Home » USA » John Barth » The Sot-Weed Factor

John Barth: The Sot-Weed Factor

A sot-weed factor is a tobacco merchant, if you did not know, and this novel is about an eighteenth century American tobacco merchant. Pomo it certainly is but it is also a very funny pastiche of the eighteen century British novel – Smollett (who was Scottish, not English), Sterne (who was Irish), Fielding and co. The hero is Ebenezer Cooke, who really existed. (He wrote a burlesque account of Maryland at the beginning of the eighteenth century called, of course, The Sot-Weed Factor. Edward Cohen has published a short biography of Cooke which is out of print but readily available second hand.) Ebenezer goes to Maryland to manage his father’s tobacco plantation and also to write the Marylandiad, an epic poem of which we get glimpses and which, at least to 20th/21st century eyes, seems pretty grim. Ebenezer is one of those naïve heroes of the picaresque novel, such as you might find in Smollett. (Barth claimed not to have read Smollett before writing this work but I find that hard to believe.)

Ebenezer, as befits a good 18th century hero, is a virgin and, moreover, is determined to remain such, despite attempts by various parties, not all female, to deflower him. But it is not his cherry that is under attack for Barth gives us an array of plots and counter-plots, many of which are masterminded by one Henry Burlingame. Indians, pirates, fellow Marylanders and lewd women might be his problem but it is Burlingame, who pops up all over the place, who is his real nemesis, even if poor Ebenezer does not realise it. The plots and counter-plots, Ebenezer’s adventures and travails and Barth’s games with history – you won’t believe what he does with Pocahontas and John Smith – make this one of Barth’s best.

Publishing history

First published 1960 by Doubleday