Style and Technique

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The coherence of the narrative comes not from plot, for that would suggest a coherence of human events, but from a repetition of images, gestures, actions, and phrases. In general, the story illustrates that from beginning to end, the situation of civilization is getting worse, but the details of the...

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The coherence of the narrative comes not from plot, for that would suggest a coherence of human events, but from a repetition of images, gestures, actions, and phrases. In general, the story illustrates that from beginning to end, the situation of civilization is getting worse, but the details of the narrative are not organized to demonstrate that. Two motifs, however, run through the entire story: the torture of a Comanche brave and the narrator’s preoccupation with women, including an unidentified “you” of whom he speaks yearningly. This combination of love and war in one narrative and in one person is itself a cliché, and through it Barthelme mocks popular literary tradition and also the American culture’s eagerness to romanticize war.

Barthelme’s methods can be summed up in two words: irony and parody. Both are forms of mimicry, commencing with someone else’s prior form and statement, and both are essentially negative responses to that original statement.

Barthelme takes the forms of conventional short fiction, but not for conventional purposes. The modern short story has developed a heightened sense of the significance of repetition: events, colors, gestures, and so forth. These correspondences are usually associated with meaning. “The Indian Uprising” illustrates the patterning and follows the forms, but denies the link with meaning. The Wild West fiction that Barthelme mimics would depend on a suspenseful plot and a confrontation at the end between representatives of good and evil. Sylvia’s apparent betrayal, the female schoolteacher, and the love story mimic the traditional elements: In the classic manner, all three help lead to the obligatory showdown, but not in the traditional way. That the schoolmistress should be the turncoat denies conventional expectations and mocks the idea of education as a cohesive force in a culture.

There are many examples of the use of patterns of images and repetition of gestures, but the question of meaning is made problematical very early, as when the narrator lists (he uses the term “analyze”) the contents of the barricade in front of him and can conclude only that he knows nothing. A similar fate awaits anyone trying to analyze the details of the narrative. On the map, for example, the Indian-held territory is green, and the narrator’s side holds the blue; the city girls, including Sylvia, wear blue mufflers that collectively seem like a blue fog; Miss R. wears a blue dress; blue ends her litany list. None of this comes to mean anything. Similarly, the narrator several times repeats the line, “See the table?” which might be a secret joke on Platonic essences, but it means nothing in the context of the narrator’s intentions. The narrator notes near the end that “strings of language extend in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole,” a sentence so neatly balancing confinement and free impulse that it can stand for Barthelme’s methods of irony and parody: In fact, there is no ribaldry in that world (except perhaps from the Indians’ “short, ugly lances with fur at the throat”), and no unity, but the narrator unwittingly communicates Barthelme’s intention to create the illusion of a whole world of fragments. To make that illusion, Barthelme beguiles his readers with sheer wackiness. The paragraph as a logical or narrative unit does not exist in this story; each is a collage of ironic and sometimes shocking juxtapositions. The details accumulate like debris and, like the objects in the barricade, might reveal much ironically by their disordered presence, but not by logic or system.

Historical Context

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The Vietnam War During the 1960s
Barthelme wrote ‘‘The Indian Uprising’’ in the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, one of the longest wars in U.S. history. In fact, critics have argued that the battles against the Comanches in the story echo images of that war.

American involvement in Vietnam began in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the United States contributed resources to help the French create an anti-communist regime in their colonial territories of Indochina, as the region was then called. Eventu ally, the French gave up their control over Vietnam, and the country was partitioned into North Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh, a communist, and South Vietnam, ruled by a government somewhat friendly to the United States and Europe.

In an effort to stem what was seen as the rising tide of communism in the region, and to help South Vietnam defend itself against North Vietnam, President John F. Kennedy significantly increased U.S. support to South Vietnam in the early 1960s. By 1963, the United States had approximately sixteen thousand soldiers stationed in South Vietnam. A series of events led President Lyndon B. Johnson to authorize sending some eighty thousand troops to defend U.S. airbases in South Vietnam and to engage in limited fighting in April 1965. By the end of 1965, there were 185,000 American soldiers in South Vietnam; that number grew to 500,000 by the end of 1967.

Support for the war began to erode by 1966, with many Americans not fully confident that President Johnson was making progress in helping the South Vietnamese resist communism. President Richard M. Nixon further escalated the war after his election in 1968, much to the dismay of many Americans, provoking an increasing number of antiwar demonstrations. By January 1975, the American military had removed most of its troops; by April of that year, the North Vietnamese effectively took over South Vietnam.

The Vietnam War created deep and lasting divisions in American society and entirely changed the way the United States looked at committing its troops overseas. The war cost America much more than the $170 billion in material expenditures; more than 58,000 Americans died, and about 23,000 veterans of the war were permanently disabled.

Antiwar Protests During the 1960s
With its images of urban battles and barricades, Barthelme’s short story evokes a period during which thousands of Americans took to the streets to protest the Vietnam War. In the mid-1960s, college students and others began organizing demonstrations to show their increasing displeasure with a U.S. government that looked to be supporting a corrupt government in South Vietnam and was sending their friends, brothers, husbands, and sons to a faraway country to fight for a questionable cause. Most of these demonstrations were peaceful, but some erupted in violence.

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was one of the most prominent groups organizing antiwar demonstrations during the 1960s. They began in 1960 when a group of students associated with the Socialist Party organized to support the civil rights movement. By 1964, prompted by increased American military activity in Vietnam, SDS began organizing campus demonstrations. At that time, all men between eighteen and twenty-five who were not enrolled in school were required to register for the military draft. SDS circulated a ‘‘We Won’t Go’’ petition among men of draft age, encouraging them to resist induction into the military and to burn their draft cards.

Teach-ins also began on the nation’s college campuses by the mid-1960s. During the teach-ins, faculty and students, often eschewing their regularly scheduled classes, held discussions and information sessions about the war. On March 24, 1965, more than 3,500 attended a teach-in at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, sparking similar events at college campuses across the nation that spring. These culminated on May 15 of that year when groups at 122 universities held the ‘‘National Teach-In.’’

Also in 1965, an SDS-sponsored demonstration brought more than twenty thousand antiwar protesters to Washington, D.C. Other major rallies against the Vietnam War occurred during this period, including the 1967 March on the Pentagon that attracted more than one hundred thousand, and a violent multi-day demonstration outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. By the late 1960s, even mainstream religious, labor, and professional organizations began voicing their opposition to the war.

Literary Style

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Barthelme’s story is set in a city during an unspecified modern period. The unnamed narrator is telling the story primarily in the past tense. To tell the story, the author uses a nonlinear and plotless narrative with unusual word choice and sentence structure.

Nonlinear Narrative
‘‘The Indian Uprising’’ does not read like a traditional story in which there are characters with relatively well-defined roles and backgrounds who appear in a linear or chronological plot with a definable beginning and end. The story’s lack of structure is echoed by the ‘‘destructuring’’ activity going in the story: the narrator is involved in a battle that is destroying his city while he witnesses the dissolution of his relationship with Sylvia.

Several times the narrator says to himself, ‘‘I decided that I knew nothing,’’ indicating a deep sense of chaos and loss of meaning. This chaos is reflected in the continuous parade of unrelated objects and events that appear in the story. The barricades created to hold back the narrator’s enemies are made up of the detritus of everyday life, such as a blanket, window dummies, ashtrays, pillows, a flute, corkscrews, and can openers. In the city, there is a dwarf who has attacked one of the narrator’s friends, an ‘‘inexplicable shell money lying in the grass,’’ a hundred thousand hyacinths sent to the ghetto, and ‘‘a sort of muck running in the gutters.’’ This collage of images further enhances the story’s sense of disorder.

Miss R. attempts to impose order when she states that ‘‘I believe our masters and teachers as well as plain citizens should confine themselves to what can safely be said.’’ Her attempt, however, becomes farcical when she claims that a list of unrelated words she has organized into a hierarchical list holds some meaning. In Barthelme’s story, only the illogical is meaningful.

Atypical Syntax
The story also features sentences that do not seem to make sense, paragraphs in which the sentences jump from one topic to the next, and sentences that do not use traditional punctuation. For example, after describing a Comanche knife attack, the narrator continues in the same paragraph with a sentence that does not follow typical standards of narration or punctuation:

Not believing that your body brilliant as it was and your fat, liquid spirit distinguished and angry as it was were stable quantities to which one could return on wires more than once, twice, or another number of times I said: ‘‘See the table?’’

At times, Barthelme uses a word that does not seem to fit the occasion, as when he tells of receiving information about his friend Jane: ‘‘Jane! I heard via an International Distress Coupon that you were beaten up by a dwarf in a bar on Tenerife.’’ A reader might typically expect the word ‘‘signal,’’ ‘‘frequency,’’ or ‘‘call’’ instead of ‘‘coupon.’’ In this manner, Barthelme disrupts the expected flow of a sentence, creating tension, confusion, and questions.

Because of these constructions, only limited glimpses or snapshots of the action are available, and a mood of unease and apprehension quickly settles over the story. Instead of telling the reader about this mood, or having the characters talk about feeling this way, Barthelme uses unconventional syntax and language patterns to communicate the atmosphere he desires.

Compare and Contrast

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1960s: The United States military drafts about 1.8 million young men to serve as soldiers during the Vietnam War. A man can qualify for a student deferment from the draft if he is a fulltime student and able to show satisfactory progress toward a degree.

Today: The United States no longer relies on the draft but fills the ranks of its military with volunteers of both genders. However, men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five must still register with the Selective Service System in case of a national military emergency.

1960s: About 80 percent of those fighting in the Vietnam War are from working-class or poor backgrounds. There are disproportionately high numbers of African Americans serving as combat troops.

Today: In the all-volunteer Unites States military, minorities account for nearly 35% of the personnel, and African Americans account for 20%.

1960s: On April 15, 1967, more than 200,000 protesters gather in New York City and San Francisco to register their displeasure with American involvement in the Vietnam War.

Today: While protesters against the war in Afghanistan are less numerous and vocal than their 1960s antiwar antecedents, they do exist. Scattered demonstrations erupt in October and November of 2002 after the United States begins a military offensive against the al-Qaeda organization in Afghanistan.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Aldridge, John W., ‘‘Dance of Death,’’ in Atlantic Monthly, July 1968, p. 89.

Barth, John, ‘‘Thinking Man’s Minimalist: Honoring Donald Barthelme,’’ in the New York Times Book Review, September 3, 1989, p. 9.

Barthelme, Donald, ‘‘The Indian Uprising,’’ in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, Bantam, 1969, pp. 1–13.

Bocock, Maclin, ‘‘‘The Indian Uprising’ or Donald Barthelme’s Strange Object Covered with Fur,’’ in fiction international, No. 415, pp. 134–45.

Gillen, Francis, ‘‘Donald Barthelme’s City: A Guide,’’ in Twentieth Century Literature, January 1972, pp. 37–44.

McCaffery, Larry, ‘‘An Interview with Donald Barthelme,’’ in Partisan Review, Vol. 49, No. 2, 1982, pp. 184–93.

Schmitz, Neil, ‘‘Donald Barthelme and the Emergence of Modern Satire,’’ in Minnesota Review, No. 1, Fall 1971, pp. 109–18.

Schott, Webster, ‘‘Dreams of the Body Neurotic,’’ in Book World—The Washington Post, November 5, 1972, p. 3.

Shorris, Earl, ‘‘Donald Barthelme’s Illustrated Wordy-Gurdy,’’ in Harper’s, January 1973, pp. 92–96.

Sullivan, Walter, ‘‘‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’: The Short Story in Search of Itself,’’ in Sewanee Review, Fall 1970, pp. 531–42.

Tanner, Tony, City of Words: American Fiction 1950–1970, Harper, 1971, pp. 403–404.

Further Reading
Barthelme, Donald, Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme, edited by Kim Herzinger, Vintage Books, 1999. Originally published in 1997, this book includes essays written by Barthelme and interviews with him on such topics as his and others’ writings, art and architecture, music, film.

Barthelme, Helen Moore, Donald Barthelme: The Genesis of a Cool Sound, Texas A&M University Press, 2001. Helen Moore Barthelme is an English professor at Texas A&M University, but between 1956 and 1965, she was the writer’s wife. In this memoir, she offers personal insights into the writer’s early writings and a description of their life together in Houston.

Friedman, Ellen G., and Miriam Fuchs, eds., Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction, Princeton University Press, 1989. This book features nineteen essays devoted to exploring postmodern fiction written by women. The writers discussed include Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, and Joyce Carol Oates.

Hudgens, Michael Thomas, Donald Barthelme: Postmodernist American Writer, Studies in American Literature, No. 43, Edwin Mellon Press, 2001. This scholarly book covers Barthelme and his role in postmodern literature. The author relates Barthelme’s work to examples of other postmodern literature and art.

Powell, James N., Postmodernism for Beginners, Writers & Readers, 1998. This book posits that postmodernism ‘‘is not a bunch of meaningless intellectual mind games’’ but a reaction to the failure of the philosophy of the nineteenth century. The book is written using text matched with graphics and comic book–like features.


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Barthelme, Helen Moore. Donald Barthelme: The Genesis of a Cool Sound. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2001.

Gordon, Lois. Donald Barthelme. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

Hudgens, Michael Thomas. Donald Barthelme: Postmodernist American Writer. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. Donald Barthelme: An Exhibition. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991.

McCaffery, Larry. The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982.

Molesworth, Charles. Donald Barthelme’s Fiction: The Ironist Saved from Drowning. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

Olsen, Lance, ed. Review of Contemporary Fiction 11 (Summer, 1991).

Patteson, Richard F., ed. Critical Essays on Donald Barthelme. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992.

Roe, Barbara L. Donald Barthelme: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Stengel, Wayne B. The Shape of Art in the Short Stories of Donald Barthelme. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.

Trachtenberg, Stanley. Understanding Donald Barthelme. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

Waxman, Robert. “Apollo and Dionysus: Donald Barthelme’s Dance of Life.” Studies in Short Fiction 33 (Spring, 1996): 229-243.

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