Study Guide

Robert Olen Butler

Robert Olen Butler Biography

Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111204759-Butler.jpgRobert Olen Butler Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Robert Olen Butler was born in Granite City, Illinois, on January 20, 1945, the son of Robert Olen Butler, Sr., a theater professor at St. Louis University, and Lucille Hall Butler, an executive secretary. Granite City, a steel-mill town in the St. Louis area, attracted exiles from the Deep South and the Midwest, bringing to the area what Butler terms “a collision of cultures.” In the summers of his college years, Butler worked in the steel mills and found himself as comfortable talking baseball with the other workers as he was talking aesthetics with his father and his father’s academic colleagues.

Butler received a B.S. in Oral Interpretation from Northwestern University in 1967. On his twenty-first birthday, he decided to write the words rather than act them. To this end, he enrolled in the University of Iowa to pursue a master’s degree in playwriting. Immediately after receiving his M.A. in 1969, Butler enlisted in the U.S. Army, leading to service in the Vietnam War, an experience that deeply affected his life and his writing. Trained as a counterintelligence special agent and a Vietnamese linguist, Butler gained “professional proficiency” in the language after a full year of study. The immersion course was taught by a Vietnamese exile who gave Butler a glimpse into the Vietnamese culture and the struggle of an exile. Butler served his tour of duty in Saigon as administrative assistant to a U.S. Foreign Service officer who was adviser to the mayor of Saigon.

Butler’s early experiences with a wide variety of people while growing up in Granite City and his Army service during the war are the two elements in his life that most strongly influenced his writing. In Vietnam, Butler came into contact with a wider variety of Vietnamese people than most Army personnel...

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Robert Olen Butler Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

In his novels and short stories, Butler depicts characters that are haunted by the past, ambivalent about the present, and in search of truce for the various wars—not just Vietnam—that they carry within them. Butler’s ceaseless experimentation with techniques for representing unusual voices has led to his being lauded as “our pre-eminent practitioner of first-person narrative.”

Robert Olen Butler Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Robert Olen Butler was born on January 20, 1945, in Granite City, Illinois; he received a bachelor’s degree in theater from Northwestern University in 1967 and an M.A. in playwriting from the University of Iowa in 1969. He served with the U.S. Army in counterintelligence from 1969 to 1972, part of that time in Vietnam, where he also served as an interpreter.

Although Butler had begun writing plays during college, after his Vietnam experience he turned to narrative fiction, completing his first three novels during the hours he spent on a train commuting from his home to his editorial job for Energy User News in Manhattan. His experience in Vietnam furnished him with fertile subject matter and a desire to tell stories about it. However, his first published novel, The Alleys of Eden (1981), went through twenty-one rejections before it finally found a publisher. He has said of his earlier, unpublished fiction that it now serves as spare parts for his current work.

In 1985, Butler began teaching creative writing at McNeese State University, in Lake Charles, Louisiana (the setting for one of the stories from A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain), which he made his permanent home. Butler once said that he finds that much fiction about Vietnam fails to portray the Vietnamese people with sufficient depth, perhaps because it focuses primarily on military action. His task, he believes, is to write whatever books are given to him to write, regardless of their subjects or critical reception.

Robert Olen Butler Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Robert Olen Butler, Jr., grew up in Granite City, Illinois, a steel town near St. Louis, Missouri. His father, Robert Olen Butler, Sr., was chair of the theater department at St. Louis University. Butler majored in theater at Northwestern University in Illinois, from which he graduated summa cum laude with a B.S. in oral interpretation in 1967. He went on to graduate school in the writing program at the University of Iowa, where he earned a master’s degree in playwriting in 1969. While a student in Iowa, he married Carol Supplee; they divorced in 1972.

American involvement in the Vietnam War was at its height when Butler finished graduate school, and, believing he would be drafted, he decided to enlist in the Army instead, hoping that he would have some choice in his assignment. Although he wanted to serve in the United States, he was assigned to military intelligence, was given intensive training in the Vietnamese language, and was sent to Vietnam, where he served until 1972. Butler became fluent in Vietnamese, and the language and culture of Vietnam, together with the experience of war, greatly influenced his thinking and writing.

In July of 1972, Butler married the poet Marilyn Geller. He worked for a year as an editor and reporter in New York City. When his wife became pregnant with their son, Joshua, the family moved back to Illinois. Butler taught high school in his hometown of Granite City in 1973 and 1974, then became a reporter in Chicago. He moved back to the New York City area in 1975 and took a job as editor in chief of Energy User News. According to Butler, he wrote much of his first three novels while commuting on the Long Island Railroad to and from his job in Manhattan. Butler left New York in 1985 to take a position teaching writing at McNeese State University, a small college in the southwestern Louisiana city of Lake Charles. Louisiana is home to several Vietnamese communities, and the Louisiana Vietnamese provided Butler with material for his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. In May, 2000, he became the Francis Eppes Professor of English at Florida State University. Divorced from Marilyn Geller in 1987, Butler has been married two more times, to Maureen Donlan from 1987 to 1995 and then to the novelist Elizabeth Dewberry from 1995 to 2007.

Robert Olen Butler Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111204759-Butler.jpgRobert Olen Butler Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Robert Olen Butler, whose father was a college professor, graduated from Northwestern University summa cum laude in 1967 with a degree in oral interpretation, then in 1969 completed a masters in playwriting at the University of Iowa. Serving in the U.S. Army from 1969 to 1972, Butler was trained to speak fluent Vietnamese. During his tour in Vietnam he was assigned to military intelligence, where he reached the rank of sergeant. He also served as an interpreter for U.S. advisers.

Butler’s early fiction grew out of his experience in Vietnam. Though he moved on to other themes, he later returned to Vietnam-related subject matter for his most acclaimed writing. As a writer on the Vietnam War, he does not look at the experience from the usual combatant’s point of view. Rather, he has tried to know about and to portray the Vietnamese themselves, a task aided by his ability to speak Vietnamese.

Returning from the war, Butler worked as an editor for Energy User News and wrote his early novels on a lapboard while commuting to and from his job. His early work is dominated by the “Vietnam trilogy,” novels in which a minor character in one shows up as a major character in another.

The Alleys of Eden is told from the perspective of an army deserter, Clifford Wilkes, who hides out for several years in Saigon in the apartment of a Vietnamese prostitute, Lanh, with whom he lives in an erotic haven. With the withdrawal of American forces, however, he must leave the country or be left to deal with the victorious North Vietnamese. He manages to get both himself and Lanh back to the United States, where they discover that their relationship has changed. Now she is the stranger, and the dislocation they both face drives them apart.

Set largely in Alaska, Sun Dogs seems very removed from the Vietnam experience, though the central character in the story, Wilson Hand, is obsessed by an experience he had in Vietnam when he was held captive by the Viet Cong. Although he is rescued by his commanding officer (who later appears as the central character in On Distant Ground), his feeling of powerlessness remains. The suicide of his former wife and his own involvement in the dark dealings of an oil company in Alaska again force him to confront his powerlessness.

In the last book of the trilogy, On Distant Ground, David Fleming, Wilson Hand’s commanding officer, is tried by court-martial for assisting the enemy. After his trial (he is found guilty but is not sent to prison), he arranges to return to Vietnam—in the last days before the fall of Saigon in 1975—to find the son he had...

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Robert Olen Butler Biography (Short Stories for Students)

Robert Olen Butler was born January 20, 1945, in Granite City, Illinois, and spent the majority of his childhood in a small steel mill town...

(The entire section is 447 words.)

Robert Olen Butler Biography (Short Stories for Students)

Robert Olen Butler was born in Granite City, Illinois, on January 20, 1945. His father was a college professor and his mother was an...

(The entire section is 382 words.)

Robert Olen Butler Biography

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Robert Olen Butler

Introduction

The only thing critics can agree about Robert Olen Butler is that they cannot agree about him. While some have rapturously praised his work, others have found ample room for complaint. By Butler’s own admission, not everything he writes is a masterpiece. In one interview, he owned up to having a slew of his short stories, novels, and plays never published because they simply were not good. Despite the criticism, Butler’s 1993 A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, a collection of short stories based on the author’s experiences in Vietnam, won the Pulitzer Prize. In addition, Butler has won a Guggenheim Fellowship and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. An award bearing his name was created in his honor to recognize up-and-coming authors.

Essential Facts

  1. Butler’s original interest was theater, which he studied as an undergraduate. Only while pursuing his Master’s degree did he switch to creative writing.
  2. Butler served in the military during the Vietnam War and even did intelligence work. Some of his later books recount his fondness for the Vietnamese people.
  3. The short story collection Severance, one of Butler’s most curious works, is about the post-beheading thoughts of people like Marie Antoinette and Nicole Brown Simpson.
  4. Butler’s short stories have appeared in virtually every major publication, including Harper’s, GQ, and The New Yorker.
  5. Butler courted controversy in 2007 when he sent his students at Florida State University an intimately detailed email about his fourth wife’s decision to leave him for billionaire Ted Turner.