In 1948, Donald Barthelme was not quite 17 years old when he and a friend decided to hitchhike from Houston to Mexico City. They had a total of thirty dollars, and since both liked to write, they stopped at a drug store to pick up pencils and notebooks. They left a note for Barthelme’s parents (“We’ve gone to Mexico to make our fortune”) and thumbed a ride with a trucker heading south.
This willingness to take risks was to mark Barthelme’s career as one of America’s most influential twentieth century short story writers. In his new book, Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme (St. Martin’s Press, 2009), Tracy Daugherty describes how culture (music, literature, film, architecture) and personal ambition combined to shape Barthelme’s vision and his experiment with narrative form. Daugherty’s story is as much a portrait of a time — places, ideas, events and personalities — as it is of a writer who struggled and delighted in finding ways to poke fun at and to comment on his world.
As he pushed the boundaries of fiction writing, Barthelme published over 100 stories in literary journals and magazines (especially The New Yorker) a dozen books, including three novels, and a children’s book that won the National Book Award. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he received the Rea Award in short story.
“Arguably, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was the most imitated short story writer in America,” Daugherty told an OSU audience at a book reading in March. “Some critics compared his impact on the short story to that of Hemmingway’s in the earlier part of the century.”
Daugherty is a Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at Oregon State University. To his task, he brings both analytical insight and personal relationship. He was Barthelme’s graduate student at the University of Houston and opens the story with an experience that contains echoes of Barthelme’s own development as a writer in the same city. Houston’s boomtown culture, its neighborhoods and bayous are both backdrop and shaper of Barthelme’s art, but his desire to find new voices, to react to the images and cultural upheavals of those Cold War years, drove him to work in New York and Europe.
Barthelme’s “stories were surreal and often abstract and hilariously funny in a slapstick black humor sort of way,” said Daugherty. “And they seemed to capture the anarchic spirit of the time. Readers tended to look forward to those stories as they appeared so frequently in The New Yorker as dispatches from the front lines of the wildness on the streets of the country.”
Since his death in 1989, Barthelme’s work has largely disappeared from bookshelves and literary analyses, one consequence of a preference for “straightforward narrative storytelling” and of “officialdom’s widespread desire to bury the troubled 1960s,” writes Daugherty. It is time to reconsider him, he says, to acknowledge that dominant culture carries the seeds of opposition, of alternative ways of seeing the world.
Hiding Man is Daugherty’s ninth book. He is the author of three collections of short stories and a book of personal essays. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation and won the Oregon Book Award three times.