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.
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.
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.
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."