Photographs of Donald Barthelme, [1953].


Donald Barthelme

Donald Barthelme was born in Philadelphia in 1931 to parents Donald Barthelme Sr. and Helen (Bechtold) Barthelme. In 1932, the family moved to Houston, where Donald Barthelme Sr. developed an architectural practice and taught at the University of Houston and Rice University. Barthelme had four younger siblings: Joan (born 1932), Peter (born 1938), Frederick (born 1943), and Steven (born 1947).

Barthelme enrolled at the University of Houston in 1949, where he took courses in journalism, literature, creative writing, and philosophy. He became a reporter, critic, and editor for the school's newspaper, The Cougar.

In July 1951, he left the University of Houston for a job at the Houston Post, where he reviewed movies, plays, and concerts. From July 1953 to December 1954 he served in Korea, writing for the 2nd Infantry Division's official publication. Following his return to Houston, Barthelme took a public relations job at the University of Houston. There he founded and became editor of the interdisciplinary journal Forum. In 1961, Barthelme became acting director of the Contemporary Arts Museum. The following year he moved to New York City to edit a new journal of art and literature called Location.

In 1961, Barthelme's short story "The Darling Duckling at School" (later renamed "Me and Mrs. Mandible") appeared in the journal Contact. Inspired by Samuel Beckett, Barthelme rejected the constraints of traditional plot, setting, and character development in favor of verbal collages full of absurdity and wit. In 1963, Barthelme published the story "L'lapse" in the New Yorker, quickly becoming a regular contributor.

In 1964 Barthelme released his first collection of stories, Come Back, Dr. Caligari. From that point on, he stayed at the forefront of American literature for three decades. Barthelme published nine more story collections, and 129 stories and "casuals" in the New Yorker. Always innovative, he created "collage stories" that combined images and text, and "dialogue stories" in which two disembodied voices alternate in conversation. He also published three novels -- Snow White, The Dead Father, and Paradise. In 1972 he released a children's book, The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine, winning the National Book Award for Children's Literature.

Barthelme remains best known for Sixty Stories, a 1981 anthology of his finest work from the sixties and seventies. Sixty Stories was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 1982.

Donald Barthelme taught creative writing at City College in New York from 1974-75. In 1979, he was invited to teach in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston. Initially he taught in Houston one semester a year, while continuing to live in New York City. In 1983, Barthelme moved to Houston to become a full-time professor. A beloved teacher, he eventually became director of the Creative Writing Progam, a position he held until his death.

Photograph of Barthelme Family, [approximately 1950].

Donald Barthelme was born on April 7, 1931 into an artistic family headed by architect Donald Barthelme and his wife Helen. He grew up in Houston with his sister Joan and his much younger brothers Peter, Frederick, and Steven. All four boys would become published authors, most notably fiction writer Frederick "Rick" Barthelme.

Donald Barthelme (left) in the Cougar office, Houstonian, 1952.

Donald Barthelme attended the University of Houston as an undergraduate (although he never graduated). In 1951, he became the youngest editor in the history of the school's newspaper, The Cougar. By 1952, he was working as an arts and entertainment reviewer for local newspaper the Houston Post, while still writing columns for the Cougar.

Forum. [Houston, TX]: The University, Summer 1960.

After completing his time in the service, Barthelme returned to the University of Houston both as a student and an employee in the university publications office. He redeveloped an existing publication into Forum, an interdisciplinary magazine which featured authors such as Walker Percy and Marshall McLuhan.

Two Stories from Come Back, Dr. Caligari. Boston: Little, Brown, [1964?]

"Mr. Barthelme's bizarre vision of life may terrify you, confound you, infuriate you, or just plain amuse you, but we guarantee that it will not leave you indifferent."

Prior to the publication of Donald Barthelme's first collection, published Little, Brown and Company sent out an advance copy of two of the stories, along with an introductory letter from Associate Editor (and University of Houston chum) Herman Gollob.

Come Back, Dr. Caligari. Boston: Little, Brown, 1964.

Influenced by Samuel Beckett, Barthelme developed a distinctive style of short story writing which eschewed traditional devices of plot and character in favor of playful language, the juxtaposition of ideas, and humor. Beginning in the 1960s and continuing throughout his career, many of his stories appeared first in the New Yorker magazine. Notable stories from Come Back, Dr. Caligari include "Me and Miss Mandible" and "A Shower of Gold."

The Dead Father. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.

The Dead Father took the subject of sons overshadowed by the expectations of their fathers into the mythological realm. In Barthelme's novel, nineteen men drag the oversized Dead Father through the countryside, accompanied by the son Thomas and his companions.

Sixty Stories. New York: Putnam, 1981.

Published in 1981, Sixty Stories captured the best of Barthelme's stories from the sixties and seventies. It was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 1982, and frequently appeared on syllabi for literature courses.

Overnight to Many Distant Cities. New York: Putnam, 1983.

In this collection from the 1980s, Barthelme incorporated new elements, such as the more traditional story "Visitors" (about a father and daughter), and the italicized fragments which separate each story.

"Postmodernists Dinner," photographed by Jill Krementz, New York, May 17, 1983.

Left to right: unidentified, unidentified, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Robert Coover (turned), unidentified, Kurt Vonnegut, Walter Abish (with patch), William Gaddis (squatting), unidentified, William Gass, unidentified, unidentified

In 1983, Barthelme arranged a "Postmodernists Dinner" for the group of writers who were often lumped together under the "postmodernist" label. The reclusive Thomas Pynchon declined the invitation.

Paradise. New York: Putnam, 1986.

In Barthelme's novel Paradise, a 53-year-old architect who is separated from his wife invites three young lingerie models to live with him in his New York City apartment.

Telegram from Elaine de Kooning, Easthampton, New York, October 28, 1986.

"Paradise is magnificent. I'm overjoyed with my dedication. With gratitude and love,
-- Elaine [de Kooning]"

Barthelme met painter Elaine de Kooning, the wife of abstract painter Willem de Kooning, through his friendships with art critics Harold Rosenberg and Thomas B. Hess.

Sam's Bar. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1987.

Sam's Bar was a collaboration with the graphic designer and illustrator Seymour Chwast. Barthelme's text and Chwast's images capture a group of disparate New Yorkers stopping by a bar for a drink after work.

The King. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

A reimagining of the King Arthur story set during World War II, The King was published after Barthelme's death in 1989. It was illustrated with woodcuts by Barry Moser.

Photograph of Donald Barthelme and Gail Donohue Storey, [1980s].

Gail Donohue Storey received an M.A. from the Creative Writing Program in 1982, and served as the program's Administrative Director from 1982 to 1986.

Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2009.

UH Creative Writing Program alum and former Barthelme student Tracy Daugherty published this thorough and sympathetic biography of the influential writer in 2009.

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