| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Born in Philadelphia but raised in Houston, Texas,
Barthelme began writing stories and poems in high school and continued writing
(journalism as well as fiction and poetry) at the University of Houston. After
Army service in Japan and Korea, he returned to the university and worked as a
reporter locally. He then became director of Houston’s Contemporary Arts
1962 he moved to New York and soon found his own voice and style. He became a
regular contributor to the New Yorker, and began to find in his fiction the
innovation that was occurring in film and graphic art. He was influenced by the
French Symbolists, and worked frequently with myth and spatial techniques (perhaps
because of the visionary influence of his father, an architect). His vision was
comic, surreal, macabre; and his play with language—giving the reader the
unexpected, the grotesque, and above all the fragmented—marked him as a
postmodernist even before that classification existed.
a montage style reminiscent of that of Dos Passos, Barthelme drew phrases and
lines from advertising, songs, and stereotyped phrases of the times; and
created from those borrowings new structures and new perspectives. His first
novel, Snow White, retold the classic fairytale, but with wit and acerbity that
surprised readers of the 1960s. Structural experimentation in The Dead Fathers
made that novel another treasure house of narrative technique, and brought a
patina of fashion to a more serious theme. But even more than a montage of
materials, “At the End of the Mechanical Age” represents a parody of fictional
traditions and the various structures of storytelling they employ. By
juxtaposing such structures, Barthelme exposes—to both scrutiny and
laughter—the historical consciousness of the modern age. When biblical or
creation myths jostle with “true romance” materials, then the modernist belief
that we stand at the end of a long historical process, and thereby derive a certain
cultural and social advantage, is given the lie. At the same time the themes of
divorce, repression, and secular self-doubt enter the mix, as they do in the
tradition of nineteenth-century realist novels, but in a telegraphed way that
some critics see as one of the hallmarks of Barthelme’s style. He not only
parodies his characters and their concerns, he also mocks the very
possibilities and burdens of storytelling itself. Because he calls into
question the mechanics of this central cultural activity, and by extension the
ability of language to represent reality, he is often credited with influencing
many aspects of postmodernism.
Queens College, College University of New York
In the Heath Anthology
At the End of the Mechanical Age
Come Back, Dr. Caligari (stories)
Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (stories)
City Life (stories)
The Dead Father
Great Days (stories)
There are no Cultural Objects for this author.
Would you like to add a Cultural Object?
There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.
The complete text of Barthelme's story.
Donald Barthelme Reader
An excellent portal to Barthelme on the web.
Comprehensive site offering several stories, and links to many others available elsewhere on the web.
The Modern World: The Scriptorium
A biographical and literary introduction to Barthelme.