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No. 3112:
Creative Editor

by Robert Cremins

Today, a sheriff of an editor. The Honors College at the University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Recently I browsed through issues of Forum magazine from the late 1950s. It's a snazzy publication. Alongside articles of intellectual heft are sympathetic illustrations, portfolios of contemporary art, and moments of mischief, such as a random quote from the 1942 book The Art of Walt Disney: "There is a swell chance for doing something beautiful with these goldfish." How did that get in? Here's a clue: Less than a decade later, the magazine's young editor would publish his first novel, Snow White, an artfully demented riff on the Disney movie. His name was Donald Barthelme.

Donald Barthelme
Donald Barthelme. Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Going far beyond the demands of his job at the University of Houston's news service, Barthelme created, from scratch, a world-class journal. He did this despite the misgivings of old-school colleagues and the expectations of would-be contributors that the university, down there in oil country, would pay out top dollar. In fact, Barthelme had no dollars with which to pay writers. Indeed, he hardly had enough money to buy the right kind of paper. Forum became a labor of love, with Barthelme not only editing and contributing to the magazine, but also working on the layout and cover design. He did something beautiful without goldfish.

But the real magic of Forum was its interdisciplinary nature. That's a buzzword in higher education today, but in the 1950s it sent shivers down many academic spines: professors had been trained to stick to their own subjects and view the world through a single, polished lens. But Forum was a kaleidoscope. Through a combination of eloquence and chutzpah, Barthelme charmed articles from writers as diverse as novelist Walker Percy, media theorist Marshall McLuhan, art critic Harold Rosenberg, and even the godfather of Existentialism: Jean-Paul Sartre. There were interviews with Sigmund Freud's colleague and biographer, Ernest Jones, and Freud's great rival, Carl Jung. Like his fellow Texan Robert Rauschenberg - another Forum contributor - Barthelme knew the power of juxtaposition, of "unlike things being stuck together."

However, these collage-like issues of Forum were more than just a journalistic achievement; they were also a rehearsal for Barthelme's own artistic production. Barthelme soon created wonderfully strange fictions that owed as much to jazz, philosophy, and Abstract Expressionist painting as they did to Hemingway, Cheever, and Welty. You can see this emerging aesthetic in the pages of Forum. Take, for example, the set of pictures by the great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson-"on assignment in Houston." Here we have classic Americana seen through a European eye calibrated by Modernism. One street-corner scene features a black-hat cowboy who might find a home in a gothic novel, or a Barthelme story, where the salon meets the saloon.

Normally, young authors are far more adept at drafting than shaping, but in Barthelme's case the creative editor helped give birth to the creative writer.

I'm Robert Cremins at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Barthelme, Helen Moore. Donald Barthelme: The Genesis of a Cool Sound. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2001.

Daugherty, Tracy. Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2009.

In 1981, J.D. O'Hara conducted an excellent, comprehensive interview with Donald Barthelme on behalf of The Paris Review, as part of the literary magazine's famous "Art of Fiction" series. Click here.

The photograph of Donald Barthelme is courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. This work has been released into the public domain by its author, the University of Houston. It was taken from Wikimedia Commons. Accessed February 24, 2017.

This episode was first aired on February 28, 2017