ome introductions require a load of jabber: description, background, context, scene-setting, historical trappings, comparison to similar experiences, contrasts with experiences that aren’t so similar, and so on. Others work better when they’re simply handed to you by someone you trust. Imagine the early human who got up the nerve to gulp down the first oyster: Do you think she told her mate she had something for him that was cold, gray, slimy and possibly off-putting to both nose and eye? No, chances are she pried open a second shell and passed it over with a smile that said, “Try this—you’ll like it.”
In the same way, I’d not try to persuade someone to read John Barth’s magisterial, hilarious, brainy, and utterly enjoyable 1960 novel The Sot-Weed Factor by telling him that, like all of Barth’s books, this one is both postmodern and metafictional and relies, in Barth’s own words, heavily on “repetition and recurrence, reorchestration, and reprise.”1 I wouldn’t even say, “Hey, you know that mythical-iconic ‘great American novel’ everyone is always pining for? Well, don’t let me shock you, but it was written more than half a century ago.” No, chances are I’d get another copy (I’ve learned my lesson about lending books I adore), pass it over with a smile and say, “Try this—you’ll like it.”
Better yet, I might open the novel, place it before my lucky would-be reader’s eyes, and put my finger on the very first sentence:
In the last years of the seventeenth century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping point.
I could teach a graduate seminar on that single sentence. I am drawn in, first of all, by the sense of being on the brink of great merriment; any landscape populated with “fops” and “fools” is going to offer entertaining vistas. Second, the author’s generosity is evident in the lavish diction, which promises that more of the same will be served up as quickly as we can ingest it. It’s a chewy vocabulary (“quires”, “afroth”, “aclang”) that is inseparable from the overall sense of playfulness. Third, we sense there is a powerful intelligence at work, one that is at home in a library yet is familiar with the geography of the heart as well. To open The Sot-Weed Factor is to step into the world’s liveliest party and to be met at the door by the world’s liveliest host. Before we can catch our breath, our coat is taken, we are handed a drink, regaled, and made to feel utterly at home, all despite the fact that we find ourselves in a time period some four centuries before our own.
And then there’s the curious use of the word “flitch.” Among its various definitions are “a side of salted and cured bacon” and “a steak cut from the side of certain fishes, esp. halibut.” What kind of person is this Ebenezer Cooke to be described this way? Better, what kind of author is this John Barth to liken his hero not to a Prometheus or Achilles but to something you’d fetch from the pantry and toss into a skillet? We are told in short order that Ebenezer is a poet and even a scholar of sorts, but lest we conclude that he is some hothouse flower who can’t thrive amid life’s hurly-burly, we are also told that he’s, in sum, a flitch, as elemental as a side of bacon or a fish steak.
ow an octogenarian, John Barth has been publishing big, deliriously enjoyable, often challenging fiction ever since The Floating Opera appeared in 1956. While other heavy-hitters like J.D. Salinger or Philip Roth gave up altogether in late life, Barth continues to hang in there. His latest novel, Every Third Thought, appeared two years ago to wide acclaim; the Los Angeles Review of Books said it “has more to say about life, death, the ‘human condition’, and maybe most particularly and surprisingly the deathlessness of love . . . than an entire constellation of newer, prettier literary lights.” Barth has won enough awards to cover several mantelpieces, including the National Book Award, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Fiction, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story. His work has influenced the way several generations have read and written fiction.
The Sot-Weed Factor, completed when Barth was but 29 years old, overflows with exclamation points, as if to express surprise and joy at all life has to offer. Like Ebenezer himself, Barth seems “dizzy with the beauty of the possible.” I first read this book when I was in my early twenties and had no more of a sense of the world than young Ebenezer does as he sets out for America at story’s outset. Forty years later, I’ve been around the block a few times, but The Sot-Weed Factor seems wiser than ever to me; if anything, it makes me even dizzier with the beauty of the possible than it did when I was a fop, a fool and a flitch myself.
It doesn’t hurt that, like me, Ebenezer is also a poet, which means that, like all members of that tribe, he is not reluctant to grant himself a certain authority. When he realizes that poetry is his calling, he dashes off a handful of verses and signs them “Ebenezer Cooke, Gent., Poet and Laureate of England.” True, he is getting ahead of himself as far as an official appointment goes, but not in terms of the importance of poetry to him and, more importantly, to humanity itself.
In short order he hies himself to the London house of Charles Calvert, Lord Baltimore, a brusque old nobleman who wonders aloud what the poet’s “trade” is. Why, it is to praise and mourn great men and wound their enemies, says Ebenezer: “Would the world at large know aught of Agamemnon, or fierce Achilles, or crafty Odysseus, or the cuckold Menelaus, or that entire circus of strutting Greeks and Trojans, had not great Homer rendered ’em to verse?” Ebenezer’s offer to Baltimore is a bit more modest, though he promises “an epic to out-epic epics”; it is to write The Marylandiad, which will give that colony its place in history, and dedicate it to his lordship.
It is somewhere around this point in the novel that the reader begins to suspect The Sot-Weed Factor is rather more than what it appears to be, that is, just a wildly affectionate tribute to the 18th-century English novel as exemplified by, say, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. Over the course of the next hundred pages or so, Ebenezer goes on and on about the poet’s godlike powers; Fielding describes the writer as a genial craftsman, but Barth makes him a creator of worlds. After a while, words are no longer a coat of paint applied to reality to make it visible; words are reality itself.
In the march of literary history, Barth is leagues ahead of the rest of the troops. The critic and philosopher Jacques Derrida, the best known of the so-called deconstructionists who changed the way we read today, famously said, “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte” or “There is nothing outside the text.” But he didn’t say it until 1967 in Of Grammatology, which wasn’t translated into English until 1976. Now The Sot-Weed Factor was published in 1960; as it runs to just over 800 pages it’s safe to assume that Barth was writing it throughout the late 1950s. So he was discovering that everything is a text and that words are as real as bullets or cobblestones well before those ideas were set forth by a group of rarefied academics at the Collège de France.
In another sense, though, Derrida and company were simply underlining the acute self-awareness that has always been part of writing, though earlier writers never stressed the primacy of the text as much as contemporary critics do. Bill Morris, a writer for the online magazine The Millions, notes that the novelist grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where much of the action of The Sot-Weed Factor takes place, and studied at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. It proved to be fertile ground:
It was there, while working in the library, that he discovered Don Quixote, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Petronius’s Satyricon and, most tellingly, One Thousand and One Nights. Barth became intrigued with the literary device known as the frame tale, in which a character in a story narrates the story. For Barth, then, the telling of the story is the story. This explains why he has called Scheherazade, the character who narrates One Thousand and One Nights, “my favorite navigation star.” She, like every writer, will survive only as long as she keeps coming up with good stories.2
With that realization, the story becomes more important than anything else, and that includes the historical world in which the story unfolds. As Barth put it many years later in Tidewater Tales, “the key to the treasure is the treasure.”
Especially when one considers how untrustworthy that world is. One of the constants in The Sot-Weed Factor’s outsized cast of characters is one Henry Burlingame, Ebenezer’s tutor in the book’s first pages. Henry disappears and reappears throughout, usually as someone else, only to become himself again. Burlingame may remind us of Voltaire’s Pangloss, and indeed The Sot-Weed Factor of Candide, only re-set, re-sized and vastly more resplendent. The youthful journey analogy doesn’t wear well for long, however. When Burlingame pops up at one point and a baffled Ebenezer asks him who the real Burlingame is, he is told that “your true and constant Burlingame lives only in your fancy”; that what Ebenezer sees is “a Heraclitean flux”; and that “the upshot is the same” whether it is “we who shift and alter and dissolve; or you whose lens changes color, field, and focus; or both together.” That’s way above Pangloss’ pay grade.
The more the novel goes on, the more self-reflexive it becomes. Narrative turns to meta-narrative and The Sot-Weed Factor becomes a book about itself. While no one ever chortled with glee over the writings of Heraclitus or any other philosopher, we can say of Barth’s masterpiece what cannot be said about any other book so big and so brainy: It’s fun.
Most of that fun is due to Barth’s stylistic playfulness. His sentences have an innate musicality that Bill Morris attributes to the writer’s training in music (before he enrolled in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, he studied jazz at Julliard). Barth’s musical background helps explain why he channeled Fielding, Sterne, Smollett, Cervantes, Rabelais, Voltaire and other masters of the picaresque novel to arrive at the narrative voice for The Sot-Weed Factor. “At heart I’m still an arranger”, Barth once told an interviewer. “My chiefest literary pleasure is to take a received melody”—a classical myth, a biblical scrap, a worn-out literary convention or style—“and, improvising like a jazz musician within its constraints, re-orchestrate it to present purpose.”
And Barth is not inclined to candy-coat his highbrow obsession with language. The play is inseparable from the language lessons, as when Ebenezer pays for passage on a ferry with a sonnet by persuading the boatman that sonnets fetch a half pound each on the London market; lacking change, the honest boatman tells him to keep the poem’s last line. Later, Ebenezer loses a rhyming competition when his opponent convinces him that there is such a word as “onth”, which rhymes with “month.” (Sorry, but a one-sentence summary can’t do justice to the bravura eight-page passage that describes the contest.)
hen there’s the sheer exuberance of the plot. Ebenezer’s family has property in Maryland, an estate called Malden, which slips in and out of his hands as the deed is lost in gambling, seized by pretenders, and so on. He reasons that his poetic productivity is tied to his virginity, which he maintains militantly even when he falls in love with a prostitute who, like Malden, is in Ebenezer’s grasp until she isn’t. Burlingame is himself and then someone else in this scene, but he’s not the only one flipping, dipping, diving and hiving off in this novel. There are pirates, kidnappings, sea battles and, surprisingly for a novel with a virgin at its heart, more sex than one might find in a dozen bodice-rippers—even against the mast of a ship at sea, for heaven’s sake. False identities are stripped away and real ones revealed. Coincidences abound. Planks are walked, tankards are filled to overflowing and emptied and filled again, challenges are issued, a hundred or more bizarre characters pop up out of nowhere and then, just like that, are gone. Ebenezer finds a secret, salacious journal that relates the “true” history of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas and is then himself captured by angry Native Americans. And all this is conveyed in a flawless 18th-century voice, complete with regular cries of “marry, come up” and “there’s an end on’t” and other speech tags of the day.
This great lumbering cartoon of a novel eventually comes in for a soft landing, but until it does, the reader expects it to fly apart into the numberless gimcracks and kickshaws and whatnots of which it is made, and so marvels at Barth’s ability to hold it together. The feat brings to mind those nameless gonzo geniuses who bounded onto the stage of The Ed Sullivan Show to juggle a bowling ball, a custard pie, a Smith Corona portable typewriter and a flaming chainsaw. While dancing with a bear.
That doesn’t mean that The Sot-Weed Factor is lacking in longueurs. Barth himself notes, in the forward to the 1987 Anchor Books edition, “In 1967 Doubleday reissued [the novel] in a slightly slimmed-down edition, which I prefer: about sixty pages shorter than the original. No plot protein was removed, only some excess verbal calories.” But I once heard Barth’s contemporary Leslie Fiedler contemptuously tell a questioner who complained about the deadened passages in Dostoevsky’s work, “All great novels are boring.” That is, if all great novels, and especially those of an encyclopedic breadth (think Moby-Dick, for example, or Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow) contain the entire world, they will contain everything in that world, boredom included.
Besides, here the longueurs highlight the jolly passages, as they do in other king-sized works of art. In music, for example, the love story in The Magic Flute wouldn’t be nearly so winsome were it not for all the Masonic mumbo-jumbo, just as the passages that have us smiling and keeping time in a symphony or lengthy jazz piece are all the more welcome as the musicians change key and tempo. Would the almost impossibly beautiful minor bridge in A Rhapsody in Blue sound near half as wondrous without all those bouncing seventh chords before and after?
Similarly, while this novel traffics in exuberance more than any other mental state, inevitably it sinks into depression as well. Fed up with America and its brutish inhabitants, Ebenezer decides to write not the hymn of praise that was to be The Marylandiad, but rather pen a satire entitled The Sot-Weed Factor: Or, a Voyage to Maryland. A Satyr. In which is describ’d, the Laws, Government, Courts and Constitutions of the Country; and also the Buildings, Feasts, Frolicks, Entertainments and Drunken Humours of the Inhabitants of that Part of America. This, as it turns out, is an actual work composed by a genuine Ebenezer Cooke. It was published in 1708 and is described by one critic as “an awkward, vicious satire” (in other words, exactly what the novel is not).3 That makes Barth’s Sot-Weed Factor not only a book about itself but also a book inspired by another book of the same name. There may be nothing outside the text, as Jacques Derrida says, but within the text there are texts upon texts without end.
If you’ve never read this novel or, like me, haven’t read it for a while, none of this heady cheerleading should keep you from laying hands on a copy as soon as possible. As Charles B. Harris wrote recently,
Although they epitomize the stylistic hallmarks of postmodernism, [Barth’s] books are never merely virtuoso performances. “My feeling about technique in art”, he told an interviewer in 1968, “is that it has about the same value as technique in lovemaking. That is to say, on the one hand, heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and, on the other hand, so does heartless skill; but what you want is passionate virtuosity.” That formula has served Barth well for over half a century.4
In the interview that Harris quotes, Barth says, “If my writing were no more than an intellectual fun and games that Time magazine makes it out to be, I wouldn’t be interested in it myself.”5
There is no quicker way to sample Barth’s “double coding” (a term he borrows from Umberto Eco) than by looking at a few of the novel’s 65 chapter headings, which, in true 18th-century fashion, both hint at and gently mock the events therein. To list just a few, there are:
•Part I, Chapter 11: Ebenezer Returns to His Companions, Finds Them Fewer by One, Leaves Them Fewer by Another, and Reflects a Reflection
•Part II, Chapter 14: The Laureate Is Exposed to Two Assassinations of Character, a Piracy, a Near-Deflowering, a Near-Mutiny, a Murder, and an Appalling Colloquy Between Captains of the Sea, All Within a Space of a Few Pages
•Part III, Chapter 18: The Poet Wonders Whether the Course of Human History is a Progress, a Drama, a Retrogression, a Cycle, an Undulation, a Vortex, a Right- or Left-Handed Spiral, a Mere Continuum, or What Have You. Certain Evidence is Brought Forward, but of an Ambiguous and Inconclusive Nature
Now when a literary hero “reflects a reflection”, experiences “within the space of a few pages” more mayhem than most people will encounter in an entire lifetime, and tries (and fails) to fit “the course of human history” in one of nine separate philosophical pigeonholes, the reader is assured that The Sot-Weed Factor is one of those rare works that not only balances hilarity and high thinking but somehow manages to render them indistinguishable.
Schools of literary theory have bred and multiplied in the days since Derrida’s pronouncement that there is nothing outside the text. At the moment, I would say there are roughly twenty lenses through which one might view a text, from cultural studies and deconstruction through post-colonialism and semiotics. Most non-academic readers don’t think they subscribe to a particular school, but they do. It’s called aesthetics. Professors can make aesthetics as opaque, jargon-clogged and ripe for parody as any other contemporary critical approach, but at the heart of aesthetics is the question you asked yourself in kindergarten when someone read you a story or played a video for you or handed you a dish of ice cream: Do I like it?
To me, a truly great work is three-dimensional. It pleases us immensely but also takes us by surprise and thereby raises our threshold of wonder. It features a dominant voice but other voices as well. It is in the moment yet is aware of a larger world of time and space. The great work deals in comedy but acknowledges tragedy, and the other way around, too: The funniest work will have a dark heart, just as a sad one will have been written by a author capable of rib-cracking laughter. Finally, a great work tells a story, because the need for stories is hard-wired in us. Yet a great work contains elements that are indifferent, even hostile to story, for we like those elements as well. A word often used to describe the sort of loosely structured, irreverent narrative about eccentric characters and their misalliances is “carnivalesque”, a term coined by the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin. It’s a word that suggests exactly what you think it does: Who doesn’t like a carnival?
When I told some friends that I was writing about The Sot-Weed Factor, I got one of two reactions. Some looked at me with that complicated expression that says, “I know what you’re talking about, and though I haven’t read that book, I’ve read a lot of others, so don’t go thinking you’re smarter than me.” But the ones who knew the book all responded the same way: to a man and woman, they all got that same big stupid grin on their faces and said something along the lines of, “Man, I love that book.”
Still, I would hesitate to assign The Sot-Weed Factor in a general literature class. When I began my career as a professor, roughly 20 percent of high school graduates enrolled for at least some education beyond that, and now the number, at least for the time being, is more like 70 percent. Now, among that broader pool of college students, many say unashamedly that they don’t like to read, so many professors respond by assigning less reading than they might have a generation ago. Like The Inferno and Gargantua and Pantagruel and Infinite Jest, The Sot-Weed Factor isn’t for everyone. It will remain the province of the lucky few whose lives are already rich enough to be further enriched by it.
r not. The Sot-Weed Factor may have another life of sorts before long: Director Steven Soderbergh has announced that he is making an adaptation that will consist of eleven one-hour episodes and a feature-length finale. Screenwriter James Greer describes Soderbergh’s version of the book as “kind of like Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, but with pirates and whores and venereal disease and bumptious alcoholics and someone in almost every episode soiling his or her (usually his) pants.”Sounds about right, but of course any lover of literature shudders before the roulette wheel of transformation that spins ’twixt inked paper and big screen.
Withal, there’s an end on’t. But of great books, and the people who write them and read them and pass them on to friends, there never is an end. Except in this case, this one, as sadder but wiser Ebenezer says at the end of his tale:
Labour not for Earthly Glory;
Fame’s a fickle Slut, and whory.
From thy Fancy’s chast Couch drive her;
He’s a fool who’ll strive to swive her.