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. …