Delmarva Review: Clues to John Barth’s Genius: Jimmies, Jazz, and Scheherazade by John Lewis

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John Barth wanted to be a jazz musician. He played drums in a combo—with his twin sister, Jill, on piano—that gigged around Cambridge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and after high school graduation in 1947, he high-tailed it to New York City to study at Juilliard. “It was an absolutely clear and unambiguous experience to learn that what I had hoped was a pre-professional talent was, instead, a pretty good amateur flair,” he told me, over crab cakes at Easton’s Tidewater Inn. “This was the big band era, and I was studying orchestration. I was a drummer, but I didn’t want to spend my life on the road. Being an arranger sounded more respectable.”

Barth had hoped to emulate Billy Strayhorn and Pete Rugolo, his heroes. “But I knew from the first week at Juilliard that the young woman on my left and the young man on my right were going to be the professional musicians of their generation,” he recalled, “and I was going to have to look for something else to do.”

Barth actually has the angular and craggy appearance of a jazz musician, a look that’s accentuated by a closely clipped, white beard and the occasional beret atop his bald pate. But his personality is infused with professorial confidence and sharp wit, a testament to his rapport with the fiction muse he tapped after transferring to Johns Hopkins and finding “something else to do.”

“It was the opposite of what happened at Juilliard,” he said. “When I stumbled into fiction, I had the unequivocal feeling that this was my true calling: all I had to do was learn it from scratch.”

Barth felt the Cambridge education system left him largely unschooled. In fact, he has said “nothing since kindergarten prepared me for [college]” and noted that, despite being on the academic track in high school, his career counseling amounted to a 10-minute talk with the phys ed teacher.

I’ve heard folks question how a “backwater” like Dorchester County produced such a keen intellect, and—if you ignore the inherent snobbery of such a comment and consider Barth’s claim that his formal education was lacking—it is a mystery. Lord knows what it was like between the Depression and World War II, when Barth called Cambridge home. But he obviously got something vital from the Shore that informed his writing and worldview. And, it turns out it was

the perfect incubator for an autodidact with a pen- chant for brilliant meandering. In fact, meandering is something of a refined art in that part of the world, and it’s key to getting at the essence of Barth’s particular type of genius.

Meandering permeates just about everything in Dorchester County—from the unhurried and digressive conversations taking place on the street and in country stores to the flatness of the landscape itself, which is characterized by its tangle of curving roads and bending shoreline intersected by cuts and creeks and other bodies of water that rise and fall with the moon.

Coupled with the flatness, such undulating and fluid geography is endlessly fascinating, though it can be downright disorienting, and it’s no wonder Barth had to look beyond the horizon to his “navigation stars” for direction. Barth told me he considers Scheherazade—the female storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights—one of his “principal navigation stars.”

“With her life ever on the line, only as good as her next piece, Scheherazade remains for me the most piquant emblem of the storyteller’s lot,” says Barth.

These days, Barth, whose noted books include The Sot-Weed Factor, The Tidewater Tales, Giles Goat Boy, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, and the Scheherazade- inspired The Book of Ten Nights and a Night: Eleven Stories, is now a navigation star in his own right. He gets mentioned in the same breath as Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov, and James Joyce and is considered one of the greatest figures in world literature. He’s swooped in and out of the mainstream, won the National Book Award (for Chimera in 1973), and influenced the likes of David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Lethem. He’s actually achieved adjective status— Barth-ian, or Barth-like is synonymous with intelligent, metafictive, postmodern literature.

Thinking a map might be useful in navigating around Barth’s hometown, I was in luck: the Cambridge library has put together a Barth walking tour. With commentary from the author himself, a map directs pilgrims to sites of interest, which include his boyhood home on Aurora Street, his grandparents’ house on the corner of Maryland Avenue, and, according to Barth’s comments, “East Cambridge Elementary school, where I once got paddled for writing a naughty poem about our teacher, my introduction to the pleasures and pains of authorship.”

The tour leads down to the river—again, in Barth’s words—“The Choptank rivershore at Aurora Street’s foot, where we kids [including my twin sister, Jill] played year-round, and the Route 50 bridge nearby, where we swam and dived among summer sea nettles.”

More than a baptism, Barth equates his immersion in these waters with life itself. “I never tire of remembering that the salinity of these waters is about the same as that of the amniotic sea that we all first swam in,” he told the Dorchester County Friends of the Library during a 2005 talk. A copy of Barth’s text is on file there.

At the riverfront—which is still accessible, although you’ll have to maneuver around a hospital that’s been built in the intervening years—it’s easy to see what captivated Barth and fired his imagination. From this spot, small waves approach from the horizon to lap against a shoreline that stretches out on both sides. Looking up, you’ll see the Choptank River Bridge leading north to Baltimore and Washington. Looking down, you’ll find teeming life at your feet, an entire ecosystem just below the surface: minnows, patches of sea grasses, jellyfish, and the occasional blue crab.

The Maryland blue crab remains a potent symbol of the region, and it flourished in the bay’s brackish waters when Barth was a boy. In the summertime, the Choptank’s waters were teeming with hard crabs, soft crabs, and peelers— jimmies (males) and sooks (females) alike—scurrying sideways across the river bottom. They not only caught Barth’s eye, they subtly influenced his approach to writing. In fact, Barth tells me he comes at subjects sideways, “as blue crabs incline to do.”

Here, the crab becomes symbolic of postmodern literature, with regards to crafting Barth-ian metafiction in which the storyteller moves sideways through streams of information to systematically and subtly change perspective along a narrative bend. That’s the way Barth thinks, writes, and speaks.

In conversation, he can sound downright annotated, as I learned during lunch. When discussing novellas, for instance, Barth noted, “The market for them is gone.” He added commentary, “an interesting form that was popular from the time it was invented,” along with when (the 18th-century), where (Germany), and who popularized it (Goethe). He opined that it is “a lovely narrative space.”

He then playfully defined a novella as “a work of fiction too long to sell to a magazine and too short to sell to a book publisher.”

And finally, he offered advice: “When you perpetrate one, you usually need to add on a few short stories [in order to sell it].”

An Eastern Shore native would recognize, if not the subject matter, the measured pacing and wry tone of such comments. It’s the same sort of discursive storytelling that’s been going on for generations around potbellied stoves, across shop counters, and on docks and wharves throughout Dorchester. Barth relishes being that sort of meandering storyteller, (not so) plain and (not so) simple.

The locals say he got the storytelling gene from his father, Whitey. At the house where he wrote his first novel, The Floating Opera—it’s part of the walking tour— the current owner was out sweeping the sidewalk when I visited. At the mention of the Barth name, he lit up. “He was a natural storyteller, the best you ever heard,” he said, leaning on his broom. “He was extremely erudite.”

But this guy wasn’t talking about John Barth, who’s known as “Jack” around town; he was talking about Whitey. “If Jack could write as well as his father talked, he’d really be doing something,” he added. “It seems like Jack takes ten pages to tell something that could be told in one.” He set the broom aside and lauded Whitey’s storytelling prowess, noting that he had owned a popular soda fountain, called Whitey’s Candyland, on Race Street. Although the building has been torn down, the location is noted on the walking tour, and Barth recalls that it’s “where we all occasionally helped out but mostly hung out.”

Hanging out, he was exposed to storytelling as a lively and witty art courtesy of Whitey, who also served as judge of the Orphans Court for 44 years, worked with the volunteer fire company, was a devoted American Legion member, and was an in-demand after-dinner speaker at functions throughout the county. “By comparison to his life,” Barth has written, “my own (literary and academic) seems almost reclusively detached, its radius much wider but its roots far less deep.”

Where Whitey burrowed, his son scuttled.

Besides passing along the storytelling gene, Whitey helped expose his son to popular and modernist fiction. Barth devoured the paperbacks his father stocked at the shop, and it was there that he first encountered books by Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and H.P. Lovecraft, along with William Faulkner’s Sanctuary and John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer.

He’d go on to devour books in the Hopkins library, where he shelved classics as a part time job and spent countless hours browsing the stacks and discovering the vastness and diversity of world literature. Like his Cambridge days, it left an indelible mark on his body of work. “If you happen to be a refugee from the Dorchester County tide marshes, as I was and remain,” Barth once told a Washington College audience, “and particularly if you aspire to keep one foot at least ankle deep back in your native bog while the other foot traipses through the wider world, it is well to have such an off-the-cart smorgasbord under your belt, for ballast.”

Barth returned to Cambridge for the unveiling of a historic marker honoring him, and, perhaps most tellingly, he’s set his last few books on the Shore.

His 2008 book, The Development, was comprised of nine related stories set in an Eastern Shore retirement community where “a failed old fart fictionist” (Barth’s words) named George Irving Newett lives. G.I. Newett. You can practically hear Whitey chuckling at that one.

Barth tells me, via email, that his forthcoming book features Newett as its narrator: “The novel’s full title is Every Third Thought: A Novel in Five Seasons. Title borrowed from Prospero’s remark in Shakespeare’s Tempest, of course (`Every third thought shall be my grave’); subtitle from the five seasons of the story’s present action (First Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer, Last Fall) and the corresponding `seasons’ of the narrator’s life.

“After an accidental trip-and-fall head-bang while [Newett and his wife] are touring Shakespeare’s house in Stratford-Upon-Avon, he experiences a series of five seasonal dreams/visions/hallucinations/whatever that trigger recollections of his boyhood, young manhood, maturity, and later age in `Bridgetown’ and adjacent `Stratford,’ in `Avon County’ on MD’s Eastern Shore.”

Barth, now 81 years old (in 2011), seems intent on coming home, again and again. When asked if this will be his last novel, he writes that “time will tell. Since its completion, I’ve written no further fiction.”

But Barth says he has started writing a piece about his years as a jazz musician— presumably doing so while keeping one foot at least ankle deep in his native bog.

John Lewis is editor at large at Baltimore magazine and teaches writing in the Curatorial Practice MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art. This story was published in Volume 4 of the Delmarva Review, in 2011. His work has appeared in The Oxford American, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post Magazine, and many other publications. He lives in Cambridge, MD with his wife and two children.

The Delmarva Review is a nonprofit literary journal publishing compelling new poetry, fiction and nonfiction from writers within the region and beyond. It will celebrate its Tenth Anniversary edition in November. The Review is supported by the Eastern Shore Writers Association, private contributions, and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For more information, please visit: www.delmarvareview.com.

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