May 20, 2013

Barthelme the Scrivener

Tracy Daugherty's biography of Donald Barthelme, Hiding Man, tells almost everything one would want to know about Donald Barthelme. It's well-written, by a fiction writer who was a student of Barthelme's, sympathetic, and surprisingly balanced. The story it tells, in this reader's view, is an outrage and points to something disastrously wrong in American publishing, aside from the business itself. “A writer becomes a writer by ‘selecting a father’”
(p. 65). This gives a glimpse of Barthelme's generous attitude about influence, but it conceals the other side. The tone is the same as in his story "How I Write my Songs," which is a short, covert lesson in how Barthelme wrote his stories.
Because he's a fiction writer himself, Daugherty gives us cases. The difference between modernism and postmodernism is shown in an example rather than explained in a theory. “Dostoevsky’s [underground] man says, ‘I know nothing about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me.’ Don wrote ‘I could describe [brain damage] better if I were not afflicted with it . . .’"
(p. 73) Daugherty remarks, “This is not precisely making reference to another writer’s work, but folding one’s experience, emotion, and playfulness into a preexisting form, a necessary skill for smuggling private jokes into the paper.” The trouble is, Barthelme was brain-damaged.

“He also studied with Marshall McLuhan, who told him to read Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading and to write like T. S. Eliot. He began crafting short pieces full of literary references, the kind of stuff ‘one needed a decoder ring to read and understand,’ Goeters says.” (p. 79) What was interesting when Barthelme’s stories began to be published was their modernist method of imbedded allusion, allusiveness applied to pop culture instead of previous great writers’ works. So in Eliot, we find Dante and Baudelaire embedded, but in Barthelme it was Batman and Robin.

“Bazin argued that the discovery of perspective in painting side-tracked it into a misguided effort to represent the world. Photography and film . . . had now freed painting to return to its proper concerns: shape, color, texture, the flatness of the canvas.” (p. 83) While it is true that at the time painters looked forward to “a thousand years” of abstract painting, it’s also true that abstract painting lasted only from about 1945 to 1965—a very short reign, after which it was at a dead end. Barthelme, laudably, admired de Kooning and the other abstract expressionists at a time when hardly any writers had a clue. The thinking of the first postwar generation of American painters was sophisticated, their work very powerful, and in retrospect it looks so good that it’s hard to think it won’t come around again, but few abstract painters are to be found today, and the imitators of de Kooning and others of that time were often banal and derivative.

However, many writers, aware that painting and music had advanced in ways that writing had not, sought to free writing from its representational function. By the middle of the twentieth century, the idea that an art work could be an object rather than a represetation of an object had become familiar to all; the idea that something made of words, ostensibly to tell a story or to tell us how life was being lived, say, in midcentury Manhattan, stood in the way of creating fiction and even poetry that asserted itself as an object. Barthelme's success at The New Yorker was certainly due to the way some of his stories, with their oddly named characters, somehow did capture city life, so much so that one of his best collections was called City Life.

Another aspect of Barthelme's relation to modernism was more anxious: a sense of failure, or more precisely, or falling short. This anxiety is an inevitable accompaniment of the sense of being a latecomer ("It's all been done") that at best leads to new styles of writing (such as that of Donald's brother Frederick) and at worst leads to creative frustration and silence. “I’m desperately conscious of my own inadequacies. Novel begun as a defense against this, among other things. I just threw the first two chapters of the draft away, by the way, and am trying to concentrate on the refurbishing of the rest.” (p. 108) "A sense of personal worthlessness is the engine that drives the overachiever to his splendid accomplishments, which we all honor and revere,” one of his (nonautobiographical) stories says. (Interviewed for the Paris Review he denied even having a biography. But as Walter Abish put it, “I want it all out. Donald was about concealment” (p. 383). The clowning, the absurdism, the irony may have masked something, as the Paris Review interviewer suspected. But it may have been nothing more than self-doubt, a subject not to allow public discussion of. One of the pitfalls of being in awe of your predecessors is a tendency to devalue yourself, and a young writer of Barthelme’s generation might easily have been intimidated by the example of Joyce or Hemingway. It took many years for Joyce to look less difficult; his transformation of narrative prose was radical and difficult to assimilate. Much of Joycean stream-of-consciousness, however, is not really so different from the indirect discourse of Flaubert; the difficulty in Ulysses is not Stephen Daedalus’s or Bloom’s interior discourse as much as it is the still more radical and inimitable narrative strategies of the second half of the novel, which does become progressively more difficult to read--and more profoundly boring--until the final chapter, which, though it is pure internal monologue (Molly’s soliloquy), is not difficult to follow at all.

The greatness of the modernist writers was what was awe-inspiring about them. For Barthelme, more than for many people, the question of how to write after Mallarmé, after Rimbaud, after Joyce, after Beckett—Beckett above all—was a lifelong problem. But it was a problem he welcomed. “Jacques Derrida had insisted that ‘speech’ is the father while “logos” (writing) is the “son.” ‘The son,’ he said, ‘would be destroyed in his very presence without the attendance of the father.’ That is, the act of writing was a sign of filial devotion" (p. 380).
But Derrida may have had in mind the way the writing of a son is marked by the writing of the father, or the speech of a father, which was the law, how the father is a sign incorporated in the writing of the son, and the nature of that relationship, of the self to its inheritance. Barthelme's relationship to his real father was more obviously ambivalent. When Barthelme resolved to move to New York, his father “wished him well. But then, as the meal came to an end, he turned to his son and said, ‘Be prepared for failure.’”(p. 194) Coming from his father, this remark was gratuitous and demeaning, more a threat than a warning, and the comment also introduces a theme that runs through all of Barthelme's work, that of the "overachiever" who, striving to extend his reach, produces better work (better than one might expect, but also better than if ha hadn't tried). And though he had good reason to stay in Houston, Barthelme's delay in making the New York move suggests more anxiety than he was ever willing to admit to. (He preferred to talk of the "pleasure" of influence than to admit to the anxiety.)To sum up then, all the devices of self-concealmment were not primarily literary but primarily self-defense.

Given his interests, he was sure to be happy only in New York. He chose to do his apprenticeship in Houston, where he was well positioned as the editor of a university magazine where he had a remarkably free hand and as a local cultural force. The aim of the magazine, Location, was to “overcome the intellectual isolation of the arts in America, the growing parochialism and professionalist inbreeding that goes hand in hand with their separation from one another and from through in general—and to further their creative inter-communication.” (p. 201) This was a serious goal, and he made good on the promise because of the high quality of his intellect and tastes. Yet when he got to New York it was almost too late. Not only was he in this thirties, but “Don had arrived in New York, and in the midst of the Abstract Expressionist crowd, at a time when Abstract Expressionism was losing its clout in the art world.”
(p. 199) He was initially identified as a kind of Pop Art writer, but his real roots were in modernism.

“He was on his way to becoming the nation’s finest prose stylist, and in the process he would change the shape of the American short story.”

“A gleeful collagist, Don lifted whole paragraphs from [Time magazine], pasted them against James’s remarks about the Waldorf-Astoria . . . and produced a tiny, potent meditation on American culture.” Barthelme, like Thomas Pynchon after him, or Norman Mailer, was style-obsessed and longed to be hip. His hipness was quite similar to that of the college humor magazines of the day; had he been born twenty years later he might have gone to work for Saturday Night Live; born twenty years earlier, he might have written jokes, as Woody Allen did, for television comedians from Sid Caesar to Johnny Carson. But he aspired to literature. As for many New York-obsessed provincials, New York meant The New Yorker and Alfred A. Knopf.

“Don had published two books in two years, one of which, City Life, had received extraordinary attention, but he struggled during this period to please Roger Angell. Angell was at this point the reader whom Don most trusted; he spiraled into a ‘panic’ when Angell went on vacation. but these days . . . Angell rejected more stories than he accepted.”(p. 350)

Barthelme began to write and submit to The New Yorker stories written entirely in dialog, to which Roger Angell responded that it was “serious work” in a “new form,” containing “some long and lovely passages and some short and funny ones that [I] admire extravagantly.” But he rejected the stories as “private and largely abstract” (p. 413). It was the beginning of a "not for us" phase in Barthelme's career at The New Yorker, where once he'd appeared several times a year and was regarded, in a way that now seems almost incredible, as the essential New Yorker writer of his era, the way Salinger had been and the way Ann Beattie would be later. It’s hard to hit the right note about this complicated personal and literary relationship, but it begins to look like a psychoanalysis that has run aground due to layers of countertransference--rivalry. Angell identified with Barthelme; his own collection of humorous pieces, A Day in the Life of Roger Angell, reads like Barthelme stories that stayed inside the fence. Barthelme and Angell were near contemporaries and in fact identified with each other; Angell had discovered Barthelme and advocated for his writing in a way that was somewhat antagonistic to the magazine’s stuffier side, but at the same time he was as pure a product of New Yorker culture as there could be, the son of Katherine Angell, for many years the chief fiction editor, and stepson of E. B. White, who more than anyone else defined the magazine’s style. At the writer-editor interface, Angell embodied The New Yorker, but the man behind the curtain, the real wizard, was William Shawn. Barthelme was trying in his work to get beyond Beckett, and Angell was telling him the magazine wouldn’t buy in. And because he was dependent on Angell for approval and for his living, Barthelme’s development as a writer was hobbled. Most writers probably long for a sympathetic editor (and a line of credit), but what they mostly get is someone who says “We liked your earlier, funnier stuff.” It may take twenty years of psychoanalysis and unusual persistence at digging up funds for someone to get to the point where he is able to make works of art that are fully mature and allow him true creative freedom. Barthelme was insecure and depression-prone, and Angell had been his Angel. To be threatened with losing that kind of support would be a source of tremendous anxiety for anyone.

The dialog stories were Barthelme’s attempt to get beyond what he’d already written, to get beyond Beckett.

So he returned to Houston to teach. Evidently he was successful at teaching, but it was Houston, and after not nearly long enough, he died.


  1. Hi David -- This is Bill Marx over at The Arts Fuse. Could you contact me about doing a review for my online magazine.

  2. Here is my email address: