Powell and Barthelme and Beckett

Born in Gainesville, Florida, raised in South Carolina, Padgett Powell dropped out of a chemistry program at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and worked as a roofer and dental technician before studying fiction writing with Donald Barthelme at the University of Houston. In an interview published in the late 90’s, Powell talked about showing Barthelme the first three chapters of Edisto. When they met to discuss the manuscript:

“There was this little blob scratched out in the corner. I asked him, I said, you know, ‘What’s this?’ and Barthelme said, ‘Oh I didn’t know if you could take it,'” Powell says, leaning his elbows on the card table and brushing his shaggy hair back with the palm of his hand. “So I start flipping through manuscripts and there’s no marks on it. I said, ‘Wait a minute,’ I said, ‘How do I know you just elected not to mark this up thinking I couldn’t take it?’ I said, ‘Listen, don’t you ever withhold a comment from me. I didn’t come here to be pandered, I came here to meet women, and now that I’ve done that I’m going to write a novel, and moreover if we ever have to do this again we’re not doing it in your office, we’re doing it in a bar.’ And he said, ‘By all means.'”

And so began an oft-drunken relationship between the two that, for Powell, led directly to Edisto being excerpted in The New Yorker and published, selling about 30,000 copies.

I’ve mentioned it before, but Alex Ward’s “A Better Class of Fools,” a 1987 interview with Powell for the New York Times, is an excellent source of information about the friendship between Powell and Barthelme. In it, Powell recalls:

We had similar tastes. We liked the same things, the same bars, the same books, the same women. The only thing we differed on was music. I only like rock and roll. He always wanted to talk about jazz. He really wasn’t so much a writer as a jazz painter on the page.

According to the Barthelme entry in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 234: American Short-Story Writers Since World War II, Third Series:

When an aspiring writer at Johns Hopkins University asked Barthelme why he wrote the way he did, Barthelme replied, “Because Samuel Beckett already wrote the way he did.”


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