Donald Barthelme; Author Known as an Innovator
Donald Barthelme, whose minimalist style in short stories and novels made him one of the leading innovators in modern fiction, died Sunday of cancer at the University of Texas’ M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He was 58 and had homes in New York City and Houston.
Barthelme was probably best-known for his wry humor and innovative techniques in short stories, many of which were published in the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly and the Paris Review.
He had recently completed a novel, “The King,” which brings the legendary Arthur and his knights of the Round Table to England during World War II. It has already been called part of the “wacky and wonderful” Barthelme genre by his publisher, Harper & Row.
A former newspaperman, Barthelme wrote 15 books, including several novels and collections of short stories. His awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1967, a National Book Award in 1972 and the Rea Award for the Short Story in 1988. He was a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Authors League of America, the Authors Guild and PEN.
The New Yorker devoted almost an entire issue to Barthelme’s first novel, “Snow White,” in 1967. The parody of the Grimm brothers fairy tale with erotic overtones (Snow White shares living quarters with the seven dwarfs) made him famous nationally.
Barthelme once likened his style to that of collage. “The principle of collage is the central principle of all art in the 20th Century,” he said.
He said writing was a “process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how. We have all heard novelists testify to the fact that beginning a new book, they are utterly baffled as to how to proceed, what should be written and how it might be written, even though they’ve done a dozen.
“At best there is a slender intuition, not much greater than an itch. The more serious the artist, the more problems he takes into account, the more considerations limit his possible initiatives.”
Among his works are the children’s book, “The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine,” which he also illustrated and which won the National Book Award; the novels “Unspeakable Practices” and “The Dead Father,” and a collection of stories, “Come Back Dr. Caligari.”
“His short stories were witty, funny and in an odd way deeply emotional,” said Edward Hirsch, a poet and professor at the University of Houston, where Barthelme was Cullen Professor of English. “He was one of the few writers who make one proud to be an American and part of this culture.”
Barthelme had undergone successful surgery for throat cancer 17 months ago. But he became ill with a form of blood cancer while living in Rome this summer and was admitted to the cancer center three weeks ago, the Houston Chronicle reported.
Born in Philadelphia, he grew up in Houston and attended the University of Houston, but never obtained his degree. He served in Korea and Japan with the U.S. Army in 1953-54. He began work at the Houston Post in February, 1955, as an entertainment reporter and critic.
He later directed the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston and then moved to New York in 1962. In 1974-75, he served as a distinguished visiting professor of English at City College of the City University of New York.
He returned to Houston in the early 1980s to teach.
He is survived by his wife, two daughters, his parents, three brothers and a sister.