The Sot-Weed Factor – John Barth (1960)

by Chingiz Ismailov

It can be rather difficult to find novels, particularly ones weighing in at 800 pages of microscopic type, that can be an entertainment as well as food for thought. John Barth’s epic on the colonisation of Maryland and the loss of innocence is just such a work.

We begin with an introduction to our hero, Ebenezer Cooke, a Londoner, a young Cambridge drop-out, and aspiring poet-laureate, whose father sends him to oversee his tobacco plantation in Maryland in an attempt to make a man of him. With great difficulty, he has maintained his innocence and virginity intact, as he believes a great poet ought to.

Among the vivacious, lying, cheating, intensely aroused (and occasionally arousing) cast are Eben’s tutor, whores, pirates, scoundrels, pimps, understandably vexed natives, slaves, and sea captains. Packed with wonderful, colourful digressions and tales (and also philosophical discussion) that, at first, seem simply to be just for fun, eventually fall into a snug place like hogsheads o’ sot-weed in a ship’s hold.

Thematically, the book addresses ideas of savagery vs. civilisation. What do such things mean in a place where the “savages” are just as brutal as the colonisers? One way Barth expounds his ideas is with stories of sex and rape. There is a lot, a lot, of rape, and forceful attempts at virtue. Other ideas masterfully explored are conceptions of innocence and identity.

If I may be self-indulgent, one of my favourite scenes in the book is, when, kept aboard a pirate’s ship, Ebenezer discovers John Smith’s fictional Privie Journall. Upon it is written the tale (among other things) of Pocahontas (which in her own language means “Little Whore”). Barth’s utterly unflattering and wry portrayal of John Smith as a self-serving, arrogant hypersexual, and Pocahontas as a Lolita-esque horny teenage girl, brought an incredibly wry smile to my face. Incidentally, for those reading this who don’t know, I hate Disney films. Also, I very much enjoyed the use of the verb “swive”.

Certainly a Rabelaisian affair, (just how I like ’em) John Barth’s maniacal and exuberant epic, where nothing is ever as it seems, is fun for the whole family, except the children.

“Is man a savage at heart, skinned o’er with fragile Manners? Or is savagery but a faint taint in the natural man’s gentility, which erupts now and again like pimples on an angel’s arse?”

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