In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section John Barth

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Interviews

American Literature John Barth
Berndt Clavier
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0121


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.

    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.

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

    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.

  • 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.

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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).

  • 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.

    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.

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

    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.”

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

    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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