April 7, 1931, is the birthday of
Donald Barthelme. Born in
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he is the post-modern author of four novels, including
Snow White (1967) and The Dead Father (1975), although he is
best known for his surrealistic, fragmented short stories, compiled in the books
Sixty Stories (1981) and Forty Stories (1987).
At one point in Snow White, Barthelme presented his readers with an
Do you like the story so far? Yes ( ) No ( )
2. Does Snow White resemble the Snow White you remember? Yes ( ) No ( )
3. Have you understood, in reading to this point, that Paul is the
prince-figure? Yes ( ) No ( )
4. That Jane is the wicked stepmother-figure? Yes ( ) No ( )
5. In the further deverlopement of the story, would you like more emotion (
) or less emotion ( )?
6. Is there too much blague in the narration? ( ) Not enough blague? ( )
7. Do you feel that the creation of new modes of hysteria is a viable
undertaking for the artist of today? Yes ( ) No ( )
8. Would you like a war? Yes ( ) No ( ) ....
Barthelme's father, who was a strong influence on the son, was an architect who designed the Houston house in which
his family lived for years.
"In the late thirties my father built a house for us,
something not too dissimilar to Mies's Tugendhat house. It was
wonderful to live in but strange to see on the Texas prairie. On
Sundays people used to park their cars out on the street and stare. We
had a routine, the family, on Sundays. We used to get up from Sunday
dinner, if enough cars had parked, and run out in front of the house in a
sort of chorus line, doing high kicks." - Interview with Jerome Klinkowitz
Barthelme's parents kept a large collection of contemporary
art and a library full of books by writers such as James Joyce and T.S.
Eliot. Barthelme began reading at an early age. By the time he
was ten, he had decided he was going to be a writer.
Barthelme entered the University of Houston in the early
Fifties, setting a new precedent by becoming editor-in-chief of the
school newspaper, Cougar, in only his sophomore year. He later
went on to write articles on culture and the arts for the Houston Post.
His involvement with these papers continued a tradition of journalistic
writing that he had begun from the earliest years of his parochial schooling.
He helped with typesetting and layout, something that would continue to occupy a fond
space in his heart throughout his life, later manifesting themselves in the
form of madcap collages with wickedly irreverent captions (many of which are
collected in The Teachings of Don B.).
In 1953, he was
drafted by the army to serve in Korea, but the war ended just a few days
after he arrived. He found work at the army newspaper before returning
to Houston after being discharged. There, he worked as a journalist and wrote
speeches for the president of the University of Houston.
In 1962, Barthelme moved to New York, and the next year he
published his first story, "L'Lapse" in the New Yorker, which would
become his favorite literary venue. He married
twice and divorced twice with one daughter. Critics have noted that
the subjects of marriage, divorce, and the problems of family life and fatherhood are
treated more frequently than any other themes within his stories.
His first collection of short stories, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, was
published in 1962. It was filled with absurd, surrealistic tales that
jump from one topic to another without transitions. Most critics
weren't sure what to make of them; some people said they should be read more
like poems than short stories. In one story, Batman is ashamed of
himself because he doesn't think he's doing a good enough job fighting
crime. In another, "Me and Miss Mandible," the narrator is a
middle-aged man who finds himself in the sixth grade.
"Me and Miss Mandible" begins: "Miss Mandible wants to make love to me but
she hesitates because I am officially a child; I am, according to the
records, according to the grade book on her desk, according to the card
index in the principal's office, eleven years old. There is a
misconception here, one that I haven't quite managed to get cleared up yet.
I am in fact thirty-five, I've been in the Army, I am six feet one, I have
hair in the appropriate places, my voice is a baritone, I know very well
what to do with Miss Mandible if she ever makes up her mind. In the
meantime we are studying common fractions."
steadily throughout his life, producing four novels (Snow White,
The Dead Father, Paradise, and The King) and more than a hundred short
stories (originally collected in Come Back, Dr. Caligari;
Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts; City Life; and Sadness,
and later compiled into two "best-of" books, Sixty Stories and
Forty Stories). He also wrote a nonfiction book, Guilty Pleasures, and
a plethora of short essays and interviews on a diverse range of topics
(collected in Not-Knowing: the essays and interviews).
He collaborated with his daughter on a children's book, The Slightly Irregular
Fire Engine, in collage-format, earning him the National Book Award
for Children's Literature in 1972. He was a director of PEN and the
Author's Guild, as well as a member of the American Academy and Institute of
Arts and Letters and a recipient of a National Book Award.
Donald Barthelme, who once said, "Write about what you're
afraid of," died of cancer in July 1989.
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