"It's a good thing to be shifty in a new country."
--Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs,
Johnson Hooper (1845)
All these elements would appear again and again in our literature, but here it all is at the very beginning.(1) The poem stands as one of our earliest examples of debunking and disillusionment(2), in the most exact sense of that word. For various reasons, one of them being the need to lure and recruit settlers to populate exploitable territories, a spate of bonanza or "come-on" literature appeared, promotional tracts or "pamphlets of news" touting the "Good News" of America. Our unfortunate sot-weed factor-or Cook himself-might well have picked up a pamphlet like the one published in 1616 by one George Alsop, who had been an indentured servant in Maryland. It was entitled,"A Character of the Province of Mary-Land," in which it was stated that "Tobacco is the current Coin of Mary-Land, and will sooner purchase Commodities from the Merchant, than money."
The hero of "The Sot-Weed Factor" is an easy mark in this new world. When he is defrauded of all his wealth and property, he seeks out a lawyer. But the lawyer turns out to be "an ambodexter quack," who poses as either solicitor or physician, and sometimes confuses the two professions. The impostor is one of the first in a long line of confidence men, scam artists and tricksters who make up a recurring theme in American humor and literature. Hooper's Simon Suggs is but one of a long line that includes the clever stranger who fills Jim Smiley's jumping frog, Dan'l Webster, with buckshot and Mark Twain's irrepressible pair of scalawags, the Duke and the Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn, wonderful masters of what Faulkner's narrator in The Hamlet would call "the art and pastime of skulduggery." The type naturally has its avatars in our own century; witness, in that novel, Pat Stamper, champion horse trader of Yoknapatawpha Country and, of course, that archangel of deceit, Flem Snopes. When characters like Sgt. Milo Minderbinder of Catch-22 appear, we recognize the archetype.
What a new country, a frontier, a "West," afforded was a perfect happy hunting ground for such human predators as the "ambodexter quack," shifty strangers who could easily invent themselves on the spot as the main chance demanded . Requiring little or nothing by way of credentials, having no brand or mark or record of past depredations, they could assume a myriad of disguises, establish authority by putting up a sign or asserting a claim. Herman Melville's confidence man, in the book of that name, turns up on a Mississippi steamboat-the very kind that Mark Twain piloted-in a variety of shapes: as a crippled Negro, a businessman, a philosopher, a soldier, and more. There is a song about the West that goes:
What was your name in the States?
Was it Johnson or Thompson or Bates?
Did you murder your wife?
Did you run for your life?
What was your name in the States?
For better and for worse, all this openness to possibilities is fundamental to the American experience and character. F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby, from far west of West Egg, Long Island "sprang from his Platonic conception of himself." As for Ebenezer Cook, it is believed that his destiny was the very opposite of poor Crévecoeur's, that, despite his hero's horrendous initiation and despite the"Dreadful Curse"at the end of the poem, the poet himself returned to America and made a go of it.
Arthur Kay Tucson, AZ 1998
Notes on the introduction (by Arthur Kay):
1. If it is important to categorize precisely, Cook's poem probably belongs to English literature, the poet being in fact an Englishman writing in the form and style of his time. More specifically, the form and style are those of a celebrated 17th Century satire, Samuel Butler's "Hudibras" (1663). Cook's diction is typical: tea is not sweetened, but "dulcify'd"; bear meat is referred to as "Orson's flesh," and England is "Albion."
2. Sad is the case of Hector St.John de Crèvecoeur-the name itself means "heartbreak"-who settled in America and wrote enthusiastically optimistically about it in Letters From an American Farmer (1782). Returning from an official trip in France, he found his wife dead, his home burned, and his children living with strangers. He spent the rest of his life in Europe.
Notes on the poem (by Ebenezer Cook):
19. These Indians worship the Devil, and pray to him as we do to God Almighty, "Tis suppos'd , That America was peopl'd from Scythia or Tartaria, which Borders on China, by reason the Tartarans and Americans were very much agree in their manners, Arms and Government. Other Persons are of Opinion, that the Chinese first peopled the West Indies; imagining China and Southern part of America to be contiguous. Others believe that the Phænicians, who were very skillful Mariners, first planted a Colony in the Iles of America, and supply'd the Persons left to inhabit there with Women and all other Necessaries; till either the Death or shipwreck of the first Discoverers, or some other Misfortune occasioned the loss of the Discovery, which had been purchased by the peril of the first Adventurers.
25. The Priests argue, That our Senses in the point of Transubstantiation ought not to be believed, for tho' the Consecrated Bread has all the accidents of Bread, yet they affirm, 'tis the Body of Christ, and not Bread but Flesh and Bones.