Dr. Teresa Coronado
20 November 2012
The genre of early American literature usually conjures up images of Separatists fleeing religious persecution, preachers spewing out fiery sermons to cowering congregations, and many an Indian meeting death and destruction at the hands of English colonists. While most of these events do constitute a significant part of the subject matter during this period, they are not by any means the only issues that crop up. Ebenezer Cooke and his poem “The Sotweed Factor; or, a Voyage to Maryland. ASatyr” both defy the normative characteristics of early American literature by bringing a rather unorthodox component to the colonial table: humor. In “The Sotweed Factor”, Cooke uses his satirical approach to express how these colonists were perceived by their English brethren, and also how they have deviated from English culture by way of their new lives in America. For a genre that is replete with heavy religious undertones, Cooke’s comical poem is not only a refreshing change, but it is also a text that provides readers with a window into life in the early American colonies.
Although many works have been written about “The Sotweed Factor” as a piece of literature, biographical information concerning Ebenezer Cooke’s life is sparse. Ever since the 1660’s, Cooke’s family, beginning with his grandfather Andrew Cooke, had traveled back and forth between England and the Maryland colony in America (Cohen 7). In 1662, Cooke’s grandfather purchased 200 acres of land in Maryland where he later built his home (Cohen 7). Both Ebenezer’s grandfather and his father resided temporarily at this residence, which was known as “Cooke Poynt” (Cohen 7). According to historical evidence, Ebenezer and his other siblings are considered Maryland natives who were, for the most part, raised in England (Cohen 8). Historical records also suggest that before the publication of “The Sotweed Factor”, Ebenezer Cooke had traveled to Marlyand, perhaps around 1700 (Cohen 9). It is possible that while in England, Cooke had been trained for a career in law, though no concrete evidence documenting his formal education exists (Cohen 9).
In 1708, “The Sotweed Factor” was published in England, and afterwards Cooke returned to the Maryland colony where he was appointed to work as a deputy for Colonel Henry Lowe (Cohen 29). Although Ebenezer had sold his share of “Cooke Poynt” in 1717, he remained in Maryland for many years after (Cohen 29). Documents dating from the early 1720’s refer to Cooke as a “‘gentleman’ of Cecil County”, and in 1728 Cooke became a practicing attorney in the courts of Prince George’s County in Maryland (Cohen 36). At the end of some of his poems and in many of his other works, Cooke is referred to as the “Poet Laureate” of Maryland (Cohen 40). However, there is, once again, a lack of historical evidence to substantiate whether or not Cooke had officially earned this title (Cohen 40). Cooke’s other works included the lesser known “Sotweed Redivivus”, a sequel to “The Sotweed Factor”, and a handful of elegies written in remembrance of close friends. In 1731, a curiously edited third edition of “The Sotweed Factor” was published in a collection known as The Maryland Muse (Cohen 70). In this edition, Cooke recants some of the harsher language and judgments of the colony that were included in the earlier version (Cohen 70). Unfortunately, the end of Ebenezer Cooke’s life is shrouded in some mystery; after 1732, his name abruptly disappeared from any and all historical documents (Cohen 93).
The most renowned and recognized of all of his poetry, Cooke’s “The Sotweed Factor” is largely significant in understanding American colonial life because of one key component: humor. However, the humor in Cooke’s “The Sotweed Factor” does not solely exist to entertain or criticize. Through the cynical eyes of the protagonist, Cooke reveals the transformations that have taken place between the now American colonists and their British counterparts. For the factor, the two groups might as well be worlds apart, and in essence, they truly are. In the beginning of the poem, the factor recognizes that he is leaving one cultural sphere and entering something completely new: “With heavy heart, concern’d that I / Was forc’d my Native soil to fly. / And the Old World bid good-buy” (Cooke 1). A sotweed factor was an agent of an English merchant who would travel to the colonies with products to trade (Cohen 10-11). When the factor reached his destination, he would trade most of his cargo for a large quantity of tobacco, and then return to England (Cohen 11). Therefore, bound to his occupation, the factor is “forc’d” to leave behind his home in England for the New World. The factor doesn’t find his financial prospects in America to be hopeful, but rather thinks he is “Condemn’d by Fate to way ward Curse” (Cooke 1). This journey across the Atlantic is more of a burden to the factor than a blessing.
When he arrives in Maryland, the factor is shocked by the people that he encounters. These colonists, perhaps once citizens of England, have strayed so far from British culture as a whole that they are not even recognizable to him. The factor ridicules the colonists, claiming that they have become a complete joke to humanity:
Figures so strange, no God design’d,
To be a part of Humane Kind:
But wanton Nature, void of Rest,
Moulded the brittle Clay in Jest (Cooke 2).
The factor finds these people to be separate from mankind because they have changed so much that they are now “strange” to him and his culture. The colonists are not a product of God’s creation but rather a frivolous product of Nature, who has made them only “in Jest”. In her article on “The Sotweed Factor”, Sarah Ford claims that through his satire, Cooke dissolves any ties that the colonists and British may share; the British view the uncivilized colonists as outsiders who have cut themselves off completely from British values and principles (1). In the factor’s eyes, the colonists are a new and bizarre breed of people who contain no trace of their British cultural past. Once one and the same, Cooke recognizes that the colonists have grown away from the British colonizers to develop their own uniquely American culture.
As the factor travels through the Maryland colony, he discloses some reasoning as to why he believes the colonists have become so estranged from their English homeland. When he ventures out with a local planter, he expresses the same surprise upon encountering an Indian as he does when surveying the raucous planters:
His sable Hair in Satchel ty’d,
Shew’d Savages not free from Pride:
His tawny Thighs, and Bosom bare,
Disdain’d a useless Coat to wear (Cooke 7).
The colonists are not the only strange inhabitants of the Maryland colony; the factor finds the “tawny” Indian truly peculiar with his odd customs and dress. He ties up his hair and chooses to wear no clothing, which is radically different from British standards. Consequently, the Indian, like the colonists, must be of a savage nature that is altogether foreign to the British mind. Cooke makes the comparison between the colonists and the Indians in more than one place, stating in the beginning of the poem that the planters of Maryland appear “In Hue as tawny as a Moor:” (Cooke 2). The tanned skin color of the planters who toil outdoors adds to their peculiarity, just as the Indian is gawked at for his bare “tawny” thighs. At the end of his journey, the factor utters ill-wishes towards the colony: “May they sustain the Fate they well deserve: / May they turn Savage or as Indians Wild,” (Cooke 17). According to the factor, the distance between colonial behaviors and a descent into a savage Indian lifestyle is quite short. Cooke’s choice of language reveals that by living in a country populated with “savage” Indians, the colonists run the risk of becoming just as untamed, and perhaps they already are. Through their comparison to the Indian, the colonists are even further alienated as “outsiders” to the English culture.
Cooke does not reserve his satire exclusively for the Maryland colonists. He also criticizes the English sotweed factor for his incapacity to understand and adapt to this emerging American culture. Sarah Ford claims that Cooke’s humor is targeted at both the colonists and the English as the factor “reveals himself to be a buffoon unable to negotiate life in the New World” (1). Ford’s concept of a “dual satire” is applicable in many comical situations that crop up throughout the poem (1). In the aforementioned experience concerning the Indian, the factor is struck with panic and alarm as he encounters the strange native: “…surpriz’d with Fear, / I spur’d my Horse as he drew near:” (Cooke 8). Just as the factor tries to make a quick escape, his newly-made acquaintance greets the man, convincing the factor that, in truth the “…Brute was civel,” (Cooke 8). Cooke’s protagonist unknowingly plays the fool in this instance, frantically urging his horse to carry him away from a virtually harmless situation. This situation demonstrates how little the factor actually knows about the American colony. He struggles to assimilate to the radical change of environment, but only succeeds in revealing his own inadequacies in understanding colonial life. Where the factor was once the criticizer, he later assumes the role of the criticized.
While Cooke’s humor in “The Sotweed Factor” is entertaining, it is closer to being a witty exaggeration rather than a genuine account of colonial life. As the factor trudges onwards, he is appalled when he becomes entangled in the crooked dealings of the Maryland courts. The colony’s legal system is just as untamed and wild as the colonists themselves: “The Jury, Lawyers, and their Clyents, / Contending, fight like earth-born Gyants:” (Cooke 10-11). Apparently the planters of Maryland cannot be civil, not even in court. Despite many popular assumptions among the English, Edward Cohen reveals that the colonial courts were often equal to their local counterparts in England (18). Cooke creates a caricatured image of colonial life through his exaggerated humor, an image that, although amusing, is not wholly true to life. However, further research confirms that Cooke and his sotweed factor are not alone in making unfounded assumptions about colonial life. In an 1844 letter to his mother and father, English immigrant Edwin Bottomley writes about his new life in the Wisconsin territory. Although Bottomley is writing nearly 140 years after Cooke, his letter proves that these exaggerations of American life die hard. Bottomley describes a friend of the family, Joseph Nobles who rumors that the Sabbath is not kept in Wisconsin territory. Edwin urges his parents to disregard this statement: “If you have heard of it, I hope you won’t believe him. The Sabbath is kept just as it is in England” (Bottomley June 27 1844). Not unlike Cooke’s example, Joseph Nobles assumes that in this wild American territory, religious customs are completely disposed of. Settlements in American territories receive the same scrutiny that the English colonies did almost a century and a half earlier, demonstrating the ongoing differences between a unique American identity and the English identity.
“The Sotweed Factor” is a testament to the confliction, albeit a humorous confliction, between two different identities: the English identity versus the newly-formed American identity. While most colonial literature views the world through a religious lens, Cooke deviates from this norm by providing a highly critical portrait of the American colonists that is based on his own personal experiences in Maryland. The English factor views his colonial brethren as crude and inferior, but the colonists see the factor’s struggles in their world as his inability to assimilate and ultimately become American. Exaggerated at times, the sotweed factor’s facetious journey through the Maryland colony exposes the early beginnings of America. The Old World that had colonized America was giving way to a distinctly American culture in the New World.
Bottomley, Edwin. Bottomley Papers. 27 June 1844. M.S. University of Wisconsin-Parkside Archives.
Cohen, Edward H. Ebenezer Cooke: The Sot-Weed Canon. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1975.
Cooke, Ebenezer. “The SotWeed Factor; or, a Voyage to Maryland. A Satyr.” Early Americas Digital Archive. John Murphy Company, 1900. Web. 29 Oct. 2012.
Ford, Sarah. “Humor’s Role in Imagining America: Ebenezer Cook’s The Sot-Weed Factor”. Southern Literary Journal. 35.2 (2003): 1-12. MLA International Bibliography. 17 Nov. 2012.