The 1960s: Social and Cultural Upheaval
The 1960s saw more social and cultural upheaval in the United States than any other decade this century, with the possible exception of the 1930s. A major war, race riots, street demonstrations, student protests, greatly expanded federal social programs, the popularization of drug use among the young, and several political assassinations mark the period. A host of people and organizations in the political and popular arenas, including John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, Betty Friedan, the Black Panthers, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan, deeply influenced the nation and served as catalysts for change.
The United States was embroiled in the Vietnam War and saw more and more of its young men drafted to fight in a seemingly endless war in which no clear goals or strategies were defined. Resistance at home to the military draft and a growing division in public sentiment over the conduct of the war led to increasing political tensions, protests and division. At the 1968 Democratic National Convention, television viewers watched as thousands of young protesters confronted Chicago police in bloody street battles. The event saw the birth of the Weather Underground, a factional spinoff of Students for a Democratic Society, which began a campaign of bombings, including attacks on the Pentagon and Congress, on behalf of a revolutionary...
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Point of View and Narration
The vignettes are presented by a dispassionate first or third-person narrator who only uses the pronoun "I" twice. The difficulty in describing the point of view is compounded by two features. First, there are times when the narrator has access to Kennedy's dreams and thoughts, access that only Kennedy or a third-person omniscient narrator would have. Moreover, the narrator's observations are usually neutral; they don't offer much commentary on the events and characters. Instead, these observations are most often declarative statements or descriptive phrases. In what should be the most dramatic scene of the story, how the narrator saves Kennedy from drowning, the sensory and emotional contents are muted in favor of a distanced, intellectual engagement with the scene. This muting is especially remarkable given that the scene is one of two where the narrator appears explicitly in the first person. Readers might normally expect a more direct involvement with the action, but the narrator refuses to offer personal reactions to the near-drowning. The narratorial access to information is also undermined in the other scene where the narrator appears in the first person. There, after describing Kennedy's wife's clothing, the narrator says "but then I am a notoriously poor observer.'' This comment calls into question the narrator's reliability as an observer. If he or she cannot adequately describe an outfit, how can he or she possibly represent Kennedy's dreams or thoughts about the world?
The second difficulty in describing the point-of-view lies in the fact that twelve of the twenty-four vignettes present the voices of Kennedy or his acquaintances without any narratorial presence other than the scenes' titles. Although they are marked with quotation marks, which suggest that someone (the narrator) selected and arranged these quotes, fully half of the story is "told" by persons other than the narrator. Readers might legitimately wonder, therefore, how much control the narrator has in
developing and describing the events, settings,...
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Compare and Contrast
1968: Robert Kennedy is assassinated on June 5 after giving a campaign speech in California Sirhan Sirhan is convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison.
1995: Israeli president Itzak Rabin is assassinated in November after giving a speech at a peace rally.
1968: Many American young people become active in protest causes. College students, in particular, stage many campus protests of the Vietnam War. The voting age is lowered to eighteen in 1971, in response to those who criticize the fact that teenagers are old enough to be drafted into war, but not old enough to vote.
1990s: In 1994, only 12 percent of 18 and 19-year olds voted. In the presidential election of 1996, only about 49 percent of the country's eligible voters cast ballots, and only 17 percent of those voters were under 30 years old.
1960s: As Attorney General under his brother, President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy is actively involved in decisions that result in the Cuban Missile Crisis, an event that leads the world to the brink of nuclear war in October, 1962.
1990s: As Attorney General under President Clinton, Janet Reno is widely criticized for her decision to use force to end the siege of the Branch Davidian religious compound in Waco, Texas. The resulting fire on April 19, 1993, claims the lives of more than eighty people.
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Topics for Further Study
Select a current political figure and collect newspaper and magazine articles about him or her from several sources. After reading the articles, do you feel as though you know the person any better than you did before? Select one paragraph from each article and cut it out Arrange your paragraphs in different orders. How does that affect what you know about the person?
Investigate the social and political issues of the 1960s and what Robert Kennedy's policies were on these issues. Is it necessary to know them to understand Barthelme's story? Why would Barthelme fail to mention the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, poverty, racism, or any of the other important issues of the day?
Read Barthelme's essay "Not Knowing." What relationship between language and the world does Barthelme argue? Write down what you and your friends say to each other. What things do you do with language besides represent the world? Does language ever get in the way of what you are trying to do"?
Investigate art movements that flourished in the 1950s and 1960s: Abstract Expressionism, minimalism, constructivism, and pop art. Does Barthelme's story share any of the qualities of these movements and their art works?
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What Do I Read Next?
Snow White (1967) by Barthehne. Barthelme wrote only four novels during his career, though they might better be called novellas for then-brevity. This, his first, is a rewrite of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" that challenges the structure of fairy tales.
Sadness (1972) by Barthelme. This is a collection of stories, often parodies, that play with emotions and boredom.
The Dead Father (1975) by Barthehne. Barthelme's second novel concerns the father/ son relationship, and is deeply involved in the play of words and their representative functions.
Yellow Back Radio Broke Down (1971) by Ishmael Reed. Reed is a satirist and a parodist who often targets literature and literary forms. In this novel, he parodies the Western novel.
Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The Children's Crusade (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut's novel plays with the premise that its protagonist.
Billy Pilgrim, travels back and forth randomly in his own past, present, and future, experiencing episodes from his life as a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II, an optometrist in suburban 1960s America, and an exhibit in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore.
Gravity's Rainbow (1973) by Thomas Pynchon. Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop spends the end of World War H monitoring V2 rockets, but begins to suspect a variety of potentially worldwide conspiracies, including secret governments, a...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Aldridge, John W. "Dance of Death," in Critical Essays on Donald Barthelme, edited by Richard F. Patteson, G. K. Hall, 1992, pp 25-8.
Barth, John "Thinking Man's Minimalist: Honoring Barthelme," in Critical Essays on Donald Barthelme, edited by Richard F. Patteson, G K Hall, 1992, pp. 1-4.
Leitch, Thomas M. "Donald Barthelme and the End of the End," in Critical Essays on Donald Barthelme, edited by Richard F. Patteson, G. K. Hall, 1992.
Molesworth, Charles. Donald Barthelme's Fiction: The Ironist Saved from Drowning, University of Missouri Press, 1982.
Roe, Barbara, Donald Barthelme: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne, 1992....
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