John Simmons Barth was born on May 27, 1930, in Cambridge, Maryland, the contemporary and historical environs of which have provided the setting for much of his writing. He attended Cambridge High School, after which he accommodated his passion for jazz and the drums with a brief stay at the Juilliard School. His unspectacular showing there led him to enroll at Johns Hopkins University, a move made possible when he won a scholarship he had forgotten he had applied for. He achieved the highest grade point average in the university’s College of Arts and Sciences upon receiving the bachelor of arts degree in 1951.
To pay off tuition debts and support his wife (Harriet Anne Strickland, whom he had married in 1950), Barth took a job in the Classics Library, where he first became absorbed in the Asian tale cycles that would later inform the style and content of his own fiction. During this period came his first publications in student literary magazines, including one story, “Lilith and the Lion,” the appearance of which in The Hopkins Review when Barth was twenty may rightly be considered his first professional work. His master’s project was The Shirt of Nessus, a novel based on a love triangle including a father and son and populated by rapists, murderers, bootleggers, and lunatics; Barth confesses it a miscarriage, and he says it now rests in the Dorchester marshes on Chesapeake Bay.
Having received his master of arts degree in the spring of 1952, he began studying for a Ph.D. in the aesthetics of literature while tutoring and teaching freshman composition courses, until the cost of supporting both his family (his third child was born in January, 1954) and his education compelled him to teach full time. He took a position at Pennsylvania State University in 1953; his experience with freshman composition there would eventually find its way into The End of the Road. (He did not earn his doctorate until 1969, from the University of Maryland.) While at Penn State, Barth began a series of one hundred stories in the bawdy manner of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron: O, Prencipe Galeotto (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620), detailing the history of Dorchester County. He abandoned the project within a year, but fifty of the proposed hundred stories were completed; a handful were published separately, and others later were incorporated into The Sot-Weed Factor.
Barth advanced from instructor to associate professor at Penn State, where he taught until 1965, and it was during this...
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