Writing The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth was aware of the weight of hundreds of years of literary art. In his 1967 essay ‘The Literature of Replenishment’, he acknowledges the ‘felt ultimacies’ of writing fiction. In other words, it’s perhaps a condition of writers to feel apocalyptic about their art, such is the difficulty of originality in the face of history. But how did Barth suppose writers address this exhaustion of the literary form?
‘If you happen to be Vladimir Nabokov, you might address that felt ultimacy by writing Pale Fire: a fine novel by a learned pedant, in the form of a pedantic commentary on a poem invented for the purpose. If you were Borges, you might write Labyrinths: fictions by a learned librarian in the form of footnotes, as he describes them, to imaginary or hypothetical books. And I’ll add that if you were the author of this paper, you’d have written something like The Sot-Weed Factor or Giles Goat-Boy: novels which imitate the form of the Novel, by an author who imitates the role of Author.’
The Sot-Weed Factor can be read as a straight(-ish), though bawdy, historical novel, telling the story of ‘gangling flitch’ Ebenezer Cooke’s voyage from London to his family estate in Maryland. Ebenezer, recruited as Poet Laureate of Maryland by Lord Baltimore, defends his innocence as he encounters all manner of lust and temptation, falls in love with a prostitute, has his identity stolen by more than one character and loses his families estate through catastrophic bad luck. Ebenezer was a real person, and ‘The Sot-Weed Factor’ was his poetic satire of life in the colonies, but that is where reality ends. This is a postmodern history and nothing is what it seems.
In both plot and composition, this is a novel about imitation, from Barth’s cod sixteenth century English, to the multiple identities and mistaken identities of most of the characters. The novel’s structure imitates Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, even down to the prolix chapter titles that describe the plot within, though it is a mutated version of Fielding’s style. Barth wanted to imitate Fielding in the same way that Fielding imitated Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, writing a burlesque and satirical parody of Tom Jones with an even more complex plot. As with Fielding’s novel, there are mistaken identities and imposters, but Barth’s novel is flooded with them, often with several characters switching identities at the same time, and several others pretending to be Ebenezer Cooke. One character, Henry Burlingame, is fragmented into more than ten different identities, many antipodal in politics and temperament to the others, obscuring his real identity and his motivations further as the novel progresses. But this doubling is not merely empty parody. Barth is illustrating the limits of fictional realism to depict the complexity of human identity, deliberately fragmenting characters into their composite parts, each aspect of a real personality represented by a disguise. ‘One ought to know about Reality,’ Barth once said, ‘before one writes realistic novels. Since I don’t know much about Reality, it will have to be abolished. What the hell, Reality is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there, and literature never did, very long.’
And that is the point of The Sot-Weed Factor. It’s a processing of the literary history into something new, what Barth dubbed ‘Literature of Replenishment’. It is a novel that embraces the traditions of picaresque fiction, even as it twists them with a masterful use of literary irony. It’s also a novel that is about the deterioration of truth in historical story telling. Throughout the narrative, fragments of the story of John Smith and Pocahontas are told in Chaucerian language. Though Barth’s version of Smith is not the noble explorer saved by the Indian maiden, he is a lusty rogue who deflowers Pocahontas after a bizarre ritual involving an eggplant.
Barth’s writing seems to have fallen out of fashion these days, but his legacy is there in other writers. David Foster Wallace, in particular, wrestled with Barth’s influence on his work, where Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon owes much to The Sot-Weed Factor. Barth’s attempts to diagnose and remedy the problems of writing original fiction led to him becoming one of the foremost experimental writers of the 1960s and beyond. For that alone he deserves to be more widely read. The fact that his writing is so beautifully accomplished is a bonus.
John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor (London: Panther, 1965)