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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Donald Barthelme

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 Museum.

In 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.

With 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.

Charles Molesworth
Queens College, College University of New York

In the Heath Anthology
At the End of the Mechanical Age (1977)

Other Works
Come Back, Dr. Caligari (stories) (1964)
Snow White (1967)
Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (stories) (1968)
City Life (stories) (1970)
Sadness (1972)
Guilty Pleasures (1974)
The Dead Father (1975)
Amateurs (stories) (1976)
Great Days (stories) (1979)
Sixty Stories (1981)
Paradise (1986)
The King (1990)

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The complete text of Barthelme's story.

Donald Barthelme Reader
An excellent portal to Barthelme on the web.

Donald Barthelme
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.

Secondary Sources