‘Bishop’ by Donald Barthelme

Donald Barthelme was born in Pennsylvania in 1931.
Pennsylvania is very clearly a Northern State, and Donald Barthelme lived a significant part of his adult writing life in New York City, New York, which is also clearly Northern. There is little in his writing that would lead most readers to identify it as “Southern literature.” However –
– Barthelme moved to Houston, Texas when he was just two years old, grew up there, spent the later part of his life there, and died there. His father’s parents were from Galveston, Texas. Like so many Southern writers before him, Barthelme sought to light out for new territory – in this case the Big City. New York was a prominent setting in many of his stories; most of his work was published in The New Yorker; he titled a collection City Life.
The late story ‘Bishop’ is atypically straightforward, unadorned, and realistic for a Barthelme joint. Even though he denied it in an interview, the tale employs autobiographical elements. It’s a miniature portrait of an alcoholic writer, the titular Bishop who, in the course of writing a biography of the painter William Michael Harnett, discovers another painter, John Frederick Peto. ‘Bishop’ is a melancholy, elegiac reminiscence without a direct object. It seems to be set in New York City, but the final lines of the story extend to Barthelme’s own youth, to memories of his grandparents’ ranch in Galveston. Lost in thought, Bishop remembers “walking in the water, the shallow river, at the edge of the ranch, looking for minnows in the water under the overhanging trees, skipping rocks across the river.” The rural reverie recalls Barthelme’s Southern roots. It’s a peaceful if pain-tinged moment of realistic reflection.

First published in The New Yorker, August 1980 and available for subscribers here; first collected in Sixty Stories, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1982

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