From student to stage: Writer Donald Barthelme’s impact on UH, literature
Donald Barthelme may have died in 1989 from throat cancer at the age of 58, but he remains a presence in the halls of the English Department at the University of Houston.
Barthelme, a student in the ’50s who never graduated but still taught in the ’80s to eventually become one of the most distinguished persons ever associated with the University, continues to have impact on the campus and the literary world — even this month, as a local theater company performs his play, “Snow White,” for the first time ever on stage.
“He was a bit of a renaissance man — a kind of dynamo,” said Robert Cremins, a creative writing and honors professor. “He was a very intellectually curious student, was an accomplished journalist from an early age, he directed an important museum here, he knew a lot of things about a lot of things. He could do everything from play the drums to page layouts. He was very nuts and bolts.”
A non-stop writer
For Oregon State University professor Tracy Daugherty, Barthelme is more than a name on a book. He had heard of Barthelme when he entered doctoral studies in creative writing at UH, but he could not make sense of Barthelme’s fiction writing. Soon after meeting Barthelme, whom he remembers as gentle and down-to-earth, Daugherty’s apprehension disappeared.
“I saw, right away, I’d better pay attention to what he was doing,” Daugherty said. “He was not the devil in human form trying to subvert American fiction — he was a very serious dude hoping to refresh our national literature.”
In 2009, Daugherty wrote “Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme” to chronicle to life of the man who never graduated but gained enormous fame as a writer. According to the biography, Barthelme became the amusements editor of The Daily Cougar in his writing foray, crafting reviews for film, television and theatre. He also wrote for the Houston Post.
While the University’s writing faculty dissatisfied Barthelme, these two publications gave him an outlet to work on his craft. Notably, he wrote drama pieces as news and covered books, music and theatre productions under the pseudonym Bardley — “a play on the Bard of Avon, Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, and his own name,” Daugherty wrote.
Additionally, Barthelme dabbled in collage and served as director of the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum. This appreciation and love for the arts grew from living in a neo-modernist house built by his father Donald Barthelme Sr., the famed architect who taught at both UH and Rice University.
But by far his greatest contribution as a student was founding Forum magazine. While the University and Houston had no literary journal, Barthelme created one to discover new voices and legitimize Houston as a place for writers.
The magazine contained fiction, nonfiction and philosophical essays. Over a series of phone calls, he notoriously acquired a piece from French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre that crippled the University’s phone budget. Daugherty wrote that “when Don’s boss, Farris Block, saw the phone bill, he exploded. The magazine did not have the budget to cover such expenses. Don replied, ‘I’ll pay for it.’”
A different path
As a student, Barthelme was too involved to be a great academic, but he had pride for his school. He wanted to create more opportunities at UH than those available. The only consequence: He failed to earn a diploma.
Philosophy professor Maurice Natanson changed Barthelme’s life. He introduced Barthelme to people like Sartre and expanded his knowledge of Samuel Beckett. Natanson, his first faculty mentor, made Barthelme want to learn as much as he could, which is why he didn’t immediately drop out.
“Don used to say, ‘I was too busy to graduate.’” Daugherty said. “Which is to say: He was an extremely serious and diligent student, and never stopped being one, all his life.”
By the ’60s, Barthelme had written for two publications, founded a magazine and directed an arts museum. Later that decade, the New Yorker published the first of his many submissions. To further his career, he did what many writers do: He moved to New York.
Making history at home
In his time away from the University, Barthelme became one of the most respected writers of his generation. More than 100 of his stories were published in The New Yorker — an unheard-of amount. He was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and won the National Book Award.
But despite his accomplishment’s Barthelme jumped at the opportunity to come back to Houston.
John McNamara and Cynthia McDonald founded the University’s Creative Writing Program in 1979 and convinced Barthelme to join the faculty in 1981. The two saw this as a way of putting the English Department on the map in the southern belt. McNamara said it was very similar to receiving a Nobel Prize–winner in physics.
Barthelme took on the mentor role, guiding students on their careers and giving as much help as possible to their success. With Phillip Lopate, he founded Gulf Coast magazine, an outlet for students to get published and the successor to Forum after it collapsed in the ’70s.
“That’s something I know he was massively passionate about,” said Katharine Barthelme, his daughter. “Giving (the students) as much opportunity and finding them as much money as he could. That was something that, coming to UH, I think he found inspiration in being around the students and really loving teaching. Having a degree is not any caliber or judge of intelligence — or clearly of accomplishment.”
A serious teacher who looked for the best in his students, Barthelme gave a tremendous amount of time and energy into helping students publish works he felt were really good, McNamara said. McNamara said Barthelme even called students in the middle of the night to comments on their stories.
This love for his students was something Daugherty knew personally. In Barthelme’s novel “Paradise,” he makes reference to both Corvallis and Gainesville. These were the places that Daugherty and Padget Powell, another student of Barthelme and Daugherty’s classmate, went to teach and, in Daugherty’s case, start an MFA program. In their own words they were making branch campuses of the UH community, nurturing places for writers to grow.
“It’s the idea of tradition — being part of something much larger than yourself,” Daugherty said. “With me, (Barthelme) was always the soul of patience, always gentle, always engaged. A tremendous teacher and line editor. He was my stern, funny friend. I loved him.”
In honor of what would be Barthelme’s 86th birthday, Catastrophic Theatre opened the world premiere of Barthelme’s “Snow White.” Originally a novel, Barthelme had started adapting his satirical twist on the classical tale for the stage but never finished it. But Greg Dean’s company has aimed to put on a performance that brings Barthelme’s whit and intellect to a new medium.
“Nearly everything that is written sounds good in a human voice and not just in a reader’s mind,” said Greg Dean, director of the production. “So (in) making it three-dimensional, I was convinced I could make a play out of this difficult material and that it would work and be funny and that I could share (Barthelme’s) work in a medium that I would be comfortable working in.”
Professor Cremins praises Barthelme in his creative writing courses every chance he gets. He did not learn of Barthelme until after he died, when a colleague of his at a teaching job in Madrid gave him some of Barthelme’s books.
The intellect and humor of Barthelme’s books intrigued and entertained him. When he came to Houston in 1993, his curiosity grew as he learned about Barthelme’s connections to the city and the University.
In the playbill for “Snow White,” Cremins has a three-page story called Barthelme’s Triangle. In that, he details how Barthelme first discovered Beckett at a theater in Montrose. Cremins wrote that it gave him the confidence to write the way he wanted to write. The first-ever production of “Snow White” by Catastrophic Theatre is a way of transforming Barthelme into Houston’s Beckett.
People will walk into the theater and see an intelligent and hilarious twist on a tale they all know. It is the ultimate way of remembering Barthelme — by carrying on the tradition and inspiring new audiences with something unique and never before seen.
In collaboration with the play, Julie Grob, a Special Collections librarian, helped to curate “Barthelme’s Snow White Between the Covers,” an exhibit on the first floor of the M.D. Anderson Library displaying all the different materials owns of the source material. This is something students will see every time they go into the library, and spread the word of the production currently performing at 3400 Main Street.
“Snow White was originally born as a written piece, a novel,” Grob said. “I think the exhibit can give viewers an understanding of how it was developed for the page and give them an opportunity to see the original book and various different editions and translations.”
A lasting legacy
Twenty-eight years after his death, professors teaching creative writing courses still instruct their students to read Barthelme’s work. As an unwritten law, the professors find a humor and intelligence in his writings that they see as helping them in their short stories.
Creative Writing Director Alex Parsons said that in the past, he has seen many failed attempts at minimalist short stories that difficult to read for the sake of being difficult and seeming intellectual. When he read Barthelme, he realized that the students were missing this sense of purpose.
McNamara, who retired in Fall 2016, knew first-hand the importance of inspiring students the way Barthleme could, and he kept this in mind when he taught Introduction to Literary Studies. Rather than focusing on the works of Shakespeare or other Renaissance writers, McNamara selected writings from former members of the UH Creative Writing Program. Of course, one of them was Barthelme.
“It brought home to the students in a very intimate way — the fact that some very well-published and very fine writers had studied and had worked on their writing and had gone on to have careers as writers or (academics),” McNamara said.
Barthelme is in a long line of famous UH alumni and professors: playwright Edward Albee, sportscaster Jim Nantz, actor Dennis Quaid, senator Elizabeth Warren, and many more. Barthelme may not have been as famous as these individuals, but he was one of earliest students to come out of Houston and make a mark in his desired field. Today, the English department has continued hiring professional writers by bringing in author Robert Boswell and poet Tony Hoagland.
“I think he imbued it with a sense of humor and egalitarianism — an intellectual mission and a sense of the open border,” Parsons said. “Come here, and we can talk about painting, we can talk about poetry, we can talk about fiction, we can talk about collage, we can talk about literary theory, we can talk about memoir, all these things. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is this conversation and the tone of it, which is ultimately constructive and inclusive.”