Ebenezer Cook was a tobacco factor
(merchant) and plantation owner in Maryland. A prolific writer, he spent much
time in London as well as in Maryland. Cook’s The Sot-weed Factor, first
published in London in 1708, is a satire of elitist English expectations about
America. The satire is written in the form of Hudibrastic verse, named for
Samuel Butler’s hilarious satire of Puritans, Hudibras (1653–1680).
Hudibrastic verse has a Juvenalian (i.e., biting, after the classical
writer, Juvenal) satirical stance offered in a form that is jarring to read
because of the galloping and potentially monotonous tetrameter lines that
end in odd-sounding rhymes. In fact, the incongruity created by “sing-song” lines that might be monotonous
except for the unexpected rhymes and odd syntax fosters much of the humor
of Hudibrastic verse.
Cook’s use of the verse form is doubly satirical. The speaker of The Sot-weed Factor speaks as
though he were a member of the English elite; he denigrates and mocks Americans
as hard-drinking, impious, backwater rogues. Thus, the poem’s satire seems on
one level to be directed against Americans. Yet the poem really satirizes
precisely the English elitist notions about Americans that the speaker holds.
The first evidence lies in the fact that the sot-weed factor (tobacco merchant)
stands “Erect, with Legs stretch’d wide” (line 67) in a canoe. An American
would know that people would not stand in canoes. Other examples repeatedly
show the ignorance of the speaker of the poem, who thinks himself superior to
the Americans he finds. The last laugh, then, is on the speaker, who thinks
himself superior when it is the Americans who really are so.
The text is taken from the original London, 1708, publication of the poem. Unless otherwise noted,
annotations are Cook’s, from the original publication.