John Barth, Ebenezer Cooke, and the literature of exhaustion

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


In 1708 Colonial poet Ebenezer Cooke published a satirical poem entitled The Sot-Weed Factor. The poem, written in the style of Samuel Butler's Hudibras, tells of a tobacco merchant's first visit to Maryland. In 1960 contemporary novelist John Barth wrote a novel, also entitled The Sot-Weed Factor and used Cooke's life and poem as sources.

In order to understand why Barth chose these eighteenth-century sources for his twentieth-century novel, one must first examine his theory of "literature of exhaustion." According to Barth, this literature begins with the realization that the novel is dead or dying and uses this fact as a theme. The writers of this fiction must be aware of the history of the novel and must write technically up-to-date novels, but they must, at the same time, treat matters of the human heart.

One way to accomplish these goals is to imitate earlier works, as Barth does in The Sot-Weed Factor. Because the novel imitates a two-hundred- fifty-year-old poem, it acknowledges that the history of literature does not begin with itself. Yet Barth's imitation parodies his model by embellishing and exaggerating it to a point of absurdity. The novel thereby reflects this same absurdity in the modern world and thus reaches the hearts of those who must live in it. Thus, though Barth imitates an eighteenth-century poem, he creates a thoroughly modern novel that meets his requirements for literature of exhaustion and gives new life to a moribund genre.