Stalking the Behemoth: “The Sot-Weed Factor,” by John Barth

The Sot-Weed Factor,
The Sot-Weed Factor
By John Barth, 1960
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
By the time 1960 rolled around, John Barth was a fairly obscure author. He had two novels, The Floating Opera and The End of the Road, under his belt, and his original plan was to use The Sot-Weed Factor to expand them into a trilogy about nihilism. However, as Barth wrote through the novel, he found it taking a shape he hadn’t quite expected and decided to just roll with that shape. As it turned out, deviating from the script was the best call Barth could’ve made. Not that I’ve read the first two — I own both, and they’ve got these hideously ’70s covers that make me wish I’d shelled out for the omnibus, but it’s hard to complain too much, since I paid a combined six bucks for them — but it’s Sot-Weed that made Barth into a literary superstar and an important figure in the Postmodern Thing.
So just how does this book roll? The first thing readers tend to note is the use of 18th century English, which, while closer to the modern way of speaking than even Shakespearean English, doesn’t make for smooth reading until you’ve parsed it out. Of course, Barth didn’t use this language just for the sake of obfuscation, but to place this novel within a broader dialog. Sot-Weed is based on a style of British writing called the anatomy novel, a form invented in the 18th century and most famously exhibited with Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which, observant readers may note, is often credited as an early postmodern novel itself. These books are long and digressive, often subvert the very notion of an organized plot, and often display the most ribald of humor.
Sot-Weed is no exception to any of these rules. It’s eight hundred pages of subplots that sort of weave together into a broader and more coherent whole; the idea is more to log the adventures of poet Ebenezer Cooke, inheritor of a tobacco farm in Maryland and virgin (if you can say Sot-Weed has plot points, Ebenezer’s virginity is one of them); his servant Bertrand, coward and hedonist; and his tutor, Henry Burlingame, who seems to take on whatever identity suits him best. As for the bawdy humor, hoo boy; even Roth in full Portnoy’s Complaint mode can’t top Barth’s onslaught, and if you think I’m exaggerating, wait until you see what he does with the Pocahontas story.
Like I say, there’s not a lot of plot here, so the best way to summarize this one is to talk about its premise. Ebnezer is declared poet laureate of Maryland by a British politician, Charles Calvert. Ebenezer is set to inherit his father’s tobacco plantation in the same state, and after a series of disasters in England that include a near-duel with a notorious criminal, Ebenezer sets off for the then-“New World” to live out his role as a poet and get out of the trouble he’s gotten into. On his journey, his valet Bertrand gambles away the deed to the plantation, so Ebenezer has to get it back. He also develops his poem, “the Marylandiad,” throughout the novel. Its tonal shifts do a wonderful job of mirroring the character’s own development. But the process of getting it back is just there to have some sort of framework. What matters is that Cooke gets kidnapped by pirates, that he skirts around a Jesuit conspiracy and a Native American rebellion, that he meets and falls in love with a prostitute named Joan Toast, and that Toast and another prostitute spend several consecutive pages exchanging profession-specific insults. Brush up on your eighteenth-century burns. Oh, and Burlingame’s disguises. Burlingame’s disguises are inconceivable and ludicrous, but in this crazy satirical vision of America, they’re glorious and exactly what the book calls for. Barth goes full-throttle with the bombast and I don’t see any reason to complain about that.
So far, this might sound like a cartoon. Barth plays fast and loose with the slapstick, but anyone who thinks juvenile humor can’t be art must’ve missed all the innuendo in Shakespeare. Except Barth’s a step ahead of his critics, because he places himself in dialog with the broader literary conversation. I’m not just talking about the anatomy novel thing, either — a real-life poem about Maryland called “The Sot-Weed Factor” was written by a poet named Ebenezer Cooke in the early 18th century. Little is known about the real-life Cooke, apart that he did spend time in Maryland, so Barth pulls a Borges move and fills in a head-spinning amount of gaps. I’ve heard it claimed that The Sot-Weed Factor doesn’t add much to the traditions of the anatomy novel, both from the novel’s fans and detractors (and you’d better believe there are both; the anti-Barth), but I think moves like this help build on different traditions.
Consider Barth’s conversation with Borges; the great Argentinian may have written a short story about an author who reconstructs Don Quixote (see “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”), but Barth takes the idea further by not only reconstructing a historical poem but also reconstructing the circumstances of its creation. Barth’s project here goes beyond the standard blend of fact and fiction; he basically invents an Ebenezer Cooke for us and invents him inventing a poem. It’s just that he happens to use kidnapping, prostitution, pirates, masters of disguise, Jesuit conspiracies, opium, and all other matters of eighteenth-century sensationalism as the poem’s ingredients. Besides, in rewriting the anatomy novel for the modern context, he shows us that the new is never really far from the old and that all artistic movements are in a consistent state of flux; it’s a cliché to call Tristram Shandy an early postmodern novel now, but would we have known that without Barth showing us the way?
Besides, for absurd as this novel gets, there’s always empathy here. Ebenezer’s chastity, frequently exploited naivety, and propensity for big emotional speeches might seem ridiculous to the modern world, but he’s no figure of parody — Barth allows the guy dignity in even the craziest of his actions, lets him grow into his own, and even offers him some bite. You really feel his journey from fresh-faced romantic to cynical satirist, and that’s because Barth gets character. Exaggerated character or not, he’s motivated by a lot: not just his love of Joan Toast and his need for the plantation, but his desire to see the goodness in the world. I didn’t just bring up Don Quixote for fun — Cooke is a Quixotic figure, and like with that ingenuous gentleman of La Mancha, you progress from ridiculing him to understanding him. Bertrand isn’t an exact analog for Sancho Panza, and he shouldn’t be, but his hedonism still plays well against Ebenezer’s high-flung ideals. If I have any complaints about these characters, it’s that Barth didn’t do more with either Toast (mostly a victim to be saved, although she develops some serious cunning as the novel goes on) or Barth’s more worldly sister Anna, but the can’t-write-female-characters problem certainly isn’t exclusive to Barth, although it is an issue that not every central character in this novel is compelling.
Sure, Burlingame’s bombast is utterly outside of the real, and Bertrand is a bit of a gag character, but Barth’s empathy for Ebenezer pulls us through the novel and his own bizarre adventures. Which is just as well, because his journey from high-flung ideals to satirical cynicism and then to a further point which I’ll leave it up to you to discover pretty much is this book. People get on the postmodernists for their thin characters, but I think that’s mostly a myth brought on by people not understanding postmodern literature. If you know this book’s particular codes and understand what to look for in Ebenezer as he develops, you’ll get what Barth’s gunning for. If this was just looney tunes in looney tune land, it wouldn’t still be considered an important novel fifty years on, now would it?
So there you have it. It’s not quite the mind-bending metafiction Barth became known for — not without its meta aspects, but 1968’s Lost in the Funhouse is meta on another level — but anyone who’s up for a postmodern tome and doesn’t mind the early modern English needs to give this a swing. Even if you’re not up for a postmodern tome, you can think of it as a great bawdy comedy or a study of identity or a building-of-the-artist. Read it alongside Pynchon’s massive Mason & Dixon, which takes on similar themes and is written in the same dialect, for bonus fun. When has anyone ever said no to bonus fun?