The History of Literature #180 – Donald Barthelme

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Donald Barthelme’s “The Balloon” (1966) is one of the strangest and most enduring short stories to come out of the second half of the twentieth century. Filled with Barthelme’s gift for observation and detail, his wild imagination, and his playful wit, “The Balloon” represents for many the work of a postmodern master at his postmodern peak. But who was Donald Barthelme? Why were “The Balloon” and his other stories so popular? And are these postmodern stories interesting merely as a reflection of their era, or do they still have meaning for us today? Mike Palindrome joins us for a discussion of Donald Barthelme and “The Balloon.”

Help support the show at patreon.com/literature or historyofliterature.com/shop. (We appreciate it!) Find out more at historyofliterature.com, jackewilson.com, or by following Jacke and Mike on Twitter at @thejackewilson and @literatureSC. Or send an email to jackewilsonauthor@gmail.com.

A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #12 – The Tickets to the Premiere


It was during my study-abroad year in Bologna that my friend Roberto and I decided to write a musical. Not just for fun, not just for some school play or party or anything immature like that—no, we were going to be great and famous writers of musicals. Wilson & Benedetti!

And why not us? Roberto had been playing piano for a million years and had perfect pitch. I had just written a poem. We had both been IN musicals. We liked WATCHING them.

This is all it takes, people. Twenty-year-olds studying abroad have boundless optimism. None of it’s earned, of course, but that’s okay. It’s just there.

One problem: all the good subjects had already been taken. Our predecessors had covered everything we could think of. We needed a theme. Needed a setting. Some kind of story. Luckily, as the word guy, I had a brilliant idea:

ME: I’ve come up with an idea for our musical. No one’s ever done it. Brand new!
ROBERTO: Excellent! What is it?
ME: Okay, so I’ve been reading a lot of Simone de Beauvoir. Just finished The Second Sex.
ROBERTO: Um, okay…
ME: And I’ve been reading a lot of Nietzsche. Some interesting combinations there.
ROBERTO: You want to write a…Nietzschean feminist musical?
ME: With bouncy tunes!

It’s embarrassing now to think how excited we were. Embarrassing to think we even tried. But can you blame us? We were twenty years old. TWENTY.

Think of life as a world of doors. When you’re young, you’re told you can open any door. Right? Just find the one you want…and walk right through! They’re all open to you! We tell college graduates that, even though it’s really not true at all. And five-year-olds? Forget it. With five-year-olds we lie and lie and lie. You want to be a movie star? See you on the big screen! An astronaut slash professional baseball player? Godspeed, little one.

For two twenty-year-olds, roaming through Europe, living like carefree kings on Eurorail passes and a stipend, fueled by red wine (legal here! a whole year early!), well, what were going to dream of being? Accountants? Dental hygienists? Of course not! We would be writers of a musical. Naturally. Of course.

We took a picture to commemorate the day we began:

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