French Scholar Uncovers World of Barthelme in Houston

University of Houston Libraries Special Collections recently welcomed a French scholar to its reading room for an extensive look into the world of Houston’s literary luminary, Donald Barthelme.

Donald Barthelme. University of Houston People. Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.

Aurélie Delevallée, a Ph.D. student at Université de Toulouse 2 – Le Mirail, traveled to Houston to investigate the late postmodernist writer’s mix of visual and textual elements in his illustrated works.

Delevallée became intrigued by Barthelme’s writing after reading “Me and Miss Mandible” in an undergraduate class on contemporary lit at Université d’Artois – Arras. The course curriculum included the works of Raymond Carver and Grace Paley too, but there was something about the Barthelme piece that drew her in.

“I just loved it,” Delevallée said. “It was my first time as a student that I felt I had something to say. I wrote a commentary that I gave to the teacher, out of the blue.”

Now pursuing a Ph.D. in English with a concentration in contemporary American literature, Delevallée has explored Barthelme for some time, having written two master’s theses on the prodigious writer as well.

Immersed in the life and work of Barthelme, Delevallée realized that eventually, the momentum of her research would take her deeper into his literary legacy.

UH Libraries Special Collections is home to Barthelme’s papers. Materials include typescript drafts, galley proofs, correspondence from Barthelme’s friends and colleagues, photos, art, collage sources, and work from students of Barthelme during his tenure at the UH Creative Writing Program, acquired from the writer’s widow, Marion Barthelme, in 2002.

“I knew I definitely had to come here to have access to all this incredible material,” Delevallée said.

Through a university program called AMID, and the French Association of American Studies (AFEA), Delevallée secured a travel grant to Houston that would allow her to stay for a brief period and work in the Special Collections reading room. She contacted Julie Grob, coordinator for digital projects and instruction in Special Collections and the curator of the Barthelme papers, as soon as she knew she would arrive in Houston.

She was overwhelmed upon her initial visit. “Entering Special Collections for the first time, I thought ‘I’ve been preparing for this for such a long time,’ and since Barthelme passed away in 1989 I knew this would be the closest to him I could get,” Delevallée said. “I only knew him through his writings and what people wrote about him, and then, wow, suddenly I could touch the typescripts, the paper on which he wrote the stories that I like so much.” Interestingly, Barthelme often disposed of working drafts of manuscripts; the collection holds almost-finished versions with slight corrections.

Delevallée uncovered a priceless trove of Barthelme particulars, including the sources of his collage stories and a firsthand glimpse into the circle of writers and artists with whom he collaborated.

In fact, Delevallée was delighted to be able to speak with a few of those friends and colleagues while in Houston, including Karl Kilian, who had invited Barthelme to present at Brazos Bookstore on several occasions.

Serendipity brought Delevallée to the writer Olive Hershey, one of Barthelme’s last students. She had been searching for a place to stay while in Houston and visited a prospective location. The owner of the home asked her which American writer she was here to research and when she told him, he informed her that his wife happened to be one of Barthelme’s last students and she knew him very well.

Delevallée gathered information that will allow her to hone her dissertation on Barthelme’s illustrated works, his collage short stories, two comic books and two illustrated novels. He used the practice of assemblage to mix Victorian and contemporary elements that commented on and served as counterpoints to the texts. Delevallée sees a comparison between Barthelme’s use of text and image, and the cultural phenomenon of the cabinet of curiosities, a popular practice during the Renaissance era involving the collection and exhibition of heterogeneous elements.

Joseph Cornell, the American artist who created boxes of visual poetry with discrete, commonplace objects shaped into new meaning, revived the practice of assemblage in tandem with the surrealist movement. Barthelme was influenced by the artist and had organized an exhibition featuring Cornell’s works.

During her time exploring Barthelme’s provenance of inspiration, Delevallée has uncovered more food for thought. “When I come back home, now that I know there is all this mixture of these elements, I have to figure out how it is going to feed my own research and analysis,” she said. The journey of discovery continues.

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Posted on January 2nd, 2014 by Esmeralda Fisher and filed under Announcements | Comments Off on French Scholar Uncovers World of Barthelme in Houston