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.

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

I’ve talked before about books famous enough that I was familiar with what was inside even if I hadn’t read them. Sometimes they are just as I imagined from all I’ve heard, but sometimes they are completely different. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren was somewhere in between, both same and different. There was a lot I knew would be there, but there was something harder to hold exactly, harder to summarize precisely, that made it a better book than I expected.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for Judy Budnitz, 4th for James Lee Burke, 7th for Robb Forman Dew, 5th for Donald Harington, and 1st for George Pelacanos.)

I knew that All the King’s Men was about the rise and fall of Willie Stark, a politician based on the historical figure of Huey “Kingfish” Long, as seen through the eyes of a man who works with Stark (Jack Burden). Stark becomes corrupt in his zeal against corruption, and Burden has his own issues with this…both with Stark and apart.

I heard at one point that the basis for some of this book in the career of Huey Long got in the way a tiny bit of considering this work purely as a novel. It’s good then that the only awareness I have with Long is through All the King’s Men. He no longer overshadows and I can just see the book for what it is. If anything, Long for me is only defined by what I can imagine from this book.

It isn’t just a simple tale of good intentions getting corrupted. After all, Burden does get corrupted some by his work with Stark…but he was also one of the ones to help corrupt Stark to begin with. When it came down to it, Burden he seemed to still be around for the good that Stark wanted to do.

However, though Stark believes that there is only bad around from which to make good, this can result in a rot that ends up with no good having been done. It’s complicated, but perhaps inescapable. After all, what else is there to work with? Still, that’s the political side of the novel. There’s more there, much more.

You was the eyes bulge suddenly like that, as though something had happened inside him, and there was that glitter. You knew something had happened inside him, and thought: It’s coming. It was always that way. There was the bulge and the glitter, and there was the cold grip way down in the stomach as though somebody had laid hold of something in there, in the dark which is you, with a cold hand in a cold rubber glove. It was like the second when you come home late at night and see the yellow envelope of the telegram sticking out from under your door and you lean and pick it up, but don’t open it yet, not for a second. While you stand there in the hall, with the envelope in your hand, you feel there’s an eye on you, a great big eye looking straight at you from miles and dark and through walls and houses and through your coat and vest and hide and sees you huddled up way inside, in the dark which is you, inside yourself, like a clammy, sad little foetus you carry around inside yourself. The eye knows what’s in the envelope, and it is watching you to see when you open it and know too. But the clammy, sad little foetus which is you way down in the dark which is you too lifts up its sad little face and its eyes are blind, and it shivers cold inside you for it doesn’t want to know what is in that envelope. It wasn’t to lie in the dark and not know, and be warm in its not-knowing. The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can’t know. He can’t know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can’t know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he got or because of the knowledge which he hasn’t got and which if he had it, would save him. There’s the cold in your stomach, but you open the envelope, you have to open the envelope, for the end of man is to know.

You might not think the above quote really shows what I’ve been discussing above, and maybe it really doesn’t. The support for what I’ve been talking about above is all in the facts of the book, as opposed to the truth…and I’m more interested in the truth (though that isn’t something I can precisely state). The facts are all there in All the King’s Men for you to find if that’s the important part for you. The important part for me is something more ethereal, of which the above is a wonderful example.

That’s kind of weird, I know. Still, this is how I felt like reviewing All the King’s Men, the part that interested me more…the less familiar part despite everything I’d already heard.

The prose in All the King’s Men is earthy and gratifying at the same time that it grapples with higher soaring themes inescapably bound up with the muck of filth. It’s melancholy and sad in a way, and softly triumphant in others. At the end it lives up to a truth that is satisfying, even if it admits things we don’t necessarily want to hear. I don’t know about all time favorite, but All the King’s Men is very good.