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John Barth, writer who pushed storytelling’s limits, dies at 93

By Michael T. Kaufman and Dwight Garner New York Times

John Barth, who, believing that the old literary conventions were exhausted, extended the limits of storytelling with imaginative and intricately woven novels including “The Sot-Weed Factor” and “Giles Goat-Boy,” died Tuesday. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by Rachel Wallach, who works in communications at Johns Hopkins University, where Barth was an emeritus professor of English and creative writing. She said she did not have further details.

Barth was 30 when he published his sprawling third novel, the boisterous “The Sot-Weed Factor” (1960). It projected him into the ranks of the country’s most innovative writers, drawing comparisons to contemporaries such as Thomas Pynchon, Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov.

He followed up with another major work, “Giles Goat-Boy” (1966), which he summarized as a story “about a young man who is raised as a goat, who later learns he’s human and commits himself to the heroic project of discovering the secret of things.” It was also an erudite and satirical parable of the Cold War, in which campuses of a divided university confronted each other in hostility and mutual deterrence.

Barth was a practitioner and a theoretician of postmodern literature. In 1967, he wrote a critical essay for The Atlantic Monthly, “The Literature of Exhaustion,” which continues to be cited as the manifesto of postmodernism and which has inspired more than three decades of debate over its central contention: that old conventions of literary narrative can be, and indeed have been, “used up.

As his foremost inspiration, Barth cited Scheherazade, the tale-spinning enchantress who nightly wove stories to keep her master from executing her at dawn. He said it was she who first bewitched him when he worked as a page in the stacks of the Johns Hopkins University library in Baltimore as an undergraduate.

From 1965 to 1973, Barth taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo (now the University at Buffalo), where he was a member of a renowned English department that also included critic Leslie Fiedler.

Barth’s creative output was prodigious: He published nearly 20 novels and collections of short stories, three books of critical essays and a final book of short observational pieces. In his teaching and in his writing, he stressed the force of narrative imagination in the face of death, or even just boredom. When the university was thrown into chaos by a long and shapeless student upheaval in early 1970, Barth was asked by a young reporter what the experience had taught him.

In the Tidewater accent of his native Maryland, Barth acknowledged that by temperament he was not likely to get involved in campus protests and “the casuistries that people evolve.” He volunteered laconically that what he had learned was “the fact that the situation is desperate doesn’t make it any more interesting.”

John Simmons Barth was born on May 27, 1930, in Cambridge, Maryland, on Chesapeake Bay, to John Jacob and Georgia (Simmons) Barth. His father ran a candy store. He had a twin sister, Jill, who once told the Washington Post that he had “gotten a lot of things without trying very hard at school.” An older brother, William, said that as a child John “always had an overactive imagination.” He added, “What amazes me is how he imagines so much when he’s experienced so little.”

Barth graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1951 and earned a master’s degree there the next year. He taught at Pennsylvania State University from 1953 to 1965.

His first published novel, “The Floating Opera” (1956), was narrated by a character who considers killing himself out of existential boredom before realizing that this choice would be as meaningless as any other. In 1969, Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse,” an experimental collection of short stories, was a finalist for the National Book Award. He won the award in 1973 for “Chimera,” another collection.

After the publication of “The End of the Road,” a campus novel filled with parodies of psychiatric and academic jargon, in 1958, Barth set out in a new and less realistic direction with “The Sot-Weed Factor,” a huge picaresque written in Elizabethan style and laden with puns. It tells the story of Ebenezer Cooke, the “sot-weed factor” (tobacco peddler) of the title, who travels through a sinful late-17th-century world with his twin sister and his tutor, struggling to maintain his virtue.

“The book is a bare-knuckled satire of humanity at large and the grandiose costume romance,” Edmund Fuller wrote in a review in The New York Times, “done with meticulous skill in an imitation of such 18th-century picaresque novelists as Fielding, Smollett and Sterne.

“For all the vigor of these models, we have to go back to Rabelais to match its unbridled bawdiness and scatological mirth.”

Leslie Fiedler, Barth’s colleague in Buffalo, said “The Sot-Weed Factor” was “closer to the Great American Novel than any other book of the last decade.” Time magazine called it “that rare literary creation: a genuinely serious comedy.”

Barth took another gamble with his next book, saying it would be “a souped-up Bible.”

“What I really wanted to write after ‘The Sot-Weed Factor’ was a new Old Testament, a comic Old Testament,” he told an interviewer.

What emerged was “Giles Goat-Boy,” the story of a young man who, having recognized that he is human and not a goat, seeks to promote moral conduct on the west campus of a university and redeem its student body by reprogramming a computer, WESCAC, that dominates that portion of the campus, even while the machine is in a dangerous standoff with the equally threatening EASCAC, a deus ex machina that controls life on the east campus.

The book was generally received with enthusiasm and won Barth new admirers. But it was also criticized for what some called its artifice and contrivance. While Newsweek said it “confirms Barth’s standing as perhaps the most prodigally gifted comic novelist writing in English today,” Michael Dirda, writing in The Washington Post, called it “more than a little overwrought and too clever by half.”

The criticism would continue. Writing in the Times in 1982, Michiko Kakutani noted that over the years Barth had been “praised, on the one hand, for creating daring, innovative texts” and “damned, on the other, by critics as disparate as John Gardner and Gore Vidal, for substituting high-tech literary gimmicks for real characters and moral passion.”

Barth often tinkered with his own work and prepared revised editions of many of his books. One of his novels, “Letters” (1979), consisted of letters to and from the characters of his earlier novels. He revisited the essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” in another essay, written in 1980, titled “The Literature of Replenishment.” His “Tidewater Tales: A Novel” (1987) was conceived as a mirror-image twin to “Sabbatical: A Romance,” published five years earlier. Both dealt with couples on a sailboat trip, but with key characters making opposite life choices.

Barth’s novel “Coming Soon!!!” (2001) was a riff on his first book, “The Floating Opera.” It concerned a writing competition between an aging writer identified only as the “novelist emeritus” and a student at the Johns Hopkins writing department, where Barth had taught from 1973 to 1995.

As he grew older, so did his characters. “The Development” (2008) was a set of linked stories about the elderly residents of a gated community called Heron Bay Estates. There were toga parties and high spirits in these stories, but also pain and loss. One story was titled “Assisted Living,” another “The End.” His last book, a collection of short nonfiction pieces, “Postscripts,” was published in 2022.

Barth married Harriette Anne Strickland in 1950. They had three children, Christine, John and Daniel, and divorced in 1969. He married Shelly I. Rosenberg in 1970. Information about his survivors was not immediately available.