John Barth was born in Cambridge, Maryland, in the second year of the Great Depression. After graduating from local public schools, Barth spent the summer of 1947 studying theory and orchestration at New York’s Juilliard School of Music. At the time, Barth’s aspiration was to become a big-band jazz arranger in the tradition of Billy Strayhorn, but he soon felt that in comparison with the sophistication of his influences his own talents were limited, so he abandoned music as a career.
Returning to Maryland’s Eastern Shore at the end of the summer of 1947, Barth found that he had been awarded a scholarship to The Johns Hopkins University, and he elected to attend Johns Hopkins in the fall of that year to pursue a major in journalism. Although Barth has suggested that his interest in working with past literature, particularly myth and historical narrative, is a by-product of his interest in musical arrangement, he first became seriously interested in writing fiction in the creative writing classes he took at Johns Hopkins. There he was also introduced to the world of literature and criticism, and by the time he had completed his A.B. degree, which was awarded to Barth in 1951, he had effectively decided to devote himself to writing fiction.
His first extended work of fiction, a novel titled “The Shirt of Nessus” (unpublished), was Barth’s master’s project, for which he received an M.A. from Johns Hopkins in 1952. He then enrolled in the Ph.D. program in literary aesthetics at Johns Hopkins, but financial constraints forced him to abandon his studies and seek steady employment. In 1950, Barth had married Harriet Ann Strickland, and by 1953 they had two children, a daughter, Christine, born in 1951, and a son, John, born in 1952. A third child, David, was born in 1954. Barth joined the English faculty at Pennsylvania State University as an instructor in the fall of 1953, and he remained...
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