The Southern Literary Journal 35.2 (2003) 1-12
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Humor's Role in Imagining America:
Ebenezer Cook's The Sot-Weed Factor
In stark contrast to the serious religious writings of the New England Puritans, Ebenezer Cook's poem The Sot-Weed Factor; or, a Voyage to Maryland portrays a colonial America full of con artists, rambunctious lawyers, and drunken planters. The narrator is an English tobacco factor who is swindled by these unscrupulous colonists. The poem becomes a form of revenge as he hurls insults and curses, but, as several critics have argued, the humor in the poem is two-fold. While the factor points out the shortcomings of the colonists, he reveals himself to be a buffoon unable to negotiate life in the New World. Both audiences for the poem, English citizens and colonists, would then find it humorous, as J. A. Leo Lemay has pointed out, with the English citizens laughing at the portrayal of colonists as uncivilized and the colonists laughing at the British factor's ineptitude. The dual satire, however, does more than shrewdly appeal to two audiences. In this essay I will investigate humor's role in the process of imagining America as a community separate from the motherland of Britain. Humorous writings in general and Cook's poem in particular have received little attention related to their role in the process of nationalism. 1 Their move is not admittedly the bold declaration of a "city on a hill" set apart from England, but the humor works by subtly separating British from colonists, outsiders from insiders. As the factor insults the colonists, he distances himself from them, thus taking on the role of the outsider. In [End Page 1] the dual satire, the colonists become insiders who perceive the humor in the factor's inability to adapt to life in America. The humor of the poem forms an imagined American community by uniting colonists who get the New World jokes.
The factor describes his entrance into the New World as unwanted and treacherous. He claims that he was "Condemn'd by Fate to way-ward Curse" (1) and was "forced my Native Soil to fly, / And the Old World must bid good-buy" (6-7). In describing his unwelcome journey from England to America, the factor establishes at the very beginning of the poem the important distinction between the Old World he left "with heavy heart" and the New World he enters unwillingly. He immediately takes on the role of the outsider as he betrays his ignorance of the colonial experience. This entrance into the New World is paralleled in literary history by the character of Robin in Hawthorne's short story, "My Kinsman, Major Molineux." Hawthorne's story is set later in colonial history and is more overtly concerned with the distinction between Old World and New, but the positions of the factor and Robin are similar. 2 Both are unable to read the culture around them and so unwittingly become the objects of humor. Robin has come to the city as a young man expecting to get ahead in life through his wealthy uncle. We are told he enters the city "as if he were entering London city" but instead finds the turbulence of colonial rebellion. Unaware of the events taking place, he tries to get directions to his uncle's house by asking the various citizens he meets, "Whereabouts is the dwelling of my kinsman, Major Molineux?" Instead of receiving a direct answer to his seemingly innocent question, he is repeatedly laughed at and even accused of being a runaway. The sot-weed factor of Cook's poem likewise is accused of being a runaway when the locals do not recognize him. He also betrays confusion about his surroundings when he, for example, mistakes the sound of cows for the howling of wolves and panics. Although he maintains a superior attitude, he is as lost as Robin entering the New World. Our factor, however, differs from the later outsider of Hawthorne's story...