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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

John Barth
(b. 1930)

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.

Barth’s 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 advocate.

Barth’s 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.

The 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).

After 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 postmodernism.

Julius Rowan Raper
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In the Heath Anthology
Lost in the Funhouse (1968)

Other Works
The Floating Opera (1956)
The End of the Road (1958)
The Sot-Weed Factor (1960)
Giles Goat-Boy, or the Revised New Syllabus (1966)
Chimera (1972)
LETTERS: A Novel (1979)
Sabbatical: A Romance (1982)
The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction (1984)
The Tidewater Tales: A Novel (1987)
The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991)
Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera (1994)
Further Fridays: Essays, Lectures, and Other Nonfiction 1984-94 (1995)
On with the Story: Stories (1996)

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Featured Author: John Barth
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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.

Secondary Sources

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