The Sot-Weed Factor – John Barth


A self-defining read for me in the 1960s, and I now intend to reread it and submit it to my #GestaltRealTimeReviewing…

And when I do, my comments will appear in the comment stream below…

My other reviews of older or classic books:

13 thoughts on “The Sot-Weed Factor – John Barth


    1 – 3
    “We are dying men, Ebenezer: i’faith, there’s time for naught but bold resolves!” (My bold.)

    Reading this massive mighty book again at this late stage in my life is indeed one such bold resolve. But you know how beautifully smooth and limpid it reads, with no need to resist its page-turning compulsion (now yellow pages!) complete, though, sown with chunky philosophies and real histories and blatant indecisions leading to a Zeno’s Paradox of consistency and inconsistency in mutual synergy. Nor do I need to remind you of the start of Ebenezer Cooke’s early life with his twin sister Anna, their tutor Henry Burlingame and what has already unfolded up to the point I have read. This indeed promises to be the book of a lifetime it always was, and I am now Unconsoled that I had forgotten how truly great it is, outvying all its competitors in my reading life.

  2. 4 & 5

    “…down by Baynard’s Castle,… […] …and to escape the great Plague…”

    I need not tell you about Ebenezer’s moderate sojourns in London, nor of wise and pragmatic Henry’s comings and goings, perhaps now gone forever with his yen for Anna foregone, nor need I tell you about E’s father filling in E’s history and details of his inheritance of the sot-weed factor in far off Maryland. But I may need to remind you of how E learnt to teach the recorder by simply letting his pupil fondle the instrument, and take it apart, for the whole first lesson. And how E seemed to have had a hard-on while tormenting ants with ink in an office, even though he thought he felt sorry for them. Which letters of the alphabet to choose for these ants to avoid being a lesson in Fate?

  3. 6 & 7

    “For it happened that, though near thirty, Ebenezer was yet a virgin, and this for the reason explained in the previous chapters, that he was no person at all:”

    A vacuum of self. This free-flowing text of wagers, pimps, whores, swivings, rogerings, leechings, lecherings, is quite an apotheosis of style as you will never forget as in old age I had somehow forgotten – till now. Bringing my mind back into the recent increasingly virgin blankness of a non-mind. I was an idealistic poet myself when I first read this book. Lusty but listless in my diffidence. A therapy today, though, by my following Ebenezer and the way of his breaking of his own virgin fast, not fast but slowly slowly catch the whore and replace her with an icon, by treating Joan Toast against the grain of good bartering, Cooke versus Cooked, but maintaining the ideals of lust and love. An oxymoron of intentional fallacies. Keeping his lust and love pent-up paradoxically by no one till he be someone. The Poet with principles. The future Laureate. I cannot remember the rest of this book’s plot, though I knew it once. The text is addictive, the optimum mixed motive. But prank me no pranks. No cock of the Cookes, me.

  4. 8 & 9

    “‘I’d not cross the street for a whore,’ Ebenezer said firmly, ‘but I shall cross the ocean for a principle! To you, haply, Joan Toast is a whore; to me she is a principle.’”

    How wondrous is not only E’s honourable principles, from vacuum to apotheosis of virtue, in one fell swoop of a reader’s realisation, but also how wondrous is the writer’s style of telling me about it. A style of syntax and word choice exceeding even my time-distant memory of this still close-to-my-heart book, exceeding, too, even the expectations engendered by that memory of first being close to it in consciousness as well as in contiguity with its pages. And when the outcome of the momentous wager entails E upholding such principles, he optimises being consigned by his father to Maryland, by becoming that land’s Poet Laureate even before he’d reached travelling there. And just as Homer and Virgil and other poets are the only means for recording places and spirits thereof and hearts and souls and histories and peoples for posterity and memory, otherwise they’d cease to exist, I, too, I hope, am similarly ‘the poet of the book review’ and of the Platonic Form of Book as gestalt, in such a mode of priceless preservation of things that would otherwise vanish into the lost time of ungraspable distances without my real-time reviewing them… Seriously, I thus hope I am. Meanwhile…

    “Life’s a battle that scars us all, victor and vanquished alike.”

  5. 10 & 11

    “There was a conceit worth saving, he reflected; such subtle vistas of meaning in the word deliverer, for instance, with its twin suggestions of midwife and savior!”

    It is as if we need further midwiving, if not swiving, into the thoughtful joys of this book, by being given the rough passage of a history lesson, in detail, of Maryland, a lesson which is incredibly boring, punctuated even though it is by Ebenezer’s ejaculations of surprise as his signs of listening to this litany of intrigues and 17th century historical events that precede E in that outmost land, and he is now deemed its Poet Laureate. He even sees the whore Joan Toast as a sort of spiritual midwife of principles for this emergence of himself in that honourable role, having given him the chance to honour his love for her by NOT swiving her, thus not breaking his virginity while ignoring all the loutish catcalls of his fellow bystanders in London? Now outed towards an outermost… and we have ourselves crossed that hurdle of having been made to read an avant garde interminability of boring details of history, and and now can follow him into the beyond of Crescentia! Bravo!

    • From Wikipedia: ‘Officially, the new “Maryland Colony” was named in honor of Henrietta Maria of France, wife of Charles I of England. The 1st Lord Baltimore initially proposed the name “Crescentia”, the land of growth or increase, but “the King proposed Terra Mariae [Mary Land], which was concluded on and Inserted in the bill.”’


    1 & 2

    ’A man may love his house and yet not ride on the ridgepole,…’”

    ‘Tis my Bible now, this book, in my old age having first read it when I was Ebenezer’s age, when he discussed on the Plymouth coach Wimsatt’s Intentional Fallacy in Poetry that I first learnt about and was inspired by at that early youthful time, and now E debates it with someone who mentions “bold resolves” on the coach and who also happens to know how two and half lines of E’s own unremembered poetry ends! Fathom that conundrum, I say.
    Meanwhile, time has passed in my own life – and all my ambitions and virgin hopes have by now panned out as I read this book all over again. I wonder about E’s ulterior motive or intentional fallacy regarding Papacy (or not) in taking up the Poet Laureateship in or to Maryland. I then laugh at his trying to garner a notebook for taking with him there, as his sword argues against the Golden Mean of needless choices in notebookery, indeed argues with the LGBTQ stationer who proffers such notebookery. And, late still, his fond farewell to Anna, his twin sister… and, oh yes, just remembered via my aged brain, that the notebook that he eventually uses is the stationer’s own credit and debit accounts ledger with some blank pages left, and that takes us full circle to the ‘interest’ and ‘merit’ in the debate about the Intentional Fallacy on the coach again!

    “‘So here ye sit: virgin and poet! Think yea the ‘twain will dwell ‘neath the same roof and not quarrel with each other day and night?’”


    3 & 4

    “‘Ah, ‘twere better you’d not told me that,’ Ebenezer declared, clucking his tongue, ‘for it spoils the story.’”

    Ha! A better quote from these chapters to start with here in the previous context of my thoughts was to have been…

    “The crabbed old man recalls his spring,…”

    but I thought a spoiler-warning that the man on the coach with E purports to be Henry Burlingame III himself! But how do we know for certain the identity of anyone who may have been changed by the years, other than by the continuity of memory like a river. Except when you get as old as me, memory tends to fade or back up towards the source (glum smiley). Yet, I simply know this man IS who he says he is because of his pretty turns of wise phrase and his cultural references and his playful sophistry. And E’s counter-badinage as HB tells him of the first half of his quest in Maryland for HB’s own parentage, a much more interesting history than the other long speech of history earlier in this book that E also interrupted with his expletives of surprise and attention. When I first read this book, by the way, I thought HB was a wise old man. Now I know he is still only 40, as we speak, and that is ten years younger than the current age of my own son!