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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, April 18, 2011

There’s More Ways To the Woods Than One: John Barth and Reading More Out of Jane Austen’s Fiction

In The Sot-Weed Factor, the picaresque mock-epic novel by John Barth written in the Sixties and set way back in the late 17th century, the hero and eternal innocent Ebenezer Cooke (who, now that I think about it, reminds me a lot of Emma!) dreams of becoming the Poet Laureate of the colony of Maryland. I’ve made it the subject of this blog post today, because it came up in conversation a few times this weekend just past, during a long-overdue reunion of myself and four old and dear college friends (with a few wives in the mix as well) in the beautiful mountain country outside Atlanta.

Our well-oiled conversations pleasingly oscillated between the personal and the intellectual, and literature was prominent---not surprisingly given our homes are all overrun by books. The Sot-Weed Factor had, from age 16 on (when JA was still unknown to me), been a particular favorite of mine and of my college buddy Dusty (a lifelong journalist and fellow word junkie).

As we bathed in nostalgia, we repeated our favorite line from The Sot-Weed Factor: “There’s more ways to the woods than one”. That is a mantra in the novel, which, like so much else in it (and, per my interpretations, in JA’s novels, also) is a joinder of the bawdy and the intellectual, something along the lines of Hamlet’s “more on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy”, i.e., that the world, and in particular great literature, admits of multiple worthwhile interpretations.

I tell you all this now, because in the aftermath of our reunion, yesterday I drove straight to Buckhead in Atlanta to give a talk to the JASNA Atlanta chapter, which, you know from Nancy’s post last night, was enjoyed by the small but very astute group who attended. My talk was about Austen’s shadow stories in general, with special focus on Sense and Sensibility.

Anyway, as my college buddies and I exchanged emails gushing about our weekend together, I gave a brief report on my JASNA talk, and Dusty responded by quoting from another passage in The Sot-Weed Factor, which struck me in amazement, because, despite its aptness, I had never previously connected it to my literary sleuthing in Austen and Shakespeare’s writing.

I quickly reread the passage that Dusty’s quote came from, and decided to quote the whole passage here, because it’s so relevant to the varied ways that Janeites respond to my theories. And perhaps some of you who aren’t familiar with Barth’s writing will fall under his spell and read this amazing novel.

To set the scene: the hero, Ebenezer (Eben) encounters a tobacco (‘sot-weed”) planter named Sayer who engages Eben in a lively debate about the interpretation of literature, after Eben reads Sayer a poem that Eben recently wrote. Sayer urges Eben to read him another poem—specifically, the first poem that Eben wrote, while still a schoolboy, which begins as follows:

“Not Priam for the ravag’d Town of Troy, Andromache for her bouncing Baby Boy, Ulysses for his chaste Penelope, Bare the Love, dear Joan, I bear for Thee!”

My comments, in brackets, pertain to the passages I find most relevant to issues in Austen studies, in particular the following questions:

(i) How does knowing Austen’s Juvenilia and biography enhance our reading of her novels?;

(ii) how do the covert allusions in JA’s novels enhance our understanding of her stories?; and

(iii) how do we determine whether apparent puns and allusions in JA’s novels were intentional or not?

[Eben] “Nay, ‘tis but a silly quatrain I wrote as a lad—the first I ever rhymed. And I’ve but three lines of’t in my memory.”

[Sayer] ‘A pity. The Laureate’s first song: ‘twould fetch a price someday, I’ll wager, when thou’rt famous the world ‘oer. Might ye treat me to the three ye have?”

Ebenezer hesitated. ‘Thou’rt not baiting me?”

“Nay!” Sayer assured him. “Tis a mere natural curiosity, is’t not, to wonder how flew the mighty eagle as a fledgling? Do we not admire old Plutarch’s tales of young Alcibiades flinging himself before the carter, or Demosthenes shaving half his head, or Caesar taunting the Cilician pirates? And would ye not yourself delight in hearing a childish line of Shakespeare’s, or mighty Homer’s?”

“I would, right enough,” Ebenezer admitted. “But will ye not judge the man by his child? ‘Tis the present poem alone, methinks, that matters, not its origins, and it must stand or fall on one’s own merits, apart from maker and age.”

“No doubt, no doubt,” Sayer said, waving his hand indifferently, “though the word _merit’s_ total mystery to me. What I spoke of was interest, and whether ‘tis good or bad in itself, certain your Hymn to Innocence is of greater interest to one who knows the history of its author than to one who knows not a bean of the circumstances that gave it birth.”

“Your argument hath its merits,” Ebenezer allowed, not a little impressed to hear such nice reasoning from a tobacco-planter.

Sayer laughed. ‘A fart for thy _merit_! My argument hath its _interest_, peradventure, to one who knows the arguer, and the history of such debates since Plato’s time.”

“Yet surely the Hymn hath some certain degree of merit, and hath nor more nor less whether he that reads it be a Cambridge don or silly footboy—or for that matter, whether ‘tis read or not.”

“Belike it doth,” Sayer said with a shrug. “Tis very like the schoolmen’s question, whether a falling tree on a desert isle makes a sound or no, inasmuch as no ear hears it. I’ve no opinion on’t myself, though I’ll own the quarrel hath some interest: ‘tis an ancient one, with many a mighty implication to’t.”

“This _interest_ is the base of thy vocabulary, “ Ebenezer remarked, “as _merit_ seems to be of mine.”

“It at least permits of conversation,” Sayer smiled. “Prithee, which gleans more pleasure from the Hymn? The footboy who knows not Priam from Good King Wenceslas, or the don who calls the antients by their nicknames? The salvage Indian that ne’er heard tell of chastity, or the Christian man who’s learned to couple innocence with unpopped maidenheads?”

“Marry!” Ebenezer exclaimed. “Your case hath weight, my friend, but I confess it repels me to own the muse sings clearest to professors! ‘Twas not of them I thought when I wrote the piece.”

[I hear in that line a slyly professorial allusion by Barth to Orlando’s riposte to grumpy Jaque’s not liking Rosalind’s name, in As You Like It: “There was no thought of pleasing you when she was christen'd.”]

“Nay, ye mistake me,” Sayer said. “This no mere matter of schooling, though none’s the worse for a little education. Human experience is what I mean: knowledge of the world, both as stored in books and learnt from the hard text of life. Your poem’s a spring of water, Master Laureate—‘sheart, for that matter everything we meet is a spring, is’t not? ……

[And I could not agree more with the following claim by Sayer]

…..That the bigger the cup we bring to’t, the more we fetch away, and the more springs we drink from, the bigger grows our cup. If I oppose your notion ‘tis that such thinking robs the bank of human experience, wherein I have a considerable deposit. I will not drink with any man who’d have me throw away my cup. In short, sir, though I am neither poet nor critic, nor e’en a common Artium Baccalaureus, but only a simple sot-weed planter that hath read a book or two in’s time and seen a bit o’ the wide world, yet I’m confident your poem means more to me than to you.”

“What! That are neither virgin nor poet?”

Sayer nodded. “As for the first, I have been one in my time and look on’t now from the vantage-point of experience, which ye do not. For the second, ‘tis but a different view ye get as author. Nor am I the dullest of readers. I quite appreciate the wordplays in your first quatrain, for instance.”

[And this is the part that relates to the question of the intentionality of the wordplay I so often attribute to JA, where some others think I am imagining it!]
“Wordplays? What wordplays?”

“Why, chaste Penelope, for one,” Sayer said. “What better pun for a wife plagued twenty years by suitors? ‘Twas a clever choice!”

“Thank you,” Ebenezer murmured.

[I just checked, and saw that “chaste Penelope” was a commonplace in English translations of Homer going back a very long time---which I think Barth (correctly) perceived as an inadvertent pun by all the translators, which he finds funny, and I agree with him!]

“And Andromache’s bouncing boy,” Sayer went on, “that was pitched from the walls of Ilium—“

“Nay, ‘tis grotesque!” Ebenezer protested. “I meant no such thing!”

“Not so grotesque. It hath the salt of Shakespeare.”

[What is crucial here is that while the fictional Eben Cooke did not intend to write these puns, his creator, John Barth, a learned but also sly real-life novelist, like JA, _did_ intend them! And Barth is so sly, he leaves one other bawdy pun _un_mentioned by Sayer—“Bare the love” when Eben means to write “Bear the love”!

And now we come to the “punch line” of this passage, which I have alluded to in the title of this post]

“Do you think so?” Ebenezer reconsidered the phrase in his mind. “Haply it doth at that. Nonetheless _you read more out than I put in_.”

“’Tis but to admit,” Sayer said, “_I read more out than _you _ read out_, which was my claim. Your poem means more to me.”

[To which I only add, “Amen!”]

“I’faith, I’ve not the means to refute you!” Ebenezer declared. “If thou’rt a true sample of my fellow planters, sir, then Maryland must be the muse’s playground, and a paradise for poets! Thou’rt indeed the very voice and breath of Reason, and I’m honored to be your neighbor. My cup runneth over.”

Sayer smiled. “Belike it wants enlarging?”

“Tis larger now than when I left London. Thou’rt no mean teacher.” END OF QUOTED PASSAGE

The scene ends shortly thereafter when the apparent stranger Sayer turns out to be Eben’s longtime mentor, Henry Burlingame, in disguise. Throughout the novel, Burlingame, the Satanic tempter, tries to show Eben, by means of various disguises and stratagems, that the world is a mysterious place, and that also makes it an infinitely interesting place! And that is exactly what I claim about JA’s novels
I had never connected the dots between my own youthful obsession with The Sot-Weed Factor (and Barth’s other novels) and my current (and far more intense) Austen obsession. It took my schoolmate’s brilliant insight to point out the connection to me by pointing me to the above passage.

So, Dusty, this one’s for you!

Cheers, ARNIE

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