In the sixties and seventies, transplanted Houstonian Donald Barthelme made a splash in the New York literary world with short stories and novels like Snow White and The Dead Father. With Hiding Man, one of his former students—now a distinguished professor of English and creative writing at Oregon State University—presents the first biography of one of the twentieth century’s most quietly influential writers.
We don’t expect our artists and writers to be especially virtuous. Where did Donald Barthelme land on the scale of saintliness?
Don wrote a story called “The Temptation of St. Anthony” in which the narrator says, “[His] major temptation … was perhaps this: ordinary life.” Don found much of ordinary life tedious, in ways that challenged his courtly Texas temperament. Don married four times. Some will shout, “No saint he!” Others will insist his doggedness indicates a sweet -natured and indomitable optimism. I lean toward the latter view, but that probably says more about me than about Don.
You were a student of Barthelme’s. How did that relationship affect your role as biographer?
I kept thinking, “If Don were here, he’d slap me upside the head.” Not because he wouldn’t want me telling tales on him—he had a healthy respect for biographies—but because, as a teacher, he’d insist I was misplacing my energies, devoting too much time to the wrong subject (him). Don was quite modest, in a quietly confident way. I backed into this project after learning that a proposed book on Don, by a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, had fallen through. I knew I had a lot to say about Don’s writing, and I felt I had some insights into how he turned experience into fiction. Initially, I worried about my ability to be objective, and I fretted about displeasing his family, some of whom I know and like a great deal. Eventually, I overcame these concerns by remembering Don’s respect for work. He once gave me the first volume of Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ because he admired it and thought I could learn from it. I kept in mind that this project was not about me, or the family, or about what anyone else wanted—it was about Don. His achievement had earned serious consideration, and that’s what I tried to give him.
Talk a little about Barthelme’s works in context of their era.
Don’s work began appearing regularly in the New Yorker in the early sixties, and it’s astonishing that such quirky fiction—absurd, abstract, sometimes surreal—was accepted into the mainstream. Don’s off-kilter view of the world was right in step with the times, owing much to the black humor of post—World War II novelists like Heller and Mailer and comedians like Sahl and Bruce, as well as to existential philosophy. His material was risky (and risqué) for a slick, weekly American magazine. Mistakenly, I think, Don got pegged as a member of the sixties counterculture. He was hardly countercultural; he was “cultural” in the strictest sense—that is, in trying to move the culture forward with his art.
Did the countercultural tag affect his work?
I don’t believe so. His first novel, Snow White, explores the situation of a woman living with several men, and some interviewers at the time wondered if Don had experimented with sixties-style communal living. He had to insist that he didn’t. In writing the novel, he was more interested in plumbing the limits of fairy tales and myths than in alternative lifestyles.
Why do you think younger writers are rediscovering him?
Toward the end of his life, Don noted that his generation of writers expected life to be