The Sot-weed Factor
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"Sot-weed" means tobacco and a "factor" is a plantation manager. The eponymous hero is Ebenezer Cooke, a gawky, impractical young daydreamer with poetic pretensions. When he is sent down from Cambridge for failing to attend to his studies, his father, the London merchant Andrew Cooke, packs Eben off, on pain of disinheritance, to manage his tobacco estate in Maryland.
Eben complies with his father's ultimatum, though he is sad to leave behind his twin sister, Anna, and his friend and childhood tutor, Henry Burlingame III. But before departing, Eben entreats Lord Baltimore to appoint him Laureate of Maryland; he offers to write an epic poem, the Marylandiad, in praise of his new home. To Eben's delight, his Lordship agrees.
But Maryland turns out a wild and lawless place, full of rogues and impostors ever ready to betray loyalty to country, race or religion for personal gain. Eben does not know whom to trust, and in his unworldliness is soon swindled out of his father's estate. His saviour, the true hero of the story, is Henry, who pops up again and again in various guises - Scarlet Pimpernel fashion - to save the day.
I first read The Sot-weed Factor 40 years ago. Still nobbut a lad, I was enthralled by its language. Barth completed the novel in 1960 but matched his tone to the elegant literary prose of the late 17th Century, and his dialogue is thoroughly of the period. When quoting documents from the early 17th Century, Barth offers the added charm of ye funnie spellynge. Here's a sample:
“...inasmuch as for everie cheerie wave of the hand I signall’d them, some souldier or Gentlemen in my companie must needs let goe a fart, which the Salvages did take as an affront, and threwe more arrowes.”
Today I'm still a pushover for 17th Century English. I also enjoy Barth's erudition and his taste for philosophizing sub specie aeternitatis:
"...Henry, you go at such a pace, I have no time to think things through as they deserve! I cannot collect my wits e'en to think of all the questions I would ask, much less explore your answers. How can I know what I must do and where I stand?"
Burlingame laid his arm across the poet's shoulders and smiled. "What is't you describe, my friend, if not man's lot? He is by mindless lust engendered and by mindless wrench expelled, from the Eden of the womb to the motley, mindless world. He is Chance's fool, the toy of aimless Nature - a mayfly flitting down the winds of Chaos!"
But 40 years on from first reading, I now see another element in Barth's literary style. It has been called self-consciously metafictional, but there is also something cold, obsessive and smug in his narrative voice - and that of Burlingame, who is clearly Barth himself, strolling like Hitchcock on his own set.
This struck me forcibly reading Carol Shields" short bio of Jane Austen yesterday. Shields wrote:
"It might be argued that all literature is ultimately about family, the creation of structures - drama, poetry, fiction - that reflect our immediate and randomly assigned circle of others, what families do to us and how they can be reimagined or transcended."
There is little of that nature in Barth, whose characters are often fleeing from each other, solitary and wraith-like. All the same, John Barth is a big literary talent, and The Sot-weed Factor is his best work (even by his own reckoning). But he's still a very strange man.
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Releasing at the Ipswich Bookcrossing UnConvention 2018
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