John Barth
John Barth; drawing by David Levine

Sometimes a novel of a markedly eccentric character drags with it an image of its ideal reader. Letters, an immense work of perverse ingenuity, might have been designed on order for that little band of academic scholar-critics, now mostly middle-aged, who, having locked themselves into a room with Pound’s Cantos and Finnegans Wake, glare balefully through barred windows at the rest of the literary scene. Occasionally they will unbolt the door just long enough to allow one of the later, lesser models to be installed—the novels of Beckett, an Ada, say, or Gravity’s Rainbow. Apart from these bristling few (together with a handful of more or less coerced, more or less conscientious reviewers) it is hard to imagine what readers Letters, in its entirety, will find.

Almost certainly they will not include today’s bright undergraduates, who, if they read at all, apparently do so by strobe-light; and almost certainly not your reasonably literate General Reader (wherever he lurks), who is likely to conclude that while life is indeed short, art can sometimes seem intolerably long. But length and difficulty and even tedium are no necessary bars to greatness. Letters has already been hailed as a work of genius. Will those who decline the challenge of its nearly eight hundred pages have denied themselves an extraordinary literary experience? The answer to that is yes. Whether or not the experience will be judged sufficiently rewarding for the effort involved is more doubtful.

Letters—rather like the haywire (or bees’ wax) computers, LILYVAC I and LILYVAC II, which serve as a major scrambling device within the novel—is itself an amazing construction of glittering parts and crazed circuitry. As any reader of reviews must know by now, it has been assembled as an epistolary novel, a freaky variation of the old Richardsonian model, its correspondents being “seven fictitious drolls and dreamers” who, with a single important exception, derive from Barth’s earlier fiction. One of these, the computer-maniac and Bonapartist pretender Jerome Bonaparte Bray, not only appears briefly in the “Bellerophoniad” section of Chimera (1972) but accompanies his initial letter with two “enclosures” that are lifted verbatim from that novella; his connections go back to Giles Goat-Boy (1966) as well.

Another correspondent is Ambrose Mensch, an expansion of the pre-adolescent Ambrose who figures in several sections of Lost in the Funhouse (1968); he is to some degree an authorial alterego, a failed (or blocked) avant-garde novelist who also calls himself Arthur Morton King. A.B. Cook IV and A.B. Cook VI both descend from the Cookes, Burlingames, and Castines (Casteenes) of The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) and continue the story of that shape-shifting dynasty from the 1750s onward. Then there is Jacob Horner, taken up years after the conclusion of The End of the Road (1958) and now revealed to be as mad as they come.1 The remaining three are Todd Andrews, the lawyer—now sixty-nine—who narrates The Floating Opera (1956); Lady Amherst, who is the entirely new character; and the Author in propria persona—Professor John Barth of SUNY/Buffalo, more recently of Johns Hopkins, who involves himself actively with his past creations, argues with them over past episodes, exhorts them to join him in his new enterprise, comments on its ramifications, and otherwise participates.2

The novel’s action—complicated beyond the most bizarre fantasies of a lunatic who sees plots everywhere—is at once a parody of all plotting (in every sense of the word) and a device upon which to hang any bauble that catches the author’s fancy. Merely to summarize its twistings would require at least a dozen pages. Still, for the sake of the intrepid reader who might like some idea of the tangle he is about to enter, I will briefly follow one strand, omitting much that is relevant (since every occurrence in Letters is—one way or another—relevant to everything else).

The present action begins in March, 1969, not long after the death of Harrison Mack, Jr., a rich businessman living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland—a man so Tory in his politics that when, in his later years, he went mad he believed himself to be not Napoleon but George III, who also went mad in his later years. In his madness Mack “fancied himself, not George III sane, but George III mad; a George III, moreover, who in his madness believed himself to be Harrison Mack sane.” Are you still with me? While Mack’s wife Jane is absent, the widowed Lady Amherst, an English woman of a certain age who has been reduced to teaching history at Marshyhope State University College (formerly Tidewater Tech) takes charge of Mack’s household and, dressing in Regency costume, indulges his delusion that she is Lady Elizabeth Pembroke [sic], with whom the mad George III was infatuated.


After Mack’s death, Lady Amherst becomes Provost (acting) of Marshyhope S.U.C. and in that capacity invites John Barth to be the recipient of an honorary degree, thus beginning the correspondence (and the book). Not long afterward Lady Amherst is sexually surprised in her office by Ambrose Mensch, who has his way with her while she is trying to talk with Dr. Schott, the college president, on the telephone (“…it was madness, madness!” writes the prolix lady to the Author. “And a too tiresome bother…”). Mensch, whose sperm have low motility, becomes determined to impregnate Lady Amherst—a chancy business, since she is pushing fifty—and to that end forces her into various humiliating observances and positions.

Meanwhile, complications are introduced concerning Jane Mack and the children—Jeannine, a much-married alcoholic actress who also calls herself “Bea Golden,” and Drew, a late-Sixties radical married to a black woman. Drew Mack, who has been involved in terrorist activities before, plans to blow up the fraudulently constructed Tower of Truth at Marshyhope, which is the pet project of Dr. Schott, a right-wing Philistine and bitter enemy of Lady Amherst. Jane, who had once had an affair with the late Lord Amherst, becomes engaged to a local reactionary poet, A.B. Cook VI, owner of the yacht Barataria. Cook may (or may not) also be André Castine of Castine’s Hundred, Ontario, who was once the lover of Lady Amherst and the father of her long-lost son, who seems to be Henry Burlingame VII, a young man associated with Drew Mack in his terrorist activities. Will it help to mention that A.B. Cook VI may (or may not) be a revolutionary posing as a reactionary and that he may indeed be involved in a plot to blow up Fort McHenry on the sesquicentennial of the original attack on the fort by the British during the War of 1812 (“Oh, say can you see…”)?

By pursuing this particular strand I have been unable to go into the rather lugubrious familial and literary situation of Ambrose Mensch or to touch on the activities, in Upstate New York and Canada, of the computer fanatic Jerome Bonaparte Bray and Jacob Horner; here I will merely hint at the possibility that Bray, in addition to plotting a computerized Revolutionary Novel called NOTES (anagrammatically, STONE), manages by some strange device to impregnate five of the novel’s females—including, apparently, Lady Amherst and the retarded daughter (putative) of Ambrose Mensch.

Meanwhile, an avant-garde movie-maker, Reg Prinz, is on hand with his crew to film almost everything that happens in the novel, including a reenactment of the War of 1812.

Thus condensed, the plot may sound more entertaining than it proves to be in the actual experience of reading Letters. But some of its permutations are indeed witty. Barth must have enjoyed its fabrication: one imagines him working gleefully in a wizard’s cave cluttered with charts, cross-indexed files, almanacs, and leather-bound memoirs from the Napoleonic era. Although one grows inured to the surprises produced as strands are drawn together and knotted, the plot does, in an odd and limited way, work: “…the narrative, like an icebreaker, like spawning salmon, incoming tide, or wandering hero, springs forward, falls back, gathers strength, springs farther forward, falls less far back, and at length arrives—but does not remain at—its high-water mark…”—so writes Ambrose Mensch in his final letter to the Author.

Jaded though I was, I found myself, toward the end, as naïvely curious as any reader of a suspense-novel about what would happen at Fort McHenry and at the Tower of Truth—and felt duly frustrated when several important strands were left dangling (or—just as likely—were knotted in ways unperceived by me). But such a reaction was, I suspect, less a sign of Barth’s spellbinding narrative powers than the gratitude a parched desert traveler might feel for a fistful of grapes at the end of his trek. For to enjoy the little rewards of interestingly narrated action, the reader must traverse vast areas of scarcely endurable aridity.

Among these are the almanac-besotted letters which the suicidally inclined Jacob Horner writes to himself, letters that conceal beneath their logorrhea a disjointed account of the goings-on at the Remobilization Farm at Fort Erie, where he is a patient/prisoner. Then there are the non-communications in computer-jargon of the even madder Jerome Bray, who fills pages with stuff like this:

Finally, we secured per program a toad that under cold stone days and nights had 31 RESET We then betook ourselves to rest, leaving to faithful Merope the simple if exacting task of working out with LILYVAC the historical-political analogues of our progress thus far. It was during this period that LILYVAC’s aforementioned tendency to self-mimicry was most vexingly displayed: e.g. RESET Which nigger in the ointment we have countered provisionally with an “editorial” program-amendment to recognize and RESET Just as we have programmed it to avoid or scrupulously delete any reference whatever to

The fall work period of Year V was devoted to preparations for the 1st trial printouts (scheduled for tonight through Friday) and their analysis. On its final day, the winter solstice—anniversary (on the Gregorian calendar) of the Pilgrims’ landing on Plymouth Rock, of young Werther’s letter to Charlotte apprising her of his intended suicide….

Still more trying of the reader’s patience (though superficially more “accessible” than the above) are the letters—dating from 1812—of A.B. Cook IV to his unborn child and their continuation in the letters of A.B. Cook VI to his son (Henry Burlingame VII); together they constitute a huge block of stupefyingly inert material—a densely packed, under-dramatized chronicle extending from the French and Indian Wars through the death of Napoleon. Without the relief of dialogue the narrating “I” grinds on and on, reducing extraordinary events and famous personages (Tecumseh, Madame de Staël, Madame Mère, even the young Balzac) and potentially mighty scenes into an undifferentiated pile of sausage meat:


Using my Canadian credentials in London, I learnt that British elements opposed to a 2nd American war had gone so far as to plot the assassination of Prime Minister Perceval, a staunch defender of the Orders in Council, knowing that Lord Castlereagh, his likely successor, was inclined to revoke them. Also that the King was in straitwaistcoat, pissing the bed & fancying that England was sunk & drown’d, himself shut up in Noah’s Ark with his Lady Pembroke (a Regency bill was expected momently). Also that the Foreign Office had rejected John Henry’s claim for £32,000 and a good American consulship in reward for his espionage, on the grounds that his reports were valueless: they referr’d him for emolument to his employer, the Canadian Governor-General’s office. But Sir James Craig was by then gone to his own reward, & Sir George Prevost was not inclined to honor his predecessor’s secret debts. Embitter’d & out of funds, Henry had left London to return to farming in Vermont.

I overtook him at Southampton and (in the guise of le Comte Edouard de Crillon) won his sympathy on shipboard by declaring myself to be a former French secret agent temporarily out of favor with Napoleon by reason of the machinations of my jealous rivals….

While the period flavor of such pastiche is enjoyable in a relatively short quotation, the pleasure evaporates soon enough as the narrator continues in this vein for an aggregate of nearly two hundred pages—a quarter of the whole book. A similar compulsiveness helped turn The Sot-Weed Factor into something of a bore, but in that book at least the relentlessness of the narration was offset (though insufficiently) by even more brilliant mimicry of its fictional epoch and by a few rousing scenes of Smolletesque humor and ribaldry.

Exhausted, exasperated, one turns with relief from Horner, Bray, and Cook to Germaine Necker-Gordon Pitt, Lady Amherst, whose spirited recital of her misadventures, amorous and otherwise, provides some of the novel’s most diverting moments. A descendant of Lord Byron and Madame de Staël, Lady Amherst has, in her past, been involved with such figures as H.G. Wells, Hermann Hesse, Evelyn Waugh, and Aldous Huxley; now she must submit to the whims of yet another man of letters, Ambrose Mensch, who conducts their relationship in accordance with “stages” that repeat the stages of his earlier sexual history. At one point her loving tyrant, frustrated by his affair with an Older Woman, rigs her out like a high school “groupie,” forcing this “semicentenarian, erstwhile scholar, erstwhile gentlewoman” to go about

…sans makeup, bra, and panty girdle, her hair unpinned and straight and parted in the middle, her trusty horn-rims swapped for irritating contact lenses and square wire-framed “grannies.” The former she tearily inserts on the days her lord and master decks her out in miniskirt or bikini (dear lecherous Jeffrey [Lord Amherst], how you would laugh now at the legs you once called perfect, the arse and jugs you salivated after across Europe!); the latter complement her hippie basse couture: ankle-length unbelted calicos, bell-bottomed denims and fringed leathers—the whole brummagem inventory of head-shop fetishes, countercultural gewgaws, radical fripperies…Lord luv a duck!

Her epistolary style is another witty pastiche—this time calling to mind a whole series of loquacious female characters, beginning as far back as Richardson’s Pamela and including the heroines of Fanny Burney and Charlotte Brontë, together with their less genteel sisters from two hundred years of pornography; the list culminates in Molly Bloom, whose yes’s Lady A. repeats like the eternal (literary) female that she is. To all this she adds a few campy locutions of her own. The extended female impersonation works well enough for perhaps two-thirds of the novel, but Barth, as if unable to shut off that voice, forces too much of it upon us.3

Even more rewarding, in my opinion, are the letters which the aging lawyer Todd Andrews writes to his dead father (“Old fellow in the cellarage”), and to the Author; through them Barth makes his closest approach to the writing of “straight” fiction. In Todd he has created an appealingly melancholy character who describes himself as a Stock Liberal with a Tragic View of History, as a man who “believes that many injustices which can’t be remedied may yet be mitigated, and that many things famously fragile—Reason, Tolerance, Law, Democracy, Humanism—are nonetheless precious and infinitely preferable to their contraries.”

Todd’s story of his successful thwarting, in 1967, of an attempt by Drew Mack and several black henchmen to blow up the Chesapeake Bay Bridge is as exciting a piece of suspense-writing as I have recently read in a serious novel. Later, reversing the formula that kept him from killing himself at the end of The Floating Opera, Todd decides to follow his father’s example of suicide; but before ending his own life he pays a farewell visit to those islands, beaches, coves, and open waters of the Chesapeake that he has loved the best. The account of this pilgrimage and of Todd’s autumnal sexual interludes with his old mistress, Jane Mack, and with her daughter Jeannine (who is probably Todd’s daughter as well) seems to draw upon resources of feeling that are rarely tapped in the work of so notoriously cool a performer as Barth.

The language that Barth has found for Todd is supple, evocative, and strong—more impressive, finally, than the extravagances of mimicry and invention that dominate so much of the book. I finished Letters regretting—futilely, no doubt absurdly—that the novel entrapped in the paraphernalia of the larger work, the novel involving Todd and the Macks and the terrorism of the Sixties, could not have been freed to swim into a life of its own, a life as real and as fantastic as this extraordinarily gifted novelist could conceivably have made it. But of course the Author has other ends in view—ends to which he cheerfully subordinates this best portion of his work.

The overwhelmingly pervasive theme—or rather obsession—of Letters is reenactment: the reenactment in later life of the events, relationships, patterns, etc., of an earlier stage. The repetition-compulsion of individuals is extreme. Ambrose Mensch and Todd Andrews actually number each phase of their first cycle and assign corresponding numbers to the phases of their second. The Author himself participates, giving as he does a second life to the characters of his previous novels—a process which was adumbrated in his treatment of the Perseus myth in Chimera. Extending beyond the compulsions of individuals, the notion of reenactment includes patterns within the same family, from generation to generation. Whereas Harrison Mack’s father, who made his money in the pickling business, had his own feces pickled and bottled, Harrison Mack, Jr. (more up-to-date) causes his to be freeze-dried; Todd Andrews must repeat his father’s suicide; each Burlingame-Cook son must, over a period of 200 years, undo—or seem to undo—the achievements of his father. As with the family, so with history: the War of 1812—sometimes called the Second Revolution—is not only reenacted in Reg Prinz’s film version but also in the plan of Drew Mack and Henry Burlingame VII to begin an actual Second Revolution through their acts of terrorism.

To the elaboration of this theme Barth has adduced a staggering number of correspondences—mythological, historical, calendrical, alphabetical, numerological, sexual—together with an equally astonishing apparatus of anagrams, cryptograms, ciphers, concealed allusions, puns, mirror-images, false-leads, shape-shiftings, etc. The method reaches its self-mocking apogee in the ravings (buzzings) of Jerome Bray, who is, on one level, an apparent incarnation of the Napoleonic Bee (there are endless plays on the letter B, bees, Bea Golden, humming, and honey):

He told us how AEIOU is an anagram for IEOUA, dig? Which is sort of a nonconsonantal counterpart, if you follow me, to the vowelless Tetragrammaton YHWH, a.k.a Jehovah, get it? It was further suggested by Monsieur Casteene, added Rodriguez, who I must say has got a proper Yiddishe Kopf on his shoulders if I ever saw one, that the so-called “Faithful Shepherd” book of the Zohar declares, Not as I am written [i.e., YHWH] am I read. Casteene feels this to be an allusion to…the Kabbalistical practices of Notarikon and Themurah, which with the aforementioned Gematria comprise the 3 principal approaches of the Kabbalists to Scripture-regarded-ascipher. Gematria, you will recall, is the search for meaning in the numerical values of the letters: Thus MARGANA, for example, has a value of 55 (13+1+18+7+1+ 14+1), and LE FAY, a.k.a. YFAEL, 49.

Mimicry and travesty are also forms of reenactment, and Letters is full of them. The novel is incorrigibly “literary.” Often it seems like a deliberate parody (if such were possible) of the Oedipal and Kabbalistic fantasies of Professor Harold Bloom. Is Letters to be read as an anxiety-induced “swerving” from the combined influence of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake? Certainly the Joycean presence is pervasive, sometimes with such happy results as this rendition of our National Anthem (with an allusion to the aforementioned eccentricity of Harrison Mack, a.k.a. George III):

O see, kin, “G. III’s” bottled dumps—oily shite!—which he squalidly hauled from his toilet’s last gleanings. 5 broads stripped and, bride-starred, screwed their pearly ass right on our ram-part! You watched? Heard our growls and their screamings? Now Bea Golden (“G’s” heir)’s Honey-Dusted 4-square: grave food for her bright hatch of maggots next year!

The literary game-playing extends to “letters” in every sense. Not only were Lady Amherst’s “ancestors” notable figures in the history of letters, but they were notable letter-writers. Lady Amherst also represents, allegorically, the Great Tradition of Literature, the now aging heritage from the past: “Can a played-out old bag of a medium be fertilized one last time by a played-out Author in a played-out tradition?” Again and again the novel giggles at its own excesses. “Pooh,” writes Lady Amherst at one point, “that’s a game anyone can play who knows a tad of history: the game of Portentous Coincidences, or Arresting But Meaningless Patterns.”

Lady Amherst’s sneer is characteristic of the extreme self-consciousness that Barth brings to his art—a self-consciousness which he has both indulged and analyzed in Chimera and Lost in the Funhouse as well as in Letters. He anticipates every conceivable criticism of his enterprises and then swallows it whole, incorporating it. Whether one is charmed and disarmed by such a tactic depends upon one’s willingness to play Barth’s game. Those who value literature primarily as performance—with the acrobat signaling for attention to each new feat on the high-wire—will find Letters breathtaking in its virtuosity. The book is indeed prodigious; I too am impressed. But my tolerance for games is limited, especially for the game of correspondences. I am bothered (and finally bored) by the fact that the correspondences exist laterally—on a plane, so to speak—rather than in depth (as do those of Shakespeare and Joyce). Who cares, really, that the name “Reg Prinz” is a pun on “Prince Regent”? What new insight has been gained, what access of awe or wisdom or delight? Genius (as opposed to ingenuity) in the arts does, I would argue, manifest itself in depth—in the revealing of further and richer layers of implication.

Barth’s fiction, long and short, has always seemed dry to me, almost inhumanly detached. While in relatively small doses—The Floating Opera, The End of the Road—such dryness (a.k.a. “coolness”) can be pleasurable, indeed tonic, the flattening or fragmentation of affect can also make a long book like The Sot-Weed Factor seem even longer; in Giles Goat-Boy it reaches ruinous proportions, converting that novel—for all the promise of its Swiftian beginning—into a wilderness uninhabitable by man. A similar dehumanization—though not as severe—devastates large tracts of Letters. If Giles Goat-Boy belongs to the literature of autism (to adapt George Steiner’s phrase for William Gaddis’s JR, another work of perfected unreadability), then Letters may well bring to mind a case of fulminating schizophrenia, with distinct (but essentially harmless) paranoiac tendencies. There is an excess of method in the novel’s madness; there are also (as in the case of poor George III) intervals—some of them fairly prolonged—of effective lucidity. Of course, as one might expect, such an image has been anticipated by Barth:

By Jove he exclaimed to himself. It’s particularly disquieting to suspect not only that one is a fictional character but that the fiction one’s in—the fiction one is—is quite the sort one least prefers…. One manifestation of schizophrenia as everyone knows is the movement from reality toward fantasy, a progress which not infrequently takes the form of a distorted and fragmented representation, abstract formalism, an increasing preoccupation, even obsession, with pattern and design for their own sakes—especially patterns of a baroque, enormously detailed character….

The quotation might well have occurred in a letter by Ambrose Mensch or the Author; in fact it comes from the chapter called “Life-Story” in Lost in the Funhouse.

This Issue

December 20, 1979