Schmidt/ English 52B /Melville & Pynchon/ Fall 2001 /Swarthmore College
English 52B F2001
“Studies in American Fiction: Melville and Pynchon”

Peter Schmidt
class: Wednesday 1:15-4pm, LPAC 301
email: pschmid1 Web:
office hours: LPAC 206 Thursday 10am-11am and 1:15-2:30; and by appointment
office phone and voicemail: 8156

Course description:

From M-D to M&D: We will read three of the longest, greatest, most ambitious, and most awesome & maddening novels in American literature: Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and Mason & Dixon (1997). Melville’s best novel is not just a whale story; it is an exploration of whether an epic can be written about “common” people, not aristocracy. It is also a novel of Shakespearean ambition combining both tragedy and comedy and taking on such huge subjects as industrialization, colonialism, science, religion, and metaphysics, and dominated by a tension between monomaniac, revenge-minded, disdainful and power-hungry Ahab vs. a common sailor (Ishmael) who seems (in some passages, at least) to be self-deprecating, accommodating, endlessly curious about other people and cultures, democratically minded.

Over Gravity’s Rainbow looms not the spectre of a whale but a man-made nemesis, the Rocket, and the military-industrial-scientific complexes that produced it; it also contains the greatest comic Ishmaelean hero in modern American fiction, one Tyrone Slothrop. In Mason & Dixon an astronomer and a surveyor have been tapped to settle a boundary dispute between two colonial territories. The novel morphs into a tragicomic deconstruction of the Age of Enlightenment that bequeathed us the modern and postmodern eras of multinational corporations, pop culture, and uncertain certainties of science and calculus. And both Pynchon novels are Melvillean in scope and ambition.

With these Leviathan-novels, you will go on three truly memorable voyages all in one semester. If we learn from Ishmael help each other out, you should live to tell about it.

Course Requirements (see below)

Illustrated Reading List (see below)

English 52B Syllabus

Sept. 5: course introduction; lecture #1 on Ishmael’s vs. Ahab’s world-views.
Try to read well into Moby-Dick by the first class: Etymology; Extracts; and chs. 1-29. See also Melville Reading Notes #1 as a guide.

Sept. 12: Moby-Dick, chs. 30-60; see reading notes #2.
Sept. 14 (Friday): 2pp. focus paper on a short passage of your own choosing from Moby-Dick, due LPAC 2-6, 5pm

Sept. 19: Moby-Dick, chs. 61-96: see reading notes #3

Sept. 26: finish Moby-Dick, including Epilogue; see reading notes #4
Sept. 28 (Friday): Melville paper, 5-8pp., due LPAC 206, 5pm

Oct. 3: Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, introductory lecture; read Part One (episodes 1-21). See GR Reading Notes #1 linked to course web-page AND CONSULT THE WEISENBURGER GUIDE TO GRAVITY'S RAINBOW THROUGHOUT.

Oct. 10: Gravity’s Rainbow, Part Two (all: episodes 1-8) PLUS Gravity’s Rainbow, Part Three, episodes 1-10. Consult GR Reading Notes #2 and Weisenburger.


Oct. 24: Gravity’s Rainbow, Part Three, episodes 11-32. See GR Reading Notes #3 and Weisenburger. ALSO, bring to class a 2pp. focus paper on a short passage from GR, to exchange w/ a classmate. Return focus paper w/ comments by Friday via campus mail.

Oct. 31 (Halloween!): Gravity’s Rainbow, Part Four, episodes 1-12. See GR Reading Notes #4 and Weisenburger.

Mason and Dixon


AN ON-LINE CONCORDANCE TO MASON & DIXON, part of the Hyperarts site. To use, see the "Alpha Index" at top right of page & click on appropriate letter.


PS's on-line essay on first reading the novel (see below)

SEE ALSO the essay collection Pynchon and Mason & Dixon, on General Reserve in McCabe; PLUS Tony Tanner's essay on Mason & Dixon (class handout). Recommended essays:

  • McHale (the best one in the volume): a "Poetics of Pynchon-Spaces" in GR vs. M&D
  • Baker, Greiner, or Seed [all giving different readings of the historical contexts, both the 18th century and the post 1960s U.S.]
  • Foreman (on Pynchon's use of Mason's Journal of surveying the Line)

Nov. 7: Mason & Dixon, Part I, chs. 1-20; introductory lecture. See PS’s reading notes for each chapter.

Nov. 14: Mason & Dixon, chs. 21-25; PLUS Part II “America,” chs. 26-32. See PS’s reading notes for each chapter.

Nov. 21: Mason & Dixon, chs. 33-41. Due in class: 2pp. focus paper on a short passage from M&D. Class attendance and paper required this day before Thanksgiving. See also PS’s reading notes.

Nov. 28: Mason & Dixon, chs. 42-60. See my web essay "Line, Vortex, and Mound," focusing on some topics in chs. 53-61. See also PS’s reading notes for each chapter linked to the course’s web-page.

Dec. 5
The final reading assignment: Mason & Dixon, chs. 61-78. SEE ALSO PS’s reading notes PLUS a transcript of an actual letter sent by Mason & Dixon in 1767 near the 230th mile-post along the Line, regarding desertion by some of their workers and their decision not to cross the Indian Warrior path with their Visto. The class will be run by 3-4 student-led discussion groups.

Dec. 19 (Wednesday): final longer paper due, 8-12pp. double-spaced, on either Melville or Pynchon (if on Melville, choose a different topic from first longer paper on Melville). You must use at least one secondary source from McCabe library. LPAC 206 by 5pm. No extensions.

English 52B Fall 2001 Melville & Pynchon
Course Requirements

• Regular attendance: because the class meets just once a week, more than 1 unexcused absence over the course of the semester will hurt your grade.
• Come to class having studied the readings and other materials assigned for that day, and with specific topics, questions, and passages you’d like to discuss.
• Participation in class discussions and other class activities, including list-serv discussions and in-class discussions as requested.

• Completion of writing assignments on time. Late papers and other assignments will be penalized. Completion of any assigned revisions to papers may also part of the course requirements.

Assigned writing for English 52B will be of three kinds:

  • class list-serv discussions. Except for the first week of the semester, each student is required to post a substantive comment on the assigned reading on the English 52B list-serv by Tuesday at 5pm. Postings may be responses to other comments or autonomous opinions and observations. Class members use list-serv lists in their regular email programs. No passwords are needed. Send to the following request in the body of the email, not the subject-line:
  • short typed focus papers, concentrating on a particular passage. Due dates are on the syllabus.
  • 2 papers of medium length, double-spaced, due on the dates indicated on the syllabus. The second paper is a research paper requiring the use of some secondary sources; further details later this semester.

• Grading: Quality of class participation counts 25%; Papers 75%. Poor attendance and class participation and late papers will negatively affect your grade, just as poor written work will. Clear improvement in your writing over the course of the semester will help your final grade, as will thoughtful class participation.

A note about honesty and coursework: All writing that you turn in for this English class should be yours alone and done solely for this course. When you are borrowing ideas and language from others it is your responsibility to acknowledge these sources accurately; anything less constitutes plagiarism and severe penalties may be involved (including flunking the course and suspension for a semester) regardless of whether you “intended” to plagiarize or not.
For more information about citations, see the Swarthmore English Literature Department’s Web Page: ( Students should also consult the Swarthmore College Student Handbook’s section on Academic Honesty, which has advice relevant for all your classes at Swarthmore.
Plagiarism penalties do not mean you should be afraid of consulting with others or of borrowing good ideas: it is very simple to acknowledge these in a bibliography at the end of the paper. I will be happy to confer with you about any issues involving citing sources properly.

English 52B./ Melville and Pynchon / F2001

Moby-Dick (Oxford World's Classics)
by Herman Melville, Tony Tanner (Editor)
List Price: $8.95
Paperback (June 1998)
Oxford Univ Pr (Trade); ISBN: 0192833855

Gravity's Rainbow
by Thomas Pynchon
List Price: $18.95
Paperback - 784 pages (January 2000)
Penguin USA (Paper); ISBN: 0140283382

A 'Gravity's Rainbow' Companion : Sources and Contexts for
Pynchon's Novel

by Steven C. Weisenburger
Our Price: $16.00
Paperback - 345 pages (August 1988)
Univ of Georgia Pr; ISBN: 0820310263

Mason & Dixon
by Thomas Pynchon
List Price: $17.00
Paperback - 773 pages Reprint edition (April 1998)
Henry Holt (Paper); ISBN: 0805058370