John (Simmons) Barth Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Cambridge, Maryland, 1930. Education: The Juilliard School of Music, New York; Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, A.B. 1951, M.A. 1952. Career: Junior instructor in English, Johns Hopkins University, 1951-53; instructor, 1953-56, assistant professor, 1957-60, and associate professor of English, 1960-65, Pennsylvania State University, University Park; professor of English, 1965-71, and Butler Professor, 1971-73, State University of New York, Buffalo; Centennial Professor of English and Creative Writing, Johns Hopkins University, 1973-91, professor emeritus, 1991—. Awards: Brandeis University Creative Arts award, 1965; Rockefeller grant, 1965; American Academy grant, 1966; National Book award, 1973. Litt. D.: University of Maryland, College Park, 1969; F. Scott Fitzgerald Award, 1997; PEN/Malamud Award, 1998; Lannan Literary Awards lifetime achievement award, 1998. Member: American Academy, 1977, and American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1977. Agent: Wylie Aitken and Stone, 250 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10107.
The Floating Opera. New York, Appleton Century Crofts, 1956; revised edition, New York, Doubleday, 1967; London, Secker and Warburg, 1968.
The End of the Road. New York, Doubleday, 1958; London, Secker and Warburg, 1962; revised edition, Doubleday, 1967.
The Sot-Weed Factor. New York, Doubleday, 1960; London, Secker and Warburg, 1961; revised edition, Doubleday, 1967.
Giles Goat-Boy; or, The Revised New Syllabus. New York, Doubleday, 1966; London, Secker and Warburg, 1967.
Letters. New York, Putnam, 1979; London, Secker and Warburg, 1980.
Sabbatical: A Romance. New York, Putnam, and London, Secker andWarburg, 1982.
The Tidewater Tales: A Novel. New York, Putnam, 1987; London, Methuen, 1988.
The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor. Boston, Little Brown, 1991.
Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera. Boston, Little Brown, 1994.
Lost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice. New York, Doubleday, 1968; London, Secker and Warburg, 1969.
Chimera. New York, Random House, 1972; London, Deutsch, 1974.
Todd Andrews to the Author. Northridge, California, Lord John Press, 1979.
On with the Story: Stories. Boston, Little, Brown, 1996.
The Literature of Exhaustion, and The Literature of Replenishment(essays). Northridge, California, Lord John Press, 1982.
The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction. New York, Putnam, 1984.
Don't Count on It: A Note on the Number of the 1001 Nights. Northridge, California, Lord John Press, 1984.
Further Fridays: Essays, Lectures, and Other Nonfiction, 1984-1994. Boston, Little Brown, 1995.
Contributor, Innovations: An Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Fiction, edited by Robert L. McLaughlin. Normal, Illinois, Dalkey Archive Press, 1998.
Introduction, Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme by Kim Herzinger. New York, Random House, 1997.
John Barth: A Descriptive Primary and Annotated Secondary Bibliography by Josephy Weixlmann, New York, Garland, 1976; John Barth: An Annotated Bibliography by Richard Allan Vine, Metuchen, New Jersey, Scarecrow Press, 1977; John Barth, Jerzy Kosinski, and Thomas Pynchon: A Reference Guide by Thomas P. Walsh and Cameron Northouse, Boston, Hall, 1977.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
John Barth by Gerhard Joseph, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1970; John Barth: The Comic Sublimity of Paradox by Jac Tharpe, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1974; The Literature of Exhaustion: Borges, Nabokov, and Barth by John O. Stark, Durham, North Carolina, Duke University Press, 1974; John Barth: An Introduction by David Morrell, University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976; Critical Essays on John Barth edited by Joseph J. Waldmeir, Boston, Hall, 1980; Passionate Virtuosity: The Fiction of John Barth by Charles B. Harris, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1983; John Barth by Heide Ziegler, London, Methuen, 1987; Understanding John Barth by Stan Fogel and Gordon Slethaug, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1990; A Reader's Guide to John Barth by Zack Bowen, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1994; John Barth and the Anxiety of Continuance by Patricia Tobin. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992; Death in the Funhouse: John Barth and the Poststructuralist Aesthetics by Alan Lindsay, New York, P. Lang, 1995; Transcending Space: Architectural Places in Works by Henry David Thoreau, E.E. Cummings, and John Barth by Taimi Olsen, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Bucknell University Press, 2000.
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John Barth is often called one of the most important American novelists of the twentieth century. He combines the kind of experimentation associated with postmodernist writing with a mastery of the skills demanded of the traditional novelist. A progression toward postmodernism may be traced in his works from the more traditional treatments of his earlier books—The Floating Opera, The End of the Road, and The Sot-Weed Factor—to the wild experimentation that characterizes such works as Giles Goat-Boy, Chimera, Letters, and especially Lost in the Funhouse. In Sabbatical, he returns to the more traditional kind of narrative, with the added postmodernist twist that the novel itself is supposed to be the work produced by the two central characters in it. In The Tidewater Tales, too, the novel is supposed to be the work of one of the central characters. In fact, The Tidewater Tales combines many of the elements of postmodern fiction, including an awareness of itself as fiction, with the strong story line associated with more traditional novels. Barth's works after Tidewater Tales—The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor and Once Upon a Time—also involve many elements of postmodernist fiction, especially Once Upon a Time, in which the narrator constantly reminds the reader that the work is a piece of fiction.
Although Barth denies that he engages in experimentation for its own sake, the stories in Lost in the Funhouse give that appearance. Subtitled Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice, the work marks Barth's embrace of the world of the postmodern in which fiction and reality, and fictitious characters and the authors that produce them, become indistinguishable and in which consistent suspension of disbelief becomes almost impossible. Barth's insistence that some of the stories in this "series," as he calls it, were not composed "expressly for print" and thus "make no sense unless heard in live or recorded voices" is questionable, since they are in print and presumably the author did compose them in written form. Nonetheless, they show Barth's versatility with various fictional forms. Still, even if Barth really intended a story like "Echo," the eighth in the series, only for live or recorded voice, it is difficult to determine whether it is profound or merely full of gimmickry.
Barth calls Letters "an old time epistolary novel," yet it is anything but old-fashioned. In this monumental work, the author himself becomes a fictitious character with whom his "fictitious drolls and dreamers," many of whom are drawn from Barth's earlier works, correspond concerning their often funny yet sometimes horrifying problems. The letters they exchange gradually reveal the convoluted plot that involves abduction, possible incest, and suicide. That postmodernism may have reached a dead end in this book is something Barth himself seems to have recognized with his return to a more traditional form in Sabbatical, a novel with an easily summarizable plot involving clearly defined characters. The Tidewater Tales, too, has a very strong story line, yet like Letters, it has some characters familiar from other works by Barth, including the "real" authors of Sabbatical. It also includes a thinly disguised version of Barth himself, called Djean, familiar from Chimera, as well as many characters from other pieces of literature, including Ulysses and Nausicaa (also known as the Dmitrikakises), Don Quixote (called Donald Quicksoat), and Scheherazade, who is more closely modeled on the Scheherazade of Barth's Chimera than on the heroine of the Arabian Nights.
Along with Barth's movement from modernism to postmodernism may be traced a movement from what he calls "the literature of exhaustion" to what he calls "the literature of replenishment." The antiheroes of his earlier works—Todd Andrews, Jake Horner, and Ebenezer Cooke—give way to the genuinely heroic protagonist of Giles Goat-Boy, a book of epic dimensions containing a central figure and plot modeled largely on myths of various heroes, both pagan and Christian. This work may prove to be one of the most important pieces of literature of the twentieth century. The central character, Giles himself, may be lacking a human father (quite probably he was fathered by the computer that controls the world of the novel). As the book unfolds, he proceeds without hesitation to fulfill his typically heroic destiny to " Pass All Fail All. " Whatever victories he achieves are, of course, ambiguous, and his existence is left in doubt.
The part of the book involving the actual narrative of events in the life of George Giles is entitled " R. N. S. The Revised New Syllabus of George Giles OUR GRAND TUTOR Being the Autobiographical and Hortatory Tapes Read Out at New Tammany College to His Son Giles (,) Stoker By the West Campus Automatic Computer and by Him Prepared for the Furtherment of the Gilesian Curriculum." It contains a kind of comic, cosmic new testament, a collection of sacred-profane writings designed to guide future students in the university world in which the body of the novel is set. Narrating the life and adventures of George Giles, the goat-boy of the title, it recounts his intellectual, political, and sexual exploits. The introductory material to the "Revised New Syllabus," consisting of a "Publisher's Disclaimer," with notes from Editors A through D and written by "The Editor-in-Chief"; the "Cover-Letter to the Editors and Publisher," written by "This regenerate Seeker after Answers, J. B."; the "Posttape" as well as the "Postscript to the Posttape," again written by J. B.; and the "Footnote to the Postscript," written by "Ed.," are all part of this fiction.
From the paralysis of a Jacob Horner in The End of the Road to the action of a Giles is a long stride. Horner is paralyzed, he claims, because he suffers from "cosmopsis," "the cosmic view" in which "one is frozen like the bullfrog when the hunter's light strikes him full in the eyes, only with cosmopsis there is no hunter, and no quick hand to terminate the moment—there's only the light." An infinite number of possibilities leads to a paralyzing inability to choose any one. The same kind of cosmic view, however, causes no problem for George Giles, who, when unable to choose between existing possibilities, unhesitatingly creates his own, as he does when he first leaves the barn to seek his destiny in the outside world. Heroically, George realizes that he "had invented myself as I'd elected my name," and he accepts responsibility not only for himself but also for his world.
In Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales, Barth draws heavily on the folklore of the Chesapeake Bay and the CIA. In the former, he writes of the end of a year-long sailing voyage taken by Fenwick, an ex-CIA agent, and Susan, a college professor, in order to decide what they will do with their lives. Their problem's resolution seems trite and unconvincing, but their path toward that resolution is interesting. Like Chimera, Sabbatical is a twentieth-century fairy tale, ending with the statement that the two central characters "lived/Happily after, to the end/Of Fenwick and Susie. …*" The rhyme is completed in the footnote: "*Susan./Fenn." Obviously, in this work too it is often difficult to distinguish gimmickry and profundity. Sentimentality also pervades The Tidewater Tales, essentially the story of the ending of Peter Sagamore's writing block, as he and his pregnant wife travel the Chesapeake Bay on their sailboat named Story.
The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor is set partially and Once Upon a Time is set mostly on the Chesapeake Bay. Both are pieces of fantasy, the former loosely structured on the seven voyages of Sinbad the Sailor as told by Scheherazade in 1001 Arabian Nights. Both are also structured, Barth claims in Once Upon a Time, on the hero quest, which he calls the Ur-myth. In fact, in Once Upon a Time, the narrator, who may also be the author, says that all of his works since The Sot-Weed Factor are variations on the Ur-myth, even though he claims not to have known about the myth when he wrote The Sot-Weed Factor.
Both The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor and Once Upon a Time draw largely on the author's life, so much so that the latter repeats many things from the former. The latter pretends to be autobiography masquerading as fiction, but it may be fiction masquerading as autobiography. At any rate, it recounts what its narrator claims both is and is not Barth's early life, his education, his two marriages, his teaching career, and the writing of his books and stories.
Barth then is one of the most important figures in twentieth-century American literature. He has consistently been at the forefront of literary experimentation, consequently producing works occasionally uneven and, as a result of his particular type of experimentation, occasionally too self-consciously witty. Still, he has produced some works that are now ranked and probably will continue to be ranked among the best of this century.