The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth

“He is a scoundrel, else he’d not have taken such advantage of my innocence.”

“That only proves him human, as you shall learn.”

Ebenezer Cooke, virgin poet and nincompoop, is booted from his aimless life in London, for more or less wasting his time and his father’s money, and journeys to his famalial estate in Maryland to manage the Sot-Weed (old timey name for tobacco) trade. It’s 16XX. The colonies are at eachothers throats, living out the same petty-but-deadly religious conflicts as the old world, and the french and native tribes creep at the door. Plot’s afoot, intrigue abounds.

Part of the pleasure of The Sot-Weed Factor is immersing thyself in its sordid universe. Not just the period dialogue — your thou’s and marry’s and i’faith’s and anon’s. Much like Don Quixote, a novel The Sot-Weed Factor owes no small debt to, characters tell each other stories. A choice encounter in a stable leads to a freshly introduced character spinning a yarn a dozen pages long. These tales, entertaining in their own right, inevitably become entangled with the greater plot. Coincidences abound. If a character is mentioned at any point, they’re sure to show up later, often dramatically. Perhaps they’ll turn out to be a character already introduced. Indeed, the people of this universe can simply don another’s dress and adopt a manner of speaking to become someone else entirely.

This extends to the bizarre sexual character of the universe. A significant plot point is the protagonists hunting the secret journal of John Smith, wherein he details his perverse sexual exploits, beginning with Pocahontas. Pretty much everyone is under constant threat of being raped. From pirates, sailors, “salvages”, colonists, anyone. There’s actually a rape boat, the less spoken of the better. At times, it’s unclear whether you’re supposed to laugh or shiver.  Ebenezer’s virginity and how he may lose it, through force, love, or mad lust is a constant focus.  It is no exaggeration to say it that the various pornographic interludes are as core to The Sot-Weed factor as American history or period dialogue.

As a young writer, Barth’s interest lied in nihilism. Writing this novel led him to realize he was concerned more with innocence. Despite being around thirty at the onset of his voyage, Eben Cooke is innocent of the world. In part, this is due to his nature as bumbling protagonist, a device the novel embraces wholeheartedly to guide him from one folly to the next. But only in part. Other aspects of his innocence are more realistic and timeless. It is the privilege of his station as a wealthy Englishman that allows him to be innocent of, or shall we say ignorant of, the plight of virtually everyone else in the world.

Naturally, Eben must grow. He cannot remain an innocent nonce, clueless of the world, battered down repeatedly, captured by pirates, abused by gentlemen and common workers alike, forever. He is not Don Quixote.  While it takes many pages, the reader groaning at his latest dubious decision, he learns. Take this paragraph for instance, wherein Ebenezer is captured by an Indian-African alliance and about to be executed:

This conclusion, which the poet reached more by insight than speculation, was followed by another, whose logic ran thus: The point in space and time whereto the history of the world had brought him would be nothing perilous were it not for the hostility of the Indians and the Negroes. But it was their exploitation by the English colonists that had rendered them hostile; that is to say, by a people to whom the accidents of history had given the advantage–Ebenezer did not doubt that his captors, if circumstances were reversed, would do just what the English were doing. To that extent, then, that historical movements are expressions of the will of the people engaged in them, Ebenezer was a just object for his captors’ wrath, for he belonged […] to the class of the exploiters; as an educated gentleman of the western world he had shared in the fruits of his culture’s power and must therefore share what guilt that power incurred. Nor was this the end of his responsibility: for if it was the accidents of power and position that made the difference between exploiters and exploited, and not some mysterious specialization of each group’s spirit, then it was as “human” for the white man to enslave and dispossess as it was “human” for the black and red to slaughter on the basis of color alone; the savage who would put him to the torch anon was no less his brother than was the trader who had once enslaved the savage.

(Wise words from 1960. Don’t praise Barth too much though. Those very same natives are played as stereotypes and often the target of sexual gags.)

The writing is very good. Very, very good. I hope the samples I’ve pasted above illustrates this. It’s hard to read a small-print 800 page novel that isn’t pleasant to read or has a gripping plot and The Sot-Weed Factor nails the former and surprisingly flirts with the latter. Due to the holiday break, I’m only writing this now, nearly a month after I completed it, but the feel of the language, of being immersed within it is still clear and brings a grin to my face to briefly re-live it.