People Writers

Donald Barthelme

Donald Barthelme

Donald Barthelme was an American postmodern novelist and short story writer.  He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on April 7, 1931.  Mama and Papa Barthelme attended the University of Pennsylvania.  They moved to Texas in 1933.  The patriarch was hired to teach architecture at the University of Houston soon after.  Donald’s brothers Frederick and Steven wrote fiction as well.

Barthelme was enrolled at Lamar High School in Houston.  He won a Scholastic Writing Award as a student in 1949.  He was eighteen years old.  The time for college arrived.  He was accepted into the University of Houston and studied journalism.  He published his first articles in the Houston Post in 1951.  The United States Army held a draft.  The writer was selected.

He was sent to the 2nd Infantry Division.  He worked as the editor of an Army newspaper and at the  Eighth Army’s Public Information Office.  The war ended and Donald Barthelme reported back to the Houston Post.  Studies resumed at the University of Houston.  He took classes in philosophy until 1957.  Free time was spent in the depths of the Houston Jazz scene.  The culture influenced his writing.  The novelist never received a degree.

university of houston
University of Houston – Photo Credit: s_saing

First Stories

Four years passed.  Donald worked as the director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.  His first short story was published.  L’Lapse was issued in the New Yorker in 1963.  It was a parody of the film L’Eclisse (1962) by Michelangelo Antonioni.  The magazine continued to print several Barthelme shorts that included Me and Miss Mandible and A Shower of Gold.  His skills sharpened as his output increased.  A collection of stories titled Come Back, Dr. Caligari were circulated in 1964.  The assortment was well received by the critics.

Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts was unveiled in 1968.  The compendium contained several distinguished and polished stories.  The story Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning detailed the difficulty of understanding a public figure.  It appeared less than two months before the President’s assassination in 1968.  The Indian Uprising was another prose heavyweight in the anthology.  The most revered was titled The Balloon.  The plot involved the narrator inflating a giant balloon over the city of Manhattan and covered the aftereffects of its presence.  The translation was later interpreted as Donald Barthelme’s own critique on what it meant to be an artist.

The writer was efficient and prolific.  Over a hundred additional stories followed.  They were published in various formats and groupings.  The final versions were revised and rolled into two books titled Sixty Stories (1981) and Forty Stories (1987).  The minimalistic and adequate naming equaled…one hundred.  Flying to America included an additional forty-five stories.  It was printed posthumously in 2007.  Three novels were released during his career (Snow White (1967), The Dead Father (1975) and Paradise (1986)).  The King (1990) was Barthelme’s fourth and published after his death. 

sixty stories
Sixty Stories cover art – Photo Credit: cdrummbks


Donald was influenced by modern art.  His favorite writers were Samuel Beckett and James Joyce.  John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, William H. Gass, Franz Kafka and Gertrude Stein provided inspiration.  His own work was divisive.  Some interpreted the fiction as senseless postmodernist thought.  Others were awakened by the calculated sentences and friction.  Traditional plot structures were uncommon, but the fragmented detail would build over the pages.  The weight of the words reveals a beautiful verbal collage of literary surrealism.  The interpretation is left to the reader.  The great balloon.

Barthelme was one of the founders of the esteemed Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston.  He was highly accessible and a mentor to numerous students.  The writer often put his pupils before his own work.  Thomas Cobb was a prime example.  The main character of his novel Crazy Heart (1987) was based on Donald.  In 2009 it was adapted into a film starring Jeff Bridges.  Crazy Heart grabbed three nominations at the Academy Awards.  Bridges won an Oscar for Best Actor.

The author was married four times.  Helen Moore Barthelme wrote a biography (Barthelme: The Genesis of a Cool Sound) about her husband in 2001.  She was his second wife.  Birgit was his third.  They had a daughter named Anne together.  His final marriage was to Marion Barthelme.  The couple had a daughter named Katharine.  The two remained married until Donald Barthelme’s death on July 23, 1989 from throat cancer.  The writer was fifty-eight years old.  His immense catalog of fiction continues to circulate amongst readers around the world.

Donald Barthelme
Donald Barthelme – Photo Credit: University of Houston

Donald Barthelme Bibliography

Come Back, Dr. Caligari 1964
Snow White 1967
Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts 1968
Guilty Pleasures 1968
City Life 1970
Sadness 1972
The Dead Father 1975
Amateurs 1976
Great Days 1979
Sixty Stories 1981
Overnight to Many Distant Cities 1983
Paradise 1986
Sam’s Bar 1987
Forty Stories 1987
The King 1990
The Teachings of Don B. 1992
Not-Knowing 1997
Flying to America 2008
Collected Stories 2021

“Write about what you’re afraid of.”

― Donald Barthelme
M.D. Anderson Library
M.D. Anderson Library – Photo Credit: Katie Haugland Bowen

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