Friday, January 13, 2012

The Human Experience: Tradition and Experimentation

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Anti-novelist, Meta-fictionist, or even Minimalist were among the many names given to Donald Barthelme for his writing in fiction. He was among the leading inventive writers of modern-day fiction who used a unique and wonderful writing style to extend the art of fiction. His work contains references to literature, art, film, philosophy, and popular culture. He believes these themes as the capability of language to express emotion and thought. Barthelme’s life events eventually shaped him into the writer he became and influenced him to write in the unique style that he possessed. People and other life experiences including Donald Barthelme Sr., his father, and his interests in contemporary art, his youth/young adult experience, and the various writers and critics that often wrote about his stories are three main influences that built Barthelme’s writing talent and style, which is clearly represented in the two short stories “A Shower of Gold” and “The Phantom of the Opera’s Friend”, which show Barthelme’s main themes of failure, parody, and collage.

Donald Barthelme Sr. was a major influence while Donald Jr. was still in his youth. He earned a Bachelors of Arts degree at the University of Pennsylvania and later he set up his own architectural firm in Texas. Donald Sr. had an interest in all forms of contemporary art and this sparked Barthelme in writing at an early age. Poetry and music were two main parts of his fascinations. Barthelme Jr. received a volume of French poetry from his father, which contributed to the style he used in his short stories. As he read the poetry more and more he wanted to experiment with the different characteristics of speech, tone, and language of writing. Donald Sr. loved to listen to classical music while he was at home. Barthelme Jr. often examined the music’s features while he listened. He paid careful attention to pitch and tone, as well as the rhythms of the songs. Likewise, Barthelme experimented further with pitch, tone, and the rhythms of speech and writing later in his career. In addition to Barthelme’s father being an influence, there were other early adulthood events that formed him into a great writer.

Barthelme started with his writing experience at an early age, having many influences that eventually shaped him into the writer he became. Donald Jr. began writing for his schools, Lamar High School and St. Thomas in Houston. After high school, journalism was still the career Barthelme wanted to start and in result he went to the University of Houston where he worked for the Daily Cougar. Soon after he started to realize his talent and right before he was about to graduate, Barthelme was drafted into the Army. While in the Army he was asked to work for an Army newspaper, and then soon after getting out he became a reporter for the Houston Post. Clearly it is evident that Barthelme had a solid foundation with experience to begin his serious writing career. With all these different jobs and experiences, Barthelme felt that he should pursue his career in writing very seriously.


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Barthelme moved to New York City, which is a significant event that helped more to influence him to use unusual style and writing methods. Harold Rosenberg and Tom Hess taught Barthelme in various aspects of literary technique and style, in addition to standard knowledge in composing literature. Abstract expressionism and the poetics of Koch, Schuyler, and Ashbery were key items that Barthelme learned with Hess and Rosenberg. Even after the death of Barthelme’s mentors in 1978, he continued to apply what he learned into his writing, even changing his style further. Two years after his move to the city, his first sets of short story collections were published. People began to recognize Barthelme’s talent and critics immediately set out to praise and attack his style used in the short stories. Lois Gordon commented in her book Donald Barthelme that

He rejects traditional chronology, plot, character, time, space, grammar, syntax, metaphor, and simile, as well as the traditional distinctions between fact and fiction. What used to organize reality "time, space, and the structure of language" is now often disjointed, and language, and the difficulties in using it, become the very subject of his art. (Moyer. n.p.)


Other writers and critics believed he was a terrific writer and also motivated him to write more. Larry McCaffery commented in contrast to Lois Gordon that

His distrust of the ability of language to communicate any real sense, and of traditional fiction to represent any real reality makes him the perfect man to invent a new type of writing which will wake us up to the nature of our conventional world. (“Donald Barthelme,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook).

Many other writers, especially newspaper journalists helped Barthelme to publish his works and also helped to encourage him in writing. The ‘New Yorker’ was the most common magazine/newspaper where his works appeared. Ten of them along appeared in the New Yorker in 1962 and 1964. Barthelme came to admire many of the writers at the New Yorker simply because of their experience and knowledge. “I admired the New Yorker writers and what they did, especially Wolcott Gibbs and E.B. White,” (“Barthelme, Donald.” Current Biography Yearbook).

Donald Barthelme was encouraged to experiment with the English language and to analyze different life mysteries. The influences he had were one of a kind, since those influences fashioned Barthelme into a one of a kind writer. Critics and journalists wrote about their different viewpoints, some hating his works while others admiring them. Barthelme turned out to be a great writer who extended the art of fiction by giving it a new ‘twist’ in style, by writing with a style that amazed and sometimes confused critics and other people who read his works.

Many of his works show this style of writing, which is broken down into small categories that include parody, failure, and collage. These themes were his main focus in works such as “A Shower of Gold” and “The Phantom of the Opera’s Friend”. Parody, by technical definition, is a “literary or musical work in which the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect,” (Whisnant. Reading Donald Barthelme. [Online] Available). Of course Barthelme had another definition of parody that he used for writing. “A parody, to be completely effective as a parody, must be a complete reversal of attitude, set in the form of the work being parodied,” (Roe. Donald Barthelme A Study Of The Short Fiction). The principle of collage was also another theme that Barthelme had his own thoughts and opinions on. “The principle of collage is the central principle of all art in the twentieth century in all media,” (“Donald Barthelme” Postmodern American Fiction A Northern Anthology). With all these different views, Barthelme was able to create the most distinguished works in modern-day fiction.

In the short story “A Shower of Gold”, one of his most famous works from his first collect, a poor sculptor named Peterson conducts a TV talk show, in which the point is to discover the irrationality of people, who have been “alienated, abandoned, and simply dropped and left here on this crazy planet,” (Astern. Donald Barthelme Unsentenced. n.p.). The producers of the show in the story have determined that it should be a platform for expressing twentieth-century alienation. The sculptor plays along for a while before announcing his beliefs the audience, “In this kind of world…absurd if you will…there are opportunities for beginning again… How can you be alienated without first having been connected?”. The audience does not approve of the sculptor’s beliefs. Thus, starts the downfall or failure of the sculptor. In a way, parody is also reflected in this story as the attitude reflects humor in a way. This sculptor, Peterson, is being laughed at for his beliefs. Barthelme is trying to make fun of the way people in society think sometimes about ‘different’ subjects, therefore adding a small comic effect to the story. Failure is the prominent idea in this story, as the main focus is to show the devastation of Peterson as ‘society’ turns its back on him.

“The Phantom of the Opera’s Friend” is another story that represents parody and collage. The characters in the story have a striking resemblance to Poe’s characters in the real story of Phantom of the Opera. They resemble characters such as the Phantom and Roderick Usher. There is a complete role reversal between the characters, which reflects Barthelme’s definition of parody, a complete reversal. The phantom and the friend in this story pay respects to the Dante, instead of the other way around. So in a sense, he is ‘counter-writing’ the story, meaning that he writes it using countermeasures to change the internal attitude. Alfred Kazin elaborates on this idea in Bright Book of Life .

He operates by countermeasures only, and the system that is his own joy to attack permits him what an authoritarian system always permits its lonely dissenters the sense of their own weakness (“Donald Barthelme,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook).

The style Barthelme portrays depends primarily on our awareness of how language is affected by ordinary life. Life events can change anything and everything either from good to bad, or bad to good. Barthelme reflects this sense of life through his works with his themes that include failure, parody, and collage. These works represent the themes so well because they accurately fulfill Barthelme’s own definitions of his themes and the themes are clearly seen in the works if the reader has an understanding of how he uses aspects of language within the writing.

Donald Barthelme has been an inspiration throughout the history of literature. People remember him for his inventiveness and experimentation with language and speech. Although many critics and writers do not enjoy his unconventional style, they still recognize him for it. Barthelme has without a doubt influenced contemporary fiction and his attempts to do that were driven by many influences during his young adulthood and later adult life. Despite all the attacks of critics and society, Barthelme kept on writing because he was more interested in the human experience of that society rather than making value judgments about it (“Donald Barthelme,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook). Opinions were not as important to him as the importance of learning and gaining experience. His short stories are renowned for their distinctive use of language and themes. Barthelme’s themes are very hard to explain, but he manages to outline them completely within his works. He constantly tested the confines of fiction and often broke those boundaries, which is why Richard Gilman commented in 'The Confusion of Realms'.

One of a handful of American writers who are working to replenish and extend the art of fiction instead of trying to add to the stock of entertainment’s, visions, and human documents that fiction keeps piling up (Moyer. n.p.)


Bibliography

Experiment and Tradition, in The American Short Story

Critical History, edited by Gordon Weaver, Twayne Publishers, pp. 77-110.

Astern, Rachel. Donald Barthelme Unsentenced. [Online] Available

http//english.fsu.edu/~dmelz/Barthelme_review.html

“Barthelme, Donald.” Current Biography Yearbook. Ed. Moritz, Charles.

New York The H.W. Wilson Company. 16-18

“Donald Barthelme,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook.

Ed. Rood, Karen L., Jean W. Ross, and Richard Ziegfeld.

Farmington Hills, Mich. Gale Research Inc.

“Donald Barthelme.” DISCovering Authors. Gale Group, 1. Reproduced in Student

Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich. Gale Group. October, 2001.

http//galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/SRC. April 11, 2000

“Donald Barthelme.” Postmodern American Fiction A Northern Anthology.

Ed. Geyh, Paula, Fred G. Leebron, and Andrew Levy.

New York W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Moyer, Jon. Donald Barthelme

http//ncteamericancollection.org/litmap/barthelme_donald_pa.htm.

Roe, Barbara L. Donald Barthelme A Study Of The Short Fiction.

New York Twayne Publishers.


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