, out of touch with any lived reality, and experiments that create genuinely new ways of seeing. The fiction of the sixties shows how the once-subversive gestures of modernism can themselves become tiresome conventions (as Barth suggests but can't seem to evade); but it also indicates, quite to the contrary, that only now that the towering first generation of modernists has been safely interred in literary history have our young writers been willing to resume the risks of the modernist program, which is nothing if not experimental and avant-garde.
I'd like to examine Barthelme's achievement in City Life and elsewhere to show what experimental writing has only recently been able to do without becoming self-indulgent or imitative. … Barthelme's earlier books, which were as intransigently original as City Life, were mostly notable for what they did not do, for the kinds of coherence they refused to supply, for their discontinuities and even incongruities, which mixed abstract ideas with pop allusions, political figures with fairy-tale characters, pedantically precise facts with wild generalities and exaggerations, and so on. They aimed to cut the reader off, to keep him guessing and thinking, to make him angry. His novel Snow White (1967) was a book that adamantly refused to go anywhere at all. Without benefit of plot, characters, or even much of the sober-zany humor of the stories in his first book, Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964), the novel mainly limited itself to fragmentary take-offs on a huge variety of rhetorical styles and verbal trash. It was a minor-league version of what Ezra Pound saw in Ulysses, a species of encyclopedic satire; the book was all language, and at least on first acquaintance it seemed certain that the language was just not good enough to carry it.
Subsequent readings of Snow White have given me much more pleasure; though the book doesn't work as a whole, it has grown with time. It's still too detached, too satirical and fragmentary, but the author's really dry and wicked wit has worn surprisingly well. But it's finally too much of a book about itself and crippled by the absence of a subject. Its detachment is deliberate, but it leaves a void that language and satire can't entirely fill. By the book's whimsical discontinuities, by a certain deadpan mechanical quality, by a whole range of Brechtian alienation devices, Barthelme was deliberately blocking the debased and facile kinds of identification that we readers make in traditional fiction, yet he found little to substitute. … Taking a cue, I suspect, from Godard's films, Barthelme eliminated most of the dross of primitive storytelling so that the dreck of contemporary culture could more devastatingly display itself. He tried to remain, as he said, “on the leading edge of this trash phenomenon,”3 but the project was too plainly negative, and despite his wit he nearly foundered in the swill.
In his next book, Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, Barthelme still proclaimed that “fragments are the only forms I trust,” but the fragments began insidiously to cohere, into point fables like “The Balloon” and “The Police Band,” into surreal and indirect political commentary, such as...
(The entire section is 5169 words.)
SOURCE: Bruss, Paul. “Barthelme's Short Stories: Ironic Suspensions of Text.” In Victims: Textual Strategies in Recent American Fiction, pp. 113-29. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1981.
[In the following essay, Bruss explores the suspension of self and the roles of narrative style and irony in Barthelme's short fiction.]
One of Barthelme's early short stories contains this quotation, which is Robert Kennedy's comment on Poulet's analysis of Marivaux:
The Marivaudian being is, according to Poulet, a pastless futureless man, born anew at every instant. The instants are points which organize themselves into a line, but what...
(The entire section is 8428 words.)
SOURCE: Gordon, Lois. “Come Back, Dr. Caligari.” In Donald Barthelme, pp. 35-61. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981.
[In the following essay, Gordon surveys the dominant thematic concerns of Barthelme's first short story collection, Come Back, Dr. Caligari.]
The first collection introduces many of Barthelme's themes and landscapes, most prominently the spiritually weary, contemporary world, brainwashed by popular culture and the media (“Viennese Opera Ball”), a society of people looking for “the right words” (“Florence Green”) and specific scripts with which to duplicate an identity (“For I'm the Boy,” “Big Broadcast,” “Hiding Man,”...
(The entire section is 9865 words.)
SOURCE: Brown, Frank Burch. Review of Sixty Stories, by Donald Barthelme. Christian Century (31 March 1982): 385-86.
[In the following review, Brown views Sixty Stories as a welcome overview of Barthelme's work and “gives ample evidence that contemporary writing and stories of this kind defy capsule description.”]
At 50 Donald Barthelme has established himself as a remarkable—and remarkably influential—writer with a seemingly boundless capacity for invention. This representative collection of 60 stories [Sixty Stories] provides a welcome overview of his work to date, including an excerpt from the novel The Dead Father and five...
(The entire section is 673 words.)
SOURCE: Couturier, Maurice and Durand, Regis. “Barthelme's Code of Transaction.” In Donald Barthelme, pp. 42-50. London: Methuen, 1982.
[In the following essay, Couturier and Durand analyze the different forms of transaction and discourse in Barthelme's short fiction.]
Barthelme's fiction—rather like Beckett's—does point in the direction of a theoretical reconstruction of the self; this is a comic enterprise, however, and is undercut by one of Barthelme's favourite strategies of displacement and defence, his constant irony. His irony is, as we have seen, a generator of fiction, but when applied to the psychological and historical world it becomes part of the...
(The entire section is 2975 words.)
SOURCE: McCaffery, Larry. “Donald Barthelme: The Aesthetics of Trash.” In The Metafictional Muse: The Worlds of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass, pp. 99-149. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982.
[In the following excerpt, McCaffery focuses on the “metafictional interests” of Barthelme's short fiction.]
The final possibility is to turn ultimacy, exhaustion, paralyzing self-consciousness and the adjective weight of accumulating history … to make something new and valid, the essence whereof would be the impossibility of making something new.
—John Barth, “Title”...
(The entire section is 8994 words.)
SOURCE: Molesworth, Charles. “The Short Story as the Form of Forms.” In Donald Barthelme's Fiction: The Ironist Saved from Drowning, pp. 10-42. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.
[In the following essay, Molesworth examines the defining characteristics of Barthelme's short stories.]
About fifty years ago, Elizabeth Bowen, in her introduction to the Faber Book of Modern Short Stories, compared the short story to the cinema, that other “accelerating” art form. She listed three affinities between the two:
neither is sponsored by a tradition; both are, accordingly, free; both, still, are self-conscious, show a...
(The entire section is 11669 words.)
SOURCE: Stengel, Wayne B. “The Art Stories.” In The Shape of Art in the Short Stories of Donald Barthelme, pp. 163-202. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.
[In the following essay, Stengel discusses Barthelme's twelve art stories, which evaluate the role of art and of the artist in contemporary life.]
[This essay] examines Barthelme stories that describe the place of art in contemporary life. All the stories interpreted here examine the role of the artist and the reaction of the audience when art becomes a massive object in the landscape, a museum piece, or an insurmountable obstacle. Though all twelve stories appear unconcerned about what their...
(The entire section is 14477 words.)
SOURCE: Domini, John. “Donald Barthelme: The Modernist Uprising.” Southwest Review 75, no. 1 (winter 1990): 95-112.
[In the following essay, Domini explores Barthelme's modern consciousness through an examination of his short stories.]
“Barthelme has managed to place himself,” William Gass once declared, “in the center of modern consciousness.” Gass of course meant “modern” in the sense of “up to the minute”; he was praising Donald Barthelme for what always strikes one first about this author's highly imaginative and wickedly ironic fiction, namely, its free-wheeling use of contemporary culture in all its kitschy largesse. The majority of his closer...
(The entire section is 6986 words.)
SOURCE: Baxter, Charles. “The Donald Barthelme Blues.” Gettysburg Review 3, no. 4 (autumn 1990): 713-23.
[In the following essay, Baxter traces Barthelme's literary development, focusing on his utilization of characters and language.]
The same day that a friend called with the news that Donald Barthelme had died, a freight train derailed outside Freeland, Michigan. Among the cars that went off the tracks were several chemical tankers, some of which spilled and caught fire. Dow Chemical was (and still is) reluctant to name these chemicals, but one of them was identified as chlorosilene. When chlorosilene catches fire, as it did in this case, it turns into...
(The entire section is 5279 words.)
SOURCE: Campbell, Ewing. “Dark Matter: Barthelme's Fantastic, Freudian Subtext in ‘The Sandman’.” Studies in Short Fiction 27, no. 4 (fall 1990): 517-24.
[In the following essay, Campbell considers the connection between Barthelme's “The Sandman,” E. T. A. Hoffmann's tale “The Sandman,” and Sigmund Freud's essay “The ‘Uncanny.’”]
In its farewell to Donald Barthelme The New Yorker reminded readers that he had been variously defined “as an avant-gardist, a collagist, a minimalist, a Dadaist, an existentialist, and a postmodernist” (22). It is an extensive, but incomplete list, for Rosemary Jackson in her Fantasy: The Literature of...
(The entire section is 3014 words.)
SOURCE: Trachtenberg, Stanley. “Barthelme the Scrivener.” In Understanding Donald Barthelme, pp. 102-64. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Trachtenberg provides a thematic overview of Barthelme's short fiction.]
Art, Barthelme insists, cannot not think of the world.1 Accordingly, in his fiction, the function of art and the situation of the artist provides an enabling metaphor by which it becomes possible to come to terms with a resistant and often opaque reality, whose disappointment and confusions are not so much dispelled by language as mediated, or, in the best case, perhaps even confronted by it in...
(The entire section is 15239 words.)
SOURCE: McHale, Brian, and Ron, Moshe. “On Not-Knowing How to Read Barthelme's ‘The Indian Uprising.’” Review of Contemporary Fiction 11, no. 2 (summer 1991): 50-68.
[In the following essay, McHale and Ron describe the difficulties of collaborating on a close reading of “The Indian Uprising.”]
The writer is a man who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.
—Donald Barthelme, “Not-Knowing”
When, early in 1989, the two of us began to collaborate on a project involving Barthelme's story “The Indian Uprising,” we both knew and did not know...
(The entire section is 9003 words.)
SOURCE: Roe, Barbara L. “Part 1: The Short Fiction.” In Donald Barthelme: The Short Fiction, pp. 3-93. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.
[In the following excerpt, Roe surveys Barthelme's later fiction and reflects on his legacy as a short fiction author.]
MORTAL VISIONS “VISITORS”
In 1981, when Barthelme turned 50, he seemed pleased with the view from this lookout. The years, he said, had tempered his anger over humanity's folly and taught him to “cherish” life more and more as there is “less and less time” (Brans, 131). The implications of mortality, however, preoccupy Barthelme's last decade of stories, as aging characters...
(The entire section is 5816 words.)
SOURCE: Stengel, Wayne B. “Irony and the Totalitarian Consciousness in Donald Barthelme's Amateurs.” In Critical Essays on Donald Barthelme, edited by Richard F. Patteson, pp. 145-52. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1992.
[In the following essay, Stengel analyzes three representative stories from Amateurs in order to differentiate Barthelme's early and later short fiction and to explore the relationship between irony and human consciousness in his work.]
At his best Donald Barthelme was a highly moral and political American short story writer. Moreover, for a decade or so—from the mid-sixties to the late seventies—in a plentiful, inventive stream...
(The entire section is 3306 words.)