Donald Barthelme was born in Philadelphia, where his parents had been students at the University of Pennsylvania. His father was an architect; his mother had studied English. A few years later, the family moved to Houston, where his father became a professor of architecture at the University of Houston.
Texas may seem an unlikely place for one of the most-discussed writers of nonlinear, “experimental” fiction to have developed, but Barthelme credits his father’s interest in what, for the time, were advanced architectural styles with fostering his interest in the avant-garde. The house they lived in was designed by his father, and it was remarkable enough for Houston that, Barthelme has said, people used to stop their cars and stare at it. It was this interest of his father that Barthelme credited with being the most influential clement of his early years on his later development. In high school, Barthelme wrote for both the newspaper and the literary magazine. In 1949 he entered the University of Houston, majoring in journalism. During his sophomore year (1950-1951) he was the editor of the college newspaper, the Cougar. During this year he also worked as a reporter for the Houston Post.
In 1953, Barthelme was drafted into the U.S. Army, arriving in Korea the day the truce ending the Korean War was signed, at which point he became the editor of an Army newspaper. Upon his return to the United States, he once again became a reporter for the Houston Post and returned to the University of Houston, where he worked as a speechwriter for the university president and attended classes in philosophy. Although he attended classes as late as 1957, he ultimately left without taking a degree.
Barthelme has said that he read extensively during this period in a number of fields that he later integrated into his fiction: literature and philosophy as well as the social sciences. In 1956, he founded a literary magazine called Forum, where he developed an interest in the layout and design of the magazine as well as its literary content. This interest became evident in later years, when he began to incorporate graphics, usually nineteenth century lithographs, into his short stories. At the age of thirty, he became the director of Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum.
In 1962, Barthelme moved to New York to be the managing editor of the arts and literature magazine Location. His first published story, “The Darling Duckling at School” (later revised and printed as “Me and Miss Mandible”), appeared in 1961. His first story for The New Yorker, titled “L’Lapse,” appeared in 1963. Since then, most of his works have appeared first in this magazine, to the point where Barthelme’s name became almost a synonym for an ironic, fragmentary style that characterized its pages in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Erudite, brief, fragmentary, disjointed: His stories seemed to many to epitomize a certain New York (or New Yorker) attitude toward life in general. Barthelme also wrote film criticism for that magazine.
Barthelme’s first collection of short stories, titled Come Back, Dr. Caligari, appeared in 1964. His first novel, Snow White, a modern takeoff on the fairy tale, appeared in 1967. Further short stories were collected in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (1968), City Life (1970), Sadness (1972), Amateurs (1976), Great Days (1979), and Overnight to Many Different Cities (1983). Many critics see the height of his short-story production in the volume City Life, noting a tendency of his later stories either to repeat the techniques of the earlier ones or to become more like traditional short stories. Barthelme published two other novels before his death, The Dead Father (1975), which some commentators regard as his masterpiece, and Paradise (1986). A fourth novel, The King, appeared posthumously (1990). The first of two anthologies of previously published stories, titled Sixty Stories, appeared in 1981; a companion volume, Forty Stories, appeared in 1987.
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