| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
John Barth’s birth on May 22, 1930, in Cambridge, a
small “southern” town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, established his claim
to one of the strongest literary heritages in twentieth-century America, the
modernist tradition that took root in the American South through the novels
that William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe wrote during the 1920s and 1930s.
Despite an early focus on music, Barth, who in 1953 became a college writing
teacher, absorbed this tradition well enough to give his first two novels, The
Floating Opera (1956) and The End of the Road (1958), the strong sense of place
and fate commonly found in modern southern fiction.
first two books, however, also exhibited a playfulness closer to the
improvisations of modern jazz, his earlier passion, and to the black humor
emerging in the fifties, than to modern southern fiction. The novels parodied
the existential movement, the dominant tendency of European writing during the
late modernist period; The Floating Opera expresses Barth’s comic response to
Camus’s earnest and familiar defense of suicide while The End of the Road
pushes Sartre’s views of commitment and protean freedom to sardonic extremes.
In short, Barth was already experimenting with one of his favorite devices, the
practice of framing seemingly exhausted literary modes by reworking them from
radically different perspectives to renew them and thereby replenish the
literary tradition. Eventually, his use of parody and frames would be his major
contribution to the (then) undetected emergence of postmodernism, the dominant
cultural development of the second half of the twentieth century and a movement
in which Barth is regarded as the major American literary practitioner and
The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), taking a clue from a short work of fiction, “Pierre
Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” by Jorge Luis Borges (the modern writer from
whom he appears to have learned most), continued his parodies of established
modes of writing by creating a gigantic eighteenth-century Anglo-southern novel
out of comic characters and themes appropriate to the mid-twentieth century. In
Giles Goat-Boy, or The Revised New Syllabus (1966), the novelist took a
decisive step toward postmodernism when he freed himself from both memory and
history by creating an imaginary university parodying the universe in which
earthlings found themselves during the cold war.
experiments collected in 1968 in Lost in the Funhouse mark Barth’s emergence as
leader of the American wing of the movement called postmodernism. As a
contribution to the postmodern, the title story, reprinted in the book, generates
special excitement, for it is difficult to imagine a more self-referential
metafiction. Here the author frames a seemingly heart-felt parody of a story
about a boy from a small town as he comes of age, a subject typical of the
southern modernists, with the fatalistic thoughts of a beginning or blocked
writer who struggles to obey the best-intended formulas of creative writing
classes. Writer’s block became a major theme, and likely a metaphor for
contemporary culture, in such later works as Chimera (a masterpiece of the
postmodern in America, published in 1972) and Letters: A Novel (1979).
the seemingly (perhaps deliberately) botched experiment with narration and
point of view in Sabbatical: A Romance (1982), Barth’s jazz-like powers of
improvisation returned full force in his joy-filled megafiction The Tidewater
Tales (1987), while the temporal pastiche of The Last Voyage of Somebody the
Sailor (1991) throws the assumptions of modern realist fiction into confusion
by making the adventures of Sinbad seem to the audience that hears them
examples of traditional realism, and competing journalistic accounts of modern
events appear to be sheer fiction. On with the Story: Stories (1996)
complements the Lost in the Funhouse collection in its attempt to jump-start
experimental postmodern fiction, which in the 1990s was losing ground to
several retro tendencies. The Friday Book and Further Fridays, Barth’s essays
and non-fiction gathered together in 1984 and 1995, may be the best
year-by-year record in existence of the emergence—from modernism,
existentialism, black humor, and “irrealism”—of American Literary
Julius Rowan Raper|
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
In the Heath Anthology
Lost in the Funhouse
The Floating Opera
The End of the Road
The Sot-Weed Factor
Giles Goat-Boy, or the Revised New Syllabus
LETTERS: A Novel
Sabbatical: A Romance
The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction
The Tidewater Tales: A Novel
The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor
Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera
Further Fridays: Essays, Lectures, and Other Nonfiction 1984-94
On with the Story: Stories
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Featured Author: John Barth
Provides all of the Barth-related writings from The New York Times archives.
John Barth Lecture Hall
An active forum for discussing Barth's work.
John Barth: The Information Center
Provides a large amount of information about Barth and his work.
The Modern World: The Scriptorium
Biographical and literary introduction to Barth.
A Barth article on virtuality published by the Johns Hopkins Magazine.
Critical Essays on John Barth, ed., Joseph Waldmeir, 1980
Charles B. Harris, Passionate Virtuosity: The Fiction of John Barth, 1983
David Morrell, John Barth: An Introduction, 1976
Taimi Anne Olsen, Transcending Space: Architectural Places in Works by Henry David Thoreau, E.E. Cummings, and John Barth, 2000
Robert Scholes, The Fabulators, 1967
Max Schulz, The Muses of John Barth, 1990
John Stark, The Literature of Exhaustion, 1974
Jac Tharpe, John Barth: The Comic Sublimity of Paradox, 1974
Patricia D. Tobin, John Barth and the Anxiety of Continuance, 1992
E.P. Walkiewicz, John Barth, 1986
Joseph Weixlmann, John Barth: A Descriptive Primary and Annotated Secondary Bibliography, 1976
Heidi Ziegler, John Barth, 1987