5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
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!
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.
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.
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'.