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John Barth – The Sot-Weed Factor

Jordan | Cram it in Your Ear | Monday, December 24th, 2007


For months, literally months, I’ve been slowly making my way through this dense 1960 novel by John Barth. I am pleased it is over. I enjoyed it tremendously, but, much like Gravity’s Rainbow (a book it resembles only in its chutzpah) it was a bit of a chore. At 800 pages of prose written as ye’d be likely to o’erhear a typical wight speakin whilst in his cups, it was very slow going. If you have the patience, though, I strongly recommend it. I can think of no more humorous book about prostitutes, pirates, rape, defecation, sexually transmitted diseased, dildos, “salvage” Indians, rebellious slaves, scheming indentured servants, incest, bestiality, poetry, starvation, prurience, virginity, opium, obscure history about the Province of Maryland, corrupt judges, Protestantism vs Papacy, lunatic plot twists, mistaken identity and more. It is actually based on a real Maryland settler Ebenezer Cooke who wrote a 17th Century satirical verse called The Sot-Weed Factor. (Sot-weed a term for tobacco, a factor being a salesman.) Barth fabricated (slowly, and in florid verse) the inspiration that lead Cooke to pen his poem. This is the second Barth novel I’ve read. I think I enjoyed The Last Voyage of Somebody The Sailor a little more as that was truly sick and twisted – The Sot-Weed Factor and its horrible lewdness described in acceptable, respectible English might be funnier.


  1. Wholehearted agreement here…! If you liked The Sot-Weed Factor, you’ll surely like Giles Goat-boy: a Cold-War allegory that satirizes geopolitics, religious lore, mythology, and stuffy university academia (among other themes.) The grand scale of TSWF continues, and there are plenty of aspects that make a case for calling Pynchon “Barth-esque”; but at the core it’s also a good old-fashioned and thoroughly entertaining bildungsroman.

    …Do you actually have a first-edition hardcover of TSWF as pictured?

    Comment by Chris — December 27, 2007 @ 5:15 pm

  2. I don’t have that version, but a paperback picked up at a yardsale for $1. I def. want to hit Giles Goat-Boy, but I have Sabbatical on my shelf (also bought at a yardsale) and may hit that first. But I need a wee Barth break for now.

    If you ‘ve never read Somebody the Sailor you will definitely be tickled.

    Comment by Jordan — December 27, 2007 @ 9:05 pm

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