(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Ebenezer, or Eben, Cooke and his twin sister, Anna, are born in 1666 to Andrew Cooke on a tobacco, or sot-weed, plantation at Cooke’s Point in the colony of Maryland. Their mother dies giving birth and their father returns to England, hiring eventually as his children’s tutor a young man who had been found floating in Chesapeake Bay with the name Henry Burlingame III pinned to his chest. Burlingame hopes to find the secret journal of Captain John Smith. Burlingame had an ancestor who had served with the famous explorer and thought that the secret of his birth might be found in the journal.

Eben goes to Cambridge for his formal education. After a period of indecision and carousal with his friends, he finally determines that he wants to be a poet. Burlingame also reappears to assist Eben during this period. Andrew Cooke asks him to return to Maryland to take over the operation of the family plantation. Two events then occur to shape Eben’s future.

On a dare, Eben meets a prostitute named Joan Toast, and he is taken by her beauty and personality. Instead of having sex with her, he vows eternal devotion to her and to preserve his virginity eternally. John McEvoy, Joan’s pimp, wants Eben to pay for the time he spent with her even though there had been no sex. Eben gains an enemy. The second important event is Eben’s interview with Charles Calvert, Lord Baltimore and former governor of Maryland, who appoints Eben poet laureate of Maryland and urges the astonished young man to help Calvert regain the governorship of Maryland, which had been wrested from him by a host of villains headed by Jonathan Coode. Calvert had no authority to name Eben to any position because Calvert is no longer governor of Maryland. In fact, Calvert is not Calvert; he is Burlingame, in the first of many disguises.

Eben, Bertrand (Eben’s servant), and Burlingame head for a seaport to begin their voyage to Maryland, but brigands set upon...

(The entire section is 798 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Barth’s third novel, perhaps his most widely acclaimed critical success, is written as a flamboyant imitation of an eighteenth century novel. His narrator adopts the tone and the locutions of eighteenth century narrators, and his descriptions of early colonial life in Maryland and of life in the London of the period are designed to recall the descriptions known of those places from contemporary literature. The importance of this narrative strategy is twofold: On one hand, the parodic imitation of an earlier novelistic style draws the reader’s attention to the ways in which this narrative is purely a product of fictional conventions; on the other hand, the density of authentic historical detail in the text consistently suggests to the reader that Barth is re-creating a plausible, although wildly humorous, colonial milieu. By exploiting the tension between these competing claims, Barth is able to suggest the absence of any but a fictional order and at the same time present a compelling necessity for choice and action, as suggested by the realistic aspects of the novel.

One of the most conspicuous features of The Sot-Weed Factor is its immensely complicated plot, itself a feature of the assertion of artifice in Barth’s fiction; like Barth’s earlier fiction, The Sot-Weed Factor demonstrates his preoccupation with value and action. Ebenezer Cooke, the novel’s protagonist and the son of a Maryland “sot-weed factor,” or tobacco planter, is raised as an orphan in England together with his twin sister, Anna. After an education at home supervised by the family’s tutor, Henry Burlingame, himself educated at the University of Cambridge but without familial connections, Ebenezer goes off to Cambridge, where his wild imagination and inability to take the world seriously make him an indifferent student at best. Ebenezer’s disposition here recalls the problems of Todd Andrews in Barth’s first novel and will be the source of many of his future difficulties.

After returning from Cambridge, Ebenezer embarks on a career as a poet in London. Hopelessly naïve, he takes his own innocence and literal virginity as a sign of his...

(The entire section is 888 words.)