1973 -- Chimera

After graduating from high school, John Barth enrolled in New York’s Julliard School, hoping for a career in music. He soon transferred to creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, and eventually transferred his love of music into his fiction:

[My] chief pleasure is to take a received melody — an old narrative poem, a classical myth, a shopworn literary convention… — and, improvising like a jazzman within its constraints, reorchestrate it to its present purpose. (from The Friday Book)

Barth has spoken often of the improvisations available to the postmodernist, allowing the creation of new forms which “manage nonetheless to speak eloquently and memorably to our still-human hearts and conditions, as the great artists have always done.” That quotation is from his 1967 essay, “The Literature of Exhaustion”; the following is from his 1980 essay, “The Literature of Replenishment,” in which he argues for going beyond the modernism of “James Joyce & Co.,” without going too:

If the modernists, carrying the torch of romanticism, taught us that linearity, rationality, consciousness, cause and effect, naïve illusionism, transparent language, innocent anecdote, and middle-class moral conventions are not the whole story, then from the perspective of these closing decades of our century we may appreciate that the contraries of these things are not the whole story either. Disjunction, simultaneity, irrationalism, anti-illusionism, self-reflexiveness, medium-as-message, political olympianism, and a moral pluralism approaching moral entropy—these are not the whole story either.

b) Augustus – John Williams

Dan Wakefield’s 1981 Ploughshares interview with John Williams is built around the question with which C. P. Snow began his 1973 review of Williams’s novel, Stoner: “Why isn’t this book famous?” Stoner had been published in 1965, and promptly forgotten. When Augustus, his epistolary novel of Imperial Rome, co-won the 1973 NBA, Williams’s fans thought that he might finally achieve the recognition and sales which he deserved. It too earned strong reviews, and was forgotten.

Wakefield’s interview is titled “John Williams: Plain Writer.” At one point in his introductory comments, Wakefield substitutes an alternative equation as a definition of Williams: “The Last Writer.” These descriptors are meant as high praise and as possible explanations of why Williams never caught on, the idea being that his unadorned style and clear moral vision had gone out of fashion. This may seem hard, or just alarming, to accept, given that Augustus, published as the Vietnam War raged and Watergate broke, draws us “deeply into a world whose complexity, luxury, political cynicism, public gullibility, and violence seem very much like our own” (The New Yorker). The following passage, from a letter sent by Gaius Maecenas to Livy, ventures that even “the most high and palmy state of Rome” (Hamlet) was pretty much a shell game:

What you seem so unwilling to accept, even now, is this: that the ideals which supported the old Republic had no correspondence to the fact of the old Republic; that the glorious word concealed the deed of horror; that the appearance of tradition and order cloaked the reality of corruption and chaos; that the call to liberty and freedom closed the minds, even of those who called, to the facts of privation, suppression, and sanctioned murder. We had learned that we had to do what we did, and we would not be deterred by the forms that deceived the world.

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