The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth

Dave again. We have something special for next week, and then Kim is going to take the next two weeks. For the moment, however:

The Sotweed Factor, or A Voyage to Maryland, A Satyr is a poem by the English-born poet Ebenezer Cooke. However, we’re not talking about that today. Today we’re talking about The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth. We need to keep that straight.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 6th for Donald Harington.)

The Sot-Weed Factor is a satirical historical epic involving a fictionalized Ebenezer Cooke. Ebenezer decides while carousing in college that he wants to be a poet, letting his studies slip and fail. He ends up getting an interview with Charles Calvert, Lord Baltimore, promising to both help Calvert regain Maryland and write an epic poem to Maryland as its poet laureate:

“The Marylandiad!” repeated Ebenezer, and declaimed as from a title-page: “An epic to out-epic epics: the history of the princely house of Charles Calvert, Lord Baltimore and Lord Proprietary of the Province of Maryland, relating the heroic founding of that province! The courage and perseverance of her settlers in battling barb’rous nature and fearsome salvage to wrest a territory from the wild and transform it to an earthly paradise! The majesty and enlightenment of her proprietors, who like kingly gardeners fostered the tender seeds of civilization in their rude soil, and so husbanded and cultivated them as to bring to fruit a Maryland beauteous beyond description; verdant, fertile, prosperous, and cultured; peopled with brave, men and virtuous women, healthy, handsome, and refined: a Maryland, in short, splendid in her past, majestic in her present, and glorious in her future the brightest jewel in the fair crown of England, owned and ruled to the benefit of both by a family second to none in the recorded history of the universal world the whole done into heroic couplets, printed on linen, bound in calf, stamped in gold” here Ebenezer bowed with a flourish of his beaver “and dedicated to Your Lordship!”

*****

“I have no authority,” Charles concluded, “and so can no longer confer dignities and titles as before. But I declare to you this, Mr. Cooke: hie you to Maryland; put her history out of mind and look you at her peerless virtues the graciousness of her inhabitants, their good breeding and excellent dwelling places, the majesty of her laws, the comfort of her inns and ordinaries, the richness and beauty of her fields, woods, and waters look you at these, I say; study them; mark them well. Then, if you can, turn what you see to verse; tune and music it for all the world’s ears! Rhyme me such a rhyme, Eben Cooke; verse me such a verse, I charge you; make me this Maryland, that neither time nor intrigue can rob me of; that I can pass on to my son and my son’s son and all the ages of the world! Sing me this song, sir, and by my faith, in the eyes and heart of Charles Calvert and of every Christian lover of Beauty and Justice, thou’rt in sooth Poet and Laureate of the Province! And should e’er it come to pass what against all hope and expectation I nightly pray for to Holy Mary and all saints that one day the entire complexion of things alters, and my sweet province is once again restored to her proprietor, then, by Heav’n, I shall confer you the title in fact, lettered on sheepskin, beribboned in satin, signed by myself, and stamped for the world to gape at with the Great Seal of Maryland!”

Mind you, to this point he’d written almost no poetry, though he has managed to dedicate eternal devotion and virginity to the beauty of a prostitute he had a comical encounter with, Joan Toast. That’s probably okay though, given that it likely wasn’t even Charles Calvert, but instead Ebenezer’s old tutor. His tutor masquerades as a number of different people throughout a convoluted and complex conspiracy that is beyond Ebenezer, as apparently does Joan Toast. Regardless, Ebenezer goes off to Maryland on a bizarre, misguided, and ill-fated adventure that is often to Candide and Tom Jones. Though he ends up writing his Maryland poem, by then Ebenezer is so frustrated and hounded that he instead writes a biting satire:

He lay back and closed his eyes; his head throbbed from the small exertion of perusing his work. “I’faith!” he said to himself. “What price this laureateship! Here’s naught but scoundrels and perverts, hovels and brothels, corruption and poltroonery! What glory, to be singer of such a sewer!”

The more he reflected upon his vicissitudes, the more his anguish became infused with wrath, until at length, despite his weariness, he ripped from the ledger his entire stock of sea-verses, and using the quill and ink provided by his host he wrote on the virgin paper thus exposed:

Condemned by Fate, to wayward Curse,

Of Friends unkind, and empty Purse,

Plagues worse than fill’d Pandoras Box,

I took my Leave of Albions Rocks,

With heavy Heart, concern’ d that I

Was forc’d my native Soil to fly,

And the old World must bid Good-b’ye.

No sooner were these lines set down than more came rushing unbidden to his fancy, and though he was not strong enough at the time to write them out, he conceived then and there a momentous project to occupy him during the weeks ahead which, should he find no means of regaining his estate, might well be his last on earth. He would versify his voyage to Maryland from beginning to end, just as he had planned before, but so far from writing a panegyric, he would scourge the Province with the lash of Hudibrastic as a harlot is scourged at the public post, catalogue her every wickedness, and expose her every trap laid for the trusting, the unwary, the innocent!

Fun, no?

For a book rumored to be difficult to read, I had no difficulty and enjoyed The Sot-Weed Factor immensely. The book is large, but I do not think Barth could have accomplished what he does in any less space. The Sot-Weed Factor has a story that is both comic and compelling, suspenseful and entertaining. It has the feel of the historic, but says things that never would have been said in a piece from the period. My final summation would have to be that The Sot-Weed Factor has plenty to chew on yet doesn’t chip teeth.

Candide by Voltaire

Candide by Voltaire is another one of the classic novels that most people are familiar with but not enough people have read. More people have read Candide than many other classics firmly entrenched in the popular consciousness, but there are still a large number of people are familiar with it without having read it. That’s a shame, because it’s a good time and actually pretty accessible.

(Note: We’ll have to refrain from discussing herein the cleaver Voltaire didn’t have in 1484.)

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Julian Barnes, 10th for Clyde Edgerton, and 1st G. D. Gearino.)

Candide begins the story living a sheltered life in the paradise of a Baron’s household, schooled as an optimist by his mentor, Professor Pangloss. However, the mantra that Pangloss endlessly chants, “all is for the best” in the “best of all possible worlds,” doesn’t help them much as Candide and Pangloss are driven from the Baron’s household and suffer a litany of indignities and tribulations.

Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses.

“It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end. Observe, that the nose has been formed to bear spectacles—thus we have spectacles. Legs are visibly designed for stockings—and we have stockings. Stones were made to be hewn, and to construct castles—therefore my lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Pigs were made to be eaten—therefore we eat pork all the year round. Consequently they who assert that all is well have said a foolish thing, they should have said all is for the best.”

Candide listened attentively and believed innocently; for he thought Miss Cunegonde extremely beautiful, though he never had the courage to tell her so. He concluded that after the happiness of being born of Baron of Thunder-ten-Tronckh, the second degree of happiness was to be Miss Cunegonde, the third that of seeing her every day, and the fourth that of hearing Master Pangloss, the greatest philosopher of the whole province, and consequently of the whole world.

One day Cunegonde, while walking near the castle, in a little wood which they called a park, saw between the bushes, Dr. Pangloss giving a lesson in experimental natural philosophy to her mother’s chamber-maid, a little brown wench, very pretty and very docile. As Miss Cunegonde had a great disposition for the sciences, she breathlessly observed the repeated experiments of which she was a witness; she clearly perceived the force of the Doctor’s reasons, the effects, and the causes; she turned back greatly flurried, quite pensive, and filled with the desire to be learned; dreaming that she might well be a sufficient reason for young Candide, and he for her.

She met Candide on reaching the castle and blushed; Candide blushed also; she wished him good morrow in a faltering tone, and Candide spoke to her without knowing what he said. The next day after dinner, as they went from table, Cunegonde and Candide found themselves behind a screen; Cunegonde let fall her handkerchief, Candide picked it up, she took him innocently by the hand, the youth as innocently kissed the young lady’s hand with particular vivacity, sensibility, and grace; their lips met, their eyes sparkled, their knees trembled, their hands strayed. Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh passed near the screen and beholding this cause and effect chased Candide from the castle with great kicks on the backside; Cunegonde fainted away; she was boxed on the ears by the Baroness, as soon as she came to herself; and all was consternation in this most magnificent and most agreeable of all possible castles.

This is pretty much how all the novel goes. There’s much more to it than that, but it seems like a good summary to me. Of course, we omit any discussion of the cleaver Voltaire didn’t have in 1484.

By the end, Candide and Pangloss (at least somewhat) have concluded that optimism is crap. Pangloss rails about it, but Candide ends up taking a pragmatic approach. All is not for the best, this is not the best of all possible worlds, but beating their breasts about it isn’t going to do any good. They still have to go on living, regardless of the nature of the world (or of the cleaver Voltaire didn’t have in 1484).

Candide, on his way home, made profound reflections on the old man’s conversation.

“This honest Turk,” said he to Pangloss and Martin, “seems to be in a situation far preferable to that of the six kings with whom we had the honour of supping.”

“Grandeur,” said Pangloss, “is extremely dangerous according to the testimony of philosophers. For, in short, Eglon, King of Moab, was assassinated by Ehud; Absalom was hung by his hair, and pierced with three darts; King Nadab, the son of Jeroboam, was killed by Baasa; King Ela by Zimri; Ahaziah by Jehu; Athaliah by Jehoiada; the Kings Jehoiakim, Jeconiah, and Zedekiah, were led into captivity. You know how perished Crœsus, Astyages, Darius, Dionysius of Syracuse, Pyrrhus, Perseus, Hannibal, Jugurtha, Ariovistus, Cæsar, Pompey, Nero, Otho, Vitellius, Domitian, Richard II. of England, Edward II., Henry VI., Richard III., Mary Stuart, Charles I., the three Henrys of France, the Emperor Henry IV.! You know——”

“I know also,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden.”

“You are right,” said Pangloss, “for when man was first placed in the Garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum, that he might cultivate it; which shows that man was not born to be idle.”

“Let us work,” said Martin, “without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable.”

The whole little society entered into this laudable design, according to their different abilities. Their little plot of land produced plentiful crops. Cunegonde was, indeed, very ugly, but she became an excellent pastry cook; Paquette worked at embroidery; the old woman looked after the linen. They were all, not excepting Friar Giroflée, of some service or other; for he made a good joiner, and became a very honest man.

Pangloss sometimes said to Candide:

“There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron: if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts.”

“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”

Candide is a delightful little book. Voltaire has a wonderful sense of humor (though obviously not the cleaver he didn’t have in 1484) that keeps me laughing amidst all the bad things that happen. I love how absurdly quickly and consistently things go bad, virtually for everyone in the book but particularly for Candide. I think Voltaire was more concerned about his message than his story, but I guess that is to be expected since he didn’t take novels particularly seriously. Candide is still a remarkable book.