April 25, 1996 Vol. 25 No. 31

Liberal Arts honors novelist

John Barth will receive an honorary doctor of humane letters during the College of the Liberal Arts commencement ceremony May 12 at The Bryce Jordan Center.

By Alan Janesch
Public Information

John Barth, the award-winning novelist who taught English at Penn State from 1953 to 1965, will receive the honorary degree of doctor of humane letters.

Mr. Barth is the author of 13 books, including nine novels. His most recent novel, Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera, was published in 1994, and On with the Story, a collection of short stories, is set for publication later this year by Little, Brown.

While at Penn State, Mr. Barth used the University Park Campus as the setting for his 1966 novel Giles Goat-Boy, which became a best-seller. An influential contemporary novelist and a highly regarded educator, Mr. Barth is viewed as one of the inventors of American postmodernist fiction.

Mr. Barth has won many awards. His sixth work of fiction, Chimera, won the National Book Award in 1973. Two of his other novels, The Floating Opera (1956) and Lost in the Funhouse (1968) were both nominated for the National Book Award.

He also has received the National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in literature (1966), the Brandeis University creative arts award in fiction (1965), and the Rockefeller Foundation grant in fiction (1965-66). In 1974, he was elected to both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Mr. Barth's fiction, critics say, relies on elaborate framing devices, parody and wit to explore the claims of art and the problems of self-consciousness.

In addition to The Floating Opera, Giles Goat-Boy, and Once Upon a Time, his other novels are The End of the Road, The Sot-Weed Factor, LETTERS, Sabbatical, The Tidewater Tales and The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor.

Mr. Barth also has written two volumes of essays and other non-fiction and dozens of short stories and non-fiction articles.

He is currently professor emeritus in the writing seminars at The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md. He began at Penn State as an instructor in 1953, became an assistant professor in 1957 and an associate professor in 1960. After that, he taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo and Boston University before returning to Johns Hopkins in 1973. Mr. Barth earned both his bachelor's degree (1951) and master's degree (1952) from Johns Hopkins.

Recollections of John Barth

Robert G. Weaver, professor emeritus of English, former director of the writing program:
We were close friends and we did a lot of things together, like making beer. It was terrible stuff, but we made a big thing out of it. The kind he made was very explosive. I recall he would hold a bottle out at arm's length, and it would blow the cap against the ceiling and foam all over his hand. Most of the other guys had fairly tame beer, but he liked the wild stuff.

He worked very hard. He didn't want to be interrupted from his work, but he divided his life very well. He did his writing, he did his teaching, he did what he was supposed to do. But he was after big game from the start.

S. Leonard Rubinstein, professor emeritus of English, former director of the English writing option:
John Barth came to the Penn State faculty the semester I was on leave. He was 24 years old, impeccably dressed, courtly, faintly distant. He was interested and deferential. He established for me what a writer was. He wrote the way people breathe. He went on to become a major novelist and literary theorist. But I saw then, in that forever-alien young man, what the nature of a true writer was.

Stanley Weintraub, Evan Pugh professor of arts and humanities, author of Disraeli and other biographies:
What John Barth used to allege as his reason for having moved from State College to Pine Grove Mills was that he didn't want his fiction to be considered academic novels, because they wouldn't be treated as seriously. If he was identified as a resident of a college town, he claimed, his books would automatically be classified as academic fiction. He moved, he said, so that his dust jackets could say "John Barth lives in Pine Grove Mills," and in that way he would avoid being known as a writer of academic novels.

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Last updated April 23, 1996.