The Experiences of the Frontier in John Barth's the Sot-Weed Factor

By Turski, Marcin | Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies, Annual 1996 | Go to article overview

The Experiences of the Frontier in John Barth's the Sot-Weed Factor


Turski, Marcin, Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies


The American frontier, or as Wright Morris describes it in The Territory Ahead, "a series of circles dissolving westward" (Morris 1961: 9), has unfailingly impregnated the minds of settlers in the New World. The reason? Sheer vastness of the unchartered territory with the attendant air of mystery, an indeterminate promise of adventure, improvement of one's financial and societal status, as well as of fulfilment of one's innermost dreams and diverse expectations have for the last four centuries tantalized those who first got to know about the existence of the continent and subsequently those who, upon arrival in the prospective U.S. felt the urge to go further Out West. Wrestling with the frontier has had profound ramifications for whole groups and for their individual members. Crossing a physical boundary, be it a body of water, a mountain range, or a wilderness, unleashes hitherto unreleased energy and provides an opportunity for the realization of one's full potential. Oftentimes, if not always, it is paral leled by a change in the consciousness of the individual. The latter, being faced with a new locale and novel circumstances per force alters his/her conceptual paradigm and the outlook on the world. Ever since the Pilgrim fathers special emphasis has been laid on reading and interpreting the outward semiotic reality, which aquired the status of a text. Perceivable "physical things" and phenomena have been attentively read and construed by the observers, who subsequently re-read and re-interpreted their inner semiotic reality, i.e. their consciousness and outlook on the world. Changes of landscape trigger restructuring of ontological inscape. It goes to show that the geographical frontier, a surpassable physical rim, is but a pretence, or a pretext, for crossing a spiritual and ontological one; movement forward is bound with a descent inward.

It is the aim of this paper to trace the shifts in the development of the protagonists of John Barth's The sot-weed factor (1960, revised edition 1967) brought about by their contact, or rather, clash with the semiotic, textual reality of the American frontier. It will be also concerned with what the characters' epistemology of this textual reality.

For a purpose such as this Barth's third novel is well adopted. For one thing, it is replete with borders of various sorts, geographical ones being one of them. For another, more important reason, the flabbergasting adventures take place in the latter half of the 17th century, at the onset of settlement in America. The author himself notes the unique character of the setting of the better part of the book, that is his native Maryland. (Parenthetically, the state has already aquired the status of Barth's Yoknapatawpha County, being also the stage of nearly all of his books to date.) Explaining his choice of Maryland as a setting, Barth remarks, "Something like a border state (that's what Maryland is called, it's historically one of the border states, as well as being a tidewater area where the boundary between the land and the water, between one physical state and another, is negotiable and somewhat in doubt) can be a kind of emblem for other sorts of border states, ontological states, of personality, and the rest" (in: Harris 1983: 61).

There are points of convergence between the two protagonists. Albeit a longtime British residents, they are both Americans by birth. Ebenezer Cooke was born in June 1666 in Maiden, an estate in Maryland's Dorchester County owned by a tobacco merchant (or rather, a sot-weed factor, as representatives of this profession were known by this name at those times). The other main character, Henry Burlingame is born around 1654. He is a third son of an Indian chieftain who, being dissatisfied with his newly-born child's too light complexion, sends him down the river in a canoe. Henry is fished out of the water of the Chesapeake Bay, Moses-like, by some European sailors and, having spent most of his boyhood at sea, finds himself in England.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Experiences of the Frontier in John Barth's the Sot-Weed Factor
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.