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  • By Barthelme Beguiled
  • John Barth

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Figure 1.

John Barth and Donald Barthelme at the University of Houston in 1982

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How I've missed, for nearly two decades now, the whimsical, beguiling fictive voice of my near-coeval Donald Barthelme (1931-1989), silenced prematurely by cancer at age 58. Reviewers and critics often lumped us together (or gave us our lumps), with sundry others, first as Black Humorists, later as Fabulists, finally and most persistingly as Postmodernists. We ourselves, I believe, were at least as impressed by our muses' differences as by any similarities, but we respected one another's stuff and much enjoyed our occasional path-crossings. Don and I exchanged books and shared reading-platforms here and there a number of times; I was his guest at the University of Houston and he mine at Johns Hopkins, where he chatted memorably with the apprentice fictionists in our Writing Seminars. (His younger brothers Frederick and Steven, writers with distinctive styles of their own, are both alumni of the Hopkins graduate Seminars.) Indeed, both in conversation and in print, I find myself still quoting from time to time some of Don's remarks to the students on that occasion: e.g. (here I go again), that the important question to ask of a piece of fiction isn't whether it's Realist or Irrealist, Innovative or Traditional, Modernist or Postmodernist or whatever; the important question, he declared, is "Does it knock your socks off?" Or his response to the student who asked how she and her seminar-mates might become better writers: "Well, for one thing," offered Donald, "you might try reading all of philosophy, from the pre-Socratics up through last semester." And when the questioner then good-humoredly protested that I had already advised them to read all of literature, from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom up through last semester, "That, [End Page 61] too," Don replied: "You're probably wasting your time on stuff like eating and sleeping. Cease that, and go read everything."

Such a fellow. Such a literary voice (primarily, though by no means exclusively, in the short-story form), enjoyed not only by aficionados of Serious Lit, but by regular readers of The New Yorker, his frequentest venue. And silenced while still at its peak.

Thanks however to the efforts of The Hopkins Review's managing editor Glenn Blake—himself a fine fictionist and former student of both Donald's and mine—two hitherto-unpublished stories turned up recently in Don's literary archives. With the kind permission of Marion Knox Barthelme (Donald's widow, and a native Baltimorean) and his aforementioned brother and literary executor Frederick Barthelme, director of the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, "Among the Beanwoods" and "Heather" see their first print here. Vintage DB, they are: fantastical, sometimes mystifying but always sharply rendered, touching, entertaining. What a treat, to be by that voice and vision once again beguiled!




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