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Barthelme, Donald

(US, 1931–89)

Barthelme was born in Houston, Texas, the son of a modernist architect. He moved to New York City in 1962, where he lived for most of his life, becoming best known for his frequent contributions to The New Yorker magazine. An especially inventive manipulator of forms, Barthelme introduced all sorts of material and subject matter into the short story, and at the same time he wrote in a wide range of styles. He writes in a painfully comic way about the agony of self-awareness, and about social status. The best place to begin is with his first collection of short stories, Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964). A typical story, ‘Me and Miss Mandible’ tells about a precocious schoolboy who develops a crush on his teacher; its devious irony and knowing references also raise the possibility that the protagonist is actually a grown man trapped into reliving his own childhood. Barthelme's other stories all have an element of what is called ‘meta-fiction’, by which the author manipulates the reader's trust and imagination in such a way as to make the normal conventions of story-telling questionable. He has published several collections of short stories over the years; Sixty Stories (1981) is an anthology featuring a range of his work.

Stanley Elkin, John Irving  CM

Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionBooks & Authors: Award-Winning Fiction (A-Bo)