‘The Sot-Weed Factor’, by John Barth

Sot-Weed Factor Cover

I’ve been reading this book for about five years. I’ve started it countless times, each time with the intention of finishing it, but I’d get to the last hundred pages or so and put it down – but not for the reason you expect.

I closed this book close to the end for the first time after a long reading session in Aberystwyth. I would walk out to the cliffs, beyond the reach of high-heeled or trainer wearing student beach-goers, and sit under the cliffs and read through the afternoon. The sun was beginning to set, and I closed the book and knew I didn’t want to open it again for a long time because I simply enjoyed it too much. I didn’t want it to end, and so I chose to deny myself the pleasure of reading the book to it’s close.

I’ve never done that before, and it wasn’t easy to maintain. I’d put the book in my bag every time I left the house for the library, or for that spot under the cliffs. It was an automatic action.

I’ve finished the book now, but I’ve read parts of it so many times, and not always from the beginning. Many a time I’ve felt the urge for a particular scene; the rape of the Cyprian, Ebeneezer’s conversation with Bertrand upon washing up on the beach of an unknown land, his long philosophical ramblings with Burlingame are marked throughout, as is the ‘Englishing’ of Billy Rumbly… but I’m here today to write a review, not ramble on about my favourite sections. Here goes.

John Barth’s, The Sot-Weed Factor is a satirical text focusing on the adventure of an English poet, Ebenezer Cooke, who is commissioned by Charles Calvert (3rd Baron Baltimore) to write an epic poem singing the praises of Maryland, aptly titled; the Marylandiad. He is bestowed the title of ‘Poet Laureate of Maryland’, and takes a ship across the Atlantic to experience colonial Maryland first hand.

Interestingly, Ebenezer Cooke was a real chap – and a real poet – of which little is known, save a poem in his name, titled; ‘The Sotweed Factor, or A Voyage to Maryland, a Satyr’. Many of the other characters that feature in the book (Charles Calvert, for example) were key figures during the years in which the novel plays out – the 1680’s. The Sot-weed Factor is the beginning of Barth’s interest in weaving together the real with the fictional, and so is the start of his engagement with the postmodern genre.

The book is a rich, bawdy, belly-laugh of a book which has an incredible pace for a book this size. It rarely rambles or dithers, and there is always something happening, and Barth seems to know exactly when you’re readying yourself for a bit of heavy tiring exposition, and pulls the carpet from under you. I’m thinking specifically of the journey across the Atlantic, which, in any other text would have been a breeze, but in The Sot-Weed Factor so much happens! An author could write a whole book purely on the events that unfold on the various ships Eben and Bertrand find themselves on when crossing the sea.

It also has great chapter headings.
It also has great chapter headings.

It never feels underwritten either. Weight is given to the various political and military factions fighting for power within Maryland (and outside it), but is presented in a way that keeps the text engaging; through conversations with colourful characters in entertaining situations. Barth has this fantastic way of bringing characters to life – so much so that I can clearly see the characters in my mind, and there is very little archetypal overlap, or even archetypes at all.

Themes are tested in the duration of the text, the most clear being Ebenezer’s virginity – sexually, as well as intellectually and otherwise. This leads to some very lewd and hilarious engagements, and Ebenezer’s frequent need to defend his innocence and argue with others in order to maintain his purity is fantastically entertaining. His encounters with others often leads to long conversations about their own hilarious histories, as they explain how they came to be in Maryland, and what occupies their time. So we meet Mary Mungummory, the Travelling Whore o’ Dorset:

‘D’ye grasp it, Master Poet? I’d been a whore for twenty-eight years, all told. Some twenty-thousand times I had been swived – give or take a thousand – and by almost that many different men; there was no sort or size of man I had not known, so I’d have sworn, nor any carnal deed I was not master of. I had been forced too many times to count, by paupers and poltroons, and more than once myself had been employed to rape young men.’

The civilised ‘Englished’ Billy Rumbly, we learn of Burlingame’s adventures using various identities, and Ebenezer’s sisters various states of disrepair, the changing natures of Joan Toast, and her tumultuous relationship with Eben and Tom McEvoy… the characters are so numerous, and yet have lived through so much!

The quote above give you some idea as to the nature of the language being employed. The language is meticulous reconstructed, and Barth heavily researched the period in which he was writing. ‘It took four [years], of immersion in The Archives of Maryland and other documents and studies of American Colonial history as well as in the great inventors of the English novel, and, of course, in the sentences, pages, and paragraphs of the work in progress,’ writes Barth in the Anchor Books Edition foreword.

I really can’t say anymore – other than that I hope that one day in the future, perhaps a few years from now, I’ll be able to re-approach the book again as new. To have forgotten the pleasures The Sot-weed Factor gave me, so as to experience them again, would be a real treasure! go and buy this book.

Buy it, and read it. It’s one of my all-time favourites.

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