MY FOUR FAVORITE NEW BOOKS OF 2009, CONT’D
I was keen to read this book since stumbling across an advance excerpt in some journal or other (I forget which now). That piece (Chapter 23, “Location”) struck me as not only an amazing bit of biography (offering a revelatory account of Barthelme’s life in New York in the autumn of 1962, when he worked for Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Hess as the managing editor of the short-lived magazine Location), but also a terrific work of literary criticism. For example, Daugherty reveals that a small passage of the story “A Shower of Gold” (“the typewriter in front of the Olivetti showroom on Fifth Avenue”) has its basis in walks that Barthelme took at the time. Daugherty argues: “What in later years some reviewers and critics would call Don’s ‘absurdity’ was simply alertness and wonder on the streets.” Later on, he demonstrates the extent to which Barthelme’s story “The Viennese Opera Ball” is not only a rewrite of a passage in Henry James’s The American Scene, but also cribs heavily from a Time magazine fashion article: “[Barthelme] saw how the fashion article illustrated James’s theme—how, more than ever, James’s theme was current. Rather than commenting on this, Don produced a collage that demonstrated it.”
This is heady stuff to a Donald Barthelme fanatic—brilliant, even. And to my great delight, the entire book is comprised of meticulous biographical details and related close readings.
For instance, Daugherty seems to know every book that Barthelme ever read, and when he read it. (See, for instance, his accounts of Barthelme’s reading habits during his stint in the Army in Korea.) More importantly, he sees the influences that those authors had:
Like millions of Catholic boys in the 1940s, Don carried a little green book around school: the Baltimore Catechism, a manual of Catholic teaching first published in 1885, which contained hundreds of questions and answers. […]
Q. What is man?
A. Man is a creature comprised of body and soul, and made to the image and likeness of God.
Q. Why do many marriages prove unhappy?
A. Many marriages prove unhappy because they are entered into hastily and without worthy motives.[…] Don could not resist mocking such language, both as a schoolboy and later as a mature writer. The Q & A format would become one of his signature styles, in stories like “The Explanation,” “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel,” “Basil from Her Garden,” and others.
A few pages later, Daugherty notes Frank Sullivan’s own distinctive use of the Q & A format in The New Yorker, in his Mr. Arbuthnot “testimonies”:
Q– Could the atomic age have arrived by any means of any other verb than “usher”?
A– No. “Usher” has the priority.
Q– Mr. Arbuthnot, what will never be the same?
A– The world.
Q– Are you pleased?
A– I don’t know.
Daugherty also sees a great influence in Marcel Raymond’s From Baudelaire to Surrealism (1933, English trans. 1950), a present the author received from his father while in college.
Fortunately, the more that Daugherty reveals Barthelme’s sources and working methods, the more intriguing his subject grows. For one thing, it advances readings of Barthelme and his work beyond the typically vague—and by now predictable—generalizations that he was “a postmodernist.”
Shya Scanlon recently wrote about different ways we might classify authors, mentioning that we can group them according to whom they’re “in conversation with.” One of Daugherty’s more intriguing arguments in Hiding Man is that Barthelme was less a postmodernist (and certainly less a “Black Humorist,” as he was also labeled at the time) than he was a unique amalgamation of mid-1800s Paris Romantic (think Rimbaud, Courbet, Daumier) translated into English by way of American iconoclasts like James Thurber and S.J. Perelman (Barthelme’s devotion to their work going a long way toward explaining his lifelong relationship with The New Yorker). That is to say, late Romantic urban utopians and persnickety American satirists were the authors whom Barthelme was in conversation with—they constituted the tradition that he chose to enter. (Daugherty observes that Barthelme put Rimbaud at the top of a “reading list for young writers,” alongside Beckett, Joyce, and Kafka.)
It’s not my place to judge whether Daugherty’s right, or how his arguments will or won’t alter Donald Barthelme’s legacy (I am not a Barthelme scholar). However, I can speak as a great Donald Barthelme fan—and I was amazed. Since reading Hiding Man I’ve returned to the work of one of my earliest writing heroes with fresh eyes, and found the stories richer and more provocative than at any time since I first encountered them. Would that more literary biographies were so thorough, so passionate, and so revelatory.
Tomorrow: Book #4.