Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 785
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.
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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His first extended work of fiction, a novel titled “The Shirt of Nessus” (unpublished), was Barth’s master’s project, for which he received an M.A. from Johns Hopkins in 1952.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 there until 1965.
While teaching, Barth continued to hone his craft, and he began to produce quickly; his first two novels were both written in 1955. The Floating Opera (1956), written during the first three months of that year, was nominated for the National Book Award, and his second novel, The End of the Road (1958) was made into a (very unsuccessful) film in the late 1960’s. Although the sales of these novels were not large, Barth was encouraged by their critical success, and he followed them in 1960 with his third novel, The Sot-Weed Factor. This extravagant mock-historical fiction was praised effusively by Leslie Fiedler and others, and it marked Barth’s arrival as a major contemporary writer, which was subsequently acknowledged by the “citation in fiction” Barth received from Brandeis University in 1965.
At the same time, Barth was becoming sought-after professionally; after working his way up the ladder of academic promotion at Pennsylvania State, he accepted an appointment in 1965 to the English department at the rapidly expanding State University of New York, Buffalo, where he was the Edward H. Butler Professor of English from 1971 to 1973.
In 1966, Barth published his perhaps best-known and most successful novel commercially, Giles Goat-Boy: Or, The Revised New Syllabus (1966). For a time, Barth was celebrated in popular weekly magazines such as Time, and his novel was highly placed on the national best-seller lists; however, Barth’s fiction is often demanding and difficult, and Giles Goat-Boy was no exception. The novel has often been referred to as a largely unread best seller, but Giles Goat-Boy nevertheless established Barth in the forefront of audacious American writing and placed him in the company of contemporary figures such as Thomas Pynchon. Barth’s next volume of fiction, Lost in the Funhouse (1968), is a collection of often experimental short narratives, and these marked a further step for Barth into the field of metafiction, or the literature of extreme narrative self-consciousness.
Barth was divorced from Harriet Ann Strickland in 1970, and in 1971 he married Shelly Rosenberg. He published Chimera (1972) in the following year, for which he was chosen as cowinner of the National Book Award. In 1973 Barth returned to Baltimore and Johns Hopkins, this time as a faculty member in The Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars. His next novel, Letters: A Novel (1979), was followed by Sabbatical: A Romance (1982), then The Tidewater Tales: A Novel (1987), The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991), Once upon a Time: A Floating Opera (1994), and Coming Soon!!! (2001). In 2004 he published The Book of Ten Nights and a Night: Eleven Stories. Barth has also been an important spokesman for experimental fiction, and his most significant essays have been published together in The Friday Book (1984) and in Further Fridays (1995). His other awards include the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award (1997), the PEN/Malamud Award (1998), and the Lannan Literary Awards lifetime achievement award (1998).