Frequently Asked Questions
Thanks to Matthew Barbee, Jamie Olson, and Brian Udoff for some of this information. Have some more insights about Barth or his work? Know some biographical tidbits? Send me e-mail and I’ll be happy to include your comments.
When and where was John Barth born?
John Simmons Barth was born on May 27, 1930 in Cambridge, Maryland.
Does Barth have any siblings?
Barth has an older brother Bill and a twin sister Jill. (Add to this the fact that Barth goes by “Jack” and you’ll understand Barth’s interest in the “Jack and Jill” nursery rhyme that pervades Once Upon a Time.)
Where did he receive his education?
Barth was educated at East Cambridge Elementary and Cambridge High in Maryland. He briefly studied “Elementary Theory and Advanced Orchestration” at Juilliard in a futile attempt to be a jazz drummer and orchestrator. (No kidding.) He then attended The Johns Hopkins University as a Writing, Speech and Drama major. (That department would later be renamed the Writing Seminars and invite him back to teach in 1973. Among his classmates were famed New York Times journalist/humorist Russell Baker and actor John Astin of Addams Family fame.) Barth received a B.A. in 1951 and an M.A. in 1952.
Where has Barth taught?
Four universities have been privileged enough to have Barth as a professor: Penn State University (1953-65), SUNY Buffalo (1965-73), Boston University (visiting professor, 1972-73), and The Johns Hopkins University (1973-95). He officially retired from academic life in 1995.
What awards and honors has Barth won?
Barth has been nominated for and received a whole host of awards and honors:
- 1956 — Nominated for the National Book Award for The Floating Opera.
- 1966 — National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in literature.
- 1965 — The Brandeis University creative arts award in fiction.
- 1965-66 — The Rockefeller Foundation grant in fiction.
- 1968 — Nominated for the National Book Award for Lost in the Funhouse.
- 1972 — Awarded the National Book Award for Chimera.
- 1974 — Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
- 1974 — Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
- 1997 — F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Fiction.
- 1998 — Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.
- 1998 — PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story.
- 1999 — Enoch Pratt Society’s Lifetime Achievement in Letters Award.
Who is Shelly, and why does Barth consistently dedicate his books to her?
Shelly Rosenberg is Barth’s second wife. He first met her as her professor at a Penn State English class; the two re-met several years later at a reading in Boston of Barth’s “Menelaiad,” and married in 1970. Barth was fresh from a divorce from his first wife (Anne Strickland), with whom he had three children. Shelly taught at the St. Timothy’s School near Baltimore until her retirement in 1995.
Are John Barth’s books autobiographical?
Barth doesn’t seem to like the term “autobiographical” in reference to his work. Though one can’t help but wonder why all of his recent books revolve around older writers/professors and their younger wives who like to sail around the Chesapeake Bay telling each other stories. But then again, when given a chance to write a straightforward autobiography (in Once Upon a Time), he decides to meld fact with fiction until we don’t know exactly what’s truth and what’s fancy.
Barth explained during his interview to me that he liked to bestow his characters with a piece of autobiographical fact now and then like a medal for good behavior. A paraphrase from Nabokov’s Speak, Memory:
I have noticed that after I had bestowed on the characters of my novels some treasured item of the past, it would pine away in the artificial world where I had so abruptly placed it. Although it lingered on in my mind, its personal warmth, its retrospective appeal had gone and, presently, it became more closely identified with my novel than with my former self, where it had seemed to be so safe from the intrusion of the artist.
What the heck is Postmodernism anyway?
The debate on this question is never-ending, and will probably outlast most of its practitioners (of which Barth is one of the last still publishing). The best quick explanation I can think of is that a postmodern author’s writings show an awareness of the rules and mechanics of storytelling. One great theme of Postmodernism (and Barth’s work in particular) is how stories and the act of storytelling impact our lives. To quote Barth on the subject:
Postmodernism is tying your necktie while simultaneously explaining the step-by-step procedure of necktie-tying and chatting about the history of male neckwear — and managing a perfect full windsor anyhow.
Who are some other authors that would appeal to someone who likes Barth’s work?
Some who have been labeled in the same category as Barth include: Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, Italo Calvino, William H. Gass, Grace Paley, R.M. Koster, Umberto Eco, Vladimir Nabokov, and Robert Coover. More recent authors that have drawn comparisons to Barth are Don DeLillo, Richard Powers, David Eggers and David Foster Wallace. Barth drew a lot of inspiration from the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, and some contemporary Latin American authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez have been compared to Barth. One might really stretch the point and include Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Stone, Joseph Heller, Jerzy Kosinski, Tom Robbins, and Milan Kundera. And I suggest that you wouldn’t be totally insane to squeeze Philip K. Dick somewhere in there as well.
What should I read as background material for Barth’s work?
Although Barth can be read without a grounding in the classics, he does make frequent reference to a number of old standards, such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote, The Canterbury Tales, and the Sanskrit Ocean of Story. I believe every book of Barth’s since Chimera (and perhaps before) mentions Scheherazade and the frame-tale from The Thousand and One Nights. I might suggest as good background material a primer on Greek mythology (like Edith Hamilton’s Mythology or Bulfinch’s) and the works of Joseph Campbell. (Much of Giles Goat-Boy is based on a single chart in Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.) If you’re going to read Coming Soon!!!, see the musical Showboat.
Have any of Barth’s students gone on to noteworthy writing careers themselves?
Some of Barth’s past students include:
- John Casey (Spartina, 1989 National Book Award winner)
- Vikram Chandra (Red Earth and Pouring Rain, Love and Longing in Bombay)
- Louise Erdrich (The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, Love Medicine)
- Michael Martone (The Blue Guide to Indiana, Fort Wayne Is Seventh on Hitler’s List)
- Mary Robison (Oh!, An Amateur’s Guide to the Night, Why Did I Ever)
- Curtis White (Requiem, Memories of My Father Watching TV)
- Nan Knighton (Broadway lyricist for The Scarlet Pimpernel)
Please e-mail me if you know of others (or can verify the ones listed above).
What is Barth’s next book and when is it coming out?
Barth’s latest is Where Three Roads Meet, a collection of three related novellas, which was released by Houghton Mifflin in November of 2005. In his recent interview with Blair Mahoney, Barth postulates that there might be a non-fiction collection to come titled Final Fridays.
How can I contact John Barth?
I do not know Mr. Barth personally, only through his work. (Okay, I did interview him once for 90 minutes, but that’s it.) Try writing him at his latest publisher, Houghton Mifflin:
c/o Houghton Mifflin Company, Trade Division
Adult Editorial, 8th Floor
222 Berkeley Street
Boston, MA 02116-3764
Help! I’m a panicked student trying to write a paper on Lost in the Funhouse. It’s due in four hours and I’m totally lost. Can you help me?
Try Mal’s Barth for Beginners and read the postings at the Yahoo! Barth Group. Look through the resources page. Please don’t plagiarize. And a few years from now when you’re packing up your stuff to leave college and you’re about to give away that crate of Books You Were Supposed To Have Read But Mostly Didn’t, pick up that copy of Lost in the Funhouse you buried next to One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Plumed Serpent and Crime and Punishment, fix yourself a nice cuppa coffee, kick back on the couch and give it another shot. You’ll like it.