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Donald Barthelme

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 interactive test:

1. 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 (1971-72)

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."

He worked 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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