This sample John Barth Essay is published for informational purposes only. Free essays and research papers, are not written by our writers, they are contributed by users, so we are not responsible for the content of this free sample paper. If you want to buy a high quality essay at affordable price please use our custom essay writing service.
An eminent practitioner and theoretician of postmodernist fiction, John Barth often defines himself as a ”concocter of comic novels,” an inventor of universes who is, above all, a lover of storytelling. For more than forty years, the Maryland-born author has experimented with a variety of fictional forms, drawing upon his vast experience with Western literary tradition. His short stories, novellas, and novels concern themselves with the inter action of reader and text as well as the more fundamental questions of personal identity and the innate absurdity of human existence.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Inauspicious Beginning
John Simmons Barth Jr. was born, with his twin sister Jill, on May 27, 1930, in Cambridge, Maryland, to John Jacob Barth and Georgia Simmons. The Barth family was deeply rooted in this rural southern corner of the Old Line State. Barth’s grandfather, a stone carver by trade, also dealt in real estate, selling marshland to his fellow German immigrants. The boy’s father, known as “Whitey,” was the proprietor of a combination candy store and restaurant. In addition, he was chief judge of the Orphan’s Court in Cambridge, a small port on the Choptank River.
Barth’s childhood and adolescence in Cambridge were quiet and uneventful. John Jacob Barth saw no early evidence of literary genius in his son: ”This talent must have come later,” he commented in 1966, ”I didn’t notice it when he was younger.” Barth’s twin sister had similar recollections; she remembered her brother as ”more serious than outgoing” and recalled that ”he got a lot of things without trying very hard at school.” Barth’s older brother, William, echoed his father and sister: ”Looking back I’d never expected him to be a writer.”
From Music to Writing
As a young man intent on pursuing music as a career, Barth went to the Juilliard School of Music in New York to become a jazz arranger. Instead, he found himself a talented amateur among professionals, and ”went home to think of some other way to become distinguished.” As an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University, he filed books in the Classics Department and the stacks of the Oriental Seminary, and became enchanted with the tenth-century Sanskrit Ocean of Story and Richard Burton’s annotated Arabian Nights—both of which inspired him throughout his career.
An Educator and Rearranger
Barth graduated with a commitment to become a writer and meanwhile earn a living by teaching. Barth’s subsequent career as an English professor also plays an important role in his fiction; many of his books are set in universities and contain allusions to works of literature. He has taught at Pennsylvania State University, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and at his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University. Partly due to these affiliations, Barth has been called an academic writer. Though he resisted this label at first, by mid-life he recognized, as he says in ”Getting Oriented,” that all of his novels are about education—or rather, ”imperfect or misfired education.” However, perhaps because of his musical background, Barth remains an arranger at heart. As he states in The Friday Book, his ”chief pleasure is to take a received melody—an old narrative poem, a classical myth, a shopworn literary convention . . .—and, improvising like a jazzman within its constraints, reorchestrating it to its present purpose.”
In the fall of 1954, Barth chanced upon a photo graph of The Floating Theater, an old showboat that had entertained in the Tidewater area during the author’s childhood. Barth remembered that he saw the boat ”when I was about seven. . . . I thought it would be a good idea to write a philosophical minstrel show . . . only it was going to be a work of literature.” This ”philosophical minstrel show” became Barth’s first published novel, The Floating Opera (1956). Although Barth’s early novels were not commercially successful, they garnered him an elite readership of scholars and college students.
Success with Goat-Boy
In 1958 Barth completed research on a historical novel which he had begun two years earlier. This novel, according to Barth, would have a plot fancier and more contrived than that of Tom Jones (1749), British novelist Henry Fielding’s sprawling comedy. Barth finished this novel, The Sot-Weed Factor, in March 1959, and Doubleday published the mammoth 806-page book in August 1960. Like its forerunners, The Sot-Weed Factor (the title means tobacco merchant) was a commercial failure, selling only 5,000 copies.
From 1959 to 1965 Barth worked on the novel that would be his first financial success. Before it was finished, he commented that ”What I really wanted to write after The Sot-Weed Factor was a new Old Testament, a comic Old Testament. I guess that’s what the new novel Giles Goat-Boy is going to be. A souped-up Bible.” In April 1959 Barth had begun a novel called ”The Seeker,” but in June 1960 he put this project aside and started work on Giles Goat-Boy. He completed this ”souped-up Bible” in 1965, having worked on it exclusively except for a six-month period from January to June of 1963 when he and his family toured Europe.
After publication of The Sot-Weed Factor, several critics suggested that Barth had relied on Lord Raglan’s twenty-two points of the hero, a systematic progression of heroic moments or archetypes that often figure in mythological tales. Barth had not read Raglan’s treatise, but he decided to investigate the subject thoroughly. He took notes for two years on the hero myth and related notions, especially from Raglan’s The Hero, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and Otto Rank’s The Myth of the Birth of the Hero. Barth also reread Homer, Virgil, and the Gospels before beginning actual composition in 1962. Doubleday published the 710-page Giles Goat-Boy in August 1966. Sales reached 50,000, four times the combined sales of Barth’s first three novels. Giles Goat-Boy even appeared briefly on the best-seller lists. Barth released Lost in the Funhouse in 1968, a collection of what many critics consider the finest examples of postmodern short stories.
Following the success of Giles Goat-Boy, Barth held a series of professorships at prestigious northeastern universities, finishing his academic career at Johns Hopkins University, where he retired from teaching in 1995.
After years of exploring shorter-form storytelling, Barth switched to the challenge of creating “book-end” works when he published Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera in 1994. Purported to be the final work of a fictional character named John Barth, the novel is a meditation on autobiography, memoir, and narrative. In 2008, Barth published The Development, a novel set in a retirement community.
Works in Literary Context
Barth is an eminent practitioner and theoretician of postmodernist fiction, a movement in which literary works are often interpreted as studies of how fiction is created and how reader and text interact. Barth’s approach to writing derives from his belief that the narrative possibilities of the traditional novel have been exhausted. In ”The Literature of Exhaustion,” an essay first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1967, he describes the contemporary experimental writer, who ”confronts an intellectual dead end and employs it against itself to accomplish new human work.” Rather than attempt to convey the experience of reality, Barth investigates authorial imagination in ”novels which imitate the form of the Novel, by an author who imitates the role of the Author.” Recurring features of Barth’s work include black humor, bawdy wordplay, vivid imagery, labyrinthine plots, blurring of past and present, and the often farcical use of mythical and historical characters. Throughout his fiction, Barth is primarily concerned with the question of whether individuals can transcend the innate absurdity of human existence.
Metafiction is a literary style characterized by the author calling the reader’s attention to the fact that the story is a fictional creation existing in its own fabricated reality. This fabricated reality is often reflected back at our own reality, or vice versa. A common metafictional technique is to tell a ”story within a story,” in which the fictional characters are writing their own made-up tales, thereby creating multiple levels of reality: the reality of the reader, the characters in the novel, and the characters within the story created by the character in the novel. There might also be supposedly real sources, such as newspaper articles or interviews with real people, that are in fact made up, created to serve the story. Another common metafictional technique is to have the main character address the author and/or reader, often commenting on the course of the story or directly fore shadowing certain turns of the plot.
Although novels had in the past occasionally employed a self-reflexive technique in which the author would directly address the reader, metafiction added a postmodern element that took the story’s own awareness of itself to a new level, in effect assuming that reality itself was an artificial construct and parodying various literary techniques, as Barth did in Lost in the Funhouse (1968).
Barth is often credited as the father of metafiction, in no small part thanks to his essay’ ‘The Literature of Exhaustion,” published in 1967. The title refers to the genesis of metafiction, which arose from the commonly-held belief among intellectuals around the middle of the twentieth century that the novel, as a story-telling medium, was exhausted and dead. Everything that could be done, stylistically, had been done, some thought, and there were few directions left in which push the envelope of the novelistic form. Thus metafiction, which openly acknowledged the many different forms and techniques of novel-writing, played with and deconstructed them, and became a new technique in its own right.
Eventually, the experimentation of metafiction proved to be its own creative dead end. By the mid-1970s readers were growing tired of literary experimentation for its own sake, and seemed to acknowledge that although there was little uncharted territory left in the novelistic form, that did not necessarily render it obsolete. Although metafiction remains a viable literary subgenre today, its relevance and dominance are much reduced from its heyday of the 1960s.
Works in Critical Context
Barth’s complex and demanding fiction has been the subject of numerous scholarly studies, but general readers often find that ”in his fascinated commitment to the art—and to the criticism—of storytelling, he has no rival,” declares William Pritchard in the New York Times Book Review. John Barth author E. P. Walkiewicz names the subject of his study a ”writer who throughout his career has exhibited great versatility, technical virtuosity, learning, and wit.”
The unpredictable author’s encyclopedic fictions have baffled some critics, yet many reviewers claim to recognize his genius even when pronouncing his novels unreadable or tedious. A review in the Times Literary Supplement rates The Sot-Weed Factor, Giles Goat-Boy, and Chimera ”easily the best worst in modern fiction.” Their author, critics have found, is just as difficult to assess. Efforts to place Barth in a literary category are futile, Walkiewicz explains, due to ”the formal complexity, verbal richness, and eclectic content” of his books.
The Sot-Weed Factor
A complex, epic work with several subplots, The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) secured Barth’s reputation among literary critics and scholars and elicited favorable comparisons to such works as Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Voltaire’s Candide, and Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Leslie Fiedler deemed The Sot-Weed Factor ”closer to the ‘Great American Novel’ than any other book of the last decade,” and Richard Kostelanetz praised it as ”one of the greatest works of fiction of our time.”
In Forum-Service, Leslie Fiedler notes that although the book is a parody, it is nonetheless ”utterly serious, the farce and melodrama evoke terror and pity, and the flagrant mockery of a happy ending constricts the heart. And all the while one laughs, at a pitch somewhere between hysteria and sheer delight.” ”The notion of any serious historical inquiry is undermined” in The Sot-Weed Factor, Tanner maintains. The book reminds us that American history is the result of “storytelling,” one of ”our attempts to name and control the world around us,” McConnell concurs. For Heide Ziegler, The Sot-Weed Factor is ”a, or even the, decisive landmark in the development of postmodern fiction.”
- Bowen, Zack R. A Reader’s Guide to John Barth.Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
- Fogel, Stanley. Understanding John Barth. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
- Lindsay, Alan. Death in the Funhouse: John Barth and Poststructural Aesthetics. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 1995.
- Vine, Richard Allan. John Barth: An Annotated Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1977.
Free essays are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to order a custom essay, research paper, or term paper on any topic and get your high quality paper at affordable price. UniversalEssays is the best choice for those who seek help in essay writing or research paper writing in any field of study.