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John Barth

A Body of Words
Gabrielle Dean and Charles B. Harris (eds)
Dalkey Archive Press


From the Introduction: Once Upon a Time, by Charles B. Harris

While still in his forties, John Barth predicted that he would lead "a writerly life as long as Thomas Mann's or Nabokov's" ("PW Interviews" 8). Over thirty-five years later, it is gratify­ing to note that Barth's prediction has come true. From the appearance in 1956 of The Floating Opera, his first published book, through the essay collection Final Fridays, his most recent book, released in 2012, Barth has published at least two books in each of the seven decades spanning his writerly life thus far. Plaudits and prizes have punctuated his long and illustrious career. Thrice nominated for the National Book Award for fic­tion— The Floating Opera, Lost in the Funhouse (1968), and Chimera (1972), which won the 1973 award—Barth is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His honors include the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Fiction (1997), the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story (1998), and lifetime achievement awards from the Lannan Foundation (1998) and the Enoch Pratt Society (1999).

Capping a lifetime of notable achievements, 2015 promises to be a kind of annus mirabilis for Barth. On May 27, 2015, he turned eighty-five. In October, Dalkey Archive Press pub­lished Barth's Collected Stories, launching its announced plan to reprint—and keep in print—Barth's entire corpus. Also in October, Johns Hopkins University's Sheridan Libraries hosted a major exhibition featuring its newly acquired John Barth Collection, an archive including notes and manuscripts for Barth's published works and lectures; correspondence, pho­tographs, recordings, juvenilia, and home-made posters and slides that Barth used to illustrate talks and readings; and the 1200-volume library Barth shared with his wife Shelly. Finally, with this book, we hope further to recall and celebrate Barth's accomplishments and influence as writer and teacher.

John Barth: A Body of Words, like Barth's sixth work of fiction, is a bit of a chimera: a tripartite hybrid of tributes and reminis­cences from friends, colleagues, fellow writers, and former stu­dents; a sheaf of scholarly essays; and a triadic conclusion com­prising Gabrielle Dean's description of the Sheridan Libraries Barth Collection, a rare recording of a public reading, and a two-part Michael Silverblatt radio interview. Both a Festschrift, an assemblage of academic essays written to honor a colleague, and a liber amicorum, a book of friends, this volume, we think you'll find, is chock full of delights, insights, and surprises.

Many of the delights are found in the tributes presented by Barth's fellow writers and former students become fellow writers. Reminiscences cover various periods in Barth's career. Daniel Tamkus, Barth's "first student" and friend of many decades, pro­vides the earliest, recalling his Hopkins freshman comp course, taught by a very young Barth, himself an MA student, in 1951. John Lewis, once patted on the head by Barth's father, reflects on the importance of Cambridge, Maryland, the hometown he and Barth share, as a key to understanding Barth's work. Barth's contemporaries William H. Gass, Robert Coover, and Robert Scholes discuss the liberating impact of The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) on their understanding of the possibilities of fic­tion. Tone varies from the whimsical (Jonathan Lethem's witty epistolary poem, Gass's wry revelation of the Secret Society of Sots United, Michael Martone's tribute in the form of an Author's Note) to the earnest (Curtis White, Geoffrey Green, and Jennifer Finney Boylan's descriptions of Barth's compassion­ate guidance and support during their struggles with important life decisions) to the flat out hilarious (Jennifer Anya Blau's account of how, in their search for le mot juste, she and Barth traded synonyms for a particularly intimate bodily function).

We shouldn't forget what an important ingredient humor was to the fiction that emerged in the 1960s. Indeed, before the term "postmodernist" stuck, we called Barth's kind of fic­tion "Black Humor." It was a disruptive humor, calculated to provoke the inappropriate response, resulting in a disturbed laughter but also that sense of liberation that often accompanies violations of decorum. This was the 60s, remember, a time of cultural turmoil and change, and the humor of the new fiction, as well as its formal dislocations, seemed to reflect the spirit of the age. Old rules were broken; new ones took their place (even though many of the new rules would have been familiar to Cervantes, Rabelais, and the Menippean satirists). And no one was funnier than John Barth. If, while walking across a college campus in the 60s, you encountered a student laughing out loud at a book, chances were good she was reading The Sot-Weed Factor. Mine couldn't have been the only student cohort who tried to work the word "swive" into every dormitory conversa­tion, after which we'd collapse in laughter. As many of the trib­utes in this volume make clear, Barth's wit is not confined to his books. "I'll die laughing," he told an interviewer (Shenker 31), and examples of his abiding sense of humor recur throughout the tributes.