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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Over the first three months of 1955, American author John Barth wrote the first part of an intended trilogy of works -- his 'nihilistic comedy', "The Floating Opera". He completed the second part, "The End of the Road" (a 'nihilistic tragedy') in the final three months of the same year. Encouraged by the speed with which he composed these two books, Barth embarked on the final part, convinced he would have it completed by the time he turned 26, on May 27, 1956. In the end, it took him over three years to pen the 800-odd pages of what was to became "The Sot-Weed Factor" -- a massive and massively complex burlesque comedy, in antiquated style, which would forever after be seen as one of his greatest achievements, and the book that would stand as a timeless landmark to the brilliance of this young American writer. In deciding a subject for this book, Barth underwent something of a major crisis in a hitherto almost blind pursuit of realism in his fiction, eventually coming to a realisation that words, ultimately, can never truly convey reality, thus making realism an imperfect tool for communicating the truth of anything. In David Morel's seminal paper, "Ebenezer Cooke, Sot-Weed Factor Redivivus: The Genesis of John Barth's The Sot- Weed Factor" (published in the Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 8, No. 1 [Spring, 1975]) Barth is quoted as summing up his views in an interview, thus: "One ought to know about Reality before one writes realistic novels. Since I don't know much about Reality, it will have to be abolished. What the hell, Reality is a nice place to visit but you wouldn't want to live there, and literature never did, very long."

Rather than continue in his pursuit of realism, with "The Sot-Weed Factor" Barth turned instead to the idea of art-as-artifice and set about writing a comic, half-farcical novel built on historical documents, imitating the conventions of the eighteenth-century novelist, and encapsulating all of the elements of the classic eighteenth-century novel: 'a hero on a journey with a nit-wit servant as his companion; a search for one's father and one's long-lost beloved; stories told along the road; tests of virtue and manliness; encounters with bandits, bawds, noblemen, and bullies; unbelievable coincidences; abundant fornication and adultery, with possible incest; and more, all woven into a plot whose complications seem designed for nothing more than to spin the reader's head' [Morel, ibid]. All of this Barth achieves in splendid style in "The Sot-Weed Factor", taking as its inspiration an obscure and barely known poem, first published in London in 1708: "The Sot-weed Factor: or, A Voyage to Maryland", attributed to one Eben Cooke (Gent) which describes in cumbersome rhyming couplets the poet's daunting experiences setting out from England to take up a new life in Maryland as a tobacco ('sot-weed') merchant. With little known about its author, authenticity or any of the circumstances under which it was written, Barth was free to construct almost any story he wished around the work and, indeed, the poet, Ebenezer Cooke. Barth being a native of Maryland, he was also ideally placed to research and weave in at length a great deal of that State's early colonial history and legend, involving native chiefs, piratical bands, slave traders, whores and assorted eighteenth century opportunists of various waters.

The result is an absolute tour de force, which achieves all that the author set out to achieve and more, mixing fact, fantasy, and Cooke's original poetic publication into a seamless blend which creates a greater reality from the very act of its fabrication and which, with supreme irony, required the author to tone down some of the truly ludicrous historical truths in order that the book be not deemed altogether too far-fetched and fantastical. The book is a classic on many, many levels; the plot is massive and its twists and convolutions can be immensely difficult to follow, as confusion and subterfuge abound. But it is alluring and masterfully handled throughout. As indeed are most of the wenches (and at least one of the sows) who feature in it.

Lustily recommended.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 6 January 2007
Ebenezer Cooke is one of the most moving and endearing characters I've ever come across. The picaresque tale of his hapless adventures will have you laughing out loud at times, and deeply sympathizing with his troubles at the same time. Barth's language is superb too: of course it's not really how people spoke in those days, but it feels ever so right.

Thick as it may be, you'll wish this novel had twice as many pages to enjoy!
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 27 May 2003
"The Sot-Weed Factor" is originally a satirical poem, written by a certain Ebenezer Cooke, and is among the earliest pieces of literature to come out of the newly settled America. John Barth has borrowed the name of both author and work, and has sculptured a beautiful work, a grand tale about small and greater men. The characters are diverse, and the striking technique of Mr Barth makes them all come alive. The plotline is too complicated to explain in full, but still easy to follow, and the passages about an earlier journey around Chesapeake bay are hilarious, written in an English only a scholar could contrive (Mr Barth is a professor of English). And for all of those who like good, old-fashioned storytelling from which you may actually learn something, the tale of Ebenezer's (I know him so well that I only use his first name) awowed innocence, with the disastrous results it has for himself and others, gives an opportunity to ponder this aspect of human existenc.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 7 August 2010
Laugh out loud funny at the beginning (embarrassing on the beach)this is a rollicking bawdy adventure with so many twists and turns. It is an intelligent work that never fails to entertain from start to finish. Brilliant! About to order my next J Barth.
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on 17 January 2015
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 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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 7 December 2008
This is a wonderful (adult) book, I believe that a copy should be given to every American so they can truly understand their own history (tongue in cheek!)
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on 19 December 2014
A picaresque tale written by a 20th century writer in 17th century vernacular, stretched over nearly 800 pages. I managed to get through it, but hardly. There were too many dull passages and quite a few times the story had to be saved by improbable coincidences and impersonations (you should imagine that a pupil who dearly loves his tutor, as the introduction states, would recognise him in spite of the most strange disguises?). Such a long ramble may also have been typical for the 17th century, but this book didn't do the trick for me. Still it had enough good passages to earn it an 'It's okay'.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 9 December 2009
Quick and efficient delivery. Wonderful value .Delightful book which am re-reading after 40 years.
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5 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 18 September 2003
Without contradiction a masterpiece, rank Barth along with Willie S & Charlie D from England. Mind you its the only book of his I've read. You laugh out loud alot with this one.
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0 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 30 August 2009
Book received promptly and in good shape, decent price, but I was disappointed that it was a former Library copy paperback with special cover added (therefore not a real hardback): this was not clear from the listing.
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