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 “magical” and tried to make it so by writing in highly imaginative styles. He felt the generation following his had lower expectations, and this was reflected in a return to bare-bones realism in fiction. These days, as the economy crashes and opportunities constrict all around us, perhaps we’re longing for magic again.
Was his writing affected by his never-ending moves between Houston and New York?
In the summer of 1984, I flew from Houston to New York to visit him, and I saw a very different Don there than I’d witnessed in Texas. He loved to walk, to be among bustling humanity on the streets, a very hard thing to do in car-centric Houston. On the streets of Manhattan—among various body types, ages, accents, architectural styles, building eras, immigrant artifacts, foods, smells, colors—you know you’re part of a living, breathing collage, and you want to celebrate it! This is the essence of much of Don’s writing. What many critics call his absurdity is merely reportage: portraits of city life. All this aside, with some reservations he loved Houston. He returned there in the eighties. He was in a marriage there that was good for him, and he was raising a young daughter in a place he knew was safer than New York. His late stories reflect these concerns, these contentments and worries, and they are richer for it.
Talk a little about Barthelme’s involvement with the art world.
Just as some architects and certain kinds of painters are drawn to the materials of their craft, Don was drawn to language—not as a tool to represent the world, but as an object in and of itself, a plastic medium, like a sculptor’s lump of clay, or a series of found objects (car bumpers, cardboard boxes, cast-off shoes) to be glued together to make something that never existed before.
Do you have a particular favorite among Barthelme’s works?
The Dead Father, written in midcareer, sums up Don’s early preoccupations—an emphasis on style and recasting old myths—and anticipates what was to come in the later work—sparkling dialogues, a more wistful tone—and therefore remains a signature work. My favorite of the story collections is 1970’s City Life, which shows Don inventing at full pitch, with a stunning variety of subjects and story structures.
Where will scholars rank Donald Barthelme when they re-assess twentieth-century fiction?
It’s a literary period that deserves more serious scrutiny. Often among scholars, as among general readers, there’s an unwarranted bias against short stories—they’re not considered big and important the way novels are. This may work against Don. On the other hand, the short story is frequently seen as a particularly American form, from Hawthorne to Poe to Hemingway to Carver. What worries me is that we have become poorer readers in this culture, and this makes it harder to see a writer like Don clearly, to assess his achievement.
Barthelme’s relationship with his father was famously contentious. Were their disagreements emotional or intellectual or both?
I think the disagreements were emotional because they were intellectual. Karl Killian, who founded Brazos Bookstore, in Houston, says the Barthelme family was like a race of giants, prone to fierce, volcanic talk about art and architecture and music and aesthetics. The elder Barthelme gave Don a level of intellectual stimulation he found almost nowhere else later in life.
If Barthelme had survived the cancer, would there have been a second (or third) act to his career in the nineties?
Most people I’ve spoken to speculate that he probably would not have written anything markedly different that he had already. I’m not so sure. Though Don was unhappy with his 1986 novel, Paradise—he felt it wasn’t imaginative enough—I believe that book, as well as Don’s stories “Bishop” and “Visitors” showed a candor that was new in his work.
How many years did you invest in researching and writing Hiding Man?
The interviewing, researching, and writing took seven years, but this was after reading, teaching, and thinking about Don’s fiction for more than twenty years. I wanted to understand not only him, to the extent I was able, but also the cultural and historical moment that shaped his work, as well as all of us: our sensibilities, our assumptions about the world and the ways we represent it to ourselves and others.
Any future projects on your plate?
I’ve recently completed a new short story collection—pieces set in West Texas and the desert Southwest—and I’ve drafted about two-thirds of a new novel that has me excited. I’ve also got notes for a couple of non-fiction projects. The press is full of dire warnings about the state of publishing, and agents and editors are claiming that fiction doesn’t sell these days. Writers can’t worry about that. If what we do becomes as rarified and useless to the culture at large as making wooden shoes—well, so be it. We’ll make wooden shoes and do it with pride, and the culture will be richer for it.