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Donald Barthelme Biography

(1931–89), Come Back, Dr Caligari, Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, Snow White, City Life, Sadness

American short-story writer and novelist, born in Philadelphia; he was brought up in Texas, and later moved to New York. Variously described as an ‘anti-novelist’ and a ‘poet of order gone’, Barthelme will be remembered for pushing the short story to its furthest experimental limits, and for the poetic and unvarnished beauty of his prose style. He was a member of a generation of writers such as Coover, John Hawkes, Gaddis, Gass, Pynchon, Barth, and Vonnegut, all of them loosely united in their foregrounding of language and form, the vague irrealism of their work, and their preference of pattern over plot and voice over character. Barthelme resisted identification with the minimalist trend but acknowledged the similarity of his work, in its formal aspects, to a distinctive school of twentieth-century writing remarkable above all for its range and diversity. His first experiment in non-linear narrative was the volume of short texts Come Back, Dr Caligari (1964), followed by Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (1968). His reputation was securely established with the short novel Snow White (1967), a contemporary parodic reworking of the Disney film. Other volumes include City Life (1970), Sadness (1972), and Guilty Pleasures (1974). Barthelme's thematic concern was with twentieth-century dislocation in all its aspects; he used a wide variety of textual strategies ranging from satire and parody to collage and an approximation of prose poetry. Critics saw in his later volumes of fiction an increasing mastery of language and a fascination with its limits: these include the novel The Dead Father (1975); Amateurs (1976), a collection of fables; and Great Days (1979), composed almost entirely of dialogue. His stories are collected in Forty Stories (1988) and Sixty Stories (1989). A posthumous novel, The King (1990), a reworking of Arthurian legends, was hailed by Salman Rushdie for its visionary qualities and its relevance in the time of the Gulf War.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Houston A. Baker (Houston Alfred to Sally Beauman Biography