An Essayby John Balaban
John Barth’s office when he taught at Penn State was on the second floor of the Sparks Building, a long, two-story Federalist affair of high windows and concrete Doric columns facing its twin structure across a mall lined by huge elms leading down from the Fred Lewis Pattee Library, with its crown of acroteria. Pattee, a renowned early Americanist, wrote the school song, which had the line “When we stood at boyhood’s gate.”
My own boyhood self—surly, defensive, suspicious of authority, having spent the year after high school working in a glue factory—was eighteen or so when I was assigned to Barth for academic advising. I did not think I needed an academic adviser and I had no idea that Barth was a famous young novelist, much less that he had already published The Floating Opera, The End of the Road, and The Sot-Weed Factor and had been nominated for the National Book Award, or that he was then working on Giles Goat-Boy. Clueless, I walked into his office (and eventually into some passages in his books).
Barth had me sit down by his desk and we went over my BA and English-degree requirements. He helped me choose some courses. I pretty much just sat there, taking in the WPA paintings that decorated the WPA-era office that he shared with the novelist Thomas Rogers. When our advising work was over, Barth asked me where I was from and what I had done before coming to Penn State. I told him I had worked in a glue factory. That in my last year in high school I had run away from home. There was a pause. He asked what I was reading.