Biographer Tracy Daugherty Looks Anew at Donald Barthelme
During the breathtaking, earth-shattering late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Donald Barthelme spoke to my generation as if sharing our secret inner language. Breaking the boundaries of traditional narrative, with stories that displayed the surrealistic logic of an acid trip, loaded with hip cultural references, Barthelme was like the Bob Dylan of the printed page. He tore down and re-configured beloved cultural myths, such as Snow White. His novel about her gave us a new, grownup view of the female figure we’d loved as childhood, as the star of the Disney cartoon.
Of course, Barthelme was a serious writer, like another favorite Kurt Vonnegut using humor and deceptively simple language to look through a new mirror at war and the sacrifice of the young, love and sex, the lies of the state and cultural schlock. Others in our galaxy of writing were Richard Brautigan, John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. Later, we’d love the openness of Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint.”
I’d sort of drifted away from Barteleme, having a sense of his work weakening in later years. I was vaguely aware of his death in the 1980s, when I’d joined the working world with a job and a family.
Tracy Daugherty (left), in his “Hiding Man,” a biography of Barthelme (St. Martin's Press), restores the writer’s place in American culture. He shows why Bartheleme’s work was important to us then, and why it should be important to us and our children and grandchildren today.
Daughtery, a student of Barthelme’s at the
University of Houston, looks fondly at Barthelme, but doesn't shy away from his weaknesses. He speaks to a large number of people who knew, and loved, Bartheleme at different stages of his life.
I knew that Barthelme had lived in Houston at the end of his life, but I didn’t know that he had been born there and lived there during his formative years. One thing I love about the book is its portrait of Houston, which, along with New Orleans, gave me a large part of my urban education when I was a young man. Another part of Barthelme unveiled in the book is how his paths crossed with many of the writers of the era, and how he gave them support and fellowship, from Walker Percy and Kirpatrick Sale to Pynchon and Grace Paley. Percy and Paley were also two favorites.
A distinguished novelist and the head of the writing program at Oregon State University, Daugherty generously agreed to participate in this Southern Bookman interview. He joins an outstanding lineup, including Tim Suermondt, Rosanna Warren, Kelly Cherry and Beth Ann Fennelly. (See Below).
As you detail in “Hiding Man,” Donald Barthelme was one of the major cultural icons of the mid to late ’60s, as celebrated as the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Timothy Leary. Yet you show that in many ways, he was a man of the ‘50s, with his love of jazz and modernist furniture and abstract art. And, his work mainly appeared in the New Yorker, a bastion of mainstream, middle-class culture (I was amused at your accounts of puzzled readers protesting to the magazine when his early stories appeared). What quality in his work made him appeal so strongly to the generation that came of age in the ‘60s?
A number of social forces began to converge following the Second World War. When mixed, they became combustible, and the resulting explosion is what we now think of as "the sixties." Don's work contained, reflected, and played with them all. World War II spawned several writers whose work came to be characterized, by some, as "black humor" -- Salinger, Heller, Mailer, to name just a few. This dark laughter -- coping with trauma through jokes -- appeared not only in the "high art" of serious novels, but in the "low art" of pop culture: stand-up comedy routines (Lenny Bruce, Nichols and May), comic books, and early TV shows. The blurring of "high" and "low" styles also characterized the art of the fifties and sixties. Don lived and breathed all this. He worked for a while as a movie and entertainment reviewer for a Houston newspaper, so he absorbed a lot of pop culture. At the same time, he was studying existentialist philosophy in college, and of course he was a serious reader of literature. So perhaps it's no surprise that he forged a literary style that combined high seriousness with camp, irony with parody and satire, and that many of his early stories lampoon TV, movies, comic books, and specialized jargon of all stripes. This roiling stew captured the increasingly anarchic, and often playful, spirit of the American 1960s.
2. As well as your complex portrait of Barthelme, you also vividly capture the broader historical and cultural scene in which he operated. The Greenwich Village of the ‘60s, postwar Houston and its cultural emergence in the 1980s, the political and social undercurrents of PEN and the University of Houston writing program are all fully and compellingly explored. Did your background as a novelist help you to create such a broad portrait?
Perhaps so, although I have been unable, up to now, to present, in my novels the kind of broad sweep I think I was finally able to achieve in "HIDING MAN." So maybe it's the other way around: the demands of biography may have shown me how to open up my fiction in the future. I hope so. The driving force behind "HIDING MAN" was my need to understand where Don's unique literary sensibility came from -- to tease apart that convergence of social forces we just discussed. Don was my way in to all of this. As the receiver, the absorber, of these cultural forces, he could be like a character in a novel entering a strange new land. In this case, that strange new land was America at mid-century.
3. Barthelme was such a widely talented person, as you show. Not only a groundbreaking writer, he also excelled as a museum director, an academic administrator, a magazine designer, an editor, a booster of careers, and a music, movie and art expert, not to mention literary scholar. Did his broad interests end up hurting him as a writer, or did his variety of interests strengthen his work?
Most writers will admit that their strengths are their weaknesses, and vice versa, and part of what you're doing when you shape a literary style is turning your weaknesses to some kind of advantage. Stylistically speaking, Don is not really a narrative writer. This could be considered a weakness: how do you achieve forward momentum in a story if you lack cause and effect? Well, Don made the ABSENCE of cause and effect a hallmark of his style. Crazy juxtapositions, a sort of hilarious collage effect, characterize his fiction and make it unique. Similarly, as your question suggests, his energy and attention were pulled in many different directions, and this could conceivably lead to a lack of focus in the writing. On the other hand, his varied interests offered him a huge range of fascinating subject matter. So that was the challenge for him: turning, we might say, attention deficit disorder into erudition and flexibility. The challenge, outside the work, was not to get so distracted by his other interests that he had little time left over to write. In his final years, he was extraordinarily generous with his time -- to students, to colleagues at the University of Houston -- and I can't help but think that more might have gotten written if he had been a tad more selfish.
4. How do you think Bartheleme’s novels, stories and essays will continue to speak to new generations? Have you perceived a renewed interest in his work as the result of your book?
Before "HIDING MAN" appeared, there were stirrings of renewed interest in Don's work. Books of his that had been out of print were being republished, and young writers such as Dave Eggers and George Saunders were writing appreciations of him. Its probably too easy to say that our current era, with its war traumas reminiscent of Vietnam (a subject behind some of Don's work of the sixties) and its Kafka-like global conspiracies make Don's themes and preoccupations, and his spirit of satire, seem more current than ever, but I think there's something to that. Our changing ways of processing information, with the worldwide web and so on, fit his jazz-quick, free-associational style. His best stories have not dated and still have much to say to us. And they are historically valuable, in the way that literature can be. To my mind, they present the best literary portrait available of middle-class urban life in mid-twentieth century America, which is reason enough to return to them.
5. What about your projects for the future? Do you plan to return to fiction, or do you foresee any more biographies?
Happily, both. I will publish a new short story collection next spring with the longtime publisher of my fiction, SMU Press. And I've just completed a new novel. I've also begun research and interviews for a biography of Joseph Heller, a project suggested to me by my editor at St. Martin's Press.