John Barth Information Center
The Sot-Weed Factor may be my favorite book of all time. And John Barth is one of my favorite authors.
Barth is usually classed as an academic writer, and his work is clearly filled with intellectual ideas and words like "postmodernism" are bandied about. But he also has a very wicked (and bawdy) sense of humor. His books are a lot of fun to read, with plenty to reward even the casual reader.
Barth grew up in the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a factor that is part of all of his works. His first novel, The Floating OperaI (1957), is about Todd Andrews, a lawyer who is contemplating suicide. The story goes off on weird and wonderful directions, with weird characters, bizarre lawsuits, and many other wonders. It is an amazing beginning, though still shows he hadn't found his way.
Next came The End of the Road (1958),* the story of Jacob Horner, who is paralyzed by indecision after having an affair with his best friend's wife and is working through the incident with his psychiatrist. Horner is a shell of a man, yet it makes sense that the woman has the affair with him.
But Barth really hit is stride with The Sot-Weed Factor (1960)**. It is a long, sprawling, bawdy, hilarious historical novel set in colonial Maryland, about Ebenezer Cooke, a third rate poet (and virgin) in London (that is, he'd be one if he ever wrote any poetry) who gets himself named poet laureate of Maryland and who travels to his plantations there to take charge. Followed by his former tutor Henry Burlingame III (a man who is never what he seems), and guided by his unconsummated love of prostitute Joan Toast. Cooke's tale is filled with adventures and digressions, including the search for a secret diary of Captain John Smith, which provides the McGuffin for the plot. Maryland is filled with memorable characters.
One amazing thing about the book is that there really was an Ebenezer Cooke who did indeed write a poem called "The Sot-Weed Factor."*** One of the major plot points is the search for the secret of the sacred eggplant, something so bizarre that it seemed to confirm to me how wild Barth's imagination could be -- until I discovered it was based on an actual text.
Giles Goat-Boy (1966) came next, the story of a hero -- carefully following the Joseph Campbell template long before Star Wars. It's something of a fantasy, set at a university that is an allegory for the world. But again, it's funny and bawdy.
By now, Barth was at his peak. Both books were both critical and popular successes, and he followed them up with an excellent short story collection, Lost in the Funhouse(1968). Barth was beginning to write more metafiction where the story commented on the story and storytelling, but never stopped being entertaining. The title story is one of the great mainstream short stories of the 20th century, about a boy who gets lost in a carnival funhouse and tries to escape by imagining a story called "Lost in the Funhouse" where he escaped.**** "Frame Tale" is perhaps the longest story every written -- or the shortest.
Chimera (1972), his next book, are three linked novellas, again concentrating on what a story is and what makes a hero. It portrays the Greek heroes Perseus and Bellerophon looking back on their deeds and revisiting them. It won Barth a National Book Award.
Barth was riding high, but his next novel, LETTERS (1979)a tour de force of storytelling and structure.
Subtitled, "An Old Time Epistolary Novel by Seven Fanciful Drolls & Dreamers Each of which Imagines himself actual," the book consists of letters written by characters from Barth's earlier novels, as well as though written by a new character, Germaine Pitt, and Barth himself to the characters. If you take the first letter of each of the letters, it spells out, "An Old Time Epistolary Novel, etc." If you put the dates of the letters on a calendar and turn the months sideways, it spells out "LETTERS." The letters are presented by character; thus you will occasionally read a reply before you read the letter that engendered it. I can't imagine how Barth managed to keep this all straight, but he did a terrific job of it.
Like the characters in Chimera, Barth revisits his triumphs and comments on storytelling and the novel in the late 20th century. Like all of Barth, it is filled with great characters and wild storytelling.
But, for some reason, it was a critical flop. More than that, it seemed to turn Barth from the front rank of literary novelists. He was never taken as seriously from that point on, and I can't imagine why (though I suppose that if you haven't read his earlier books, it may be difficult to follow).
Barth continued with the more traditional Sabbatical: A Romance (1982) and The Tidewater Tales (1987), both of which covered similar ground. He went into full-fledged fantasy with The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991), a retelling of the Sinbad tale.*****
I haven't read his later stuff except for Coming Soon!!! A Narrative, a novel about how the novel was becoming outdated in the 21st century.
The critical disappointment with LETTERS turned Barth from a popular writer to a niche writer. It also retroactively affected his earlier novels. All have remained in print in one form or another, but few people go back to them to read for pleasure.
This is a mistake. At the very least, read The Sot-Weed Factor and prepare to be amazed at a true writing genius.
*The only one of his novels to be made into a movie (and probably the only one that could be made into a movie) starring Stacy Keach and James Earl Jones.
**The cover of the first edition (shown here) was created by the great Edward Gorey.
**Which roughly translates into "The Tobacco Wholesaler" in modern English.
***It's also filled with good advice for the beginning writer.
****Barth always was on the edge of fantasy; Giles Goat-Boy, Chimera, and LETTERS all had fantastic elements scattered throughout. Barth also had the lovely quote, "Science fiction writers are not like you or me. They have more fun," the fun being science fiction conventions.