What Would Donald Do?

Our newest blogger, Rice English professor Terrence Doody, reflects on how Donald Barthelme changed Houston's literary culture

By Terrence Doody April 8, 2013

When I was asked to contribute to this blog, I started thinking about Donald Barthelme and the magazine he created in Houston in the very early 1960s. It was named Forum and focused on arts and culture, though Barthelme did not limit it to Houston. He seemed to have no definable audience here at that time, and literally no money to pay the writers. Nonetheless, those he persuaded to contribute included Walker Percy, Leslie Fiedler, Alfred Kazin, Hugh Kenner, William Gass, and even Marshall McLuhan.

Barthelme moved to New York in 1962, and within a year he had an agent and enough stories for his first collection. Then he began to be published in The New Yorker, though his “experimental” stories were nothing like the fiction the magazine had been publishing. At about the same time, it should be said, The New Yorker also began to publish other writers who broke the mold, like Jorge Luis Borges, but none had the range of influence Barthelme did.

The University of Houston inaugurated its Creative Writing program with a multi-day PEN Conference. Barthelme, who was active in PEN, brought New York to Houston in the persons of Richard Howard, Susan Sontag, John Ashbery, Grace Paley, and Richard Gilman. It was a thrilling, unforgettable event, and it began to establish the literary life we have here now. Brazos Bookstore had been in business for some years, and Inprint was soon to follow. Both have brought all-star casts to Houston to read and elevate us. 

A blog like this owes something to Donald Bartheleme, and I have been wondering what he’d be doing here now if he had been born fifty years later than he was, into this Houston. May he’d be blogging himself—in a style much zippier than the one you’re reading at the moment and breaking ground none of us at the moment can see.

Editor's note: As we reported last week, the creative writing program Barthelme helped launch is now shamefully underpaying its graduate student teachers.

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