The Sot-Weed Factor

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The Sot-Weed Factor
A monochrome book cover illustration.  Linework is in white against a blue background.  To the left, a 17th-century man with a high collar writes with a large feather quill on a large piece of paper in his right hand.  To the right, a woman in period dress, arms akimbo, stares up at the man.  Across the illustration, at the top, in yellow reads "John Barth"; below it, in small black writing, reads "Author of The Floating Opera and The End of the Road".  Across the middle reads "The Sot-Weed Factor", again in yellow.
First edition
Author John Barth
Publisher Doubleday
Publication date

The Sot-Weed Factor is a 1960 novel by the American writer John Barth. The novel marks the beginning of Barth's literary postmodernism. The Sot-Weed Factor takes its title from the poem The Sotweed Factor, or A Voyage to Maryland, A Satyr (1708) by the English-born poet Ebenezer Cooke (c. 1665 – c. 1732), of whom few biographical details are known.

A satirical epic set in the 1680s–90s in London and colonial Maryland, the novel tells of a fictionalized Ebenezer Cooke, who is given the title "Poet Laureate of Maryland" by Charles Calvert, 3rd Baron Baltimore and commissioned to write a Marylandiad to sing the praises of the colony. He undergoes adventures on his journey to and within Maryland while striving to preserve his virginity. The complicated Tom Jones-like plot is interwoven with numerous digressions and stories-within-stories, and is written in a style patterned on the writing of 18th-century novelists such as Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne and Tobias Smollett.


The novel is a satirical epic of the colonization of Maryland based on the life of an actual poet, Ebenezer Cooke, who wrote a poem of the same title. The Sot-Weed Factor is what Northrop Frye called an anatomy[citation needed] a large, loosely structured work, with digressions, distractions, stories within stories, and lists (such as a lengthy exchange of insulting terms by two prostitutes).[page needed] The fictional Ebenezer Cooke (repeatedly described as "poet and virgin") is a Candide-like innocent who sets out to write a heroic epic, becomes disillusioned and ends up writing a biting satire.

The novel is set in the 1680s and 90s in London and on the eastern shore of the colony of Maryland. It tells the story of an English poet named Ebenezer Cooke who is given the title "Poet Laureate of Maryland" by Charles Calvert. He undergoes many adventures on his journey to Maryland and while in Maryland, all the while striving to preserve his innocence (i.e. his virginity). The book takes its title from the grand poem that Cooke composes throughout the story, which was originally intended to sing the praises of Maryland, but ends up being a biting satire based on his disillusioning experiences.

Writing process[edit]

The Sot-Weed Factor was initially intended, with Barth's previous two novels, as the concluding novel on a trilogy on nihilism, but the project took a different direction as a consequence of Barth's maturation as a writer.[1]

The novel takes its title from a poem of the same name published in London in 1708 and signed Ebenezer Cooke. "Sot-weed" is an old term for the tobacco plant. A "factor" is a middleman who buys something to resell it. As Barth explained:

The Sot–Weed Factor began with the title and, of course, Ebenezer Cooke's original poem. . . . Nobody knows where the real chap is buried; I made up a grave for Ebenezer because I wanted to write his epitaph.[2]

Barth also made extensive use of the few pieces of information known at the time about the historical Cooke, his assumed father and grandfather, both called Andrew Cooke, and his sister, Anna.[3]

The novel parodies, mimics, recuperates and rewrites the forms of the 18th century genre of the Bildungsroman (formation novel) and Künstlerroman (novel on the formation of an artist), and in particular Fielding's Tom Jones, Sterne's Tristram Shandy, and Samuel Richardson's three epistolary novels.[4] The narrative presents Ebenezer as a Künstlerroman hero.[4] The novel is also a parody of the picaresque genre,[5] in particular of Tristram Shandy and Tom Jones.

The novel also rewrites the tale of John Smith and Pocahontas,[4] presenting Smith as a boastful and bawdy opportunist, whose narrative of his explorations in Virginia is portrayed as highly fictional and self-serving. This view is generally accepted by historians[such as?] today.

In 1994, Barth said retrospectively that this novel marks his discovery of postmodernism: "Looking back, I am inclined to declare grandly that I needed to discover, or to be discovered by, Postmodernism."[6]


The first edition was written during four years, and published by Doubleday in 1960, consisting of about 800 pages. Barth revisited the text for a new edition issue in 1967 by another publisher, shortened by 60 pages. In 1987, the revised edition was reissued by the original publisher, in the Doubleday Anchor Edition series, with an added foreword.

The novel has been translated into several languages, including Italian, Japanese and others. TIME included it in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.[7]


Previous to The Sot-Weed Factor Barth had seen two novels of his published, The Floating Opera (1956) and The End of the Road (1958). Both were in a conventional realistic mode that made The Sot-Weed Factor's excesses a surprise. During the 1960s, Barth saw earlier 20th-century modes of writing as having come to a conclusion, exemplified in the writing of Joyce and Kafka, and then in Beckett and Borges. With The Sot-Weed Factor, Barth returned to earlier novel forms, both in their structure and mannerisms as well as in the irony and imitation found in Cervantes' Don Quixote and Fielding's Shamela.[8]

Reception and legacy[edit]

Critics generally consider The Sot-Weed Factor to mark the beginning of a period in which Barth established himself at the forefront of American literary postmodernism. The works of this period become progressively more metafictional and fabulist. These critics see this period as lasting until LETTERS (1979), and it includes the essays on postmodernism The Literature of Exhaustion (1967) and "The Literature of Replenishment" (1980).[9]


In March 2013, director Steven Soderbergh announced he was making a 12-hour adaptation of The Sot-Weed Factor. The adaptation was written by novelist, screenwriter, and musician James Greer.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ John Barth (1987) Foreword to Doubleday Anchor Edition of The Sot-Weed Factor
  2. ^ quoted in Philip E. Diser, "The Historical Ebenezer Cooke," Critique , Vol. X, no. 3, 1968, p. 48.
  3. ^ Diser, pp. 48-59.
  4. ^ a b c Elias, Amy J. (2001) Sublime desire: history and post-1960s fiction, pp.223-4
  5. ^ Scott, Robert 'Dizzy With the Beauty of the Possible': The Sot-Weed Factor and the Narrative Exhaustion of the Eighteenth-Century Novel, in Debra Taylor Bourdeau and Elizabeth Kraft (Eds, 2007) On Second Thought: Updating the Eighteenth-Century Text
  6. ^ Clavier, Berndt (2007) John Barth and postmodernism: spatiality, travel, montage pp.165-7
  7. ^ Lacayo, Richard (8 January 2010). "The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), by John Barth". Time. Archived from the original on 9 November 2013. Retrieved 2014-08-04. 
  8. ^ Harris & Harris 1972, pp. 101–102.
  9. ^ Clavier 2007, p. 11.
  10. ^ Kellogg, Carolyn (2 April 2013). "Steven Soderbergh's 12-hour John Barth adaptation, via James Greer". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2014-08-04. 

Works cited[edit]

External links[edit]

  • The Sot-Weed Factor, free ebook version of the first edition (1960) available at, scanned by Universal Digital Library