Lost & Found At Last

Barth poster

The opening event for Lost & Found in the Funhouse: The John Barth Collection took place on Sunday. We had over 160 folks in attendance, and my little pink name-tag was all a-blur as I ran around the gallery saying hello to so many people.

Jean McGarry, Michael Martone, and ZZ Packer each read a beautiful homage to Jack. Sometimes an homage is just an homage, but in these cases: not. Jean talked about Jack’s incisive critiques–the clean but painful precision of his scrutiny. Michael told an anecdote–a hilarious one about Jack pulling out a cereal box from his briefcase when asked once at a public reading, “What are you reading now?” And then read his Festschrift piece about lawn care and “ground situations.” ZZ talked about The Sot-Weed Factor (to my delight; see below) and what it meant to her, who had been schooled in 18th-century literature and in white authorship, to encounter a white author who delved into the messy history of race. She also read aloud some passages from that work, which was very cool.

I introduced them, and here is what I said.

***

Thank you, Winston.

And thanks to all of you for coming to the Peabody this afternoon to celebrate John Barth.

Before I introduce our three speakers, I would also like to thank a few of the folks who worked on this exhibition with me and Nate McNamara and Matt Morton, our two fabulous curatorial fellows. As you can imagine, it takes many kinds of talent to make an exhibition, and in the interest of time, I won’t mention everyone who contributed. But I would like to specifically thank my colleagues Paul Espinosa, Curator of the Peabody Library, and Mark Pollei, Head of the Department of Conservation, who, along with conservators Alessandro Scola and Lena Warren, did such an amazing job of preparing the gallery and installing the exhibition. There are over 170 objects in those cases—that’s not even counting all the little scraps of paper—which represents an enormous amount of time and labor and imagination.

I would also like to thank Dave Plunkert of Spur Design, who was not just a designer but a creative partner—he dreamt up the funhouse mirror and the beautiful artwork and was a delight to work with.

There are a couple of digital complements to the physical exhibition, which I hope you had a chance to see in the gallery: Nate and I loaded up and organized digital objects on a digital exhibition platform, but the platform itself comes to us courtesy of my colleague Mark Cyzyk, Scholarly Communications Architect. And finally, we have two delightful videos on display made by two recent Film & Media Studies graduates, Victor Fink and Joshua Land, so I’d like to thank them and their former professor Jimmy Joe Roche, who connected us.

There’s still another facet to this celebration that isn’t visible just yet: a Festschrift called John Barth: A Body of Words. This collection of personal and scholarly essays will be published by Dalkey Archive Press later this year, as part of their series of reissues of John Barth’s entire oeuvre. Some of those books are already available, and I encourage you to look them up if this exhibition is making your thirsty for fresh, new editions of Jack’s stories and novels. My co-editor Charlie Harris could not be with us today, sadly, but several of the Festschrift contributors are here—perhaps you each might wave as I say your name. John Balaban, Jessica Anya Blau, Robert Day, Tristan Davies, Steve Dixon, John Domini, Geoffrey Green, John Lewis, and David Letzler. And a few others about whom I’ll say more in a moment. I hope I haven’t overlooked anybody.

It is an amazing testament to the kind of community that Jack has fostered as a writer and teacher of writing that former students and colleagues and Festschrift contributors have traveled from very far away just for this event. Teaching constitutes a contribution to the republic of letters that doesn’t often get recognized. And yet teaching is so important, so crucial to the continuation of literary culture—which means, of course, the continuation of our pleasure as readers; but also, if you’ll permit me a moment of idealism, the evolution of our wisdom. Writers of fiction and poetry produce contained and often beautiful false environments—perhaps we can think of them as terraria or, dare I say, funhouses—in which it is safe for us as readers to experiment with feeling and knowing. In each brave new world, which we can enter merely by turning a page or scrolling down a screen, we encounter “many goodly creatures”—unfamiliar and strange as well as, sometimes, deeply familiar and strange. In the company of our protagonists, we are presented with challenges, and we learn vicariously what it might mean to suffer, or survive, or prevail.

Sometimes, in the sorts of environments that John Barth creates for us, we are even asked to participate imaginatively in the construction of the environment itself. It’s wonderful to feel that your own presence as a reader has been acknowledged in the thing you are reading—to feel that the writer is asking you to join in the funhouse-building.

I would hate for you to think that I am saying that the constructed worlds of literature are just practice for the real world we live in—emotional practice, practice in understanding. They can be that, of course, but they can also liberate the imagination in ways that we don’t need to justify through reference to the real world. Reading literature can be a relief, it can be a joy, it can be exciting and profound, it can be a provocation, and I don’t need to tell you this because you’re here, so you already know it, but it can be a big part of what makes you you.

Where do these reading experiences come from? They come from writers who all, somehow, have to become writers. “Apprentices,” as John Barth has often called his students, need training; they need private failures, they need their successes to be noted. They need to run through the drills of composing, revising, moving on. In short, they need teachers like John Barth. Reading the Festschrift essays as they arrived, I was struck by the many varieties of appreciation they expressed and the many kinds of writers they represented—memoirists, poets, novelists, travel writers, realist writers, fabulist writers, critics, screenwriters. Et cetera. There is, as far as I can tell, no “School of Barth” per se—no entourage of mimics. I don’t think Jack was ever trying to reproduce himself in his students. Instead, it seems to me, looking at the phenomenon from the outside, he resourcefully and generously prepared particular nourishment for each apprentice, based on her or his particular needs and talents, and on certain general principles which Jack developed out of his own broad and thoughtful experience of reading.

I marvel to think how he did this, while also producing seventeen works of his own fiction—several of them major cultural interventions, and quite a few of them rather hefty. But I think we get a sense of the sensibility that can handle all of this input and output when we look at the archive. What we have tried to recreate here in the exhibition in fragmentary and frozen form is John Barth’s archive as it lives and breathes, as it swells and shrinks with messy vitality—a workshop replete with notebooks and notepads, letters, envelopes bearing scribbled ideas, articles torn from newspapers and magazines, photocopies, annotated paperbacks, recordings of lectures and readings, and, increasingly, emails and drafts indigenous to a computer’s hardware. There are manuscripts, of course, but there are also many other pieces of ephemera—textual oddments that are usually victims of the tides of time. I am so grateful to John and Shelly Barth for rescuing the flotsam and jetsam along with the recognizable gems, and of course for making it possible for Johns Hopkins to acquire this collection, because the generous sweep of it includes exactly what literary history sorely lacks. In this collection, scholars now and in the future will have access to discoveries that actually go beyond John Barth’s published books—how they were written and published—and touch upon his everyday writing life, his research and thought process, the foundations of his funhouses. And this collection will also allow scholars to grapple with overarching questions about, say, the publishing industry in the late age of print and the progress of contemporary American literature.

To go back now to John Barth as a teacher of writing. I would like to introduce our three speakers, representing three different “generations”—loosely speaking—of Jack’s students here at Hopkins. For all of them, Jack’s teaching was formative, but they are very different writers whose flourishing careers serve as much better illustrations than anything I could say of the wide and generous impress of his tutelage. All of them, I should add, are writers whose work I am really in awe of. I’ll introduce them all now, in the order in which they will speak, and then we’ll just go from one to the next.

***

Jean McGarry, Professor in the Writing Seminars and co-chair of that department, received her MA from the Writing Seminars in 1983. She has worked as a newspaper reporter and translator, but mostly has taught writing, and came back to the Writing Seminars to teach in 1987.

Jean’s first book, Airs of Providence, is a collection of stories interwoven with the chapters of a novella. The Very Rich Hours, published two years later, is a novella about life at Harvard in the early 1970s, arranged around a set of prose poems. The Courage of Girls is a young woman’s bildingsroman set in Greenwich Village in the mid to late 1970s. Home at Last returns to Jean’s home-town of Providence, and ranges in time from 1938 to the present. Her novel, Gallagher’s Travels, is about an ambitious reporter in the world of daily newspapers. Dream Date is a collection of portraits that follows a variety of relationships across the boundaries between real life and dreams. Her most recent book is Ocean State, another collection of stories, and a new collection, No Harm Done, is forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press.

Jean is also an academic associate at the Baltimore-Washington Psychoanalytic Institute, training which is reflected in her depictions of her characters’ psychological nuances. If I were to speculate about how her studies with Jack have been integrated into her own writing, I would say that his example of formal experimentation has left its mark on Jean’s passionate engagements across genres and fields—her alchemical combinations of different varieties of prose and poetry, her attention to visual art and unusual formats. These tests of the limits of genre are undertaken in part for the sake of beauty, I imagine; but also—here again following the example of Barth—they are put into the service of deeply human questions, about self and community, home and away, family and place. If I were going to match up Jean with a Barthian exemplar, it would be The Tidewater Tales or the collection On With The Story.

Michael Martone graduated from the Writing Seminars in 1979, and teaches now at the University of Alabama.

His most recent book is Winesburg, Indiana, a short story anthology he edited of 30 “mini memoirs,” each penned by a different writer, and each telling the story of a different individual from the fictional town of Winesburg, Indiana. It’s a play on Sherwood Anderson’s great modernist collection Winesburg, Ohio, but it’s also an experiment with authorship itself. Other recent books include Four For a Quarter, a collection of his own stories that are all shaped by the number four, and Michael Martone, a memoir in contributor’s notes. (A form he follows rigorously in the Festschrift, and a precedent that sets the bar impossibly high for the would-be introducer.) There are many, many other publications I could name—I actually lost count while reading his CV—short story collections, essay collections, an ersatz travel guide—so I’ll just briefly mention that he has also written or edited three books about writing, and has edited several genre-defining anthologies, including Extreme Fiction, The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, and The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction.

Michael has won two Fellowships from the NEA and a grant from the Ingram Merrill Foundation. His stories have won awards in the Italian Americana fiction contest, the Story magazine Short, Short Story Contest, and the first World’s Best Short, Short Story Contest. His stories and essays have appeared and been cited in the Pushcart Prize, The Best American Stories and The Best American Essays anthologies.

He is married to the poet Theresa Pappas, another Writing Seminars graduate from 1979, who is also here.

And if I had to put Michael on a desert island with a book by John Barth, that book would be Lost in the Funhouse, or maybe LETTERS, for both demonstrate an incredibly ingenious and courageous exploration of form that has devastating consequences for the borders we usually erect between readers, writers, and characters—but do so with absolute exuberance. These are qualities that are also on display in Michael’s own work. Experimental fiction, ladies and gentlemen, need not be grave nor unapproachable.

ZZ Packer received her MA from Johns Hopkins in 1995, the last year of John Barth’s teaching here—and she went on for a second MFA from the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. She was a Stanford Wallace Stegner Fellow, a Princeton Lewis Center for the Arts Hodder Fellow, and a Lillian Golay Knafel fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard.

Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Story, Ploughshares, Granta, Best American Short Stories 2000 and 2003 and, most recently, 100 Years of The Best American Short Stories just published this month. She also writes reviews and essays, and her non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, The Believer, The Guardian, The New York Times Book Review, and The New Yorker Online. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, a Whiting Foundation Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and the American Academy of Berlin Prize. Her collection of short stories Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, published in 2003, won the Commonwealth First Fiction Award and was one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 selections. It became a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award, was a New York Times Notable Book, and was selected for the Today Show Book Club by John Updike. In 2007 Granta Magazine named her one of America’s Best Young Novelists.

ZZ is now at work on a novel about Reconstruction and the Buffalo Soldiers entitled The Thousands, an excerpt of which appeared in The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 Fiction Issue in 2010. Extrapolating from this current work—from one gorgeous excerpt!—I would hazard that ZZ is a child of The Sot-Weed Factor, a new model of historical fiction that takes very seriously the idea that history only exists through its telling, and that reimagines through literature the what, the who, and the how of the very real past.

 

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