February 19, 2009

Hiding Man: Donald Barthelme

When I read in an interview in Donald Barthelme's Not Knowing (a posthumous collection of essays and interviews) that he had come on Walker Percy in The Journal of Philosophy, I didn't believe it because I couldn't see Barthelme sitting around reading philosophy journals, nor could I see much in common between them. But I was wrong about both. In Tracy Daugherty's new Barthelme biography, Hiding Man, I learned that Barthelme, then editing a magazine called Forum at the University of Houston (he had not yet moved to New York), almost discovered Percy. The philosophical essay that had caught Barthelme's attention was "The Man on the Train." Very likely, Forum was the first periodical to publish Percy's fiction. Although The Moviegoer was already under contract with Alfred A. Knopf, the manuscript had been returned to Percy for a major rewrite, which he apparently was stuck on. He sent Barthelme the novel's second chapter, which Barthelme published as "Carnival in Gentilly." If you had asked me before now, I'd have guessed that all Percy and Barthelme had in common was the Gulf Coast and a taste for good bourbon. But Daugherty says "Both men had been raised as Catholics, both were immersed in Kierkegaard, and both looked to popular culture for signs of the nation's health." They became close friends, although Percy sounds out of place in the transcript of a discussion in Not-Knowing between Barthelme, William Gass, John Barth, and Grace Paley on postmodernist fiction. Yet it would be right to call Percy a postmodernist, in a way, and their friendship provides an interesting angle on Barthelme's stance as a writer.

Barthelme may have been one of American fiction's great innovators--or not. An important thing about him that this biography brings out, almost accidentally, is that Barthelme's main subject was culture. More than most of the prominent fiction writers of his generation (and I find it hard to remember that he was of that generation), he was steeped from childhood in all kinds of modernism. His father was a modernist architect, and Barthelme grew up in a home full of Alvo Aalto and Saarinen furniture. Modern architecture meant the Bauhaus and Mies Van der Rohe. The painting that went with it was abstract. Barthelme was a spectator from Houston--which was then a great distance--of Abstract Expressionism. He was the familiar type of provincial genius who is up on things, and he was up on more than most. The run of Forum he edited made it one of the best general culture magazines in America, because Barthelme knew what was good in so many different fields. His tastes were as advanced as he could make them, living in Houston. At the relatively late age of thirty-one, with a thriving career as a magazine editor and curator of an advanced provincial museum behind him, Barthelme "chucked it all" and left for New York and a job as a founding editor of a new magazine, Location, doomed to be as short-lived as Harvey Kurtzman's Mad Magazine successor, Trump. Whether or not he knew it, he was leaving his second marriage. As Alan Bowness wrote, the first criterion for artistic success is "Relocate." In 1962, for someone who wanted to be a writer, it had to be New York. Even today, when New York is no longer the exclusive center and American writers are dispersed through out the country, rusticating in colleges and Universities.

What Daugherty doesn't say very often, straight out, is that in the beginning of the 1960s the biggest thing that Percy and Barthelme had in common was that they were provincial intellectuals. Reading Not-Knowing a few months ago made me aware for the first time that I came out of a background very similar to Barthelme's, although it was a day or two before I remembered that he was fully a generation older. When I born, he was getting sent to Korea. He was only a little younger than Mailer, Bellow, and the other heroic figures of the postwar literary generation. But in 1960, the world I lived in was almost exactly like the world Barthelme lived in. Culture was produced somewhere else, and you learned about it from magazines or late-night radio jazz shows bounced off the ionosphere. I lived in Tallahassee, Florida, where there were layers. I bought LPs after scouring hungrily the Sam Goody ads on a back page of one of the sections of the Sunday Times and checkmarking every recording I wanted in the Schwann catalogue. I had a slightly older cousin in New York who was a drummer in his own jazz band, and from him I learned about "progressive jazz." He played for me the first Miles Davis record I ever heard. I thought "progressive" just meant "advanced." Mort Sahl was in his heyday, Lenny Bruce, Nichols and May, Beyond the Fringe. Knowing about jazz, art, modern things, ment you were hip. I read the New Yorker cover to cover.I read Art News. I believed I was going to be a painter when I grew up. The main quality of provincial life is that it is second-rate. The provincial wants to "get out of town," as Barthelme's shrink put it.

Barthelme believed that if he wanted to be a writer he had to do it, then, and he had to do it in New York. It turned out that he was leaving his marriage, although neither of them fully realized that at the time. He had a job in New York as managing editor of a new magazine, Location, cofounded with Tom Hess and Harold Rosenbergs, two major New York art critics. I'm sure Barthelme savored the shift, just in terms of the names read as signs, from Forum to Location. In Houston he had created a forum for art and ideas, single-handedly bringing as much of the new to Houston as he could bring in. Houston was a forum, maybe, but it was not a location. New York was where it was at."New York is a collage. The point of collage is that unlike things are stuck together..to make a new reality."

"By bypassing" a subject in writing, "you are able to present it in a much stronger way than if you confronted it directly," Barthelme once said, indicating what he had learned from Kierkegaard. "I mean there are some things that have to be done by backing into them...indirection is a way of presenting the thing that somehow works more strongly." A

It would never have occurred to me to think of Barthelme as having influenced me. This is odd, since most of the few short stories I've published (five, unless I'm forgetting something) could be read as Barthelme imitations. And look at my last post, on Altina Shinasi Miranda. How it happened was by way of influences that were available to inquiring, omnivorous minds in the provinces in the late fifties and early sixties. Revolving racks of Doubleday Anchor books in the drugstore! Kafka, Peirce's Values in a Universe of Chance, The Lonely Crowd, Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition, many of them with book jackets designed by Edward Gorey. Miles, Monk, Mingus. T.S. Eliot.

Barthelme's move to New York was a marvel of bad timing that turned out to be perfect timing. He was a devotee of Abstract Expressionism, employed by two of its most powerful critics, and close friends with Elaine de Kooning, through whom he got to know Willem de Kooning. But the great days of artistic arguments and fistfights at the Cedar Bar were over, in fact, they were "last year:" Daugherty says:"A year earlier, de Kooning and Greenberg has scuffled in a bar called Dillon's, near the Cedar Tavern...'I'm not scare of you. I'm not scared of you,'" de Kooning said as they pulled him off Greenberg. any in the New York art world had decided Abstract Expressionism was passe. In 1962, Pop Art was the new new thing. Warhol had already done his first Marilyn silkscreen painting, and to my surprise he would soon do a portrait of Barthelme. Jasper Johns had painted the flag white. Rauschenberg was a rising star. It was no longer a question, among New York artists, how to overcome the school of Paris. "It's been done," a phrase associated with the critic and then still the ultimate arbiter, Clement Greenberg, was a mantra like "Move on." Barthelme was thoroughly schooled in the idea that what was new was important. Happil for him, what was coming in, pop art, brought the found object and collage into the forefront of advanced artistic techniques. If Barthelme had a central idea, it was that collage was the major art form of the 20th century.

But he had his feet in two worlds, as seemingly all Catholic writers do. In his case, the debt to modernism was so great that he seems to look back to the great writers of the generation before his as much as he is an innovator himself. My argument is that he was more of a modernist than not. Without Kafka and Beckett, in particular, Barthelme would have been entirely different. In interviews and essays Barthelme acknowledges that for him the main problem was how to write after Beckett. Undoubtedly, one of the thunderbolt moments of his provincial life was his discovery of Beckett. Daugherty describes it this way: "One afternoon in August, Don dropped into Guy's newsstand at the corner of Main and Blodgett. The place smelled of newspaper ink, car exhaust, and sweet cigar smoke. Among German and French cinema journals, Don found a copy of Theatre Arts. In it was Waiting for Godot. He stood there and read the whole thing."

This description, which almost seems to have been lifted from a story by Raymond Chandler, hits exactly the note of what I am trying to get at about proincial life. Main and Blodgett, a crossroads in the Nowhere City, which is where all provincials always believe they are living. A newstand, like there used to be, with a thousand papers and magazines from all over the world. The last one of these I know to exist is in downtown Ithaca, NY. The provicial, the Texas D'Artagnan, this superfluous man, this alienated existentialist hipster in the clean white button down shirt, narrow necktie, and Stan Freberg black bop glasses, accidentally picks up a copy of a magazine that contains the whole text of Waiting for Godot. It transfixes him. You hear this again and again. Some artist, talented from childhood at drawing, walks into a museum one day, when he's alrady in the Navy, and wham! Pow! he realizes there is such a thing as art. (Rauschenberg. Another Texan.) I remember realizing one day that people were still making art--until then, I had unthinkingly assumed it was all in the past. Such moments, never doubt it, change a person's life. Barthelme, reading Beckett for the first time, thought, "Man, this is the way to write!" It was the next step from dream-like Kafka, and somehow it enabled Barthelme to hang onto his outdated Robert Benchley/S. J. Perleman side, which got him into The New Yorker. With Beckett, more than any other writer--and this was someone who was currently very much alive and working--a whole lot of Barthelme's interests could be brought together. Existentialism, the improvisatory conversation of jazz, and the longing to be one of the big guys, the modernists.

One can’t fail to notice, in reading Daugherty’s biography, that the world Barthelme lived in was a man’s world. Male friendship, male connections, male pigheadedness were the whole deal. At the time of his move to New York, Barthelme was married to Helen Moore, a self-supporting woman with her own successful Houston advertising business, which Barthelme treated like a line of credit. He was careless with money, and one reads with mounting anxiety the story of the debt he forced her into, borrowing against her own company to support his life-style. One more case of a successful literary career subsidized by a family member, but the debts went against Helen’s grain, and she was generous. She was trying to build a fairly young business, however, and Barthelme comes off as ruthlessly exploitive and unfair to her. Grace Paley has said he was “bossy,” and that this was a flaw. She’s just scratching the surface. The fact is, Barthelme left a good job and more behind in Houston—a career, though not the one he wanted. He had a great opening in New York, an entrée into the literary and art worlds guaranteed by his connection to Tom Hess and Harold Rosenberg, but the job the provided paid under ten thousand a year, and though in 1962 that was good money, it was far from enough to live the way Barthelme lived in New York. Even more dishonorable is the contempt with which he viewed Helen’s work—advertising, which he disdained. Yet it was what he lived off of. Unable to tolerate separation from him, Helen turned the management of her business over to her sister and moved to New York, but Barthelme was living off her like a child. The lesson here for the aspiring artist is not pretty: total, ruthless dedication to a distant goal is the second requirement that Bowness should have mentioned in his book on the conditions for artistic success, but I don’t think he includes it in his analysis. Clearly, if you are going to be a successful artist of any kind, you have to do nothing else, and if someone else is willing and able to provide you with the wherewithal, have no conscience about it. Nowadays, most writers teach in places like Cedar Rapids and it helps to have a trust fund. A full-time job that pays well enough to support a family is almost certain to be too demanding to allow anyone the energy, time, and creative freedom to develop into a serious painter or writer. Barthelme had a terrific job for a writer, editing Location—he had long worked according to a schedule according to which he was free to write for four or five hours in the morning and then spend the afternoon on his paying job. At this point in his career, at thirty-one, he had written about four finished stories, and published only one, “Florence Green is 81,” in his Houston magazine, Forum.

It isn’t to criticize him that I go into this matter. Barthelme was being realistic, after all. At that time, more than now, it was necessary for a writer to go to New York because it was the center of a living literary culture. If he wanted to be a writer, that was what he had to do, and the reality is that any artist does what he has to do, if he can figure out what it is. But in Barthelme’s case it ended a marriage that had been a pretty good one. The price was high, and to the end of his life he was unable to be realistic about the possibility that writers of real ability might be ignored. When he started his writing career, good writing was in demand and in relatively short supply. Today, too much is published, and it’s easy to believe that no good writer goes unnoticed. That may be true—but try to make a living at as a serious novelist. I can think of only two writers of my generation who have done it, Ann Beattie and John Irving. The very talented and skilled Jane Smiley, listing the writers she thinks well of, names some fifteen women (I disremember, but I think she failed to include the two best women writers I know of, Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro), mentioning no men. Men, so it is said, don’t read fiction, but few women write books of interest to men. (I would add one more woman to Smiley’s list, aside from Smiley herself—Alice Mattison, who writes quite well about men as well as women, and like Ann Beattie writes about people I can recognize.)

The days of the boys in the back room are long gone.

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