Donald Barthelme Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Donald Barthelme’s father’s architectural achievements strongly influenced him. What features of the son’s literary work might be considered analogous to architectural ones?

Assess the suitability of several of Barthelme’s short story titles.

Plot and character are not particularly important to Barthelme. How does this fact relate to his concentration on the short story form rather than on the novel?

What other characteristics of Barthelme’s philosophy of literary composition suit his predilection for the short story?

Judging from the story “The Educational Experience,” what has gone wrong with the study of history? Does the story contain suggestions as to how it might be better taught?

The tale of Snow White has often been ridiculed and parodied. What elements of this fairy tale does Barthelme appear to take most seriously?

What are some of the targets in Barthelme’s attack on modern culture?

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In addition to his one hundred and fifty or so short stories, Donald Barthelme published four novels, a children’s volume that won a National Book Award, a number of film reviews and unsigned “Comment” pieces for The New Yorker, a small but interesting body of art criticism, and a handful of book reviews and literary essays, two of which deserve special notice: “After Joyce” and “Not Knowing.”


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

For nearly three decades, Donald Barthelme served as American literature’s most imitated and imitative yet inimitable writer. One of a small but influential group of innovative American fictionists that included maximalists John Barth, Robert Coover, and Thomas Pynchon, Barthelme evidenced an even greater affinity to the international minimalists Samuel Beckett and Jorge Luis Borges. What distinguishes Barthelme’s fiction is not only his unique “zero degree” writing style but also, thanks to his long association with the mass-circulation magazine The New Yorker, his reaching a larger and more diversified audience than most of the experimentalists, whose readership has chiefly been limited to the ranks of college professors and their students. For all the oddity of a fiction based largely upon “the odd linguistic trip, stutter, and fall” (Snow White, 1967), Barthelme may well come to be seen as the Anthony Trollope of his age. Although antirealistic in form, his fictions are in fact densely packed time capsules—not the “slices of life” of nineteenth century realists such as Émile Zola but “the thin edge of the wedge” of postmodernism’s version of Charles Dickens’s hard times and Charles Chaplin’s modern ones. For all their seeming sameness, his stories cover a remarkable range of styles, subjects, linguistic idioms, and historical periods (often in the same work, sometimes in the same sentence). For all their referential density, Barthelme’s stories do not attempt to reproduce mimetically external reality but instead offer a playful meditation on it (or alternately the materials for such a meditation). Such an art makes Barthelme in many respects the most representative American writer of the 1960’s and of the two decades that followed: postmodern, postmodernist, post-Freudian, poststructuralist, postindustrial, even (to borrow Jerome Klinkowitz’s apt term) postcontemporary.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Donald Barthelme (bawr-TEHLM) became known first as a short-story writer, perhaps because the third of his long works appeared only three years before his death and the fourth was posthumous. For some commentators, as a result, Barthelme’s name is still primarily associated with short stories—the more so because even his long fiction tends to be composed of the same fragments as his short. Barthelme was also the author of a children’s book titled The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine: Or, The Hithering Thithering Djinn (1971).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Donald Barthelme was one of the great innovators in fictional techniques of the post-World War II era of American literature. Drawing on the technical discoveries of the Anglo-American modernist authors (including T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett), he developed a type of fiction that was largely structured on principles other than plot and character, the building blocks of nineteenth century “realistic” fiction. His fragmentary, collagelike splicing of historical and literary references expresses a certain world-weariness as well as a sense that history does not advance. Nevertheless, the irony expressed by this style softens a bit in the later works.

In addition to winning the National Book Award for his children’s book in 1972, Barthelme was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship (1966). He also won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for Sixty Stories (1981), one of the two collections of selected stories to appear during his lifetime.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Barthelme, Helen Moore. Donald Barthelme: The Genesis of a Cool Sound. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2001. The author, a senior university lecturer, was married to Barthelme for a decade in the 1950’s and 1960’s. She traces his life from his childhood in Houston to his development as a writer.

Couturier, Maurice, and Regis Durand. Donald Barthelme. London: Methuen, 1982. This brief study focuses on the performance aspect of Barthelme’s stories and considers them in relation to the multiplicity of varied responses that they elicit from readers. Readings are few in number but highly suggestive.

Daugherty, Tracy. Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009. Argues that Barthleme was writing in the modernist tradition of Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, and that he used advertisements, sentences from newspaper articles, instruction guides, and popular and commercial elements in order to make literature, not to subvert it.

Gordon, Lois. Donald Barthelme. Boston: Twayne, 1981. This volume, in Twayne’s United States Authors series, makes up in breadth what it lacks in depth. Although the book has no particular point to make about Barthelme and his work, it does provide useful and accurate summaries of most of his work. A comprehensive introduction for undergraduates unfamiliar with the fiction, as is Stanley Trachtenberg’s Understanding Donald Barthelme.

Hudgens, Michael Thomas. Donald Barthelme, Postmodernist American Writer. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. This volume in the series Studies in American Literature examines Barthelme’s novels The Dead Father and Snow White and his short story “Paraguay.” Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. Donald Barthelme: An Exhibition. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991. Klinkowitz is easily the best informed and most judicious scholar and critic of contemporary American fiction in general...

(The entire section is 898 words.)