John Barth
Barth in 1995
Barth in 1995
Born (1930-05-27) May 27, 1930 (age 92)
Cambridge, Maryland, U.S.
OccupationNovelist, professor
GenrePostmodernism, metafiction
Notable awardsNational Book Award
1973 Chimera

John Simmons Barth (/bɑːrθ/;[1] born May 27, 1930) is an American writer who is best known for his postmodern and metafictional fiction. His most highly regarded and influential works were published in the 1960s, and include The Sot-Weed Factor, a satirical retelling of Maryland's colonial history, and Lost in the Funhouse, a self-referential and experimental collection of short stories. Though Barth's work has been controversial among critics and readers, he was co-recipient of the National Book Award in 1973 for his novel Chimera with John Williams for Augustus. Despite Barth's influence on postmodern literature in America, his influence and publicity have decreased since his novels were published.[2]


John Barth, called "Jack", was born in Cambridge, Maryland. He has an older brother, Bill, and a twin sister Jill. In 1947 he graduated from Cambridge High School, where he played drums and wrote for the school newspaper.[3] He briefly studied "Elementary Theory and Advanced Orchestration" at Juilliard[4] before attending Johns Hopkins University, where he received a B.A. in 1951 and an M.A. in 1952. His thesis novel, The Shirt of Nessus, drew on his experiences at Johns Hopkins.

Barth married Harriet Anne Strickland on January 11, 1950. He published two short stories that same year, one in Johns Hopkins's student literary magazine and one in The Hopkins Review. His daughter, Christine Ann, was born in the summer of 1951. His son, John Strickland, was born the following year.[5]

From 1953 to 1965, Barth was a professor at Pennsylvania State University, where he met his second and current wife, Shelly Rosenberg.[6] His third child, Daniel Stephen, was born in 1954. During the "American high Sixties",[clarification needed] he moved to teach at the State University of New York at Buffalo from 1965 to 1973. In that period he came to know "the remarkable short fiction" of the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, which inspired his collection Lost in the Funhouse.[7]

Barth later taught at Boston University as a visiting professor in 1972–73 and at Johns Hopkins University from 1973 until he retired in 1995.

Literary work

Barth began his career with The Floating Opera and The End of the Road, two short realist[8] novels that deal wittily with controversial topics, suicide and abortion respectively. They are straightforward realistic tales; as Barth later remarked, they "didn't know they were novels".[citation needed]

The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) was initially intended as the completing novel of a trilogy comprising his first two "realist" novels, but, as a consequence of Barth's maturation as a writer, it developed into a different project.[8] The novel is significant as it marked Barth's discovery of postmodernism.[9]

Barth's next novel, Giles Goat-Boy (about 800 pages), is a speculative fiction based on the conceit of the university as universe. Giles, a boy raised as a goat, discovers his humanity and becomes a savior in a story presented as a computer tape given to Barth, who denied that it was his work. In the course of the novel Giles carries out all the tasks prescribed by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Barth kept a list of the tasks taped to his wall while he was writing the book.[citation needed][clarification needed]

The short story collection Lost in the Funhouse (1968) and the novella collection Chimera (1972) are even more metafictional than their two predecessors, foregrounding the writing process and presenting achievements such as a seven-deep nested quotation. Chimera shared the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction.[10]

In the novel LETTERS (1979), Barth interacts with characters from his first six books.

His 1994 Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera, reuses stock characters, stock situations and formulas.[9]

Styles, approaches and artistic criteria

Barth's work is characterized by a historical awareness of literary tradition[11] and by the practice of rewriting typical of postmodernism. He said, "I don't know what my view of history is, but insofar as it involves some allowance for repetition and recurrence, reorchestration, and reprise [...] I would always want it to be more in the form of a thing circling out and out and becoming more inclusive each time."[12][13] In Barth's postmodern sensibility, parody is a central device.[14]

Around 1972, in an interview, Barth declared that "The process [of making a novel] is the content, more or less."[15][16]

Barth's fiction continues to maintain a precarious balance between postmodern self-consciousness and wordplay and the sympathetic characterization and "page-turning" plotting commonly associated with more traditional genres and subgenres of classic and contemporary storytelling.[citation needed]


While writing these books, Barth was also pondering and discussing the theoretical problems of fiction writing.

In 1967, he wrote a highly influential[17] and, to some, controversial[18] essay considered a manifesto of postmodernism, The Literature of Exhaustion (first printed in The Atlantic, 1967). It depicts literary realism as a "used-up" tradition; Barth's description of his own work, which many thought illustrated a core trait of postmodernism, is "novels which imitate the form of a novel, by an author who imitates the role of author".[19]

The essay was widely considered a statement of "the death of the novel",[citation needed] (compare with Roland Barthes' "The Death of the Author"). Barth has since insisted that he was merely making clear that a particular stage in history was passing, and pointing to possible directions from there. He later (1980) wrote a follow-up essay, "The Literature of Replenishment", to clarify the point.


Selected works



See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ "Barth". Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.
  2. ^ Domini, John (27 May 2020). "John Barth Deserves a Wider Audience". Literary Hub. Retrieved 14 April 2022.
  3. ^ Giles, James, R. and Wanda H. (2000). American Novelists Since World War II: Sixth Series. Michigan: Gale. p. 38. ISBN 0787631361.
  4. ^ Townsend, Victoria. Pennsylvania Center for the Book. Spring 2005 Archived 2011-09-16 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ Giles, James, R. and Wanda H. (2000). American Writers Since World War II: Sixth Series. Michigan: Gale. p. 38. ISBN 0787631361.
  6. ^ "John Barth" FAQ, Archived 2018-01-25 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ Barth (1984) intro to The Literature of Exhaustion, in The Friday Book.
  8. ^ a b John Barth (1987) Foreword to Doubleday Anchor Edition of The Sot-Weed Factor
  9. ^ a b Clavier, Berndt (2007) John Barth and Postmodernism: Spatiality, Travel, Montage pp. 165–167
  10. ^ a b "National Book Awards – 1973". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-30.
    (With acceptance speech by Barth and two essays by Harold Augenbraum from the Awards' 60-year anniversary blog. The essay nominally about Williams and Augustus includes Augenbraum's discussion of the split award.)
  11. ^ Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut
  12. ^ Elias, Amy J. (2001) Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction. p. 224.
  13. ^ Lampkin, Loretta M.; Barth, John "An Interview with John Barth". Contemporary Literature, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Winter 1988), pp. 485-497.
  14. ^ Hutcheon Linda. Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox. pp. 50-51.
  15. ^ Samet, Tom. "The Modulated Vision: Lionel Trilling's 'Larger Naturalism'". Critical Inquiry, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Spring 1978), pp. 539–557.
    Quotation: novel is the process of its own making. "The process is the content, more or less," John Barth has recently declared,38 thus turning [Mark] Schorer's position on its head.
  16. ^ Prescott, Peter S.; Prescott, Anne Lake. Encounters with American Culture, Volume 2, p. 137. Google Books.
  17. ^ [1] Contemporary Literature 2000
  18. ^ "The Literature of Exhaustion". Archived from the original on 2012-05-21. Retrieved 2010-09-16.
  19. ^ p.72
  20. ^ "National Book Awards – 1956". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-30.
  21. ^ "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 2011-05-18.
  22. ^ John Barth Wins Iranian Literary Prize, Powell's Books.
  23. ^ John Barth's statement to Iranian literary prize, Roozi Rozegari.

Further reading