Donald Barthelme Barthelme, Donald (Vol. 115) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Donald Barthelme 1931–1989

(Also wrote under the pseudonym of Lily McNeil) American short story writer, novelist, essayist, and author of books for children.

The following entry presents an overview of criticism on Barthelme's works through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 13, 23, 46, and 59.

A preeminent writer of experimental fiction, Barthelme created humorous and often unsettling stories by juxtaposing incongruous elements of contemporary language and culture. His prose has been described as a verbal collage in which words are intended to function as objects and are intentionally stripped of meaning by their unlikely combinations. Barthelme's writing is characterized by the absence of traditional plot and character development, disjointed syntax and dialogue, parodies of jargon and cliché, and a humor, according to Thomas M. Leitch, that arises "from a contrast between outrageous premises and deadpan presentation." His work contains allusions to literature, philosophy, art, film, and popular culture, and considers such themes as the ability of language to express 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.

Biographical Information

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 where he edited Location, a short-lived arts and literary journal. During a great portion of his life, Barthelme made his home in Greenwich Village, often strolling around the area, observing the goings-on and finding material he could rework in his fiction.

Major Works

Barthelme's first stories appeared in literary periodicals dur-ing the early 1960s. In these works, many of which were first published in the New Yorker and subsequently collected in Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964), Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (1968), City Life (1971), and Sadness (1972), Barthelme incorporates advertising slogans, comic-book captions, catalogue descriptions, and jacket blurbs from records and books into a style that features verbal puns, non sequiturs, and fractured dialogue and narrative. Barthelme's first novel, Snow While (1967), is a darkly comic and erotic parody of the popular fairy tale. It is set in contemporary Greenwich Village, and the title character is an attractive yet unsatisfied young woman who shares an apartment with seven men. Composed largely of fragmented episodes in which undistinguishable characters attempt to express themselves in jargonistic and often nonsensical speech, Snow White has commonly been interpreted as an examination of the failure of language and the inability of literature to transcend or transform contemporary reality. In his second novel, The Dead Father, a surrealistic, mock-epic account of the Dead Father's journey to his grave and his burial by his son and a cast of disreputable characters, Barthelme weaves mythological, biblical, and literary allusions to create a story, according to Hilton Kramer, that lends "a sense of mystery and complexity and a certain decorative appeal to what … is actually a rather simple fantasy of filial revenge." In his third novel, Paradise (1986), Barthelme uses spare, formalistic prose marked by both a sense of playfulness and sorrow to relate the story of Simon, a fifty-three-year-old architect recently separated from his wife and teenage daughter, who is sharing his New York City flat with three women. The accounts of Simon's exotic and often erotic experiences with his housemates are interspersed with sections of revealing dialogue involving Simon and what appears to be either his psychologist or his alter ego. In addition to his works for adults, Barthelme authored a children's book, The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine: or, The Hithering Thithering Djinn (1971), which received the National Book Award for children's literature. Sixty Stories (1981) contains a selection of his short fiction as well as miscellaneous prose pieces and an excerpt from The Dead Father, Barthelme also adapted his novel Snow White and seven stories from Great Days for the stage.

Critical Reception

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 enjoyed widespread critical acclaim during his lifetime and was particularly praised as a stylist who offered vital and regenerative qualities to literature. Several critics have commended him as an insightful satirist who exposed pretentious ideas and purported to answer life's mysteries. Of his numerous works, Come Back, Dr. Caligari; Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts; City Life; and Sadness contain some of Barthelme's best-known and most highly praised stories. Although some critics expressed concern over the monotonous tone and the apparent meaninglessness of many of the pieces, most praised Barthelme's inventiveness and technical skill. Some critics faulted Overnight to Many Distant Cities (1983) for Barthelme's idiosyncratic use of literary devices, but others noted the presence of hope in many of the pieces as well as an uncharacteristic willingness by Barthelme to confront and reflect emotions. The Dead Father is often considered one of Barthelme's most sustained and cohesive narrative works. William Peden has stated: "Beneath the clowning and the cutting-and-pasting and the ransacking of archives, Barthelme is a conventional moralist, alternately attracted, amused, and appalled by what he sees as the sickness of his times, by its dullness and insipidity, by its indifference to art and things of the imagination, by its affronts to individual life and dignity."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Come Back, Dr. Caligari (short stories) 1964
Snow White (novel) 1967; first published in the New Yorker
Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (short stories) 1968
City Life (short stories) 1970
The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine; or, The Hithering Thithering Djinn (juvenilia) 1971
Sadness (short stories) 1972
The Dead Father (novel) 1975
Great Days (short stories) 1979
Sixty Stories (short stories) 1981
Overnight to Many Distant Cities (short stories) 1983
Paradise (novel) 1986
Forty Stories (short stories) 1987
The Teachings of Don B.: The Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories, and Plays of Donald Barthelme (satire, fables, short stories, and dramas) 1992

PeterJ. Longleigh, Jr. (essay date 1969)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Donald Barthelme's Snow White," in Critique, Vol. II, No. 3, 1969, pp. 30-4.

[In the following essay, Longleigh provides an analysis of Barthelme's treatment of the title character as an anti-heroine in Snow White.]

As an archetypal heroine (counterpart of the anti-hero, as defined in recent criticism), Donald Barthelme's title character in Snow White is a significant example of the play of light and darkness at the heart of modern value systems. Very important is an analytic penetration into this character, for she may stand for each of us, time and flesh being like all things relative. She is a character of flux and stasis, a semi-virginal...

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Neil Schmitz (essay date Fall 1971)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Donald Barthelme and the Emergence of Modern Satire," in The Minnesota Review, No. 1, Fall, 1971, pp. 109-18.

[In the following essay, Schmitz examines Barthelme's satirical treatment of language in his works.]

"Oh God comma I abhor self-consciousness," declares the narrator of "Title" in John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse. "I despise what we have come to; I loathe our loathesome loathing, our place our time our situation, our loathesome art, this ditto necessary story." Still another narrator, the teller of "Life-Story." punches his way irately through the convolute form of his text and plucks the reader into complicity. "The reader! You, dogged,...

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Donald Barthelme with Larry McCaffery (interview date 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An interview with Donald Barthelme," in Partisan Review, Vol. 49, No. 2, 1982, pp. 184-93.

[In the following interview, Barthelme discusses his life, his literary influences, his views on language and literature, and his works.]

[McCaffery:] You've published two novels, but most of your work has been in short fiction.

[Barthelme:] Novels take me a long time; short fiction provides a kind of immediate gratification—the relationship of sketches to battle paintings. Over a period of years I can have a dozen bad ideas for novels, some of which I actually invest a certain amount of time in. Some of these false starts yield short pieces:...

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Jochen Achilles (essay date Spring 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Donald Barthelme's Aesthetic of Inversion: Caligari's Come-Back as Caligari's Leave-Taking," in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring. 1982, pp. 105-20.

[In the following essay, Achilles traces Barthelme's use of elements from the German film Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari in his works, examines various other themes employed by Barthelme, and notes some sources from which the author has extracted ideas for his writings.]

At first glance the title of Donald Barthelme's first collection of short stories, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, appears somewhat enigmatic—even menacing if considered outside the context of the meeting of the...

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Robert A. Morace (essay date Fall 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Donald Barthelme's Snow White: The Novel, the Critics, and the Culture," in Critique, Vol. 26, No. 1, Fall, 1984, pp. 1-10.

[In the following essay, Morace analyzes Snow White as a work of experimental fiction.]

Delight in formal experimentation is one characteristic of much of our contemporary American fiction. Another, either explicit in the choice of subject matter or implicit in the narrative treatment, is the scornful criticism of the popular culture and its audience. While the former has received considerable attention from critics, the latter has more often been cited as a given than discussed in any detail. Perhaps the reason for this...

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Lance Olsen (essay date November 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Linguistic Pratfalls in Barthelme," in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 51, No. 4, November, 1986, pp. 69-77.

[In the following essay, Olsen illustrates how Barthelme transforms elements of physical comedy into linguistic humor in his works.]

Why does language subvert me, subvert my seniority, my medals, my oldness, whenever it gets a chance? What does language have against me—me that has been good to it, respecting its little peculiarities and nicilosities, for sixty years.

Donald Barthelme (Unspeakable Practices)

A critical commonplace: absurdity, parody, irony,...

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Caryn James (review date 25 October 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Forty Stories, in The New York Times Book Review, October 25, 1987, pp. 14-15.

[In the following review, James offers a positive appraisal of Forty Stories.]

In one of the best, most typical Donald Barthelme stories, a show is staged in an abandoned palazzo. Among descriptions of performing grave robbers, tax evaders and trapeze artists, one sentence jumps out like a crucial clue to this volume of Forty Stories. "Some things appear to be wonders in the beginning, but when you become familiar with them, are not wonderful at all," worries the narrator of "The Flight of Pigeons From the Palace." Versions of that fear may haunt the...

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Patrick O'Donnell (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Living Arrangements: On Donald Barthelme's Paradise," in Critical Essays on Donald Barthelme, edited by Richard F. Patteson, G. K. Hall, 1992. pp. 208-16.

[In the following essay, O'Donnell illustrates how Barthelme comments on various aspects of contemporary life and society in Paradise.]

Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?
The sky will be much friendlier then than now,
A part of labor and a part of pain,
And next in glory to enduring love,

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James Marcus (review date 6 December 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Teachings of Don B., in The New York Times Book Review, December 6, 1992, p. 30.

[In the following review, Marcus offers a commendatory assessment of The Teachings of Don B.]

At a glance, this collection of material by Donald Barthelme—who died of cancer in 1989, at the age of 58—might be mistaken for a bit of valedictory barrel-scraping. In fact, it's nothing of the kind.

Culled from a variety of sources, including his signed and unsigned contributions to The New Yorker, the pieces in The Teachings of Don B." (most of which have never' previously been collected) offer a superb cross section of what...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

Michael Zeitlin (essay dale Summer 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Father-Murder and Father-Rescue: The Post-Freudian Allegories of Donald Barthelme," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 34, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 182-203.

[In the following essay, Zeitlin studies the role of psychoanalysis and Freudian theory in Barthelme's works.]

Here is another absurd dream about a dead father.

Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams

For a good many of his critics Donald Barthelme represents American postmodernism at its formally self-conscious and experimental best. There is no reason to deny Barthelme's brilliance as an inventor of forms,...

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Carl D. Malmgren (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Exhumation: The Dead Father," in Narrative Turns and Minor Genres in Postmodernism, edited by Theo D'haen and Hans Bertens, Rodopi, 1995, pp. 25-40.

[In the following essay, Malmgren presents a detailed, thorough examination of The Dead Father.]

PRETEXT: Our presentation consists of two kinds of commentaries:

LECT: Readings—descriptive, analytic, interpretive—of the Barthelmean corpus and the Barthelmean text.

IDIOLECT: Countertexts, in which Barthelme is unfair to Malmgren.

The autopsy itself unfolds in three stages, each with several reading...

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Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme, in Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 1997, pp. 843-44.

[The following is a negative assessment of Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme.]

What Thomas Pynchon called "Barthelmismo" is somewhat lacking in [Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme] the second posthumous collection edited by Herzinger of Barthelme's miscellaneous writings, which here includes film and book reviews, art catalog essays, and New Yorker pieces.

"Barthelme Takes On Task of Almost Deciphering His Fiction" ran the New York Times headline when...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Evans, Walter. "Comanches and Civilization in Donald Barthelme's 'The Indian Uprising.'" Arizona Quarterly 42, No. 1 (Spring 1986): 45-52.

Provides an analysis of the short story "The Indian Uprising."

Meisel, Perry. "Mapping Barthelme's 'Paraguay.'" In Fragments: Incompletion and Discontinuity, pp. 129-38, guest editor, Lawrence D. Kritzman, and general editor, Jeanine Parisier Plottel, New York: New York Literary Forum, 1981.

Examines the short story "Paraguay."

Robertson, Mary. "Postmodern Realism: Discourse As Antihero in...

(The entire section is 262 words.)