Donald Barthelme was born in Philadelphia in 1931. His father and mother were fellow students at the University of Pennsylvania. The family moved to Texas two years later and Barthelme's father became a professor of architecture at the University of Houston, where Barthelme would later study journalism. Barthelme won a Scholastic Writing Award in Short Story in 1949, while a student at Lamar High School in Houston.
In 1951, as a student, he wrote his first articles for the Houston Post. Two years later, Barthelme was drafted into the U.S. Army, arriving in Korea on July 27, 1953, the day of the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement, which ended the Korean War. Assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division, he served briefly as the editor of an Army newspaper and the Public Information Office of the Eighth Army before returning to the United States and his job at the Houston Post. Once back, he continued his studies at the University of Houston studying philosophy. Although he continued to take classes until 1957, he never received a degree. He spent much of his free time in Houston's black jazz clubs, listening to musical innovators such as Lionel Hampton and Peck Kelly, an experience that influenced his later writing.
Barthelme's relationship with his father was a struggle between a rebellious son and a demanding father. In later years they would have tremendous arguments about the kinds of literature in which Barthelme was interested and which he wrote. While in many ways his father was avant-garde in art and aesthetics, he did not approve of the postmodern and deconstruction schools. Barthelme's attitude toward his father is delineated in the novels The Dead Father and The King as he is pictured in the characters King Arthur and Lancelot. Barthelme's independence also shows in his moving away from the family's Roman Catholicism (his mother was especially devout), a separation that troubled Barthelme throughout his life as did the distance with his father. He seemed much closer to his mother and agreeable to her strictures.
Barthelme went on to teach for brief periods at Boston University, University at Buffalo, and the College of the City of New York, where he served as Distinguished Visiting Professor from 1974 to 1975.
His brothers Frederick (born 1943) and Steven (born 1947) are also respected fiction writers.
He married four times. His second wife, Helen Barthelme, later wrote a biography entitled Donald Barthelme: The Genesis of a Cool Sound, published in 2001. With his third wife Birgit, a Dane, he had his first child, a daughter named Anne, and near the end of his life he married Marion (Marion Knox/Barthelme d 2011), with whom he had his second daughter, Yekaterina. Marion and Donald remained married until his 1989 death from throat cancer.
"Kenneth, what is the frequency?"
The December 2001 issue of Harper's Magazine included a speculative piece by writer Paul Limbert Allman in which he imagined Prof. Donald Barthelme to have orchestrated the 1986 attack on Dan Rather, citing passages in Barthelme's writing, including the phrase "What is the frequency?", a recurring character named Kenneth, and a short story about a pompous editor named Lather. The fact that Rather and Barthelme once worked in Houston as journalists at the same time and certainly crossed paths at least professionally adds credibility that Barthelme at least modeled some of the characters in his writing on Rather. It is most likely, however, that a deranged person was motivated by Barthelme's writing, and William Tager certainly fits the description. No evidence has been found to implicate Barthelme or his family members in the Rather attack.