Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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.”
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Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
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...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
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...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
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...
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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 in that state. His father, a retired actor, helped inspire his interest in books, movies, and theater, and his mother’s stories about Granite City during the Depression inspired the content for his fifth novel, Wabash.
Butler excelled in high school, serving as president of the student body and graduating as covaledictorian. He enrolled at Northwestern University, where he planned to major in theater. In his sophomore year, however, he transferred to oral interpretation, which is an approach to literature through performance. This focus drew Butler increasingly to writing. After graduating summa cum laude in 1967, he attended graduate school at the University of Iowa, where he earned an M.F.A. in playwriting.
Believing he would be drafted for the Vietnam War, Butler signed up for a three-year enlistment in return for a guaranteed position in counterintelligence. He spent a year learning Vietnamese from a native speaker, and was then assigned to serve in Vietnam as an administrative assistant and interpreter. His time in Vietnam had a profound effect on Butler, and he would return to this past many times in his writings.
After returning to the United States in the early 1970s, Butler worked alternately as a reporter, a high school teacher, and a freelance writer in Granite City,...
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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 executive secretary. He graduated from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in 1967, with a degree in oral interpretation. The following year he married Carol Supplee, a marriage that was to last only four years. He attended the University of Iowa for postgraduate work, receiving a master of arts in playwriting in 1969. From 1969 to 1972, he served in Vietnam as an Army Intelligence officer and later as a translator for the U.S. advisor to the mayor of Saigon. His fiction, especially in his early novels, reflects his experience during the height of the Vietnam war.
After returning to the United States in 1972, Butler served as a reporter and editor for the New York Times and then returned to teach at the high school in his home town for a short while. He married again in 1972, to the poet Marilyn Geller; they divorced in 1987. From 1975 to 1985, he was an editor-in-chief for the Energy User’s News in New York City. Butler took a position as associate professor at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, moving into a full professorship in fiction writing in 1993. As of 2005, Butler was teaching at Florida State University; in the same year, he won the National Magazine Award for Fiction.
Butler’s first novel, The Alleys of Eden, was published in 1981, after having...
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IntroductionThe 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Butler’s short stories have appeared in virtually every major publication, including Harper’s, GQ, and The New Yorker.
- 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.