The Tidewater Tales

by John Barth

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499

Although The Tidewater Tales and Sabbatical are more obviously conscious of current social issues than Barth's earlier novels, Barth's central theme remains constant throughout the fiction of his later career: the importance of narratives in our lives, how we use stories to make sense of ourselves and our world. The Tidewater Tales seems to approve of Katherine's and her lesbian friend May's good-hearted social activism, but it is not their arguable political logic that Barth endorses so much as their nurturing of the storytelling impulse. Katherine and May are members of HOSCA (Hands Off South and Central America), an activist organization dedicated to obstructing what they see as the American government's imperialistic meddling in other nations' affairs. But it is the fact that they are founding members of ASPS (The American Society for the Preservation of Storytelling) which seems most significant to Barth, and during the course of the novel each validates her right to claim membership in that organization. Katherine saves her husband and her marriage with loving storytelling. May Jump, through Carla Silver, who acts as her mouthpiece, tells the story of "Scheherazade's First Second Menstruation" and of that legendary Arab storyteller's visit to the twentieth century, "tell-along" narratives that make explicit for the reader and for the characters the life-or-death nature of good-faith communication with one's fellow humans. And of course the novel before us, drafted, Barth's fiction has it, jointly by a loving couple and "now" to be finished by the rejuvenated writer Peter Sagamore, is testimony to the saving power of narrative. The characters live for us because we can read about them; and within the novel itself, Peter finishes a grateful Frank Talbott's Sex Education play, a work which itself concludes with happy male/female relations and which makes it possible for the beginning writer Talbott to continue to live a productive life, now that his vocation as a writer has been affirmed.

Barth is often described as a bawdy writer, and it's true that, especially in his earlier books, his high-spirited characters often engage in sexual adventure. But sex is never present in Barth's work for merely sensational or commercial reasons. Although it is abused by evil characters like Katherine's ex-husband, the sadistic rapist Pooney Baldwin, in The Tidewater Tales sexual intercourse is most significantly a Barth metaphor for the Self's tender communion with Another — which to Barth's novelistic mind means narrative. "Sex and stories, stories and sex. Teller and listener changing positions and coming together until they're unanimous," writes Barth. Katherine and Peter's decision to write a novel about their lives and sailing experiences is not less significant to them than their decision to bring children into a world constantly threatened with evil and death. In the course of their long fortnight of sailing, Barth has his protagonists discuss at length (and demonstrate) the parallels between composing and copulating and between giving literary and literal birth. It is a theme in American literature as old as Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855).

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