Authors: John Barth

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and short-story writer


John Simmons Barth, one of the most influential American writers of the so-called postmodernist era, was born to John Jacob and Georgia Simmons Barth and grew up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a location that serves as the principal setting in most of his fiction. After finishing high school, he attended the Juilliard School of Music and then enrolled in The Johns Hopkins University in 1947, pursuing a degree in journalism. By the time of his junior year, however, because of the influence of one of his professors, he decided to become a teacher and a fiction writer instead. Barth was married to Harriette Anne Strickland in 1950 and received his bachelor’s degree in creative writing the following year. By 1952, he had completed his master’s degree at Johns Hopkins and begun his doctoral work there. In 1953, he left the university becuase of a lack of funds and took a teaching position in the English department at Pennsylvania State University, University Park.{$I[AN]9810001396}{$I[A]Barth, John}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Barth, John}{$I[tim]1930;Barth, John}

John Barth

(Teturo Maruyama)

The years from 1955 to 1960 were perhaps the most important ones in John Barth’s career. During that time, he published The Floating Opera (which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1956), The End of the Road, and The Sot-Weed Factor, and he began work on Giles Goat-Boy. Although Barth’s first two novels are basically realistic works, they contain the seeds of the satiric element that began to dominate his writing with the publication of his next two novels. Both The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy are broad, picaresque works that show affinities with the tradition of the eighteenth century novels of Jonathan Swift, Laurence Stern, and Henry Fielding. What makes these sprawling satires distinctly contemporary, however, is their self-conscious erudition and concern with the processes of fiction.

In 1967 and 1968, Barth made his alignment with the postmodernist focus on fiction as a self-reflexive art form even more explicit. First, he published a controversial essay in The Atlantic Monthly titled “The Literature of Exhaustion,” which urged more of the kind of self-conscious experimentation being practiced by the South American writer Jorge Luis Borges. (Many misinterpreted the essay, thinking Barth was arguing that fiction writers had “run out” of subjects for their work.) Barth then turned from the novel genre to that of the short story with Lost in the Funhouse, an experimental collection whose stories do not adhere to their so-called proper subject–the external world–but instead continually turn the reader’s attention back to what Barth considered their real subject: the process of fiction making. The fictional works published after Lost in the Funhouse tend to be similarly focused on their own narrative structure and methods.

Barth’s approach to fiction has been summarized quite pointedly in the essays that appear in his collection of occasional pieces entitled The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction; there he asserts that the novelist is like God and that God is like a novelist, for the universe itself is like a novel. This notion that the novel is not simply a view of a world but rather a world itself is a common theme of postmodernist fiction, for which Barth is now the best-known practitioner and advocate.

Barth’s most admired storyteller is Scheherazade, the heroine of A Thousand and One Nights (c. 1450), to whom he pays homage most directly in a novella in his work Chimera and who also appears in his novel The Tidewater Tales. Yet Barth has been fascinated with mythical figures at least since 1964, when, while working on Giles Goat-Boy, he discovered studies of myth such as Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). Since that time, Barth’s fiction has been self-consciously concerned with the primal elements that make up the universe of story. In fact, in his autobiographical novel Once upon a Time: A Floating Opera, he claims that all of his novels, starting with The Sot-Weed Factor, are structured around the myth of the hero.

Barth insists that the prosaic in fiction is there only to be transformed into fabulation. For Barth, the artist’s ostensible subject is not the main point; rather, it is raw material for focusing on the nature of the fiction-making process. Great literature, says Barth, is almost always, regardless of how it appears, about itself. Perhaps more than any other American writer since World War II, Barth has made fiction intensely conscious of itself, aware of its traditions and aware of the conventions that make it possible. If, as some currents of thought suggest, reality itself is the result of fiction-making processes, then Barth is truly a writer concerned with the essential nature of what is real. Barth’s achievements were recognized in 1997 with the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award, for outstanding achievement in American literature, and in 1998 with the PEN/Malamud Award, honoring excellence in the art of the short story, and the Lannan Literary Awards lifetime achievement award.

BibliographyBarth, John. “Interview.” Short Story, n.s. 1 (Spring, 1993): 110-118. Discusses Barth’s love for the short story and why he does not write more of them. Talks about minimalism and self-reflexivity; examines the nature of the story in The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments and Edgar Allan Poe; explains why he tries to stay as non-ideological as possible; surveys the changes in short fiction from the mid-1970’s to the early 1990’s.Bowen, Zack. “Barth and Joyce.” Critique 37 (Summer, 1996): 261-269. Discusses how Barth followed James Joyce in the grandness of his narrative scheme, his ironic focus on a region, and his personal overtones in his fiction. Explores Barth’s anxiety about this influence.Bowen, Zack. A Reader’s Guide to John Barth. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Provides a concise overview of Barth’s first ten books of fiction through The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor. Contains good bibliographies, a brief biographical sketch, and an interesting appendix, “Selected List of Recurrent Themes, Patterns, and Techniques.”Clavier, Berndt. John Barth and Postmodernism: Spatiality, Travel, Montage. New York: Peter Lang, 2007. Analyzes Barth’s work from a perspective of postmodernism and metafiction, focusing on theories of space and subjectivity. Argues that the form of montage is a possible model for understanding Barth’s fiction.Fogel, Stan, and Gordon Slethaug. Understanding John Barth. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990. Presents a comprehensive interpretation of Barth’s works from The Floating Opera to The Tidewater Tales. Includes both primary and secondary bibliographies, index divided by works, and general index.Harris, Charles B. Passionate Virtuosity: The Fiction of John Barth. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983. Contains separate chapters analyzing The Floating Opera, The End of the Road, The Sot-Weed Factor, Giles Goat-Boy, and Chimera. Includes exhaustive chapter endnotes, secondary bibliography, and index.Kiernan, Robert F. “John Barth’s Artist in the Fun House.” Studies in Short Fiction 10 (Fall, 1973): 373-380. Calls “Autobiography” a tour de force, capturing a fiction in the process of composing its own autobiography. Fiction tends necessarily to a life of its own and to an inordinate degree of self-reflection.Schulz, Max F. The Muses of John Barth: Tradition and Metafiction from “Lost in the Funhouse” to “The Tidewater Tales.” Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. Focuses on the themes of “romantic passion and commonsense love” in Barth’s work, with an emphasis on “the textual domestication of classical myths.” Includes endnotes and index.Scott, Steven D. The Gamefulness of American Postmodernism: John Barth and Louise Erdrich. New York: Peter Lang, 2000. Applies postmodernist theories to an analysis of Barth’s work. Addresses the motifs of play and games in American postmodernist fiction generally and focuses on “gamefulness” in the writings of Barth and Erdrich.Waldmeir, Joseph J., ed. Critical Essays on John Barth. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. Early critical work collects essays that provide a general overview of Barth’s novels as well as essays focusing on The Sot-Weed Factor, Giles Goat-Boy, and other early novels. Includes chapter endnotes and index.Walkiewicz, E. P. John Barth. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Very useful resource for the biographical details it provides. Includes a chronology of Barth’s life and work, supplemented by primary and secondary bibliographies as well as notes and an index.Zhang, Benzi. “Paradox of Origin(ality): John Barth’s ‘Menelaiad.’” Studies in Short Fiction 32 (Spring, 1995): 199-208. Argues that in the story “Menelaiad” Barth transforms a mythological story into a postmodern “trans-tale” about the tension between past and the present and between originality and repetition.
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