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Posted August 29, 2001
What Donald Barthelme Achieved
Review of Michael Hudgens¿ Donald Barthleme: Postmodern American Writer By Roger E. Dendinger, Ph.D. Comparing writers to visual artists, William S. Burroughs once said that writing is fifty years behind painting. From a Burroughsian perspective, painters successfully deal with technological change and resulting cultural stresses because they work outside the straightjacket of language. With mere words as the base material of their art, writers face constraints of linear narrative and logical representation unknown to painters. (Tom Wolfe¿s The Painted Word describes the dilemma of abstract and conceptual artists who rely on textual explanation and commentary.) As Michael Hudgens makes clear in Donald Barthleme: Postmodernist American Writer, Barthelme¿s achievement in overcoming the ¿backwardness¿ of writing was won in the aesthetic battleground over the nature of narrative and representation. Hudgens explicates two of Barthelme¿s best known novels, The Dead Father and Snow White, and the short story, ¿Paraguay,¿ a work considered emblematic of literary postmodernism by both sides in this debate - by critics who scorn postmodernism as chaotic or willfully difficult and by those sympathetic to the need for exploring heterogeneous forms of expression. The nature of cultural postmodernism is a significant sub-theme of the study, and here Hudgens makes a valuable contribution to the theoretical standoff between postmodernism and its critics. He identifies elements of Barthelme¿s work that contrast starkly with tenets of high modernist criticism, explicating them in the context of Barthelme¿s stated goals as a writer. In a key chapter, he traces Barthelme¿s development of the technical innovations of Joyce and makes a convincing case for viewing Joyce¿s experimental works as a Rosetta stone for deciphering Barthelme and, by extension, other postmodernists. Rather than diving into the theoretical debate over postmodernism (a profitless undertaking at best), Hudgens uses the outlines of the debate as a frame for explication. He avoids the semantic hairsplitting of language philosophy and the willful obscurantism of much post-structural cultural criticism, focusing instead on the bedrock material of traditional literary scholarship ¿ the artist¿s own words and works. An example of Hudgens¿ method is his reference to Barthelme¿s interest in architectural theory, where the debate between modernists and postmodernists has produced manifestos on both sides. Barthleme¿s interest in architecture was both personal - his father was an architect ¿ and philosophical. He found a corollary to his own linguistic pioneering in the contemporary theoretical struggle within architecture, a struggle pitting practitioners of established formal approaches against innovators seeking new expressive possibilities. Much as ¿po-mo architects¿ seek alternatives to the inherited language of 20th century architecture, Barthelme sought new ways of expressing his own brand of literary realism. As in other manifestations of post-modernism, the defining feature of postmodern architecture is, in the words of Fredrick Jameson, the ¿effacement of the frontier between high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture.¿ High modernism in architecture is associated with Utopianism, elitistism, and authoritarianism and is credited with destroying the urban fabric of traditional neighborhoods by transplanting Utopian structures and plans into the context of pre-modern cities. Le Corbusier¿s statement that ¿architecture has for its first duty¿bringing about a revision of values¿ may be seen as the ultimate expression of high modernist values in the realms of architecture and city planning. This magisterial view is countered by one of Bartheleme¿s artistic touchstones, the architect and critic, Robert Venturi, whose postmodernism presents itself as a brand of architectural populism. Venturi¿s LearnWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 23, 2001
Donald Barthelme's place in the cultural phenomenon known as Postmodernism
By John J. Dunn, Ph.D. Dr. Michael Hudgens has written a scholarly and provocative book on Donald Barthelme and his position in the cultural phenomenon called Postmodernism. He has succeeded very well in analyzing Barthelme¿s often difficult fiction and relating it to other significant examples of Postmodernism in literature and art. For example, his analysis of the innovative story ¿On Angels¿ is unusually perceptive. It reveals how Barthelme tries to come to terms with traditional theology in an age which often questions the existence of God. Obviously, Barthelme has been strongly influenced by his Catholic background, particularly Thomism (the five ¿proofs¿ for the existence of God, etc.). Hudgens comments cogently on both the wit and the experimental technique of this startling story. Calling The Dead Father Barthelme¿s best novel, he provides a detailed exegesis of this brilliant, complex work¿a haunting fictional examination of the ambiguities which drive family relationships. In this chapter, Hudgens authenticates the accuracy of the author¿s assertion that he sought ¿a meditation upon external reality¿ in his fiction. Besides providing clear and explicit analyses of Barthelme¿s novels and short stories, Hudgens traces the similarities between this fiction and other works associated with Modernism and Postmodernism. He reveals, for instance, a deep understanding of James Joyce and his many-faceted contributions to Twentieth Century literature. His tudy of ¿The Dead¿ constitutes perhaps the most powerful and insightful segment of his book. He is also obviously a member of that distinguished minority of literary scholars who actually understand Finnegans Wake. . . . Hudgens expertly refutes many of the broader criticisms of Postmodernism contained in John Gardner¿s On Moral Fiction (1978). He is fair-minded and judicious in his response to this controversial work, but he makes a convincing case that Gardner grossly underestimates the seriousness and substantiality of much Postmodernist literature and art. Aside from its honest and meticulous scholarship, Donald Barthelme: Postmodernist American Writer is unusually readable for a scholarly tom of this sort. Quotations are carefully selected and are integrated smoothly into the text. Hudgens¿ style is lucid, often even elegant and witty. He manages to avoid the tortured syntax and overly cerebral vocabulary of many learned works of criticism. Furthermore, he is never afraid to use humor or irony when a lighter note is appropriate. Donald Barthelme: Postmodernism American Writer is a major critical study of an increasingly respected fiction writer. It will be a valued addition to the growing body of scholarship surrounding Barthelme¿s writing and its position in the Postmodernist movement.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.