The Sot-Weed Factor

The real Ebenezer Cook was an English immigrant to Maryland’s eastern shore at the turn of the 18th Century. He owned Cook’s Point, near Cambridge, MD until his father’s death in 1711 and rose to some eminence as a lawyer and as Charles Calvert’s Deputy Receiver General.

Cook is best known for his 1708 poem The Sot-Weed Factor, a Burlesque of the American Colonies which was reprinted first in the mid-19th Century and is now included in most anthologies of American Literature. Though it may seem presumptuous of Cook to add Laureat to his name — as he signed at least two of his publications — he was “the only well-known Maryland literary figure” when William Parks launched his printing press in Anne Arundel town (modern day Annapolis) in 1726 [1] and, as Barth writes:

…to the best of the Author’s knowledge [Maryland’s] marshes have spawned no other poet since Ebenezer Cooke, Gentleman, Poet and Laureate of the Province.

— The Sot Weed Factor (Barth), p. 806

You may read the original poem at Project Gutenberg, or sprinkled throughout (in its entirety) John Barth’s fanciful picaresque by the same name.

Barth’s book is problematic with its stereotypical depiction of Native Americans (right out of 1970s-era Hollywood), but it also succeeds in its argument for reparations:

To the extent, then, that historical movements are expressions of the will of the people engaged in them, Ebenezer was a just object for his captors’ wrath, for he belonged … to the class of the exploiters; as an educated gentleman of the western world he had shared in the fruits of his culture’s power and must therefore share what guilt that power incurred.

— The Sot Weed Factor (Barth), p. 579

The book also has moments of wisdom and beauty. Take, for instance, this description of the night sky over Maryland:

Ebenezer blinked twice or thrice: with the aid of these instructions, for the first time in his life he saw the night sky. The stars were no longer points on a black hemisphere that hung like a sheltering roof above his head; the relationship between them he saw now in three dimensions, of which the one most deeply felt was depth. The length and breadth of space between the stars seemed trifling by comparison: what struck him now was that some were nearer, others farther out, and others unimaginably remote. Viewed in this manner, the constellations lost their sense entirely; their spurious character revealed itself, as did the false pre supposition of the celestial navigator, and Ebenezer felt bereft of orientation. He could no longer think of up and down: the stars were simply out there, as well below him as above, and the wind appeared to howl not from the Bay but from the firmament itself, from the endless corridors of space.

“Madness!” Henry whispered.

Ebenezer’s stomach churned; he swayed in the saddle and covered his eyes. For a swooning moment before he turned away it seemed that he was heels over head on the bottom of the planet, looking down on the stars instead of up, and that only by dint of clutching his legs about the roan mare’s girth and holding fast to the saddlebow with both his hands did he keep from dropping headlong into those vasty reaches!

— The Sot Weed Factor (Barth), p. 366

And although the plot of story strains the credulity of even the most generous readers, much of the history checks out. Lord Baltimore did originally intend to call Maryland Crescentia, Coode’s Rebellion happened, and, of course, there really was an Ebenezer Cooke.

There is enough sex in this story to make even the great Ron Jeremy blush — don’t read it to your kids, your coworkers, or your therapist — but the gratuitous sex has an end. Our reaction to it belies the Puritan roots of American culture, a value which Barth argues, in the end, is not so wholesome after all.

“That is the crime I stand indicted for,” her brother replied: “the crime of innocence, whereof the Knowledged must bear the burthen. There’s the true Original Sin our souls are born in: not that Adam learned, but that he had to learn — in short, that he was innocent.”

— The Sot Weed Factor (Barth), p. 788

Where to find it: I found The Sot Weed Factor excessively difficult to acquire. There is no audio version and none of the libraries in the DC area had the book electronically (though Arlington had a soiled physical copy that I was reluctant to touch). You can buy it via the link below, but it’s rare (and thus exceedingly expensive). I found mine in a used bookstore in Anne Arundel Town for $9, which seemed a bargain until I realized it was the unabridged version. In retrospect, I would have happily paid an extra $20 for Barth’s 1967 revision, which cuts 60 pages off the original.

Sources:

  1. J. A. Leo Lemay, American National Biography, Oxford University Press, 1999. vol. 5, p. 374