steven barthelme


“Well, we had all these children out planting trees, see, because we figured that… that was part of their education, to see how, you know, the root systems… and also the sense of responsibility, taking care of things, being individually responsible. You know what I mean. And the trees all died. They were orange trees. I don’t know why they died, they just died.”


From “The School” by Donald Barthelme, recommended by Fine Arts Work Center.


Read it for free tomorrow in Electric Literature’s weekly fiction magazine, Recommended Reading.



"The School" by Donald Barthelme

Recommended by Steven Polansky

Issue No. 137

Well, we had all these children out planting trees, see, because we figured that… that was part of their education, to see how, you know, the root systems… and also the sense of responsibility, taking care of things, being individually responsible. You know what I mean. And the trees all died. They were orange trees. I don’t know why they died, they just died. Something wrong with the soil possibly or maybe the stuff we got from the nursery wasn’t the best. We complained about it. So we’ve got thirty kids there, each kid had his or her own little tree to plant and we’ve got these thirty dead trees. All these kids looking at these little brown sticks, it was depressing.

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About the Author


Donald Barthelme published seventeen books, including four novels and a prize-winning children’s book. He was a longtime contributor to The New Yorker, winner of the National Book Award, a director of PEN and the Authors Guild, and a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He died in July of 1989.

About the Guest Editor


Steven Polansky was born in New York City. He was educated at Wesleyan, Hollins, and Princeton. He has taught at St. Olaf College, Macalester, and the University of Minnesota. His short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Glimmer Train, Best American Short Stories, New England Review, and Minnesota Monthly. He has published two books: The Bradbury Report, a novel, and a book of short stories, Dating Miss Universe, which won the Sandstone Prize and the Minnesota Book Award. He has a wife, two sons, and a daughter. He lives in Wisconsin.


“The School” is reprinted by permission of the Estate of Donald Barthelme. © Copyright Donald Barthelme 1976.


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“It rained for six days. Lawns were like sponges, the air in the house was thick and wet, streets were impassable and everywhere there was mud. By the time the cat dragged himself in on the fifth day, I’d given him up for drowned. He was soaked, black fur lying flat in little gobs all over his body so that it didn’t look like fur anymore. I loved him. That’s a feeling, isn’t it?”


Read the rest of “In the Rain” and an introduction by Dennis Johnson of Melville House tomorrow at Recommended Reading.





It’s the two clauses which end that sentence, though—"and afterwards, when they saw their mistake, they loved him all the same"—that reach the sublime, the move only the rarest of writers (Alice Munro, say) could make. Chekhov doesn’t care that what he has his man remarking is neither logical nor makes sense as behavior. And he doesn’t care whether it’s good or bad, only that it’s what people do—and that it’s marvelous. This is what poet Charles Simic calls the proper subject of a poem: “astonishment at what is before you… awe before the world.” Most writers’ spiritual politics, of whichever stripe, would not allow them to see it, and even if they saw it, most writers don’t have the forbearance, don’t love the world enough, to recognize that it’s sort of perfect. That, I think now, is what’s so great about Chekhov.

Steven Barthelme on Chekhov and “Lady with a Lapdog.”