Sunday, October 25, 2009

Willie Morris and Donald Barthelme

I just finished reading Willie Morris's North Towards Home and the biography of Donald Barthelme, Hiding Man, by Tracy Daugherty. The two writers, so distinct in what they wrote, also had interesting similarities. Willie Morris was a journalist and editor whose reputation largely lies in his editing of Harper's Magazine from 1967 to 1971, during which time he was one of the editors responsible for what later became known as "new journalism," a personal, literary approach to journalism. Donald Barthelme is generally considered one of the giants of postmodern fiction in the U.S., and wrote frequently for The New Yorker. His genre was the short story (he wrote four novels, but my impression is that they aren't held in the same esteem as his short stories). They were both literary men in New York City during the 60s, but as far as I can tell, had little if any contact with one another.

The two men were born in the early 1930s, and both grew up in the South (Yazoo City, Mississippi, for Morris, Houston for Barthelme). They both distinguished themselves editing innovative publications at their respective universities. Morris was editor of The Daily Texan, where he raised holy hell with his liberal crusading, especially in favor of intellectual freedom on campus. He was brutally clamped down on by the U.T. regents, and his means for fighting back was classic--blank editorials and editorials on transparently trivial subjects like "Let's Water the Pansies" that signaled to the reader that something had been censored. Barthelme edited a short-lived (1956 to 1960) interdisciplinary journal called Forum at the University of Houston. There, too, he fought with the faculty editors who didn't get where he was coming from. Nonetheless, he published amazing things--he was the first person to publish Marshall McLuhan's "The Medium Is the Message" and he published a chapter of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer before the novel was published, among many other pieces by great writers and thinkers of the day. Not surprisingly, the University of Houston had no idea what it had.

Both Morris and Barthelme took their next steps of their careers in the same towns where they'd done their college editing. Morris, after getting a Rhodes scholarship, ended up back in Austin editing The Texas Observer, and Barthelme ended up as the second director of the Contemporary Arts Association (it's amazing to think there was a time when college dropouts like Barthelme and Walter Hopps were allowed to run museums). But eventually both writers, hemmed in or burnt out by the limited opportunities in Austin and Houston respectively, moved to New York, where each really made his reputation.

Barthelme was close to the cutting edge writers of his day. Thomas Pynchon lived downstairs from him, for example. His tenure at The New Yorker was therefore strange (The New Yorker isn't exactly an avant garde literary magazine), but for whatever reason, Roger Angell fell in love with Barthelme's writing, and The New Yorker paid his bills for the next 20 years or so (even if they did reject his most experimental short stories). 

Morris had a strong relationship with a group of Texas journalists who had literary aspirations and the need to get the hell out of Texas--at least for a while. These included Larry L. King (think "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas") and Edwin "Bud" Shrake. For all of these guys, the model--and counter-model--was Billy Lee Brammer, who published a more-or-less forgotten classic novel, The Gay Place, in 1961. He pulled up stakes and lived all over, but never published another book. And he returned home to Austin and lived a marginal existence until he died in 1978 of a drug overdose. All of these guys returned home--Morris eventually back to Mississippi (long after North Toward Home was published in 1967) and Barthelme back to Houston.

Part of the reason was that as these guys got older, they needed some more stability in their lives than being a freelance writer provided. It may be too much to say that they moved home for insurance, but both ended up at universities where such benefits were standard. Morris taught at Old Miss (a place he ridiculed in North Towards Home--and a place his father told him to avoid, advising the teenaged Morris to go to UT instead). Barthelme returned to U.H.

They are both also somewhat forgotten men today. Sure, people know who they are, but their books haven't all remained in print, and as time passes, their memory grows dimmer. Barthelme's story is particularly interesting to me because of his Houston roots--it's weird to think one of the great American writers came from Houston. But would you know Barthelme had been from Houston if you were to take a tour of the city? Is there a plaque on his childhood home, a street named after him, a school named after him, or a giant David Addickes bust of him in some city park? Nope. Barthelme deserves better.

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Blogger Floyd said...

Enjoyed this post. Wasn't aware of "Hiding Man". I guess I should go finish "The Ironist Saved From Drowning" before I go order it.

4:02 AM  
Anonymous Wit said...


Interesting post on Don B. I'm writing part of my thesis on him, so I'm always interested to hear what other people have to say.

The Daugherty book is good! A lot of useful work - and a more valuable testiment than a giant concrete head! You're right, though - Barthelme does deserve better. It's a crime that so much of his work is out of print (I'm not certain, but I think everything is out print except 60 stories, 40 stories, the 2 posthumous collections and perhaps three or four of the novels, though I'm not sure about the novels). Costs a lot of money to get hold of copies of his short story collections now days.

If you're at all interested, I wrote a conference paper on Don B recently, posted at:

It's a bit of a strange line of argument, but I think it accords with a lot of his texts. Unfortunately, because I only had 20mins, I only talk about "The Balloon".

Anyway, all best,

4:22 AM  
Blogger  Robert Boyd said...

Thanks for your comment. I don't claim to be an expert on Barthelme--I haven't read all his stories (60 Stories is on my bookshelf calling to me--along with a hundred or so other unread books). I'm from Houston and have a perhaps perverse desire to see Houston honor its relatively few great artists in permanent and grandiose ways. I'd like to see larger than lifesize statues of Barthelme and Lightnin' Hopkins in prominent places in town. I would be especially amused to see something like that for Barthelme, given his exquisite little clockwork stories.

By the way, artist Gary Panter was in town last year and gave a rambling slideshow/lecture in which he identified barthelme as one of his favorite writers, comparing him to the Abstract Expressionists (!). He thought Barthelme did for stories what they did for paintings...

8:15 AM  

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