Name: Donald Barthelme
Birth Place: Philadelphia
Genre(s): Children's literature; Essays; Experimental fiction; Novels; Parodies; Satires; Short stories
Donald Barthelme has achieved his present eminence as one of the leading popular innovators in American fiction through the pages of the New Yorker magazine, where he began publishing in 1963. But, although he is best known for his stiff-upper-lip sentences and urban, upper-middle-class situations, his roots are in Texas. Born in Philadelphia on 7 April 1931, where his parents were attending the University of Pennsylvania, he moved at an early age to Houston, where his father rose to prominence as an architect in the style of Mies and Corbu. Texas language and Texas situations occasionally show up in Barthelme's stories, as do the Roman Catholicism of his youth and the experiences he had as a reporter, university publications writer, editor, and art museum director (all in Houston). He moved to New York City in 1962 to edit the only two issues of Harold Rosenberg's and Thomas Hess's art and literature journal, Location, and since has remained in New York to write full time, occasionally teaching as Distinguished Professor of English Prose at the City University of New York. He has been hailed by the full range of academic journals, literary quarterlies, and national news magazines as one of the most imitated and influential stylists writing today. He has received both a Guggenheim Fellowship and the National Book Award, plus numerous other literary prizes. Several times married and divorced, Barthelme writes with both deep feeling and sardonic style about the quality of personal lives, relationships, and material fortunes in contemporary America.
Because of his reliance upon language (instead of plot and character) to carry the theme of his stories, Barthelme has incurred the wrath of such traditional critics as Alfred Kazin and Nathan Scott. With Barthelme we have been "sentenced to the sentence," Kazin writes in Bright Book of Life (1973), and further complains that, "he operates by countermeasures only, and the system that is his own joy to attack permits him what an authoritarian system always permits its lonely dissenters: the sense of their own weakness." Several of Barthelme's most severe critics base their objections on moral grounds. Joyce Carol Oates seized upon a character's statement, "Fragments are the only form I trust," and used it as the basis for Barthelme's supposed ethic, which she then attacked: "This from a writer of arguable genius, whose work reflects the anxiety he himself must feel, in book after book, that his brain is all fragments." What happens, Oates wondered, when life came to imitate art? "And then who is in charge, who believed himself cleverly impotent, who supposed he had abdicated all conscious design?" Pearl K. Bell numbered Barthelme among "those celebrants of unreason, chaos, and inexorable decay ... a horde of mini-Jeremiahs crying havoc in the Western world," against whom she proposed the more moral model of Saul Bellow, particularly in his novel Mr. Sammler's Planet. Nathan Scott complained that Barthelme's reinvention of the world "offers us an effective release from the bullying of all the vexations of history," but that such an aesthetic was too facile, the opting-out chosen "by the hordes of those young long-haired, jean-clad, pot-smoking bohemians who have entered the world of psychedelia." By 1970 the New York Times Book Review began to give Barthelme longer and deeper reviews, probing the nature of his linguistic games and imaginative reinventions of social life, robbing negative critics of their strongest support. But younger critics, such as Larry McCaffery in the special 1975 issue of Critique devoted to Barthelme, argue that Barthelme's distrust of the ability of language to communicate any real sense, and of contemporary fiction to represent any real reality, makes him the perfect person to invent a new form of writing which will wake us up to the arbitrary nature of our conventional world.
The style Barthelme invents depends heavily on our awareness of how language has been corrupted by advertising and politics. His story "Report," from his collection Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (1968), features a group of military scientists who have invented such weapons as "rots, blights, and rusts capable of destroying [the enemy's] alphabet" and "the deadly testicle-destroying telegram." Their software technologists are busy working on "realtime online computer-controlled wish evaporation. Wish evaporation is going to be crucial in meeting the rising expectations of the world's peoples, which are as you know rising entirely too fast." Pieces of other realistic-sounding nonsense Barthelme invents include police bands which play cool jazz to soothe rioting crowds, amorphous balloons which cover half of New York City and provide pleasant but meaningless diversions for the populace, and even the accurate-sounding (but absurd) boxes of cereals his heroine in Snow White (1967) chooses for breakfast: "Chix," "Rats," and "Fear." Barthelme's genius is to take the form in which we are used to hearing something-- having heard it so often that we have become anesthetized to it--and then insert a patent absurdity to shake us back to our senses and make us realize how our supposedly "realistic" lives have been conducted on the brink of pure silliness. Other stories, such as "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning" and "Views of My Father Weeping," are epistemological demonstrations of just how (and just how not) the world may be known; the point is always that the imagination is truer than the supposedly objective faculties of reality, and that fancy is more accurate than fact.
Snow White offers an insightful perspective on the America of the mid-1960s by retelling the Grimm Brothers' and Walt Disney's fairy tale in the language of the period--and it is the nature of that language which makes Barthelme's point. The Chief Executive of the Country is conducting "The President's War on Poetry," while Snow White sifts her way through a list of commercial-advertising princes, searching for the man "who will complete her." Her hope is for new words: "Oh I wish there were some words in the world that were not the words I always hear!" But she is chained to the same old linguistic constructions (constructions as a way of interpreting the world), such as when she drapes her tresses from Rapunzel's tower, only to have each dwarf "fail to respond to her hair initiative." Meanwhile, she herself is having her greatest impact as an object, distracting the bourgeois dwarfs from their humdrum daily business. But in such a world, she cannot expect a conventional salvation; her prince wanders in off-cue and eats the poison apple himself, earning her appellation of "pure frog."
Barthelme's second novel, The Dead Father (1975), resists the tendency toward fragmentation in the author's work which turns abortive novels into story collections. Instead, it adheres to a straight line of action, whereby a "dead father" (though still able to comment on the action and chase pretty girls) is hauled to burial by a crew of sons. This plot becomes the vehicle for Barthelme's observations on the role of fathers. This dead father dominates the landscape, eyes staring into the sky, smiling slightly, a bit of mackerel salad lodged between his teeth. "We think it's mackerel salad," says the narrator. "It appears to be mackerel salad. In the sagas, it is mackerel salad." The novel's situation is an adaptation of Samuel Beckett; but it exists only as a vehicle for the psychic play of action between father and son.
Barthelme's experiments with language reach their peak in his collection City Life (1970), where the story "Bone Bubbles" plays with almost totally meaningless juxtapositions, while its companion,"Sentence," merely speaks about itself as its words make their way across and down the page. His next assemblage of stories, Sadness (1972), turned back toward more recognizable situations, especially the trials of family life as detailed in "Critique de la Vie Quotidienne." In 1974 Barthelme had published Guilty Pleasures, a collection of satirical pieces he had been writing since his New Yorker debut, some of which had appeared as unsigned "Comment" contributions. Like his children's book from 1971, The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine, Barthelme demonstrated that he could use the artistic principle of collage to make good art from the bad refuse of contemporary language, whether it be the product ratings in Consumer Reports("The world is sagging, snagging, scaling, spalling, pilling, pinging, pitting, warping, checking ...") or the banalities of dead metaphors and dull advertisements (as in his story"A Nation of Wheels"). His novel The Dead Father (1975) sustains a narrative situation for 177 pages, something critics who had accused Barthelme of being a fragmentist thought he could not do. Amateurs, another story collection published in 1976, includes both simple situational comedy, such as "The School," where a beleaguered first-grade teacher suffers through the details of all his class's pets and nature projects, and more complex experiments with human attitudes and responses, such as "You are as Brave as Vincent Van Gogh."
The extensive popularity Barthelme enjoys, far beyond the limited audience his fellow innovationists--Ronald Sukenick, Gilbert Sorrentino, and even Ishmael Reed--share, is attributable to the ability of his fiction to operate as pure artifice, while at the same time displaying recognizable characters and situations. He is not restricted by the fragmentation of contemporary life, but rather, as Morris Dickstein says, "juxtaposes strange forms and fragments in a way that creates new forms and releases new meanings." Barthelme is more interested in human experience than in making value judgments about it, and the purpose of his writing is to exercise the full play of his own imagination in working with the materials at hand.
About this Essay: Jerome Klinkowitz, University of Northern Iowa
Source: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 2: American Novelists Since World War II, First Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Jeffrey Helterman, University of South Carolina and Richard Layman, Columbia, South Carolina. The Gale Group, 1978. pp. 34-39.