Literature, Reviews.

Candide in Maryland

Book Book Review, Title The Sot-weed Factor, Author John Barth, Rating 4.0, Candide in Maryland

The Sot-weed Factor

John Barth

Book Review

My dear fellow,' Burlingame said, 'we sit here on a blind rock careening through space; we are all of us rushing headlong to the grave. Think you the worms will care, when anon they make a meal of you, whether you spent your moment sighing wigless in your chamber, or sacked the golden towns of Montezuma? '
-John Barth,  The Sot-weed Factor (page 25)

John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor is a satirical tour-de-force. It has been described as a picaresque novel; the main character, Eben Cooke, is an over-educated and under-employed poet and virgin, a Candide-like character constantly bewildered by the world, swept along by events, too curious to make any decision.  It came with high recommendations from my brother Craig, and that was enough to send me straight to the public library and begin reading it.

The style is bawdy, witty, and often funny, a full-fledged imitation of a 17th century novel, complete with the full English vocabulary of the times, which by itself is a welcome challenge to parse. Cooke writes his life’s work, the Marylandiad, intended to be a poetical celebration of the colony of Maryland, but finds little within the actual Maryland to celebrate, so he ends up re-titling the work The Sot-Weed Factor, a bitter satire of things as he found them, not as he had envisioned them. (The poem is historical: The Sot-Weed Factor: or, A Voyage to Maryland. A Satyr, written by one otherwise obscure Ebenezer Cooke, making him in some ways the perfect foil around which to build a historical novel. Sot-weed factor refers to a tobacco merchant.)

Barth’s brings out and then dispatches various historical interpretations of the times; the author favors an earthy and cynical, that is to say, a low rather than a high historical narrative. Barth artfully immerses you both in the ordered world of 17th century middle class England and in the chaos of England’s nascent American Colonies.

The tale is also a commentary on things literary and philosophical, only some of which I was able to appreciate. For example, Barth makes implicit and explicit allusions to many novels, the most frequent being Don Quixote, which I have not read, limiting my ability to appreciate some of his literary insights. His colloquy is not only in the language of the times, but reflects the thinking, religious and philosophical, mixing daily, often crude concerns with lofty sentiments and knowing references to classical writers, making minor characters for example of Eben’s contemporaries, Newton and Hooke.

I loved Voltaire’s own picaresque novel Candide, among the books mimicked by Barth’s Sot-Weed Factor. As does Candide, The Sot-Weed Factor implicitly comments on the philosophies of the time within the warp and woof of the novel: Poor Eben Cooke’s bewilderment seems to stand in for modern philosophies that provide no useful moral advice or comfort.

The novel is nothing short of amazing, as Barth has mastered the times and the vernacular, and he wields his mastery with great sweep; and finally, alas, to excess. One thing not mimicked in Candide was its brevity: Barth’s novel is simply too long at eight hundred pages, and in ways overly repetitive, the final slog to its end dulling for me a bit of the novel’s brilliance.

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