John Barth is dead

On March 26th, 2024, the Francis Scott Key bridge in Baltimore was struck by a ship and destroyed in seconds. Exactly a week later, John Barth died. He had been in hospice for a while so I can’t help but think he might not have known.

…dude with a bridge

Like the aforementioned structure, Barth was synonymous with the Chesapeake Bay and more specifically Baltimore, Maryland. He taught at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore for many years and wrote some of the most incredible tales of the Chesapeake I (James) have ever read. I can honestly say that Professor Barth was the main reason I moved to the Chesapeake Bay in 2009.

Dena and I had been living in India for almost a year when we discovered a great deal on a sailboat in Norfolk, Virginia. We bought that boat (S/V SN Nomad) and sailed her up the Bay to Baltimore by the end of our first year. And we did that because we both (Dena and I) had spent the previous decade devouring the works of John Barth.

I was first introduced to the works of Barth in the winter of 1987, when a good friend (and marriage relation) found out that I was a big fan of “post-Modern” fiction. Dude went to his library and landed right on the B’s. He looked at me with a wry smile and picked out two books by an author I’d never heard of. The first one was “The Sot-Weed Factor” by John Barth and the second was “Giles Goat-Boy” by the same dude. He held both book in his hands as if weighing them, shoved “Goat-Boy” into my face and said, “This one first.”

I spent the next two months reading that book, whenever I wasn’t working on my own last year of manufacturing a bachelor’s of science in 35mm black and white photography, before my MFA era, and finished it in an agitated state of absolute infuriation. I must have looked at the photo of Barth on the back of that book a hundred times while reading it and, every time, all I could think was “motherfucker, you and I have nothing in common!”

At the time, I was the same age he was when he published his first novel. “Giles Goat-Boy” was Barth’s fourth work of fiction and I was still worried if my hair looked good. When I told my vaguely related lit-influence how angry I was after reading “Goat-Boy”, he said, “Don’t waste a single moment. Start ‘The Sot-Weed Factor’ now!” As testament to how much I trusted this guy, I did.

Marsh Deer
Deer up Swan Creek

I can honestly tell you that book changed my life. Not only did it change the way I perceived literature, it changed the way I read everything. I fell in love with my own mind while reading “The Sot-Weed Factor” and it was John Barth who showed me how to laugh at all the smart shit, not just the slapstick moments of being beshit.

I went on to live my life in all of its hilarity, Barth fading into my past with all the other works of comedy and tragedy that influenced everything I did.

Then on a cold dark winter’s day in the year of many zeros (2000), I discovered a copy of “The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor” in the Blaine, Washington, library book sale. I really did laugh at the fifty-cent price tag and read that one next.

Blaine at its Best
…Ah Blaine

I (Dena) enter the story, self-consciously, as befits a Barth fan. James huffed and puffed and laughed and struggled not to share too much of what I’m not sure we were calling “spoilers” yet. When he finished it, he handed it to me and that steel-grey winter retreated before the ridiculous, sublime Chesapeake Bay that John Barth had written.

My own BA was not far behind me and I took on all kinds of books with aplomb. This one met me, though. I never felt lorded over or made fun of, though the tricks and treats do come in waves. I still remember thinking, feeling, that this was a man who actual knew a woman or two. Like, paid attention and respected and was irritated by and loved, even, a woman. Maybe more than one? Is that a thing? I thought.

Of course it is, I’d found my own. But Last Voyage does so much contextualizing of every fucking thing that nothing is only a metaphor or only a fact…every thing, and every person, is both independently real and a product of the minds engaging with it…her…him…

Then life happens, just like Barth himself said it would, it could, it does and it did…

Reedville Exit
Oh yeah…

We didn’t go back to him again until we were at last living in Barth’s Chesapeake. We somehow, I (James) can’t quite remember how, scored a copy of “Sabbatical, A Romance” right before setting off from Hampton, Virginia, to Baltimore in the harsh winter of 2009. Dena plowed through that book laughing and looking at me from across the saloon for the entire 366 pages…and I was jealous the entire time. When we read that book, we really got the fact that Barth was truly a sailor from the Chesapeake Bay. As a matter of fact, we used that book like an anchoring guide all the way up the Chesapeake.

Over the winter of ’09/10, we both read (what I refer to as) the three-part C.I.A. trilogy: “LETTERS”, “Sabbatical”, and “Tidewater Tales”. This represents about 2000 pages of this writer’s work and it completely changed the way I saw the art of fiction. Meaning, there is no such thing as non-fiction and everything is grist for the mill.

Key Bridge
oh right, hear again

I (Dena) didn’t stop there. As the one with less familiarity and a faster reading pace, I swam in John Barth’s waters until I’d absorbed every bit of his work. Unlike Blaine, Washington, where his works were being sold for semi-bucks by the librarians who couldn’t talk anyone into checking them out, Baltimore used-book stores had Barth sections.

The oldies? I squirmed through but ultimately appreciated “Lost in the Funhouse”, thought Chimera deserved its National Book Award, found his first two good but dated, slogged through “Goat-Boy” with more appreciation than joy, and slurped up “The Sot-Weed Factor” like it was miso soup and I was getting a cold.

It’s grating to my readerly ear that Barth’s obits (though copious and in top-level famous-writer venues) spend so many pixels on the early works and so little on what I consider his period of humanly flowering. He was teaching and, reportedly, with heart and mind on the line. He’d watched enough change in the multiple estuaries that empty into the Chesapeake Bay to recognize, from his toes and his fingertips to his bright considerate mind, that ecology isn’t a buzzword. He used it and hundreds of other words to describe what it felt like to watch your birthplace degrade and be subsumed, put to evil uses, and discounted.

He also saw people exhibiting investment and determination and rejections of helplessness. He saw them in women who needed to carve themselves a place and found themselves off balance when they didn’t have to thrust and parry. He saw them in Chesapeake Bay sailors who started working on eelgrass and oyster projects and, with a careful and tense distance, in the protesters who fought the oppressive presence of the US Gov’t across those waters.

Under Attack

Literature can show you someone’s heart and mind if it’s done well. If there was a John Barth outside of, beyond, other than his writings, he is lost. I’m honestly not quite sure why that matters to me, but it does.

The writings, though. What does this collection of writings represent? What does it mean? What does it say?

It says what John Barth wanted it to say. He wrote and edited, taught and presented, and that is not lost. If he was a lesser man than the Author who let me in or a greater man than the person who struggled to make the stories hang together, we’re left with what he wrote. That’s a lot. It’s everything I’ve ever really had from him and it’s always been enough.

If you read one thing about John Barth, make it this:

So we see that humanity, through the visions and writings of even one single brilliant lyricist and percussionist, is so much greater than anything our kind can build with our hands and machines. John Barth is dead but the bridge he built between us and our generations to come will ultimately be indestructible.


One comment

  1. Tidewater tales———-James loaned this to me and it was a weird, strange, excellent read. You need to slow down and open your mind to take in Barth’s way of telling a story–but it’s worth it.

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