John Barth: Contribution as American Writer

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      John Simmons Barth grew up in Cambridge, Maryland on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, the geographical location of many of his novels. Educated at John Hopkins University, he returned to teach in 1973. The Floating Opera (1956) is about a nihilist contemplating suicide and is informed by the sense of the absurd that has colored all his work. He is a native of Maryland and more interested in how a story is told than in the story itself; but where Pynchon deludes the reader by false trails and possible clues out of detective novels. Barth entices his audience into a carnival fun house full of distorting mirrors that exaggerate some features while minimizing others. Realism is the enemy for Barth, the author of The Last in the Funhouse (1968), 14 stories that constantly referred to the process of writing and reading. Barth’s intent is to alert the reader to the artificial nature of reading and writing, and to prevent him or her from being drawn into the story as if it were real.

      To explode the illusion of realism, Barth uses panoply of reflective devices to remind his audience that they are reading. Barth’s earlier works like those of Saul Bellow were questioning existential and took up the 1950s - themes of escape and wandering. In The Floating Opera (1956) a man considers suicide. The End of the Road (1958) concerns a complex love affair. The narrator begins to tell with this story a sly parody of the opening sentence of Moby-Dick: “In a sense, I am Jake Hamer”. The use of the language to set up the distance is characteristic of the distance several including between reader and character; between the narrator and character; the world inside the text and the world outside the text. His texts and character are constantly commenting on themselves, or inviting or insisting on such comment.

      The works of 1960s became more comical and less realistic. The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) parodies an 18th century picaresque style, while Giles Goat Boy (1966) is parody of the world seen as a university. It begins with the fictive letters of introduction by several editors that suggest, among other things, that the author is unhealthy, embittered, and desperately unpleasant, perhaps masturbating, perhaps alcoholic or insane. Chimera (1972) retells tales from Greek mythology, and Letters (1979) uses Barth as a Character as Normal Mailer does in Armies at the Night. In Sabbatical: A Romance (1982), Barth uses the popular fiction motive of the spy; this is the story of a woman college professor and her husband, a retired secret agent turned novelist. Barth’s narrative technique may seem occasionally attractive but to evacuate voice is to erase identity, place and presence. To abandon language, and its difficulties is to surrender to death. He was a novelist, playwright and short story writer.

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