American Literature John Barth
by
Berndt Clavier
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0121

Introduction

John Barth (b. 1930) grew up in Cambridge, Maryland, and has spent most of his life around the Chesapeake Bay. He entered Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1947 and graduated with BA and MA degrees in creative writing in 1951 and 1953, respectively. Throughout his career as a novelist, Barth has taught creative writing at various universities. Between 1953 and 1965, he taught at Penn State University, and from 1965 to 1973 he taught at the State University of New York, Buffalo (with a visiting professorship at Boston University in 1972–1973). In 1973 he returned to Johns Hopkins to preside over the Writing Seminars, where he continued to teach until his retirement in 1995. It is possible to sense the connection to the university in Barth’s fiction, which is highly self-reflexive in philosophical and analytical ways. Barth’s oeuvre, which to date spans seventeen works of fiction and three collections of nonfiction, might be described as a developing awareness of the ways life and reality are encased in representational structures, most notably of the narrative kind. This exploration of narrativity begins with Barth’s first protagonist, Todd Andrews, writing an “Inquiry” into his own life, and develops, first as an active engagement with historical forms of fiction (metafictional parodies of the 18th-century novel, the historical novel, the epistolary novel, ancient myth, the story cycle) to what Barth himself has called “the Boundary,” a liminal space, where fiction seeps quietly and continuously into reality. The transformation from exploring historical forms of literature through metafiction to a more sustained, phenomenological, yet playful engagement with questions of reality and subjectivity, has been described by critics as a development from “comic nihilism” and black humor fiction in The Floating Opera (1956) and The End of the Road (1958) to the discovery of postmodernism proper The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) and Giles Goat-Boy; Or, The Revised New Syllabus (1966). Barth has himself endorsed such a view of his literary output, above all in his two famous essays, “The Literature of Exhaustion” (1967) and “The Literature of Replenishment” (1980) and in his memoir/novel, Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera (1994). Barth has always been highly interested in the materiality of fiction, asking questions about the transformation of storytelling as it has moved from oral culture to a text-based culture and, more recently, to hypertext. His sixth work of fiction, Chimera (1972), a collection of three novellas, earned Barth the National Book Award in 1973 (which he shared with John Edward Williams).

General Overviews

Even though Barth is considered to be one of the most important American authors of the 20th century, there are only a handful of comprehensive single-author studies of his fiction, none of which encompass his later fiction. This is likely due to the technical and philosophical sophistication of Barth’s writing, which induces critics to either do comparative work or to work on Barth in terms of a conceptual, less biographical approach. The book-length studies that are listed here begin with Arlart 1984 and end with Lindsay 1995, leaving all of the work after The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor outside of this type of study. The most valuable of the general overviews from an advanced student’s and researcher’s perspective are Harris 1983 and Tobin 1992, while Fogel and Slethaug 1990 mostly addresses the general reader. If there is one general criticism to be made about most of the general overviews of Barth’s work, it is that the authors often follow patterns of interpretation established by Barth himself. Recent criticism has shown that there is much insight to be gained from developing more independent perspectives.

  • Arlart, Ursula. “Exhaustion” und “replenishment”: die Fiktion in der Fiktion bei John Barth. Heidelberg, Germany: C. Winter Universitätsverlag, 1984.

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    Written in German, this review focuses on the philosophical and aesthetic consequences of the “fiction-within-the-fiction” technique in Barth’s writing. Arlart’s argument stays close to Barth’s own commentary in essays and interviews. Barth’s writing is divided into three distinct phases: epistemological crisis (first two novels); exhaustion, beginning with The Sot-Weed Factor; and a phase of replenishment, beginning with Chimera.

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  • Fogel, Stan, and Gordon Slethaug. Understanding John Barth. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

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    Aims to be an introduction to Barth’s fiction from The Floating Opera to Tidewater Tales: A Novel, and is written for the student and nonacademic reader. It contains detailed discussions of the plots of each of Barth’s fictions, together with some critical commentaries and useful cross-references within Barth’s body of work, such as a list of major and minor characters.

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  • Glaser-Wöhrer, Evelyn. An Analysis of John Barth’s Weltanschauung: His View of Life and Literature. Salzburg, Austria: University Salzburg, Inst. f. Engl. Sprache u. Literatur, 1977.

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    Barth’s fiction is analyzed in terms of the philosophical ideas they seem to endorse, based on readings of his work as well as his own statements in interviews and essays. Barth is situated in a broad “existentialist” tradition of primarily European philosophy (Karl Jaspers, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Martin Heidegger). In appendices, two long interviews with Barth are presented.

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  • Harris, Charles B. Passionate Virtuosity: The Fiction of John Barth. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.

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    The best overview of Barth’s fiction to date, covering Barth’s writing up to LETTERS. Each text is given a detailed explication and is approached as a developing stage in Barth’s career. Incorporates a lot of theory and philosophy (primarily Continental) in his readings of Barth’s texts.

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  • Lindsay, Alan. Death in the FUNhouse: John Barth and Poststructuralist Aesthetics. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.

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    Concerned with Barth’s fiction up to The Last Voyage in terms of post-structuralist concepts such as “the death of the author,” “jouissance,” and “différance” Valuable contribution to understanding Sabbatical and Tidewater Tales in terms of the Cold War, an approach shared in works such as Schaub 1991 (cited under the End of the Road) and Grausam 2011 (cited under Postmodernism).

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  • Schulz, Max F. The Muses of John Barth: Tradition and Metafiction from Lost in the Funhouse to The Tidewater Tales. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

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    General overview of Barth’s fiction beginning with Lost in the Funhouse and ending with Tidewater Tales, but concerns itself mostly with LETTERS (4 of its 6 chapters deal with it). The focus of Schulz’s analysis is Barth’s metafictional self-consciousness and the relationship of this technical orientation to the Western canonical tradition of the novel.

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  • Tobin, Patricia Drechsel. John Barth and the Anxiety of Continuance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

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    Explores Harold Bloom’s notion of poetic influence on Barth’s work from The Floating Opera to The Last Voyage. Tobin argues that Barth’s novels up to Sabbatical can be read through Bloom’s notion of the “anxiety of influence,” but that from Sabbatical on Barth no longer engages his literary forbearers. Instead, Barth rewrites his own previous fictions, thus producing an “anxiety of continuance.”

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  • Ziegler, Heide. John Barth. London and New York: Methuen, 1987.

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    Argues that “Barth’s novels come in pairs [where each] functions according to the same principle: the first ‘exhausts’ a particular genre, the second transcends or ‘replenishes’ it” (17). After a short biographical introduction, there are chapters on his fictions from The Floating Opera to Sabbatical read in terms of the principle of exhaustion and subsequent replenishment.

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Primary Texts

There are no critical or scholarly editions of Barth’s novels, short stories, and nonfiction. All of Barth’s work is still readily available. The subsections here are divided into four: Novels 1956–1979, Novels 1982–2011, Short Fiction and Nonfiction.

Novels 1956–1979

The Floating Opera (Barth 1956) and The End of the Road (Barth 1958) are generally understood to be less experimental than the novels after The Sot-Weed Factor (Barth 1960). The success of Giles Goat-Boy (Barth 1966) prompted Doubleday to print revised versions of Barth’s first three novels. The last novel of this section, LETTERS (Barth 1979), is considered to be Barth’s most experimental.

Novels 1982–2011

With Sabbatical (Barth 1982), Barth returns to a less formally experimental type of writing. Tidewater repeats the narrative content of Sabbatical and is in many ways a rewriting and expansion of the former novel. The Last Voyage (Barth 1991) ingeniously reinvents the possibilities of narrative reenactment by pushing experiential forms of writing such as journalism, autobiography, and travel writing to their limits, a strategy repeated with Once Upon a Time (Barth 1994), where the genre of the novel is used to infuse the memoir with new possibilities. Coming Soon!!! (Barth 2001) is a return to the intensely self-referential games of the earlier period, and Every Third Thought (Barth 2011) expands upon the theme of old age and death begun in Coming Soon!!!.

Short Fiction

Most of Barth’s short fiction is experimental and explores the limits of the short story form, both as a narrative with beginning, middle, and end, and as a delimited entity set apart from the stories that surround it. Lost in the Funhouse (Barth 1968) is a “series” and Chimera (Barth 1972) consists of three novellas of repeating themes and motifs, as does Where Three Roads Meet (Barth 2005). On with the Story (Barth 1996) is an experiment with the story cycle form, and The Book of Ten Nights and a Night (Barth 2004) is a collection of Barth’s writing spun around the fateful events of the terrorist attack of 9/11.

Nonfiction

The Friday Books—Barth 1984, Barth 1995, and Barth 2012—are straightforward collections of essays, introductions, and lectures, beginning with a lecture at Hiram College in 1960 and ending with Barth’s reflection on the end of his writing life in 2012.

Reference Works

There are no comprehensive evaluative surveys of Barth scholarship and criticism to date. Of greatest value, therefore, are the two extensive bibliographies written in the 1970s and the finding aid composed by Morton for the John Barth papers (Morton 2014, cited under Bibliographies).

Bibliographies

There are two good bibliographies of criticism on Barth’s fiction, Walsh and Northouse 1977 and Weixlmann 1976. Of the two, Weixlmann 1976 is the more complete and exhaustive. A much smaller and earlier version of Weixlmann’s bibliography is also available in Weixlmann 1972. As of 2014, the John Barth papers are housed in the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University; see Morton 2014 for a finding aid.

  • Morton, Matt. “The John Barth Collection MS.499.” 2014.

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    Finding aid for the John Barth collection at the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University. According to the document, “The collection spans the years 1930 to 2014 and consists of manuscripts, typescripts, and galley proofs of Barth’s writings; correspondence; reviews; and other professional papers.”

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  • Walsh, Thomas P., and Cameron Northouse. John Barth, Jerzy Kosinski, and Thomas Pynchon: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977.

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    Lists all the published work by Barth up to Chimera, including the then uncollected short fiction. This is followed by an extensive annotated bibliography listing criticism of Barth’s work from 1956 to 1973. There is an author index cross-referencing the critics who have published on Barth and the works by Barth that have received critical commentaries.

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  • Weixlmann, Joseph. “John Barth: A Bibliography.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 13.3 (1972): 45–55.

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    Weixlmann’s first bibliography. It is a short text that does not compete with the book-length bibliography published four years later (Weixlmann 1976). But it does contain roughly the same sections and is a great beginning for someone interested in the early criticism of Barth’s work.

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  • Weixlmann, Joseph. John Barth?: A Descriptive Primary and Annotated Secondary Bibliography, Including a Descriptive Catalog of Manuscript Holdings in United States Libraries. New York: Garland, 1976.

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    The authoritative bibliography, including an annotated listing of reviews and essays about Barth’s work. It contains all publications by Barth and a descriptive catalogue of manuscript holdings at US libraries. It also has lists of recordings, interviews, and panel discussions where Barth has participated. The book ends with five indexes: a subject index, author index, title index, periodical index, and publisher index.

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Short Biographical Materials

Although there are many short biographical sketches in the general overviews written about Barth’s fiction, none contain any actual biographical research. Nelles 2000 is a portrait of Barth and is probably the best starting point for information about Barth’s life and work. MacGowan 2011 is a recent and informative account. D’haen 2002 is a sketch of Barth as a postmodernist and is also a good starting place. Raper 2006 and Lawson 1985 try to determine the extent to which Barth is a southern writer. Klinkowitz 1985 assesses Barth’s contribution to American fiction, something that is far too uncommon in Barth criticism, which tends to toward hagiography.

  • D’haen, Theo. “John Barth.” In Postmodernism: The Key Figures. Edited by Hans Bertens and Joseph Natoli, 32–37. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

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    Short biographical article outlining Barth’s fiction up until On with the Story.

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  • Klinkowitz, Jerome. “John Barth: Fiction in an Age of Criticism.” In Literary Subversion: New American Fiction and the Practice of Criticism. By Jerome Klinkowitz, 3–18. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.

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    Critical assessment of Barth’s oeuvre up to LETTERS. Klinkowitz is critical of Barth for not taking the historical avant-garde movements of European literature on board in his critique of representational art.

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  • Lawson, Lewis A. “John Barth.” In The History of Southern Literature. Edited by Louis D. Rubin Jr., Blyden Jackson, S. Moore Rayburn, Lewis P. Simpson, and Thomas Daniel Young, 516–518. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.

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    Short biographical sketch of Barth, which enumerates the fiction up to Sabbatical. The primary interest is the degree to which Barth may be seen as a writer exploring the South.

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  • MacGowan, Christopher. “John Barth.” In The Twentieth-Century American Fiction Handbook. By Christopher MacGowan, 143–148. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

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    Short biographical article on Barth covering his education, employment and how these coincide with the publication of his work up to On with the Story.

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  • Nelles, William. “John Barth.” In American Novelists since World War II: Sixth Series. Edited by James R. Giles and Wanda H. Giles, 37–54. Dictionary of Literary Biography LB 227. Detroit: Gale, 2000.

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    The most comprehensive resource on Barth’s life to date. The focus is on Barth’s career within the university and on his relationship to the literary and critical establishment of American fiction.

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  • Raper, Julius Rowan. “John Barth.” In Southern Writers: A New Biographical Dictionary. Edited by Amber Vogel and Joseph M. Flora, 16–18. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.

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    Short biographical article on Barth, covering his education, employment, and the literary awards that he has received.

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Interviews

Barth is hard to interview, and there is always the feeling that he is not really interested in the questions put to him. With this in mind, McKenzie 1976 is a good starting point, since it is clear that Barth respects both Gass and Reed. Plimpton 1986, in the Paris Review, is another excellent place to begin. Reilly 1981 and Ziegler and Bigsby 1982 capture Barth reflecting on his writing from midcareer, whereas Sodowsky 1993, Plumley 1994, and Major 1997 are interviews with a more technical focus. Reilly 2000 is the best of the later interviews.

  • Major, Pamela. “‘My Next Last Novel’: An Interview with John Barth.” Writing on the Edge 8.2 (1997): 91–103.

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    Interview conducted in April 1997 at a conference on Italo Calvino where Barth was the keynote speaker. The interviewer asks questions about Barth’s 20th, his understanding of creativity, his use of technology when writing, and how he feels about teaching creative writing. The interview settles on his latest work at the time, On with the Story: Stories.

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  • McKenzie, James. “Pole-Vaulting in Top Hats: A Public Conversation with John Barth, William Gass, and Ishmael Reed.” Modern Fiction Studies 22 (1976): 131–151.

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    A “close to verbatim transcript” of a conversation between Barth, William Gass, and Ishmael Reed, which took place at the sixth annual University of North Dakota Writers Conference in March 1975. The theme of the conference was the “Spirit of Place.” The conversation focuses on the metaphorical qualities of recent fiction, particularly Barth’s.

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  • Plimpton, George. “John Barth, The Art of Fiction No. 86.” In Writers at Work?: TheParis Review” Interviews, 7th Series. Edited by George Plimpton, 228–239. London: Secker & Warburg, 1986.

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    Plimpton’s famous Paris Review interview with Barth. This volume is of great interest to researchers because it contains roughly contemporaneous interviews with writers such as Eugene Ionesco, Philip Roth, Raymond Carver, Edna O’Brien, and others, which opens up possibilities of comparison. Plimpton’s questions revolve around how Barth took up writing and how he understands his art.

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  • Plumley, William. “An Interview with John Barth.” Chicago Review 40.4 (1994): 6–18.

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    Barth’s understanding of metafiction and postmodernism is discussed. The interview also addresses Barth’s ideas about the neuro-scientific nature of storytelling and how the biological makeup of the brain relates to creative writing. The interview ends with Barth reflecting on literary history.

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  • Reilly, Charlie. “An Interview with John Barth.” Contemporary Literature 22.1 (1981): 1–23.

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    From 1979, and one of the longest interviews given by Barth. Begins by discussing LETTERS, particularly its relationship to the 18th-century novel and to Barth’s essays, “The Literature of Exhaustion” and “The Literature of Replenishment.” There is also a brief and informative discussion of the relevance of the social and political climate of the sixties to Barth’s LETTERS.

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  • Reilly, Charlie. “An Interview with John Barth.” Contemporary Literature 41.4 (2000): 589–617.

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    Conducted on 30 July 1998. It contains a brief but good summary of Barth’s work and focuses on The Last Voyage, Once Upon a Time, and On with the Story. There is also some retrospective dialogue on Barth’s fiction and nonfiction.

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  • Sodowsky, Roland. “An Interview with John Barth.” Short Story 1.1 (1993): 110–118.

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    Conducted at the Second International Conference of the Short Story in English, 4–7 June 1992. The form of the short story is discussed, along with the metafictional aspects of Barth’s fiction, and the way this technique uses repetitions. The discussion spills over into ideas about storytelling, Barth’s attraction to the Nights, and his views on teaching creative writing.

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  • Ziegler, Heide, and Christopher Bigsby. “John Barth.” In The Radical Imagination and the Liberal Tradition: Interviews with English and American Novelists. Edited by Heide Ziegler and Christopher Bigsby, 14–38. London: Junction Books, 1982.

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    Book of interviews with contemporary British and American novelists. Two interviews with Barth from 1977 and 1979. The first one covers issues such as Barth’s views on liberalism, the concept of the self, the notion of the hero in fiction, and Barth’s development of mythical patterns in his fictions. The later interview deals exclusively with LETTERS.

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Criticism

This section is divided into three subsections: the first dealing with Collections of criticism, the second with criticism of specific works and the third with criticism on special topics in the criticism of Barth’s work.

Collections

To this date, there are only three published collections of criticism on the work of Barth. Two of them are special volumes of journals devoted to Barth’s fiction, Richard 1985 and O’Brien 1990. The third, and best, is Waldmeir 1980, a collection of “a fairly representative selection of approaches and attitudes, both favorable and unfavorable, toward [Barth’s] work” (p. ix).

  • O’Brien, John, ed. Special Issue: John Barth/David Markson. Review of Contemporary Fiction 10.2 (1990).

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    This is a volume of The Review of Contemporary Fiction covering a varied assortment of topics, including intertextual connections to Latin American writing, Barth’s early reception as a black humorist, Barth’s cyclic and repetitive metafictional technique, and the sexual metaphors and the idea of authorship that becomes explicit in Barth’s fiction.

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  • Richard, Claude, ed. Special Issue: John Barth. Delta 21 (1985).

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    Edited volume of criticism featuring an interview with Barth followed by critical analyses on The Floating Opera, The End of the Road, The Sot-Weed Factor, three essays on Lost in the Funhouse, and an essay in French on LETTERS.

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  • Waldmeir, Joseph J. Critical Essays on John Barth. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.

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    This book-length collection of critical articles from various journals is indispensable for anyone with a scholarly interest in Barth’s fiction. Five introductory essays deal with Barth’s fiction in general terms, followed by sections on each of Barth’s published fictions, from The Floating Opera to Chimera, containing several articles each.

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Novels

The abundance of articles and books addressing Barth’s early and middle novels is overwhelming. In order to address the wealth and breadth of this work, each of his novels from this period is given its own subsection. The criticism addressing Sabbatical and Tidewater is much more scant, which is why criticism of these two novels form one subsection. The later work by Barth has hardly received any sustained critical attention at all. The criticism with a broader reach than one novel is collected in the Special Topics sections.

The Floating Opera

Most of the criticism in this subsection is of fairly recent date. This is not to suggest that the earlier criticism is less valuable, only that it is already well represented in other sections, for instance, in the sections on General Overviews and Collections. Haddox 2008 and Seguin 2001 focus on race, opening a new direction in Barth scholarship, partly shared by Conti 2005 in its discussion of cynicism. Couturier 1991 adds a needed discussion of the materiality of the printed medium to the analysis of Barth’s metafictional play of voices. The metafictional exploration of narrativity receives lively attention in Le Clair 1973, Pruvot 1986, and Toth 2010 (cited under Postmodernism). Also of great value is Zivley 1978, a collation of the two versions of the novel.

  • Conti, Chris. “Irony, Cynicism and Satire in The Floating Opera.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 61.4 (2005): 127–160.

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    Analyzes The Floating Opera in the context of Peter Sloterdijk’s notion of cynical reason. It also contains an interesting discussion of Barth’s entire career, which Conti argues has been falsely divided by the critics into a phase of realism (the two first novels) and the rest of his output (understood as some form of metafiction).

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  • Couturier, Maurice. “From Displacement to Compactness: John Barth’s The Floating Opera.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 33.1 (1991): 3–21.

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    Argues that The Floating Opera should be read as an allegory of the process of writing and reading in the context of printed text. Couturier traces the elaborate entanglements and references of five “‘storical’ layers” in the novel (p. 7).

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  • Haddox, Thomas F. “John Barth’s The Floating Opera and Southern Modernism of the 1950s.” Twentieth Century Literature 54.3 (2008): 307–338.

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    Argues that the novel can be seen as an “intervention in the staging of southern/conservative and American/liberal values” (p. 310) together with a desire to produce a complex “response to the cultural and political matrix of southern modernism” (p. 315) This matrix includes an important discussion of Todd’s racism, which Haddox analyzes in terms of Peter Sloterdijk’s notion of “cynical reason.”

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  • Le Clair, Thomas. “John Barth’s The Floating Opera: Death and the Craft of Fiction.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 14.4 (1973): 711–730.

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    Argues that the key to understanding the novel lies in its “mode of narration,” in the way that the narrator becomes the first “protean fictionalizer” of Barth, tracing the “novelistic conflict between imagination [and] the unfortunately necessary disguises or illusions, which they recognize as such, to control their lives (p. 711).

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  • Pruvot, Monique. “The Floating Opera de John Barth: Le Bateau-Livre.” Etudes Anglaises: Grande-Bretagne, Etats-Unis 39.1 (1986): 62–77.

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    Compelling reading in French of The Floating Opera, which foregrounds the novel’s self-referentiality. Argues that the functions of the artist and the reader are redefined, because, at every level, the narrative situation constantly raises the crucial question of its own possibility. Comparisons are made to Pollock’s paintings, and to the philosophy of Schopenhauer and the psychoanalysis of Lacan.

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  • Seguin, Robert. “Into the 1950s: Fiction in the Age of Consensus.” In Around Quitting Time?: Work and Middle-Class Fantasy in American Fiction. By Robert Seguin, 121–152. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.

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    Discusses the novel in the context of mass society and the “massification” of culture. The analysis revolves around the concept of “seriality” as it is developed by Jean-Paul Sartre in his Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960, trans. 1976). The chapter also touches on the racial aspects of the minstrel show and its relation to contemporary middle-class culture.

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  • Zivley, Sherry Lutz. “A Collation of John Barth’s Floating Opera.” PBSA: Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 72 (1978): 201–212.

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    Invaluable collation from twelve different versions and drafts of the novel collected in the Library of Congress. Zivley argues that these revisions fall into three categories: condensations (which occur for all of Barth’s novels vis-à-vis their drafts), revisions to appease his 1956 editor, and revisions for the 1967 edition.

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The End of the Road

Criticism dealing exclusively with The End of the Road is less abundant than the criticism on The Floating Opera. Conti 2012 is a valuable contribution to understanding the novel in terms of its philosophical exploration of values. Schaub 1991 is a fine reading of the Cold War politics set within the novel and opens up a renewed discussion of the politics of postmodernism. Winchell 1989 is a discussion of nihilism and existentialism and a more updated version of issues that were recognized early on as fundamental for an understanding of the novel. Hoskins 1979 discusses historical differences in satirical attitude between Swift, Dickens, and Barth. Hirsh 1972 and Smith 1963 address the existentialist and nihilistic concerns of the novel.

  • Conti, Christopher. “The Aesthetic Alibi in The End of the Road.” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies 58.1 (2012): 79–111.

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    Addresses the early discussions of Barth’s existentialism and aestheticism as a starting point for a complex discussion of the relationship between values and art in a postwar American society divided between modernism and mass culture. Conti takes his cue from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1981) but historicizes his argument.

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  • Hirsh, David. “John Barth’s Freedom Road.” Mediterranean Review 2.3 (1972): 38–47.

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    Draws on Albert Camus’s notion of the separation of consciousness and the world and argues that The End of the Road is a novel about the “self-destructiveness of self-consciousness” (p. 39).

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  • Hoskins, Robert V., III. “Swift, Dickens, and the Horses in The End of the Road.” James Madison Journal 37 (1979): 18–32.

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    Explores affinities between Barth’s novel and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854). In the process, Hoskins discusses some of the continuities and discontinuities between postmodernist fiction and earlier historical forms of the novel.

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  • Schaub, Thomas H. “Ahab at the Pepsi Stand: Existentialism and Mass Culture in Barth’s The End of the Road.” In American Fiction in the Cold War. By Thomas H. Schaub, 163–184. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

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    Original and compelling reading of the novel. What looks like a philosophical engagement with existentialism, according to Schaub, is instead a critique of American liberal postwar ideology. Schaub argues that the inability to see this political context has led critics astray in their reading of the novel.

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  • Smith, Herbert F. “Barth’s Endless Road.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 6.2 (1963): 68–76.

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    Argues that The End of the Road is a “condensed and systematic study of the problems of nihilism” (p. 68–69), and that the parody of the novel is a technique used to transpose “the patently ridiculous literal level of the novel to its more serious abstract ethical level” (p. 70).

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  • Winchell, Mark. “Beyond Existentialism; Or, The American Novel at the End of the Road.” In Modern American Fiction: Form and Function. Edited by Thomas Daniel Young, 225–236. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

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    Discusses Barth’s aesthetic concerns with “nothingness.” Begins with The Floating Opera and continues by discussing how Jake Horner in The End of the Road accepts “‘the terrific incompleteness” of the world (p. 136). Winchell ends the article with a reflection on whether this acceptance of meaninglessness is not defeatist, even if it moves beyond the modernist’s interpretation of nothingness.

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The Sot-Weed Factor

The changes made by Barth to the revised, 1967 edition are discussed by Jordan 1977. Scott 2007, concerning Barth’s parodic enactment of the 18th-century novel, is a pertinent commentary on the history of aesthetic forms. As a general tendency in the criticism of this novel, the themes of nihilism and absurdism are abandoned in favor of historiographical concerns. Weixlmann 1975, Ruth 1984, and Wisner 2014 are examples of this proclivity. Even when nihilism is addressed directly, as is the case with Conti 2011, it is made to face history. Dippie 1969 was the first to address the question of race in Barth’s fiction. Ziegler 1980 is a reading of the novel that stays close to Barth’s own arguments in “The Literature of Replenishment” (see Barth 1984, cited under Primary Texts: Nonfiction).

  • Conti, Christopher. “Nihilism Negated Narratively: The Agency of Art in ‘The Sot-Weed Factor.’” Papers on Language & Literature 47.2 (2011): 141–161.

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    Adresses the “theme of paralysis induced by reason” (p. 141), which also is an important element of Barth’s earlier novels. Here the paralysis is negated through the telling of stories. This focus on narrativity marks a turning point in Barth’s career. Henceforth, the tragic nihilism is abandoned in favor of a form of historical and narrative vitalism.

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  • Dippie, Brian W. “‘His Visage Wild, His Form Exotick’: Indian Themes and Cultural Guilt in John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor.” American Quarterly 21.1 (1969): 113–121.

    DOI: 10.2307/2710776Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that Barth examines questions of historical (or cultural) guilt, which arise “from the presence of the Indian” (p. 115). This presence is incorporated into the novel’s major theme, which is “the search for identity in America” (p. 116). The article is an early commentary on race in Barth’s fiction.

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  • Jordan, Enoch P. “‘A Quantum Swifter and More Graceful’: John Barth’s Revisions of The Sot-Weed Factor.” Proof: Yearbook of American Bibliographical and Textual Studies 5 (1977): 171–182.

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    Collation of the first and the revised editions of The Sot-Weed Factor, following Zivley 1978 (cited under the Floating Opera). Shows how Barth in his revisions begins to trust his readers’ ability to recognize literary allusion by omitting some of the explanation and direct commentary.

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  • Ruth, Wolfgang. “‘Meager Fact and Solid Fancy’: Die Erfindung der Vergangenheit in John Barths The Sot-Weed Factor (1960).” Anglistik & Englischunterricht 24 (1984): 97–116.

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    In German. Discusses the invention of history in the novel. Particularly useful because it lists how other critics have received the historical component. Also discusses Barth’s use of the source materials, particularly The Archives of Maryland. Concludes that the novel is a fictional expression of contemporary historiographical concerns.

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  • Scott, Robert. “‘Dizzy with the Beauty of the Possible’: The Sot-Weed Factor and the Narrative Exhaustion of the Eighteenth-Century Novel.” In On Second Thought: Updating the Eighteenth-Century Text. Edited by Debra Taylor Bourdeau and Elizabeth Kraft, 193–209. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2007.

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    Discussion of the ways in which Barth installs and subverts 18th-century plot devices and stylistic techniques. Argues that the tight plot structure undercuts the novels ambition to imitate Sterne and Smollett. This became obvious on the publication of the revised edition, which could not be trimmed the way the editors at Doubleday had wished.

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  • Weixlmann, Joseph. “‘. . . such a devotee of Venus Is Our Capt . . .’: The Use and Abuse of Smith’s Generall Historie in John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor.” Studies in American Humor 2.2 (1975): 105–115.

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    Detailed account of Barth’s parodic treatment of John Smith’s Generall Historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles (1624), which contains the Pocahontas myth. Weixlmann carefully registers which portions of the Generall Historie are used and which are transformed by the additional fictional “documents,” down to minutiae such as linguistic gleanings from Smith’s own glossary.

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  • Wisner, Buell. “Textual Relics and Metaphysical Flux: Anti-Historicism in John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor.” CEA Critic 76.1 (2014): 37–51.

    DOI: 10.1353/cea.2014.0006Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that Barth imitates several of the stylistic and narrative conventions of the historical novel, but that he negates these conventions on a philosophical level. The essay contains many examples and descriptions of the stylistic and narrative elements parodied by Barth and is useful for its attention to detail.

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  • Ziegler, Heide. “John Barth’s Sot-Weed Factor Revisited: The Meaning of Form.” Amerikastudien/American Studies 25.2 (1980): 199–206.

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    Argues that the novel represents a turning point in postmodern literature whereby “deconstruction” (loosely understood as critique) no longer is a determining concern but instead functions as a precondition for a reconstruction of the author’s own vision. The argument relies heavily on Barth’s own understanding of his work, as it is presented in interview and essays.

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Giles Goat-Boy, or, the Revised New Syllabus

More than any early piece of criticism, Scholes 1967 contributed to awakening serious scholarly interest in Barth’s fiction. Of the more recent studies of the novel, McGurl 2009 is by far the most important. Madsen 1996 on allegory and Safer 1988 on allusion complement each other; as do Tatham 1970 and Olderman 1972, which both deal with mythic patterns in Barth’s novel. Malvern 1982 is a study of the parody of medieval hagiography that draws attention to important historical dimensions in the novel, and Mercer 1971 is a study of the novel’s rhetoric and is useful as a starting point for students.

  • Madsen, Deborah L. “John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy and Post-Romantic Allegory.” In Allegory in America?: From Puritanism to Postmodernism. By Deborah L. Madsen, 145–166. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1996.

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    Contrasts Paul de Man’s definition of allegory as an atemporal trope to the almost automatic intertextuality that by necessity accompanies allegory. This intertextuality, Madsen argues, reintroduces history as a set of institutional parameters of writing. Giles Goat-Boy is understood as a complex return to the always-historical site of writing through allegory.

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  • Malvern, Marjorie M. “The Parody of Medieval Saints’ Lives in John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy, or The Revised New Syllabus.” Studies in Medievalism 2.1 (1982): 59–76.

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    Explores the relationship between Giles Goat-Boy and medieval hagiography, particularly the ways in which George’s own narrative becomes a satiric version of the medieval hagiographic romances of saints, particularly from The Golden Legends of Jacobus de Voraigne.

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  • McGurl, Mark. The Program Era?: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

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    Understands Giles Goat-Boy as a proponent of “technomodernism” (p. 32), which together with “high cultural pluralism” (p. 32) and “lower-middle-class modernism” (p. 32) constitutes the three modes of American literature’s “fall into institutionality” (p. 409). This programmatic institutionalization has been brought about by the rise of the creative writing program, a development integral to Barth’s authorship.

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  • Mercer, Peter. “The Rhetoric of Giles Goat-Boy.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 4.2 (1971): 147–158.

    DOI: 10.2307/1345149Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Rhetorical analysis of Giles Goat-Boy, arguing that there are two antithetical styles, the heroic/bathetic, and two parallel registers (a term which Mercer borrows from linguistics), the “academic” and “goatish,” which together provide a structuring frame for the novel. (149).

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  • Olderman, Raymond M. “The Grail Knight Goes to College.” In Beyond the Waste Land: A Study of the American Novel in the Nineteen-Sixties. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972.

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    Argues that Barth parodies the final moment of T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land (1922), producing a pattern that recurs in much of Barth’s fiction: an image or a device is installed at the same time as the image/device is parodied. This pattern is also how Barth treats the quest motif and the image of the University.

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  • Safer, Elaine B. “Comic Retrospection in John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy.” In The Contemporary American Comic Epic: The Novels of Barth, Pynchon, Gaddis, and Kesey. By Elaine B. Safer, 25–78. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988.

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    Unlike their traditional nation-bearing precursors, Barth’s epics build “disorder rather than unity, and use exaggeration to satirize all institutions and systems of knowledge” (p. 14). Safer reads The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy primarily as proponents of what she calls the “inverse allusive mode,” whereby the texture of allusion common to the epic is inverted into absurdity and black humor rather than unity (p. 21).

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  • Scholes, Robert. “Fabulation and Epic Vision.” In The Fabulators. By Robert Scholes, 133–173. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

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    Mentions other texts by Barth, but is concerned almost exclusively with Giles Goat-Boy. Focuses on the various allegorical levels of the novel, and argues that Barth’s fiction has transcended the realistic novel’s concerns with the conflict between individual and society and instead focuses on philosophical questions of value and existence.

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  • Tatham, Campbell. “The Gilesian Monomyth: Some Remarks on the Structure of Giles Goat-Boy.” Genre 3 (1970): 364–375.

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    Compares Raglan’s The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth and Drama (1937), and Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) to Giles Goat-Boy, and concludes that the connections between the novel and these models ultimately are less important because Barth “substitutes the use of the mono myth for its fact, [and] employs it against itself” (375).

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LETTERS: A Novel

Looking at the criticism of LETTERS, it becomes obvious that something new is taking place in the reception of Barth’s fiction. Gone are the texts that try to explicate the fiction in the traditional sense of close reading; instead we find critical work that engages in philosophical concepts and historical conditions. Graff 1981 and Simon 2002 are fine example of the latter of these concerns, while Fitzpatrick 2002 and Strehle 1992 are examples of the former. Sammarcelli 1987 and Roemer 1987 provide valuable analyses of the reader’s position in Barth’s novel, while Edwards 1998 can be seen to understand the reader of Barth’s fiction in terms of both history and theory.

  • Edwards, Brian. “Letters to Literature; The Epistolary Artfulness of John Barth’s LETTERS.” In Theories of Play and Postmodern Fiction. By Brian Edwards, 141–186. New York & London: Garland, 1998.

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    Situates LETTERS within the context of a historical understanding of play spanning from Romantic theory through to deconstruction. Important distinctions in game and play theory are made and put into circulation with post-structuralist theory. According to Edwards, Barth’s work is a playful recycling, interrelating “three aspects of past-ness—American history, Barth’s previous writings and the history of the novel” (p. 145).

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  • Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. “The Exhaustion of Literature: Novels, Computers, and the Threat of Obsolescence.” Contemporary Literature 43.3 (2002): 518–559.

    DOI: 10.2307/1209111Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Explores the notion of the posthuman and posthumanism as it is represented by a relationship between gender and the writing machine, LILYVAC II, in LETTERS. The essay compares Barth’s text to Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2 (1995), and discusses differences between the two novels as to how they represent the author function in relation to the writing machine that both novelists imagine.

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  • Graff, Gerald. “Under Our Belt and Off Our Back: Barth’s Letters and Postmodern Fiction.” TriQuarterly 52 (1981): 150–164.

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    Understand LETTERS as a proponent of a postmodern zeitgeist. Graft focuses on Barth’s “reenactments,” arguing that the recursiveness with which characters retell episodes from previous novels by Barth produces a sense of reality and history as “an inventory of events without coherent tendency,” ultimately turning history into something unhistorical, “‘ordered’ by repetition, recurrence, and reenactment” (p. 161).

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  • McMullen, Kim. “The Fiction of Correspondence: LETTERS and History.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 36.3 (1990): 405–420.

    DOI: 10.1353/mfs.0.0823Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Important, theoretical treatment of history in LETTERS, particularly how history originates in language and representation. McMullen argues that the choice of the epistolary form allows Barth to present his text “as conscious textualizations” of “the ‘lettered’ quality of the American past” (p. 407). McMullen sees parallels between Barth’s project and Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge (1969, English trans. 1972).

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  • Roemer, Marjorie Godlin. “The Paradigmatic Mind: John Barth’s LETTERS.” Twentieth Century Literature 33.1 (1987): 38–50.

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    Explores the “prime tenet of Barth’s dogma, [namely] the supremacy of the structuring mind” (p. 43). Roemer’s careful reading of Barth transcends the conceptual framework of the essay (e.g., the generational conflict, the struggle with poetic “father figures”), arguing that LETTERS “sets free before us a dialogized world without any attempt at reductive closure” (p. 47).

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  • Sammarcelli, Françoise. “Mise En Scène D’une Manipulation: LETTERS de John Barth Ou Les Pièges de L’intertexte.” Revue Française d’Études Américaines 32 (1987): 171–182.

    DOI: 10.3406/rfea.1987.1268Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In French. Concerned with the ways LETTERS destabilizes reading through the external and internal functioning of intertextuality. Sammarcelli argues that Barth places the notion of the frame at the heart of his fiction, both as a supporting structure and as a frame-up of the reader. This double “framing” functions as a deconstruction of literary convention, making any synthetic reading ultimately impossible.

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  • Simon, Sunka. “Chain Mail: Letters Postcards Travel Guides . . .? Barth, Derrida, and Levi.” In Mail-Orders: The Fiction of Letters in Postmodern Culture. By Sunka Simon, 59–137. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

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    Contains a reading of Barth’s LETTERS alongside Jacques Derrida’s The Postcard: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond (1980, English trans., 1987) and Jonathan Levi’s A Guide for the Perplexed (1992). Argues that LETTERS disseminates the interrelation between meaning and the subject into a disembodied otherness. The analysis relies heavily on Derrida.

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  • Strehle, Susan. “John Barth: LETTERS and the Relative Frame.” In Fiction in the Quantum Universe. By Susan Strehle, 124–158. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

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    Important intervention into the debate about postmodernism. Strehle wants to align the formal experiments of the postmodernists to new conceptions of reality in physics. Realism is thereby superseded by what she calls “actualism,” which is reality understood through metaphors of discontinuity and relativity. Explores LETTERS for its “actualist” engagement with reality and the real.

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Sabbatical: A Romance and Tidewater Tales: A Novel

Although the critical attention given to Barth’s work was at its most intense in the 1980s and 1990s, there are relatively few texts that deal exclusively with Sabbatical, and fewer still dealing only with Tidewater Tales. Because the latter of these two novels in a sense takes place inside the former, critics tend to address both of them in their writing. It is now possible to sense a critical attitude toward Barth’s work that is more independent from Barth’s own formulations about “exhaustion” and “replenishment.” Harris 1990 is one of the best pieces of criticism on Barth to date, moving the discussion about postmodernism’s vexed relationship to realism beyond questions of style and attitude, linking it instead to questions of ontology through the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. Carmichael 1991 and Carmichael 1994 are also essential for students and researchers wanting to grasp some of the textual complexities at work in the novels. Slethaug 1987 is perhaps the one text most resembling the critical attitude of the past, as it is attempting a textual explication. Hepburn 2005 is most indicative of the way Barth criticism has developed in the past thirty years, making Hepburn’s analysis part of a larger argument cutting across literary periods and genres. Margolin 1996 and Peters 2007 are technical elaborations of form.

  • Carmichael, Thomas. “A Postmodern Genealogy: John Barth’s Sabbatical and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.” University of Toronto Quarterly 60.3 (1991): 389–401.

    DOI: 10.3138/utq.60.3.389Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Contains an excellent summary of the American literary debate over postmodernism, and offers Barth’s “effort to appropriate Pym” as a case of these discussions (p. 391). Traces the parallels between Pym (1838) and Sabbatical, particularly how the choice of narrative voice relates to question of authority, truth, and tradition.

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  • Carmichael, Thomas. “Postmodernism Reconsidered: The Return of the Real in John Barth’s Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales.” Revue Francaise d’Etudes Americaines 62 (1994): 329–338.

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    Claims that Sabbatical and Tidewater Tales mark a return to techniques of realism begun already in LETTERS. What distinguishes these two novels from the postmodernism of LETTERS are the ways Barth here breaks with what Carmichael calls “conservative liberalism” (pp. 332, 335) and openly explores notions of political responsibility through a confrontation with political contradictions.

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  • Greer, Creed. “Repetition, History, Narration: John Barth’s Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales.” Criticism 33.2 (1991): 235–256.

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    Approaches the question of repetition through the trope of authorship. When narrators speak as authors of texts, a relationship between narrative and history is opened up to a regression in which repetitions of any original voice are rendered problematic. Greer traces the interconnected repetitions of Sabbatical and Tidewater Tales.

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  • Harris, Charles B. “The Age of the World View: The Critique of Realism in John Barth’s Sabbatical.” In Germany and German Thought in American Literature and Cultural Criticism. Edited by Peter Freese, 407–432. Essen, Germany: Blaue Eule, 1990.

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    Situates realism historically and argues that Martin Heidegger’s understanding of the subject-object distinction may function as a reference point for understanding realism’s claims of objectivity. In this context, Sabbatical is understood as “embodying in its narrative tactics the Heideggerean step back from representationalism” (p. 430), and opening up a different kind of criticism of social and political realities.

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  • Hepburn, Allan. “Disappearances: Missing Bodies in Sabbatical.” In Intrigue?: Espionage and Culture. By Allan Hepburn, 231–253. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

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    Discusses Barth’s work in the context of surveillance, loss of identity, and the immersion into Cold War history. The key figures of Hepburn’s analysis are the missing bodies of three male characters—Paisley, Manfred, and Gus—which “allegorize political ambiguity” (p. 231). Barth’s self-reflexivity and games with generic conventions are analyzed in terms of disappearance as a trope and epistemic problem.

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  • Margolin, Uri. “Telling Our Story: On ‘We’ Literary Narratives.” Language and Literature 5.2 (1996): 115–133.

    DOI: 10.1177/096394709600500203Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Outline of the distinctive features of narration in the second-person plural, both as a narrative voice and as narrated entity, particularly in relation to narrative embedding. The text discusses Sabbatical in these terms and argues that it subverts any neat categorization of narrative levels.

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  • Peters, Henning. “Metaisierungsverfahren und ihre Funktionspotentiale in postmodernen Romanzen: John Barth Sabbatical: A Romance, David Lodge Small World: An Academic Romance, Niall Williams Four Letters of Love.” In Metaisierung in Literatur und anderen Medien: Theoretische Grundlagen-historische Perspektiven-Metagattungen-Funktionen. Edited by Janine Hauthal, et al., 340–360. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110897784Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In German. Focuses on the technical aspects of metafiction in relation to the generic conventions of the romance. Peters argues that Sabbatical should be understood as a meta-romance, and that its relationship to romance conventions is to be understood as a form of “replenishment.”

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  • Slethaug, Gordon E. “Floating Signifiers in John Barth’s Sabbatical.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 3.4 (1987): 647–656.

    DOI: 10.1353/mfs.0.1121Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses the Y-shaped logo at the beginning of Sabbatical in terms of its function in the novel. This function “serves as a signifier of the ambiguities of the various floating signs” (p. 655) and opens the novel to a series of shifts, which are delineated and discussed in the article.

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The Later Novels

The number of articles addressing the later novels is small. al-Madani 1999 and Bowen 1999 address the role of the narrator in fiction, and Bartocci 1995 discusses the related problem of the boundary between autobiography and fiction. Dragas 2014 and Brown 1998 both tackle the structural organization of frame tales. Conte 2002 (cited under Postmodernism) argues that the notions of contemporary physics are key in understanding Barth’s aesthetics. Chanen 2006 and Green 2005 (cited under Postmodernism) both deal with the effects of digital text on printed fiction.

  • Bartocci, Clara. “John Barth’s Once Upon a Time: Fiction or Autobiography?RSA Journal 6 (1995): 25–50.

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    Discusses the boundary between fiction and autobiography in Once Upon a Time. Beginning with an analysis of the paratextual features of the novel, Bartocci continues by describing the ways in which Barth’s previous fictions are made to enter the text.

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  • Bowen, Zack. “Setting the Mobius Strip Straight: John Barth’s Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera.” Critique 40.3 (1999): 195–202.

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    Explores the doubled-up narrators and counter-selves, which have become recognizably Barthian. The role of time is explored in the context of doubles and doubling discourses. Comparisons to Yeats and Dante are made, and the musical structure of the fiction is discussed. The theme of writing (including its materiality of pens and notebooks) is related to sexuality.

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  • Brown, Kevin. “Structural Devices in John Barth’s The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor.” CLA Journal 41.4 (1998): 470–476.

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    Discusses some of the structural devices keeping together the sprawling narrative of The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor. The frame-tale structure of the novel is analyzed, as well as its relationship to the Nights. Numbers, colors, and names are discussed as “structural devices” underscoring the artificiality of representation.

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  • Chanen, Brian W. “Between Textspace and Cyberspace: Narrativity and Identity in John Barth’s Coming Soon!!!” In Transitions: Race, Culture, and the Dynamics of Change. Edited by Hanna Wallinger, 198–210. Vienna: Lit Verlag, 2006.

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    Discusses the ways in which Barth’s text both “instantiates and represents the tension between digital and print fiction” (p. 200). Chanen argues that the paratextual elements of Coming Soon!!! place the novel between metafiction and digital media, and he claims that the novel is asking questions about the possibilities of hypertext for the novel as a literary genre.

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  • Dragas, Areti. “(Postmodern) Story/reteller: John Barth’s The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor.” In The Return of the Storyteller in Contemporary Fiction. By Areti Dragas, 191–222. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

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    Focuses on the narrative framing within the novel and on the consequences of Barth’s technique for the notion of the storyteller in contemporary culture. Discusses the novel’s relationship with The Thousand and One Nights, as well as the role of the audience in relation to Barth’s particular technique of storytelling.

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  • al-Madani, Yusur. “Deconstructing and Reconstructing a Narrative of the Self: John Barth’s The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor.” International Fiction Review 26.1–2 (1999): 8–18.

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    Explores the deconstruction of plot and ensuing multiplication of narrative voices in The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor. Al-Madani argues that Barth’s image of a common, universally shared sense of inauthenticity is a strong theme in the novel. According to al-Madani, Barth skillfully explores this inauthenticity in the novel’s many attempts at reconstructing reality.

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Short Fiction

Barth cannot easily be labeled as a short story writer. None of his short stories are content with being short stories—they all have a tendency to sprawl out in some way, turning the genre on its head. The complexity of Barth’s short fiction is visible in the criticism represented here, which all deal with technical issues related to form. His two first story collections are treated separately in two sections. As with Barth’s novels, the critical commentary addressing his later work is scarce, which is why these last texts comprise a third section.

Lost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice

The highly technical nature of Barth’s first book of short fiction is visible in its critical reception. Rice-Sayre 1980 is a collation, commenting on the changes Barth made to the seven stories published prior to their publication as a collection. Singer 2010 and Morris 1975 both read the short story collection in terms of post-structuralist theory, whereas Slaughter 1989 and Fulmer 2000 consider the philosophical implications of the stories in post-Kantian and existentialist terms, respectively. Fletcher 2003 and Worthington 2001 are both concerned with intertextuality, which also could be said of Green 1991, which focuses on a discussion of intertextuality in the romance genre and metafiction.

  • Fletcher, Judith. “Lost in the Underworld: John Barth Reads the Odyssey.” Classical and Modern Literature: A Quarterly 23.1 (2003): 65–76.

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    Explores allusions to The Odyssey and understands both texts “in terms of the history of the mechanical production of text itself” (p. 66). Both texts share the experience of being on the threshold of a revolution in communication—The Odyssey between oral culture and writing, and Funhouse anticipating a new electronic era.

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  • Fulmer, James Burton. “‘First Person Anonymous’: Sartrean Ideas of Consciousness in Earth’s Lost in the Funhouse.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 41.4 (2000): 335–347.

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    Considers Sartrean influences, and, by doing this, moves slightly outside the broad lines of critical debate about the book, which is more focused on the meta-literary and meta-linguistic aspects of fiction. The article discusses the presence of Sartre’s brand of anti-essentialism by exploring notions such as “facticity” and “transcendence.”

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  • Green, Daniel. “Metafiction and Romance.” Studies in American Fiction 19.2 (1991): 229–242.

    DOI: 10.1353/saf.1991.0000Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Analyzes the short stories in the context of the American tradition of the romance. Green’s main argument is that the novel has established itself vis-à-vis reality at the expense of the romance. Metafiction can be understood as a return to some of the concerns of the American romance, such as the inclusion of the reading process into the fiction.

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  • Morris, Christopher D. “Barth and Lacan: The World of the Moebius Strip.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 17.1 (1975): 69–77.

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    Seeks to depart from the “Cartesian vocabulary of phenomenology and existentialism” dominating critical commentary on Barth (p. 69). Argues that the image of the Moebius strip deployed by Barth “points to the collapsible, substitutive nature of language” (p. 76) and is linked to Lacan’s understanding of signification.

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  • Rice-Sayre, Laura. “The Lost Construction of Barth’s Funhouse.” Studies in Short Fiction 17.4 (1980): 463–473.

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    Useful focus on the revisions of the seven short stories included in Funhouse that had been published previously. The types of changes made by Barth are three: minor stylistic changes, significant changes to the presentation of characters, and direct changes in the content. The three kinds of changes are described for each of the seven stories.

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  • Singer, Marc. “Recursion, Supplementarity, and the Limits of Subjectivity in John Barth’s ‘Menelaiad.’” KronoScope 10.1–2 (2010): 35–48.

    DOI: 10.1163/156852410X561835Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Reads “Menelaiad” as an example of what Jacques Derrida calls “supplementarity.” The short story stages a supplementarity between narrative and memory that, Singer argues, “leaves no privileged vantage point from which to survey the cascading stories” (p. 46). Singer places this proposition in relation to the work by Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Frederic Jameson.

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  • Slaughter, Carolyn Norman. “Who Gets Lost in the Funhouse.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 44.4 (1989): 80–97.

    DOI: 10.1353/arq.1989.0017Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Highly original in two ways: firstly, Slaughter insist on treating the text as a novel because “a unity, a wholeness, is intended, according to the ‘Author’s Note,’ [and] because a single work is achieved” (p. 81); secondly, this “unity” is a break with the unities historically produced by novels, for which “the Cartesian-Kantian subject-object paradigm” (p. 82) guarantees a metaphysical ground.

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  • Worthington, Marjorie. “Done with Mirrors: Restoring the Authority Lost in John Barth’s Funhouse.” Twentieth Century Literature 47.1 (2001): 114–136.

    DOI: 10.2307/827859Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Attempts to reevaluate major critical readings of Funhouse and the functions of metafiction more generally. Instead, Worthington argues that Lost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice serves to “revalidate the very tenets of traditional narrative” (p. 118) and to reassert the author at the center of literature.

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Chimera

With the publication of Chimera, Barth’s reputation as an author was at its highest. But it was also a time when critics began to formulate their disagreements with Barth’s understanding of postmodernism. Matthews 1989 is an example of this. The other essays included here all touch upon self-consciousness in some way. Vickery 1992 and Edelstein 1984 deal with the philosophical consequences of self-reflexivity, whereas Mackenzie 1976, Warrick 1976, and Raper 1989 address self-consciousness as a function of narrative technique. Wilhelmy 2004 and Karoui-Elounelli 2010 both explore Barth’s self-consciousness in terms of his engagement in classic myths. Warrick’s article is the least technical of the eight listed here.

  • Edelstein, Marilyn. “The Function of Self-Consciousness in John Barth’s Chimera.” Studies in American Fiction 12.1 (1984): 99–108.

    DOI: 10.1353/saf.1984.0007Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Explores the relationship between the diffusion of identity on the one hand, and artistic self-consciousness within Chimera on the other. After debating some of the generic assumptions of the novel in relation to subjectivity (haughtily labeling Chimera as a novel), Edelstein discusses the “disabling self-consciousness” often attributed to Barth and argues that Chimera should be read as a novel that stages its own artificiality.

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  • Karoui-Elounelli, Salwa. “Unsounded Vocality: The Trope of Voice and the Paradigm of Orality in American Postmodern Fiction.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 43.1 (2010): 111–126.

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    Insightful article that explores the significance of orality and “the auditory” in Chimera. Argues that the repeated presentation of narration as retelling in Chimera together with the thematization of the reading act points toward an imagined retrieval of vocality in Barth’s fiction, which is parodic and intensifies the post-romantic irony that informs contemporary notions of fiction.

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  • Mackenzie, Ursula. “John Barth’s Chimera and the Strictures of Reality.” Journal of American Studies 10.1 (1976): 91–101.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0021875800013189Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses the connection between Barth’s refusal of realism and the notions of role-playing and shape-shifting in Chimera. Mackenzie argues that the novelist is repeatedly cast as a shape-shifter in the text, and that this recursiveness of shape-shifting is linked to Barth’s philosophical understanding of the function of art in general, and of the art of storytelling in particular.

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  • Matthews, John T. “Intertextual Frameworks: The Ideology of Parody in John Barth.” In Intertextuality and Contemporary American Fiction. Edited by Patrick O’Donnell and Robert Con Davis, 35–57. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

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    Based on a reading of Chimera, condemns Barth’s writing on both philosophical and moral grounds; philosophically because Barth’s “massive textual self-involvement” is driving “the scene of writing far from the ‘outside,’ from facticity or cultural discourse” (p. 35), and morally, because Barth’s “model of artistic production [is] essentially at ease with the ideology of a consumerist capitalism of commodification” (p. 50).

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  • Raper, Julius Rowan. “John Barth’s Chimera: Men and Women under the Myth.” Southern Literary Journal 22.1 (1989): 17–31.

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    Focuses on phenomenological questions of consciousness in relation to Barth’s narrative device of framing his stories within the received myths of antiquity. Connections are made to Edmund Husserl’s notion of the “transcendental ego” and to Sartrean existentialism. The characters of Chimera are discussed in terms of their already written character in relation to the myths.

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  • Vickery, John B. “The Functions of Myth in John Barth’s Chimera.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 38.2 (1992): 427–435.

    DOI: 10.1353/mfs.0.1072Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that myth functions as meta-commentary in four interlinked ways: there is a “demystification of myth as spiritual, cultural, or historical heritage” (p. 429); a “defamiliarization of myth as received tale” (p. 429); a “radicalization of myth as self-parody” (p. 429); and a subsequent “restoration of myth as unbounded narrativity” (p. 429). Reading follows Barth’s “exhaustion-replenishment” theme.

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  • Warrick, Patricia. “The Circuitous Journey of Consciousness in Barth’s Chimera.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 18.2 (1976): 73–85.

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    Explores the failure of apotheosis—that is, the failure to reach conclusions—as in Joyce’s notion of epiphany. This failure is connected to the “self-consciousness of the modern age” (p. 84). Readings of the three novellas are astute and contain many insights, particularly in terms of the images of the mythic figures and their resonances in a modern context.

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  • Wilhelmy, Thorsten. Legitimitätsstrategien Der Mythosrezeption?: Thomas Mann, Christa Wolf, John Barth, Christoph Ransmayr, John Banville. Würzburg, Germany: Königshausen & Neumann, 2004.

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    In German. Comprehensive and important study placing Chimera alongside contemporary European rewritings of mythology. Charts the mythological figures and discusses Barth’s aesthetic rewritings of the myths and their insertion into “subsystems” such as science and tourism. Rich in intertextual connections, arguing that Barth, following Thomas Mann, delegitimizes mythology by aestheticizing it.

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The Later Short Fiction

Since Chimera, Barth has published four collections of short fiction. Out of this body of work, only the first two have received critical commentary beyond reviews. Shackelford 2005 is a discussion of “Click” and a valuable contribution to understanding hypertext literature. Nas 2007 and Lipina-Berezkina 1999 both read the later short fiction in terms of Barth’s own understanding of exhaustion and subsequent replenishment.

  • Lipina-Berezkina, Victoria. “John Barth’s On with the Story: Stories and the Transformation of American Postmodernist Poetics.” Journal of American Studies of Turkey 10 (1999): 5–16.

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    Argues that Barth in his later works attempts to overcome a semantic crisis of language by eliciting “devices such as realistic accounts, sincerity, lyricism and psychologism” (p. 7). This instigates a turn in Barth’s career, whereby his previous emphasis on story-making techniques now are re-geared to recuperate the real.

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  • Nas, Loes. “Boundary Crossings: John Barth’s Renewed Love Affair with the Short Story.” Journal of Literary Studies/Tydskrif vir Literatuurwetenskap 23.2 (2007): 166–178.

    DOI: 10.1080/02564710701423301Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Study of On with the Story and The Book of Ten Nights and a Night, which focuses on the relationship of the two texts to Barth’s earlier short fiction and his nonfiction. Also discusses how the context of the terrorist attack of 9/11 transforms our reception of stories that Barth had written much earlier in his career but publishes in The Book of Ten Nights and a Night: Eleven Stories (Barth 2004, cited under Primary Texts: Short Fiction).

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  • Shackelford, Laura. “Narrative Subjects Meet Their Limits: John Barth’s ‘Click’ and the Remediation of Hypertext.” Contemporary Literature 46.2 (2005): 275–310.

    DOI: 10.1353/cli.2005.0020Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Brilliant critique of “first-generation” hypertext theory. “Click” deals with “the threat digital hypertext poses to this instrumental understanding of subjectivity” (p. 280) without managing to go beyond it. Instead, the story disavows the differences between print and hypertext and fails to “take seriously the fact that these material differences matter” (p. 301).

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Nonfiction

Throughout his career, Barth has been a prolific writer of essays, lectures, introductions to other writer’s fictions, and forewords to his own. Whereas his essays often are cited as important authorities for the interpretation of his fiction, very little critical commentary engages this body of writing directly. Of the few that do, Punday 2010 is the most important, as Punday tries to trace Barth’s nonfiction in terms of his efforts to control the construction of postmodernism in America. Safer 1987 discusses Barth’s theorization of his own fiction and how the exhaustion/replenishment dyad applies to three of his novels. Pütz 1988 is a comment on Barth’s essay “The Limits of Imagination.”

  • Punday, Daniel. “Myth and the Institutional Construction of Postmodernism in The Friday Book.” In Five Strands of Fictionality: The Institutional Construction of Contemporary American Fiction. By Daniel Punday, 31–57. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2010.

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    Discusses how Barth tries to define fictionality as a form of myth, which has consequences for how postmodern literature is institutionalized. Situates Barth’s struggle over the definition of fiction in a broad historical context encompassing the rise of the novel, and argues that Barth’s “occasional writings” are “always occasioned by institutions of writing, educating, and publishing” (p. 39).

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  • Pütz, Manfred. “John Barth and the Challenges of the Imagination.” In Facing Texts: Encounters between Contemporary Writers and Critics. Edited by Heide Ziegler, 287–298. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1988.

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    Comments on a lecture given by Barth titled “The Limits of Imagination,” collected in Further Fridays: Essays, Lectures, and Other Nonfiction, 1984–94. Reads Barth’s essay as an example of a tradition of authors prefacing their work with “poetological” reflection (p. 291). The bulk of this discussion is devoted to how Barth’s literary imagination relates to “the arbitrariness of facts, values, and language” (p. 292).

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  • Safer, Elaine B. “The Essay as Aesthetic Mirror: John Barth’s ‘Exhaustion’ and ‘Replenishment.’” Studies in American Fiction 15.1 (1987): 109–117.

    DOI: 10.1353/saf.1987.0029Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that Barth’s essays are theorizations of his fiction—the “Exhaustion” essay “explains the techniques” (p. 109) of Sot-Weed and Giles; “Replenishment” expounds Sabbatical. References are made to Barth’s treatment of Borges and to a “growing concern that many 20th century authors write too esoterically and academically” (p. 115), something that accounts for the change of mood in Sabbatical.

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Special Topics

Barth’s fiction is theoretically informed. It is therefore not surprising that many critics have engaged his writing in terms of conceptual concerns. Early on, his fiction was understood as a particular engagement with existentialist philosophy. The critics’ focus on philosophy has stood the test of time and is a continuing concern, as are other, early considerations: criticism dealing with Barth’s treatment of history is still being updated, as is criticism engaging in the narrativity and literary self-consciousness generated by Barth’s narrative technique. Barth’s postmodernism is also a recurrent concern among the critics, as is his interest in scientific and technological concepts. Recently, Barth’s treatment of race, class, and gender has emerged as a promising field of study.

History

Since many of Barth’s novels revolve around historically significant events, and that, in addition, his novels often directly address the writing of such events, history and historiography are prominent critical considerations. Conti 2010 seeks to align Barth’s vision of history with the philosophical tradition of American pragmatism. Ewell 1973 discusses Barth’s sense of history in relation to some of the founding historical myths of the American tradition. Gladsky 1985 argues that Barth is in the mainstream of an American notion of history. Mazurek 1985 is typical of a particular criticism of Barth, claiming that his ironic use of historical topoi is dehistoricizing, a claim echoed by Zamora 1989. Müllenbrock 1994 promotes Barth’s fiction as typical of a postmodern understanding of history. Grausam 2011 (cited under Postmodernism) and Maus 2011 both develop a new and exciting understanding of postmodernism, associating it with the Cold War.

  • Conti, Chris. “American History as a History of Self-Making: John Barth’s Sot-Weed Factor.” In Remaking Literary History. Edited by Helen Groth and Paul Sheehan, 52–61. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2010.

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    Discusses Barth’s ironic use and abuse of myth in a demythologized society, arguing that his understanding of history amounts to “the struggle of enlightened consciousness to dramatise its own story in the absence of a cosmic drama” (p. 60). Aligns Barth’s understanding of history with Richard Rorty’s version of American pragmatism.

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  • Ewell, Barbara C. “John Barth: The Artist of History.” Southern Literary Journal 5.2 (1973): 32–46.

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    Analyzes the concept of history in The Sot-Weed Factor through an extended character analysis of Ebenezer Cooke and Henry Burlingame III. Discussion is focused on how these characters relate to various themes and motifs, particularly, R. W. B. Lewis’s description of the American hero. Other characters from American literature are brought into the comparison.

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  • Gladsky, Thomas S. “Good Neighbors: History and Fiction in John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor.” CLIO: A Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy of History 14.3 (1985): 259–268.

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    Reads the novel as a treatise on history, arguing that its “thesis” is “an explosion of the ‘myths of facts’” (p. 261). Concludes that Barth’s novel is “in the mainstream of the American historical novel” because of the ways it suggests that history is an “image formed in the mind of the audience” (p. 267).

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  • Maus, Derek C. “‘The Bind of the Digital’ and Other Oversimplified Logic.” In Unvarnishing Reality: Subversive Russian and American Cold War Satire. By Derek C. Maus, 57–107. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2011.

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    Analysis of Giles in the context of satirical American and Russian fictions during the Cold War—Pynchon, Coover, and DeLillo are the other American writers; Aksyonov, Zinoviev, Dovlatov, Iskander, Aleshkovsky, Sokolov, and Voinovich are the Russians. In the comparisons, Maus makes little of the fact that the Russians lived under Soviet rule, making their subversiveness into more than literary games.

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  • Mazurek, Raymond A. “Ideology and Form in the Postmodernist Historical Novel: The Sot-Weed Factor and Gravity’s Rainbow.” Minnesota Review 25.1 (1985): 69–84.

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    Explores the “cultural and ideological significance of the postmodernist historical novel” (p. 70). To that end, Mazurek compares the novels and argues that they embody different versions of postmodernism. Barth’s version is associated with Hayden White’s critique of historicism, whereas Pynchon is seen as slightly more interested in the political dimensions of history.

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  • Müllenbrock, Heinz-Joachim. “John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor as a Prototype of Historiographic Metafiction.” In Historiographic Metafiction in Modern American and Canadian Literature. Edited by Bernd Engler and Kurt Müller, 163–169. Paderborn, Germany: Ferdinand Schöningh, 1994.

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    Argues that The Sot-Weed Factor is exemplary of what Linda Hutcheon has called “historiographic metafiction.” Aligns this concern for historiography with contemporary theory, most notably Barbara Foley’s discussion of historical consciousness in the modern American novel and Hayden White’s ideas about the relations between modern history and the concept of fiction.

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  • Zamora, Lois Parkinson. “The Apocalypse of Style: John Barth’s Self-Consuming Fictions.” In Writing the Apocalypse: Historical Vision in Contemporary U.S. and Latin American Fiction. By Lois Parkinson Zamora, 97–119. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

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    Important discussion of Barth’s writing in terms of its “vision of historical ends” (p. 2). Comments on all of Barth’s writings up to Sabbatical and argues that Barth’s fiction could be described as an “apocalypse of style” (p. 97), whereby particular stylistic features self-implode and collapse the distinctions between human experience and the sense of endings that inevitably accompany narratives.

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Literary Self-Consciousness

The level of self-consciousness evidenced in Barth’s writing is possibly unprecedented in American literature. Not surprisingly, this is the concern of much criticism. Bell 1984 and Edwards 1985 align Barth’s self-consciousness with the philosophical interests of Jacques Derrida, whereas Davis 1975 argues that Barth’s version of self-consciousness is connected to certain formal characteristics of narrative. Edelstein 1984 moves the discussion into the territory of the history of the novel and its particular functions in terms of establishing identity, while Morris 1975 develops the theme of identity in relation to the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan. Poznar 1990 explores the consequences of Barth’s recursive technique, and Stonehill 1988 places these concerns within the larger framework of modernist and postmodernist literature. Woolley 1985 rubs against the grain of much Barth criticism in trying to establish links between Barth’s literary self-consciousness and referentiality.

  • Bell, Steven M. “Literature, Self-Consciousness, and Writing: The Example of Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse.” International Fiction Review 11.2 (1984): 84–89.

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    Explores Barth’s literary self-consciousness in terms of Jacques Derrida’s “‘program’ for ‘the end of the book and the beginning of writing’” (p. 85). Argues that Barth’s self-consciousness can be seen narrowly as a “pretension” about moving beyond print, but also more generally as a new concept of literature beyond the individual work.

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  • Davis, Cynthia. “‘The Key to the Treasure’: Narrative Movements and Effects in Chimera.” Journal of Narrative Technique 5 (1975): 105–115.

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    Discusses Barth’s parodic use of the “story-within-the-story turned back on itself” (p. 110). Discusses the effect of this formal structure on narrative voice and on the distinction between representation and reality, arguing that there is a “‘systematic policy’ to Chimera” (p. 114), which explains Barth’s self-consciousness as an “attempt to articulate the unarticulable nature of human consciousness and existence” (p. 114).

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  • Edelstein, Marilyn. “The Function of Self-Consciousness in John Barth’s Chimera.” Studies in American Fiction 12.1 (1984): 99–108.

    DOI: 10.1353/saf.1984.0007Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Analyzes the relationship between the “diffusion of identity” and “artistic self-consciousness within the novel” (p. 99). After debating some to the generic assumption of the novel in relation to subjectivity, Edelstein deliberates about the “disabling self-consciousness” (p. 105) often attributed to Barth, and argues that Chimera should be read as a novel that stages its own artificiality.

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  • Edwards, Brian. “Deconstructing the Artist and the Art: Barth and Calvino at Play in the Funhouse of Language.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature/Revue Canadienne de Litterature Comparee 12.2 (1985): 264–286.

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    Makes a case for understanding Calvino’s “multiple narratives” and Barth’s “series” as appropriate figures of Jacques Derrida’s concept of “différance” (p. 265). Focuses attention on Funhouse and Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1979, trans. 1981), arguing that both texts avoid “closure by leading back into itself” (p. 284).

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  • Morris, Christopher D. “Barth and Lacan: The World of the Moebius Strip.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 17.1 (1975): 69–77.

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    Rejection of the “Cartesian vocabulary of phenomenology and existentialism” dominating critical commentary on Barth (p. 69). Instead, argues that the image of the Moebius strip deployed by Barth “points to the collapsible, substitutive nature of language” (p. 76) and is linked to Lacan’s understanding of signification.

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  • Poznar, Susan. “Barth’s ‘Compulsion to Repeat: Its Hazards and Possibilities.’” Review of Contemporary Fiction 10.2 (1990): 64–75.

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    Analysis of LETTERS, where the Perseus/Medusa myth is understood to be emblematic of Barth’s literary project of repeating the past, both his own fictions and the literary, historical past. LETTERS marks a moment in Barth’s career where the author has turned into Perseus, “wondering whether original artistic adventure or tedious repetitions lie before him” (p. 66).

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  • Stonehill, Brian. “A Trestle of LETTERS.” In The Self-Conscious Novel: Artifice in Fiction from Joyce to Pynchon. By Brian Stonehill, 157–167. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.

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    Argues that the self-conscious devices in Barth’s novel produce an “atomization of language” that alert us to the inevitable constructions of worlds within words (p. 167).

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  • Woolley, Deborah A. “Empty ‘Text,’ Fecund Voice: Self-Reflexivity in Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse.” Contemporary Literature 26.4 (1985): 460–481.

    DOI: 10.2307/1208117Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Challenges the evaluation of Barth as a writer who “denies any dimension beyond language” (p. 460). Instead, Woolley argues that self-consciousness is explored on two planes in Lost, “the existential and the linguistic,” and that these “come together as problems of narrative voice” (p. 468). Harsh criticism is levied at what Woolley considers to be excesses of literary theory and Barth scholarship.

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Narrativity

From the beginning of his career, Barth has explored the potential of narrative to install and usurp the boundary between fiction and reality. Some of the criticism dealing with this aspect of narrative is extremely technical. The approaches of Macrae 2010 and Nelles 1997 are narratological; Johnson 2012 and Karoui-Elounelli 2009 cover the same ground from tropological perspectives. Christensen 1981 and Boehm 1989 address Barth’s narrative technique from within debates about metafiction, Benson 2003 is concerned with Barth’s appropriation of tradition, and Delanoë-Brun 2006 deals with the ethics of this appropriation in terms of its intertextuality.

  • Benson, Stephen. “Narrative Turns.” In Cycles of Influence?: Fiction, Folktale, Theory. By Stephen Benson, 115–165. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2003.

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    Looks at the reconceptualization of the folktale in recent narrative fiction and focuses on the later works of Barth, from Sabbatical to On with the Story. Critical readings of the work of Barbara Herrnstein Smith and Paul Ricoeur are used in the analysis. The chapter also contains a solid introduction to Barth’s work.

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  • Boehm, Beth A. “Educating Readers: Creating New Expectations in Lost in the Funhouse.” In Reading Narrative: Form, Ethics, Ideology. Edited by James Phelan, 102–119. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989.

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    Discusses the relationship between metafictional devices and didacticism in Lost in the Funhouse by arguing that Barth is trying to educate his reader to the point where his text becomes a “handbook” (p. 104). This didacticism is a rhetorical strategy bound to produce its own obsolescence and contributes to what Boehm argues is a peculiar “thinness” in Barth’s fiction (p. 117).

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  • Christensen, Inger. The Meaning of Metafiction: A Critical Study of Selected Novels by Sterne, Nabokov, Barth and Beckett. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1981.

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    Explores the concept of metafiction and proceeds from Wolfgang Kayser’s definition of “die Epiche Ursituation” (the basic narrative situation) and his inclusion of the reader into it. In this context, Christensen argues that Barth’s novels attach little significance to the narratee, which is consistent with how she understands the development of metafiction from the 18th century and onward.

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  • Delanoë-Brun, Emmanuelle. “‘Evidence. . . of an Inconclusive Nature’: Esthétique et éthique de la remémoration dans l’œuvre de John Barth.” In Mémoires perdues, mémoires vives. Edited by Marie-Christine Lemardeley, Carle Bonafous-Murat, and André Topia, 191–210. Paris: Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2006.

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    In French. Contains readings of The Sot-Weed Factor and LETTERS and argues that Barth’s oeuvre consistently has featured a narrative situation of “writing-remembering,” where memory and the act of writing memory are central ethical and aesthetic concerns. The embedded narratives systems produce a re-actualization of memories whose existence depends on textuality rather than living memory.

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  • Johnson, Gary. The Vitality of Allegory: Figural Narrative in Modern and Contemporary Fiction. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2012.

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    Taxonomic approach to allegory in modern and contemporary fiction, which aspires to be a theoretical groundwork placing allegory in the extended family of familiar tropes. Theorizing allegory as “strong” or “weak,” “embedded” (subdivided into “independent” and “dependent”), “interdependent,” “thematic,” and “ironic,” Johnson explores The End of the Road and the short-story “Click” as cases of “strong allegory” of the dependent and interdependent embedded variety.

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  • Karoui-Elounelli, Salwa. “Le récit de la quête dans le roman américain postmoderne: Entre version parodique et stéréotypie. L’exemple de John Barth.” Cahiers de Narratologie 17 (2009): 1–17.

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    In French. Discussion of The Floating Opera, Tidewater Tales, and The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor that addresses the construction of types in the novel and their connection to stereotypes more generally. Argues that Barth’s metafictional devices are critical reorientations of the quest motif and the various tropes of travel that have been built into the novel over centuries.

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  • Macrae, Andrea. “Enhancing the Critical Apparatus for Understanding Metanarration: Discourse Deixis Refined.” Journal of Literary Semantics 39.2 (2010): 119–142.

    DOI: 10.1515/jlse.2010.007Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Technical exploration of the deictic function of metanarrative in fiction. Features a comprehensive review of current theoretical approaches within narratology on that topic. Gives examples from various fictions but uses Funhouse for a longer analysis. Those interested in how the metafictional aspects of Funhouse have been treated from a narratological point of view will find this article rewarding.

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  • Nelles, William. “Narrative Levels and Embedded Narrative.” In Frameworks?: Narrative Levels and Embedded Narrative. By William Nelles, 121–157. New York: Peter Lang, 1997.

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    Surveys and synthesizes a wide range of approaches to narrative framing. Contains an analysis of the narrative levels and embedded narrative in Barth’s “Menelaiad” from Lost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice, and situates it within discussions of how the trope of metalepsis potentially violates the structured frame.

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Philosophy

From his early engagement with Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism and the literature of the absurd, Barth has consistently been analyzed in terms of philosophical and theoretical traditions and perspectives. These early interests are well captured by Tanner 1971 and Winchell 1989. LeMahieu 2013 develops a relationship between Barth’s fiction and logical positivism that is bound to become important. Carmichael 1998 connects Barth’s writing from the seventies to Marxist philosophy, and Nathanson 1982 makes a case for treating literature as a form of philosophy, turning Barth into a spokesperson for nihilism. D’haen 1983 argues that Barth’s fiction should be understood in terms of a sustained, postmodern philosophy of language, and Ziegler 1995 makes a case for understanding Barth in terms of a post-romantic condition—where irony becomes obligatory— affecting all of representation.

  • Carmichael, Thomas. “‘After the Fact’: Marx, the Sequel, Postmodernism, and John Barth’s LETTERS.” In Part Two: Reflections on the Sequel. Edited by Paul Budra and Betty A. Schellenberg, 174–188. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

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    Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) is read as an intertext to LETTERS, tracing the novel’s allusions to the Brumaire as instances of “‘world-historical necromancy’” (p. 184). The result is “a self-conscious elaboration of a prior representation” that echoes Marx’s notion of repetition in the Brumaire (p. 178).

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  • D’haen, Theo. “John Barth’s LETTERS.” In Text to Reader: A Communicative Approach to Fowles, Barth, Cortázar, and Boon. By Theo D’haen, 43–68. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: J. Benjamins, 1983.

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    Argues that Barth’s narrative strategy alerts us to the power of fictional representations to shape experience. Through intricate games of repetition and reenactment, Barth “assaults the relationship” (p. 43) between representation and reality to the point where the very “vulnerability of language to communicate the reality of things” is exposed “to its artificiality when trying to do so” (p. 49).

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  • LeMahieu, Michael. “‘Contradictory Feelings’: John Barth, ‘Non-Mystical Value-Thinking,’ and the Exhaustion of Logical Positivism.” In Fictions of Fact and Value: The Erasure of Logical Positivism in American Literature, 1945–1975. By Michael LeMahieu, 86–116. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

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    Explores postwar literary preoccupations with a particular aspect of logical positivist philosophy: the fact/value problem and its incarnation in the distinction between meaning and meaninglessness. Besides a chapter devoted to The Floating Opera and The End of the Road, there are chapters on Ludwig Wittgenstein, Flannery, O’Connor, Saul Bellow, and Thomas Pynchon, to whose work Barth’s is compared.

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  • Nathanson, Stephen. “Nihilism, Reason, and Death: Reflections on John Barth’s Floating Opera.” In The Philosophical Reflection of Man in Literature: Selected Papers from Several Conferences Held by the International Society for Phenomenology and Literature in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Edited by Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, 137–151. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Reidel, 1982.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-009-7720-4Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Treats The Floating Opera as a treatise on nihilism. To do so, it uses “the events of the novel as data” in order to judge the “truth of falsity of nihilism” (p. 138). As literary criticism this is questionable. However, Nathanson does manage to philosophically contextualize Todd’s views of life.

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  • Tanner, Tony. “What is the Case?” In City of Words?: American Fiction 1950–1970. By Tony Tanner, 230–259. London: Jonathan Cape, 1971.

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    Argues that Barth’s fiction, from Lost in the Funhouse, and onwards develops a particular form of despair defined by the Danish philosopher, Søren Kirkegaard, as occurring once “‘possibility outruns necessity,’” whereby the self turns into an “‘abstract possibility which tires itself out with floundering in the possible.’” (p. 259).

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  • Winchell, Mark. “Beyond Existentialism, or, The American Novel at the End of the Road.” In Modern American Fiction: Form and Function. Edited by Thomas Daniel Young, 225–236. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

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    Discusses Barth’s aesthetic concerns with nothingness in comparison to previous, modernist engagements with existential and nihilistic ideas. The essay starts by delineating Todd Andrews’s drift toward meaninglessness in The Floating Opera and continues by discussing how Jake Horner in The End of the Road learns to accept “‘the terrific incompleteness’” of the world (p. 236).

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  • Ziegler, Heide. Ironie ist Pflicht: John Barth und John Hawkes Bewusstseinsformen des amerikanischen Gegenwartsromans. Heidelberg, Germany: Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 1995.

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    In German. Historicizes postmodernism in terms of Friedrich Schlegel’s and Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand Solger’s notions of irony as a historical form of consciousness. Relates Barth’s concepts of “exhaustion” and “replenishment” to various notions of romantic irony. Ziegler’s focus lies on Lost in the Funhouse. Comparisons between Barth and Hawkes are made.

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Postmodernism

Since Barth has been one of the defining voices of literary postmodernism in the United States, both in terms of his fiction and as a theorist of literature, critics frequently engage his writing as professing postmodernism. Clavier 2007 disagrees with Barth’s own definitions of his work and with central definitions of postmodernism generally. Conte 2002 understands Barth as engaging the boundary between reality and representation and analyzes that engagement in terms of chaos theory. Edwards 1998 and Scott 2000 want to place Barth’s postmodernism inside a post-Romantic aesthetic tradition centering around play, whereas Grausam 2011 historicizes postmodernism as a phenomena connected to the Cold War. Green 2005, Toth 2010, and Gaggi 1989 all understand postmodernism as an aesthetic approach to representation firmly entrenched in the traditions of the novel, but deal with these entrenchments in different ways.

  • Clavier, Berndt. John Barth and Postmodernism: Spatiality, Travel, and Montage. Peter Lang, 2007.

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    Theoretical discussion of Barth’s work that confronts Barth’s own theorization of postmodernism (as “exhaustion” and “replenishment”). Examining Barth’s metafictional parodies in the light of theories of space and subjectivity. Engages the institutional character of art and the question of ideology critique in postmodernism and offers an alternative understanding of Barth’s postmodernism and its relation to the historical European avant-gardes.

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  • Conte, Joseph. “American Oulipo: Proceduralism in the Novels of Gilbert Sorrentino, Harry Mathews, and John Barth.” In Design and Debris: A Chaotics of Postmodern American Fiction. By Joseph Conte, 75–111. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.

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    Discusses American postmodernist fiction as an analogous development of chaos theory in physics. Barth is an example of “proceduralism,” writers who “formulate a plan comprised of arbitrary and exacting rules, carrying it out in spite of—or in anticipation of—the narrative consequences” (p. 27).

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  • Edwards, Brian. “Letters to Literature: The Epistolary Artfulness of John Barth’s LETTERS.” In Theories of Play and Postmodern Fiction. By Brian Edwards, 141–186. New York and London: Garland, 1998.

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    Situates LETTERS within a historical understanding of play spanning from Romantic theory through to deconstruction. Important distinctions in game and play theory are made and put into circulation with post-structuralist theory. According to Edwards, Barth’s work is a playful recycling, interrelating “three aspects of past-ness—American history, Barth’s previous writings, and the history of the novel” (p. 145).

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  • Gaggi, Silvio. “Writing about Writing: John Barth and John Hawkes.” In Modern, Postmodern?: A Study in Twentieth-Century Arts and Ideas. By Silvio Gaggi, 115–156. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989.

    DOI: 10.9783/9781512802276Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Distinguishes between Pirandellian and Brechtian “modes of self-referentiality” (p. 13), the first being works “structured around the inclusion of one work inside another” (p. 14), and the latter being those works which “foreground style” by calling attention to its artificiality (p. 15). Most of the analysis is concentrated on Lost in the Funhouse and LETTERS.

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  • Grausam, Daniel. “Institutionalizing Postmodernism: John Barth and Modern War.” In On Endings: American Postmodern Fiction and the Cold War. By Daniel Grausam, 23–41. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011.

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    One of the best critical texts on Barth’s work to date, and perhaps one of the most important for understanding postmodernist metafiction in its historical context. Argues that “we should understand Barth’s career, and the larger question of the emergence of metafiction, in the light of the Cold War” (p. 23). Readings focus on The Floating Opera and Giles Goat-Boy.

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  • Green, Jeremy. “The Novel and the Death of Literature.” In Late Postmodernism: American Fiction at the Millennium. By Jeremy Green, 45–77. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781403980403Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Focuses on Coming Soon!!!. Reads the novel through the lens of Barth’s Exhaustion and Replenishment essays, arguing that it is an example of what a novelist might do in the face of a general insignificance of literature. Faced with this decline, Barth produces surprising “images of autonomy” (p. 62) by having his novel “embrace its irrelevance” (p. 63).

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  • Scott, Steven D. The Gamefulness of American Postmodernism: John Barth and Louise Erdrich. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.

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    Explores the game-like shape of literary postmodernism with two case studies, one on Barth and one on Louise Erdrich, who was Barth’s pupil in the Creative Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University. The chapter on Barth focuses mainly on The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, where Barth’s playful self-referentiality is explored in relation to the enormous intertextuality of the novel.

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  • Toth, Josh. “Writing of the Ghost (Again): The Failure of Postmodern Metafiction and the Narrative of Renewalism.” In The Passing of Postmodernism: A Spectroanalysis of the Contemporary. By Josh Toth, 75–145. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010.

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    Discusses Barth’s metafictional strategies and produces a complex and compelling argument about postmodernism in general, and how the postmodern novel is caught in the ethics of trying to expose narrativity as “as an ideological illusion, as the cause of all past discursive hegemonies” (p. 131).

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Race, Class, and Gender

This is a new focus in Barth scholarship. Postmodernist literature has tended to be taken on its own terms (as aesthetically and philosophically advanced). The critics in this section largely ignore this institutionalization of postmodernism and pursue Barth for other reasons: Davis 1986, Stockton 2006, and Wilt 1990 all address the secondary roles played by women in Barth’s fictions; Dippie 1969, Duvall 2008, Solomon 2003, and Haddox 2008 explore racial themes that often seem tangential and peripheral but which, in their analyses, emerge as central to characterization and plot structure. Seguin 2001 connects postmodernism to a crisis in liberal, middle-class values, which open up onto representations of race, thus connecting race and class in an insightful way.

  • Davis, Cynthia. “Heroes, Earth Mothers, and Muses: Gender Identity in Barth’s Fiction.” In Gender Studies: New Directions in Feminist Criticism. Edited by Judith Spector, 110–119. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1986.

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    Important critique of Barth’s representation of women. Suggests that many of the female characters in Barth’s fiction are depicted as passive and empty, as vessels requiring the male hero to act out an ethical dilemma. This feminine emptiness is a “reality-symbol” (p. 112) that has a long historical pedigree in American literature. Davis discusses this historical tradition in the context of Barth’s novels, particularly Chimera and Giles Goat-Boy.

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  • Dippie, Brian W. “‘His Visage Wild, His Form Exotick’: Indian Themes and Cultural Guilt in John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor.” American Quarterly 21.1 (1969): 113–121.

    DOI: 10.2307/2710776Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that Barth examines questions of historical (or cultural) guilt, which arise “from the presence of the Indian” (p. 115). This presence is incorporated into the novel’s major theme, which is “the search for identity in America” (p. 116). An early commentary on race in Barth’s fiction.

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  • Duvall, John N. “John Barth, Blackface, and Invisible Identity.” In Race and White Identity in Southern Fiction: From Faulkner to Morrison. By John N. Duvall, 93–126. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230611825Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses The Floating Opera, The End of the Road, and The Sot-Weed Factor in terms of race. Focuses on the way that metaphoric blackness is tied to the protagonists’ white identity. Contains valuable cross-references to William Faulkner and Ralph Ellison in terms of the function of racial imagery.

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  • Haddox, Thomas F. “John Barth’s The Floating Opera and Southern Modernism of the 1950s.” Twentieth Century Literature 54.3 (2008): 307–338.

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    Argues that The Floating Opera can be seen as an “intervention in the staging of southern/conservative and American/liberal values” (p. 310), together with a desire to produce a complex “response to the cultural and political matrix of southern modernism” (p. 315) This matrix includes an important discussion of Todd’s racism, which Haddox analyzes in terms of Peter Sloterdijk’s notion of “cynical reason.”

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  • Seguin, Robert. “Into the 1950s: Fiction in the Age of Consensus.” In Around Quitting Time?: Work and Middle-Class Fantasy in American Fiction. By Robert Seguin, 121–152. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.

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    Discusses the novel in the context of mass society and the “massification” of culture. The analysis revolves around the concept of “seriality” as it is developed by Jean-Paul Sartre in his Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960, trans. 1976). The chapter also touches on the racial aspects of the minstrel show and its relation to contemporary middle-class culture.

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  • Solomon, William. “Secret Integrations: Black Humor and the Critique of Whiteness.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.3 (2003): 469–495.

    DOI: 10.1353/mfs.2003.0054Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses Lost in the Funhouse in the context of black humor and argues that the text points “toward an alternative, non-hierarchical model of interracial bonding” through its recourse to fantasy (p. 488). In this way, “black humor may be connected to its historical moment less through its realistic imitations of contemporaneous events than on the basis of its numerous investigations of the stakes of cross racial mimicry” (p. 490).

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  • Stockton, Sharon. “The Disappearing Female Body and the New Worker: John Barth, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Nicholson Baker, and Thomas Pynchon.” In The Economics of Fantasy: Rape in Twentieth-Century Literature. By Sharon Stockton, 120–148. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006.

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    Working from within post-structuralist feminist theory, Stockton explores the metaphor of rape in 20th-century literature and argues that “in postmodern fiction more generally, anxieties about the fate of traditionally defined white, middle-class masculinity proliferate” (p. 132). In her reading of Giles Goat-Boy, these anxieties turn the male protagonist into a “‘residuum’ . . . doomed to a farcical reliving of the quest narrative” (p. 21).

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  • Wilt, Judith. “Paradigms for the Plot of Maternal Choice: Novels by John Barth and Margaret Drabble.” In Abortion, Choice, and Contemporary Fiction?: The Armageddon of the Maternal Instinct. By Judith Wilt, 37–66. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

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    Analyzes abortion “both as social drama and as narrative paradigm” (p. 37), and sees a problematic pattern in Barth: in The End of the Road, “the structure of heterosexual romance, and psycho-social reality” collapses (p. 38), whereas in Sabbatical, these structures are restored as “fragile, emphatically paternal fictions” (p. 38). Sees Barth’s narrators as “‘the father’ [. . . who] turn[s] abortion into art” (p. 33).

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Science and Technology

Barth has himself introduced notions from physics and mathematics to explain his fiction. Critics have, of course, pursued this opening into his work. Vitanza 1977 and Habegger-Conti 2011 both engage with mathematics to explain how Barth develops plot. In different but complementary ways, Fitzpatrick 2002 and Isernhagen 1994 relate Barth’s fictions to ideas about the posthuman. Shackelford 2005 addresses Barth’s experiments with notions of hypertext, whereas Porush 1985 develops an entire theory of postmodern fiction in terms of cybernetics, into which he reads Barth’s fiction. Slethaug 2000 argues for a critical understanding modeled on chaos theory to be developed in relation to Barth’s fiction and postmodernism in general.

  • Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. “The Exhaustion of Literature: Novels, Computers, and the Threat of Obsolescence.” Contemporary Literature 43.3 (2002): 518–559.

    DOI: 10.2307/1209111Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Explores the notion of the posthuman and posthumanism as it is represented by a relationship between gender and the writing machine, LILYVAC II, in LETTERS: A Novel. Compares Barth’s text to Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2 (1995), and discusses differences between the two novels as to how they represent the author function in relation to the writing machine that both novelists imagine.

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  • Habegger-Conti, Jena. “‘On with the Story!’: John Barth’s Theory of Narrative Digression.” In Textual Wanderings: The Theory and Practice of Narrative Digression. Edited by Rhian Atkin, 37–46. London: Legenda, 2011.

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    Focusing on The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor and On with the Story, Habegger-Conti makes an argument for a “theory of narrative digression” in the work of Barth that is based on mathematics (p. 37). Argues that Barth uses the designs of the arabesque and the fractal geometry of the Mandelbrot set to make his narrative multiply and digress.

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  • Isernhagen, Hartwig. “Technology and the Body: ‘Postmodernism’ and the Voices of John Barth.” In Technology and the American Imagination: An Ongoing Challenge: Atti del dodicesimo Convegno biennale, Università di Venezia, 28–30 ottobre 1993. Edited by Francesca Bisutti De Riz and Rosella Mamoli Zorzi, 563–570. Venice: Supernova, 1994.

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    Short essay about analogies between Barth’s writing and technology. Discusses Chimera, Giles Goat-Boy, and LETTERS as representations of a “technological body.” Reference to Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1985) is made and Barth’s writing is understood as “a metaphorical fusion of body and machine, which serves as a text generating grid” (p. 566).

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  • Porush, David. “Author as Artificial Intelligence: John Barth’s Computer Generated Texts.” In The Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction. By David Porush, 136–156. New York and London: Methuen, 1985.

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    Attempts to understand postmodern literature in a global, cultural, and scientific context through a genre Porush identifies as “cybernetic fiction.” These fictions are understood as models of the linguistic systems and techniques that created them. A chapter is devoted to Giles Goat-Boy; Or, The Revised New Syllabus and LETTERS: A Novel, which are read as cybernetic fictions attempting to reveal “the mechanical limits of language and fiction” (p. 154).

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  • Shackelford, Laura. “Narrative Subjects Meet Their Limits: John Barth’s ‘Click’ and the Remediation of Hypertext.” Contemporary Literature 46.2 (2005): 275–310.

    DOI: 10.1353/cli.2005.0020Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Brilliant critique of “first-generation” hypertext theory. Barth’s short story “Click” deals with “the threat digital hypertext poses to this instrumental understanding of subjectivity” (p. 280) without managing to go beyond it. Instead, the story disavows the differences between print and hypertext and fails to “take seriously the fact that these material differences matter” (p. 301).

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  • Slethaug, Gordon E. Beautiful Chaos: Chaos Theory and Metachaotics in Recent American Fiction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000.

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    Investigates a range of contemporary fiction for its interrelationships with chaos theory. The book mentions quite a lot of Barth’s work (including his essays) and contains thorough analyses of The Tidewater Tales: A Novel and On with the Story: Stories. Barth is understood to be the most explicitly “metachaotic” writer of the ones included in the study.

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  • Vitanza, Victor J. “The Novelist as Topologist: John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 19.1 (1977): 83–97.

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    Maps the structure of concentric stories within Lost in the Funhouse, providing the reader with a figure illustrating how the structure of “Anonymiad” can be understood as “a retelling in miniature” of the entire series (p. 92). Argues that Barth employs the method of the “mathematician, specifically, the topologist, who is concerned with ways in which surfaces can be twisted” (p. 84).

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Barth and Other Writers

Given the fact that he has been deeply engaged in the debates over postmodernism, and that his career spans close to six decades, Barth’s work has been compared to many prominent writers, contemporary and historical, European and North and South American. Tanner 1987 looks at the conceptual connections between Barth and two early postmodernists, Pynchon and Gass. Elias 2001 compares Barth to Pynchon. De Bourcier 2014 and Harris 2014 find symmetries between Barth and David Foster Wallace, while Faris 1979 connects Barth’s insistence on labyrinths to the fiction of Michel Butor. Garrigós 1994 traces Barth’s fascination with labyrinths to the influence of Borges. Fitz 1986 explores the connections between Barth and Machado de Assis, and Payne 1993 compares Barth to Ricardo Piglia.

  • De Bourcier, Simon. “Forms, Punch Cards and LETTERS: Self-Reference, Recursion and (Un)self-Consciousness in The Pale King’s Representation of Bureaucracy.” English Studies 95.1 (2014): 40–58.

    DOI: 10.1080/0013838X.2013.857852Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Understands David Foster Wallace’s representation of bureaucratic technologies in The Pale King (2011) as an intertextual relationship to Barth’s LETTERS: A Novel. These technologies are continuations of the spatial organization of data, of alphabetization and automation, which according to De Bourcier can be found in LETTERS.

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  • Elias, Amy J. “Coda: The Sot-Weed Factor and Mason & Dixon.” In Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction. By Amy J. Elias, 252–273. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

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    Reads The Sot-Weed Factor and Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon (2004) as representatives of early and late versions of “metahistorical romance,” a genre Eliasdefines through four related propositions involving the historical sublime, post-traumatic imagery, distrust and assertion of narrative, and a specific attitude to formal experimentation. Ultimately, Barth’s novel foregrounds romance and contains “a deeply reactionary core” (p. 226).

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  • Faris, Wendy B. “Butor and Barth in the Labyrinth.” French-American Review 3 (1979): 23–39.

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    Addresses “a very recent resonance of the labyrinth pattern” that is “opposed to the common associations of the labyrinth with the emotions, sexuality, and irrationality” (p. 24). In addition to Butor, Faris refers to Gaston Bachelard’s work on labyrinths and the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet, and she makes interesting references between Barth and the French New Novel.

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  • Fitz, Earl E. “The Influence of Machado de Assis on John Barth’s The Floating Opera.” The Comparatist: Journal of the Southern Comparative Literature Association 10 (1986): 56–66.

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    Argues that a detailed analysis of The Floating Opera will reveal the extent to which Barth is influenced by the Brazilian author Machado de Assis, particularly Epitaph of a Small Winner (1880, trans. 1953) and Dom Casmurro (1899, trans. 1953). Fitz explores seven similarities in the plot structure of The Floating Opera and Dom Casmurro, and the extent to which the protagonists of The Floating Opera and Epitaph of a Small Winner resemble one another.

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  • Garrigós, Cristina. “Barth Meets Borges in the Funhouse.” Revista de Estudios Norteamericanos 3 (1994): 19–33.

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    Explores the “convergence of thought” between Borges and Barth. Borges is understood as a “Post-Kantian” author and his notions of textuality are compared to those of Roland Barthes. An acute sense of “unreality,” authorial intrusions, and frequent recourse to the fantastic are discussed as convergences between the authors, as well as a tropological interest in labyrinths, mirrors, and books.

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  • Harris, Charles B. “The Anxiety of Influence: The John Barth/David Foster Wallace Connection.” Critique 55.2 (2014): 103–126.

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    Argues that “Wallace’s literary relationship with Barth is better understood as agonistic rather than antagonistic, an example of what Harold Bloom iconically describes as ‘the anxiety of influence.” (p. 104). At the center of the essay is a comparative reading of Wallace’s novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” (collected in Girl with Curious Hair [1989]) and Lost in the Funhouse.

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  • Payne, Johnny. “Epistolary Fiction and Intellectual life in a Shattered Culture: Ricardo Piglia and John Barth.” In Conquest of the New Word?: Experimental Fiction and Translation in the Americas. By Johnny Payne, 99–141. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.

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    Highly interesting book on experimental fiction and its political context. Compares LETTERS to Piglia’s epistolary novel Respiración artificial (1988). Payne compares the two novels in terms of how they relate the formal properties of epistolary fiction to the social conflicts of the respective societies: the Argentinian dictatorship of 1976–1983, and the decades of social dissent in America in the 1960s and 1970s.

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  • Tanner, Tony. “Games American Writers Play: Ceremony, Complicity, Contestation, and Carnival.” In Scenes of Nature, Signs of Men. By Tony Tanner, 176–205. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

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    Originally published in Salmagundi in 1976. Barth’s writing is compared to the fiction of William Gass and Thomas Pynchon. Tanner reads Chimera as a work that insists on the ambiguities of the “movement of life into words” (p. 187).

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