Frederick Barthelme is a writer, educator, editor, and artist. He may be best known for his fiction and is critically acclaimed as a master of literary minimalism, a title that causes him discomfort. The American South provides the setting both for his fiction and for much of his professional life as writer and professor at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Barthelme was born 10 October 1943 in Houston to Donald Barthelme, an accomplished modernist architect, and Helen Bechtold Barthelme, a teacher. He is one of seven children from a literary family: two of his brothers, Donald and Steven, are also respected writers. Barthelme attended Tulane University in 1961–62 and the University of Houston from 1962 to 1967, pausing in 1965–66 to study painting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.
While building a painting career, Barthelme worked as an architectural draftsman, an exhibit installer, assistant to the director of the Kornblee Gallery in New York City, and creative director and senior writer at several Houston advertising firms. During this period, several galleries, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, featured his artwork.
Barthelme subsequently decided to switch artistic direction because, as he later stated, he “didn’t want to carry big pieces of lumber through the streets of New York” for the rest of his life. He changed from working with found objects to viewing books as “containers” rather than as literary entertainment, a transition evident in his first two books. He enrolled at Johns Hopkins University and earned a master’s degree from the Writing Seminars in 1977. His short story “The Storyteller” earned the Eliot Coleman Award for prose in 1976–77.
In 1977 he became director of the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, a position he held until 2010. During that time he also edited the Mississippi Review, a quarterly publication that includes poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction and became widely recognized as a top-tier literary journal. In 2004 Barthelme was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for his novel Elroy Nights, and in 2010 he won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters award for fiction. He currently serves as a coeditor of the online journal New World Writing.
Barthelme’s publications include the collections of stories Rangoon (1970), Moon Deluxe (1983), Chroma (1987), and The Law of Averages: New and Selected Stories (2000). He has written the novels War and War (1971), Second Marriage (1984), Tracer (1985), Two against One (1988), Natural Selection (1990), The Brothers (1993), Painted Desert (1995), Bob the Gambler (1997), Elroy Nights (2003), Waveland (2009), and There Must Be Some Mistake (2014). In 1999 Frederick and Steven Barthelme published a memoir, Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss. Frederick has also authored the screenplays Second Marriage (1985) and Tracer (1986), and his work has appeared in numerous periodicals.
Characterized by Los Angeles Times reviewer Daniel Akst as the “bard of suburban disconnectedness,” Barthelme belongs to what has become known as the minimalist movement of writing. His books and short stories portray a world that critics call the New South, defined by shopping malls, drive-through windows, neon signs, and brand names. Through economical use of language and dialogue and of vivid description peppered with buzzwords of contemporary American culture, Barthelme captures modern life in suburban America.
- Frederick Barthelme website, http://www.frederickbarthelme.com
- Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 36 (1986)
- Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1985 (1986)
- John C. Hughes, Frederick Barthelme (2004)
- John C. Hughes, The Novels and Short Stories of Frederick Barthelme: A Literary Critical Analysis (2005)