Over a five-week period in early 2009, three biographies of important postwar American fiction writers appeared: Tracy Daugherty’s Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme (February 3), Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (February 25), and Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life (February 10). All three are substantial and address real needs. Gooch seeks to rescue Flannery O’Connor from the myths that have come to surround her; more ambitious, Daugherty and Bailey want to rescue their subjects from neglect.
Daugherty is certainly passionate about Donald Barthelme, his former teacher at the University of Houston, but passion can be a liability, because it can turn biography into something closer to hagiography. Ever the dutiful acolyte, Daugherty frames Hiding Man with two writing assignments, the first from when Daugherty was Barthelme’s student: “The assignment was simple: Find a copy of John Ashbery’s Three Poems, read it, buy a bottle of wine, go home, don’t sleep, and produce, by dawn, twelve pages of Ashbery imitation.” The other assignment is from the last time the two met: “’Write a story about genius,’ he told me. A teacher’s last assignment to a student.” That, it seems, is what Daugherty thinks he has done in Hiding Man, although the result seems a good deal closer to the way Barthelme described Daugherty’s Ashbery imitation: an important first draft, one that a good editor should have helped Daugherty whip into shape. Its considerable limitations notwithstanding, Hiding Man is valuable for the details it provides and the questions it raises, albeit implicitly, about an author who, as Nathaniel Hawthorne said about himself, kept his “inmost me” behind a veil.
Born in Philadelphia in 1931, Donald Barthelme, Jr., was raised in Houston, where his family lived in a house designed by Donald Barthelme, Sr., a well-known architect who took modernism seriously in terms of both its formal concerns and its social relevance. The elder Barthelme was clearly as dominant a presence in the home as he was in his profession. Life with father could be intense“a verbal bully” is the way one son described himbut it was also intellectually stimulating. All five of his children became successfulthree became writers; one, an advertising executive; and one, Pennzoil’s first female vice-presidentbut at least three of them had drinking or gambling problems.
Hiding Man does not have much to say about Barthelme’s siblings, and the contentious relationship between the two Donalds tends to be asserted rather than demonstrated. Barthelme had to endure nothing as extreme as what John Cheever’s three children endured: their father’s alcoholism, infidelities, and disparaging comments. Barthelme, Sr., seems to have been only as patriarchal as many fathers of his time and station, with the sense of oedipal conflict perhaps heightened by the Freudianism then in vogue and the son’s later reading of Sigmund Freud’s works. It is true, however, that Barthelme entered into a number of unsuccessful relationships with father-figures and with women (four wives and numerous lovers, including his literary agent Lynn Nesbit; his neighbor, the writer Grace Paley; and perhaps the wife of Max Frisch, an older writer he admired).
Barthelme attended Catholic schools and the University of Houston, where his father was a professor of architecture; he served in the Korean War then returned to the university. Although he did not complete a degree, he found in philosophy professor Maurice Natanson “a sympathetic soul and an engaging mentor” whose “enthusiasms were [Søren] Kierkegaard, [Jean-Paul] Sartre, [Edmund] Husserl, and phenomenology in modern literature.” Barthelme wrote for the school newspaper, the Cougar, and then for the Houston Post; he married Marilyn Marrs in 1952, edited Forum magazine, and served as Director of Houston’s Museum of Contemporary Arts. Daugherty places less emphasis than seems appropriate on some aspects of Barthelme’s experience, such as the writer’s military service in Korea. At the same time, he attributes more significance than the evidence seems to justify to other experiences, such as Barthelme’s Catholic education.
In 1962, Barthelme moved to New York to become managing editor of Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Hess’s new magazine, Location. The periodical’s aim, according to its prospectus, was to overcome the intellectual isolation of the arts in America, the growing parochialism and professionalist inbreeding that goes hand in hand with their separation from one...
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