Mason & Dixon

PS's reading notes, chapter by chapter:

1-25, 26-41, 42-78

These notes were first posted in the late 1990s and in many ways have been superceded by newer & fuller ON-LINE M&D RESOURCES, INCLUDING:

The new Mason & Dixon Wiki,

Also check out: 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 the appropriate letter.


A Note on the Notes

These notes are by Peter Schmidt, Dept. of English, Swarthmore College, and were put together quickly in the late 1990s to aid students and other first-time readers of Mason & Dixon. They are not definitive; they are just some of the many items and issues that caught my eye. The notes may contain errors and typos that I haven't caught yet, so use your best judgment with using these. They mix of bare plot summary, commentary on interesting points, cross-references, questions, etc. Any corrections or suggestions much appreciated:

They should be used in conjunction with the Mason & Dixon Wiki referred to above.

Mason & Dixon reading notes, chs. 1-25

Chapter 1
Christmastide, 1786, Philadelphia. “Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs...,” rather different opening than GR! Amidst Dickensian dither, a household with a room in the back full of abandoned furniture, the children have made a tale-telling Nook of their own. Don’t ignore the description of the Card Table, the first of many analogies we wil discover for the great book itself, M&D. Present: the Twins, Pliny and Pitt; their older sister Tenebrae, and their parents, the Merchant Le Spark and wife Elizabeth, plus assorted other guests such as “Uncle Ives” and Tenebrae’s cousin Ethelmer, a student at a nearby Jersey college (Princeton) visiting the city during the mid-winter break. Eliz’s brother, the Rev Wicks Cherrycoke, is also present, to provide Tales to amuse the children---including accounts of his work with M&D on the famous Line back in 1765-66. Cherrycoke returned to American after a long absence to pay his respects to Mason, recently dead. The Rev reads his tales from a “scarred old Note-book” (8) but also appears to improvise many of the tales (see p 9). Reasons for the Rev’s exile and imprisonment in his rebellious youth; note the Rev’s curious self-description, stressing impersonation (8). Quoted advice to the Rev on his first sea voyage from a pseudo Polonius, with an amusing Anachronism---c. 1992---that in years hence will need a footnote, but surely not yet for You, dear reader. Concluding doubts about the Rev’s voyage that will echo M&D’s in ch. 3, plus the first of many Moby-Dick allusions in M&D: “a-looming” [see the title of M-D, ch. 1.] Who might be those governing Rev C’s Fate, installed in Leadenhall St., London (10). Perhaps the East India Company, based in the Old East India House, Leadenhall St, London.

M&D introduce each other by letter, beginning a dance of jabs and feints and insinuations and embraces that does not stop until the novel’s end. Each letter provides keys to the character of its author.

The first of many great tavern scenes in the novel, in the city of Portsmouth, England. Friday, 9 January 1761, the night before M&D set sail, they think, for Sumantra, to measure the Transit of the planet Venus across the Sun. Dixon and Mason described; D&M’s repartee---attend the sounds and tones and tensions, for they all sound key-notes. Fender-Belly Bodine & sailor friends, the Fops and Macaronies (18th-century Dandies, or folks with the funds to live for Style alone); the “Learnèd English Dog” and hints of rebellion, metempsychosis, masquerade, and melancholy. The first blood spilled---in a cockfight. Hepsie (short for Hepsibah?) the prophetess-sibyl who gives M&D a warning: is she in masquerade too? Note also the Pynchonian Indeterminancy Principle always present in the narrative (highlighted here): Rev C’s version of these events came to him “later,” from how M&D remembered meeting; this account was then written down in the Rev’s notebook--- “what I could remember.” The Twins' comment, though, suggests that some of the journal may be written down when C. dreams (14). When C joined M&D is not clear here, but they will all leave together on the ship the Seahorse---C., hired perhaps as ships’s chaplain? Impossible also to define a Line between how much of ch. 3’s narrative is written by C. himself and how much is improvised in the telling. Meditate upon this koan: “‘Tis the Age of Reason, rfff?” (22).

Ordered not to sail with M&D because the French have taken Pencoolen in Sumatra, the Seahorse Cap’n Smith sails anyway and suggests to M&D that the new orders he will soon receive from the Admiralty (how?) will be to sail with his astronomers to the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, another southernly pont of good for Transit of Venus observations (33). What exactly M&D know about all this at the time is confusing, but they get highly suspicious afterwards. The Seahorse is attacked by the French warship L’Grand, losing 30 men; Hepsie may not be exactly as she appear'd, but she's not a bad prophet. During the fighting our three heroes (M&D and the Rev C) cower below decks, performing what emergency surgery they can. A mix of farce and nightmare as only Pynchon can manage. How did the French know the Seahorse had the scientists of board and why are they attacking anyway? M&D perhaps need the solace of GR’s Proverbs for Paranoids....

In Portsmouth, M&D trying to compose a letter of protest to the Royal Society of Astronomers, believing they were ordered to Benscoolen [Sumatra] even though the R.S. knew is was in French hands. Meditations on chance vs. Fate, helped by plentiful drink. On telescoping Time’s possibilities: 45.

Rebuked by the R.S. for questioning their orders, M&D ordered to sea again, Rev C too, with a new captain-- “Grant” -- and a destination to be announced when the “mysterious seal’d Dispatch” (50) is received and opened (?!). Look up words you may not know, like “Loxodrome” (47), in the Oxford English Dictionary, available in book form in the English Dept. or in McCabe library, and also available on-line via McCabe’s computers: Pynchon has a lot of fun playing with obscure 18th-century words in this novel. Other chapter items of interest: on madness at sea; M’s mourning for his deceased with Rebekah; the story of the ‘somniac Tar”; the crossing of the Equator ceremonies; the “Barcarole” (57); M&D’s sardonic game of “Sumatra.”

May 1761. The Transit will not occur for awhile yet. South Africa, Cape Town, then a Dutch colony. Being challenged by the cuisine and wenches of Cornelius Vroom’s household. The meaning of S.N.S. (61). D’s interest in the food and other attractions of the Malay and Black sections of Cape Town, while M. receives perplexing interest from some of the more volatile Vroom daughters and their Slave Austra, who reveals to M. the V’s plot for gaining exta income from their houseguest (65). In search of an Indifference Draught. Tales of the Dutch Company Zone vs underground markets “that never answer to the Company” (69): sound familiar, GR readers? M’s rival Maskelyne, whom M. must soon visit (Oct. 1761) on the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic (appointed there to do astro observations, or “obs”). Meditations on Astronomy in league with Slavery; and on History redeemed vs history as a bloodbath (75-76; cf. Stephen Daedulus’ “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”). Note also what may be an allusion to Kafka’s The Castle (59)?

D&M explore the culinary pleasures of the Malay quarter at night, spices in the air---vs the trials of the eternal Dutch mutton. More on the Krees and its wave-edged blade. Why Rev C did not sail further East with the Seahorse. Rev C’s journal entries of the time---presented to us as if by a third-person narrator who is not the Rev C (86).

Vron Vroom’s assault upon Mason, leading to defenestration witnessed by a pet Darkling Beetle. Imprisoned by the endless winter Rains and no obs. M&D improvise their first (?) song together (90). A journey with the Vrooms to the Observatory atop Table Top Mountain, and lessons for all upon the Transit of Venus and the puzzle of parallax measurements (92-93). See also ch. 10 for more tech info. In what way could the concept of parallax be applied to history, or to reading?

More on the Transit and parallax, now discussed in the LeSpark household, with Orrery, and then (96ff) by unnamed observers quoting Sappho (!). Back to Cape Town and the Transit, 5-6 June 1761. The ironies of pure theory, vs. imperfect practice. The Transit’s mysterious after-effects, including metaphysical explorations re abiding Grace (101). October: M&D set sail for the island of St. Helena--the desolate island in the middle of the South Atlantic where Napoleon was eventually exiled. Forebodings. More discussion of these events in the LeSpark household, concerning diverse Topicks such as the meaning of the darkened planet and Aunt Euphrenia’s tales of her Turkish captivity in 1780-81 (whites sold into slavery after being captured by Barbary pirates off the coast of Africa) (102-3). Music from E. and others will from now on accompany Rev C’s tale, turning it into a kind of recitative as in 18th C opera. (Opera buffa? seria? [comic or tragic operatic forms from the period]). Buffaseria, perhaps. “The recurring Motrix” (104) = ?

Tales of St. Helena island, then vs. now. If the Rev. C did not go to St. H, how can this part of the tale be told? Is Uncle Ives’ question answered or evaded by the Rev. (105-6)? St Helena’s eerie atmosphere and eternal gale-force winds causing hallucinations and sadness: not exactly the best place for poor Mason, assigned there by the Royal Society. Diversions: Florinda. Revelations of M’s melancholy after Rebekeh’s death in the past, which leads him to hanging around hangings “to chat up women” attending them (M. 32 years old then).

Maskelyne, 29 yrs old [118], D, and M in a tavern in James Town, St. Helena. On Kit Smart [Christopher Smart], later a famous mad poet, author of the brilliant and deranged “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey,” from Jubilate Agno). Reference to the Ghastly Fop and other popular Gothic literature of the day (117). The recipe for cock ale. A conversation between two astronomers’ clocks (121- ); clock time vs. the ocean’s rhythms. Clocks were central to measuring longitude, necessary for navigation and safety (see Dava Sobel’s book Longitude, highly relevant for this novel). M. to stay on St. H. 3 months with Maskelyne, while D. ordered to return to Cape Town; M & D have an almost affectionate parting. Is Maskelyne insane? PS: as readers of GR learn (in III.11, via a dream of Ilse's [?], the Apollo 11 astronauts who first landed on the moon were at the rim of a crater called Maskelyne, named after this astronomer.

M tries to endure weeks isolated on St. Helena Island with Maskelyne. Interminable infighting the the offices of the Royal Society and M feeling he’s been exiled to this island so others may advance. M. has turned to Observatory into an Armory as well. “M. is the pure type of one who would transcend the Earth,--making him, for Mason, a walking cautionary tale” (134). First reference to a Worm-Serpent? (see ch 60!). In this case, one whose Spectre M is convinced haunts the isle (135). M’s supporter in the Royal Society Sam Peach; Maskelyne’s is the much more powerful “Uncle Robert “Clive of India” (the East India Company, a royally chartered firm managing trade and colonization efforts).: See 139-40. Tales of M’s time as ass’t to Bradley as head Astronomer of the Royal Society (141 etc). Is the “Dr. Zhang” here (142) the same as the one who later appears in the novel? M and Maskelyne doing each others’ natal star charts; details on M’s early infatuations (142-3). For historical info on St. Helena, you might check the Web.

On Dixon back in Cape town, as imagined by Mason, as imagined by the Rev C. (146). Torment by Cornelius Vroom. After curfew, D meets Austra, a slave enslaved as a dancer in a tavern called “The World’s End”; (she also is forced to work for the Vrooms). Rumors of the Black Hole of Calcutta. Clock-automatons (155). The Castle spies watching D, and wondering about his possible connection to Jesuits. (Cf. Kafka’s The Castle reference, M&D ch 8). Is M consoling himself by imagining D is going through similar experiences of imprisonment?

M goes to “The Other Side” of the island, exposed to the dangerous, mind-altering winds. M begins to be even more haunted by the ghost of his dead wife, Rebekah 163- Talks it over later (when?) with D, 165.

The Octuple Cheese-rolling chapter--a comic masterpiece in the first half, as M remembers his courtship of Rebekah and her rescue of him; it then turns melancholy: R’s various visitations (hauntings) of M, an important motif in the novel. (She may be its most important revenant, a word central to GR.) It’s as if St. Helena’s winds have freed up the powers of M’s unconscious. M takes a boat back to the lee side of the island, joined by a ghostly companion whom the boatman hears too (?) 173-4

M back in James Town, the main “city” on St. Helena island. Mysterious doings at Jenkins’ Ear Museum--perhaps this explains how M. can so be in touch with D? The Ghastly Fop, a Gothick novel (also dramatic production) is mentioned for the second time in this novel: 178. Calling into the Void of the ear (!) 179-80

M& D back in England at last, M on his own with D gone back home. The Royal Society Astronomer Bradley’s death brings back M’s memories of earlier times with him, Susannah Peach, Rebekah, and others. (Remember that M's official title is Assistant to the Royal Astronomer.) Memories of the courtship of R by M in the Observatory. Later, after R’s death, visions of R in the stars 187-8.

M in the George Tavern, London. talk of the Eleven Lost Days scandal, caused by the Calender Reform, 1752. M’s tale of these events, told to shift the conversation away from other topics dangerous for M (192). Conversation comes alive from “within” M’s narration, similar to all of this book coming alive from “within” Rev C’s tale-telling--see 192 bottom to 194 bottom, for one part of M’s tale. Note reference to Rev C’s “ghostly” presence in the “imperfect” tense, 195. Countering M’s later sense that he has “allow’d no access” to the Dead--p 556--etc. M’s joke-lie disdainful of his audience re the Pygmies--yet full of hidden connections to his own hauntings and desires (196- ).

M visits his family in his home, Gloustershire. The sad and comic farce of human relations, vs. the abstract beauty of the stars. ‘Doctor Isaac’ is one of M’s young sons (the odd name will be explained). M announces a possible trip to America, to the great excitement of his family, many of whom are confounded by M’s profession of astronomy. M’s sister and her husband pressuring M to have them apprentice M’s sons to the husband's father’s Mill, so they will get their wages (!). M’s usual distance towards his sons begins to melt (202). M’s difficult relation with his father, a baker, who also has no inkling of and respect for what M does. But note the narrator’s shift on 204, a different perspective on M’s father & his mystical visions of bread. Note the hypothetical verb tense, 205--what his father might say, about a passion they both share, and see 2 essays on this use of the subjunctive by Pynchon, by Tony Tanner and Brian McHale, in The American Mystery and Pynchon and Mason & Dixon, respectively....

More on M’s home and the provincial bickering and narrowness that drove him to escape. Factory fabric-producing mills--a capitalist “Proceeding”/ transformation perhaps less mystical but no less profound in society than M’s father’s vision of the transformations from dough to bread: money as a powerful social yeast?. More memories of M’s courtship of Rebekah, then back in the “present” again with sons.

To county Durham, Dixon's home territory. Introducing Maire, the Durham English Jesuit defined through negations. Zarpaso’s “opaque effect” (215): pay attention, for Z. will be an important character later. Emerson as a Wizard: the Dark Arts of Durham: Emerson as Maire’s double? Mesmerism tales; Timothy Tox’s poem on “pelf.” Pre-historic English Ley-lines--antecedants for M&D’s Line? Except these are conduits for Tellurick (Earth-centered) Energies: 218- . Compare 169. “Flow is [E’s] passion”; “he loves Vortices.” Dixon’s days as E’s student, vs. D’s later meeting with Emerson and Maire (222- ). Hidden Jesuitical designs upon History, including America--an offer to D? What is the relevance of the tale of Sir Henry Vane the Younger? Note also Maire’s disguise for their visit to the local pub, the Cudgel and Throck: he shifts from ascetic to fop?

At the Cudgel and Throck Tavern, one of the better tavern names ever. atonal/tone Western/nonWestern music discussion (cf Zhang’s later debates on the origin of the 360-degree circle in ch 65), followed by the first mention of Feng Shui (all very important for Zhang’s role later in novel). Note also the recurring Jesuitical obsession with geometries and top-down control. Further attempts (?) to recruit D for a mysterious Jesuitical mapping project in the Americas, with Emerson apparently betting with Maire over how D. will respond. Or is D. just being paranoid? E’s critique of the Jesuits--231--followed by the appearance of “Lud [Lord] Oafery” and his mother and other aristocrats; comic tales of D’s past run-ins with them (232). Lud Oafery exploring Coal-tunnels, the first anchovy pizza ever eaten in Britain, and Lud O’s metamorphosis into a Dandy (a were-Dandy?) upon seeing the full moon! A great example of how the pub/coffeehouse chapters function in the novel to Play with linear plot.

D’s family background and childhood love of draftsmanship (note the stunning paragraph, top of 242). Coal strikers and alehouse “champions of Legend” deported to America: D’s visions of this use of the colonies as a dumping-ground for trouble-makers occurs while waiting for the boat to take him to London; the boat eventually shows up bearing coal-blackened sails--a bad omen? There's much that is ghost-like in D's visions here: a prophecy? “Tomorrow, he and Mason are to sign the Contract” in London to draw a Line to resolve a boundary dispute among the colonies in North America. Then, the voyage out....

M&D in the bustling port city of Falmouth, waiting for their boat to America. Miss Tenebrae’s opening question: compare M&D’s fears regarding “They” at end of ch. 4, and also in this chapter (pp. 246, 249). M&D’s worries re the Royal Society’s intentions and methods return on p. 252: are M&D pawns in some larger game? Perhaps as a cure, moderate “roistering” in a tavern. M’s pessimism expressed as if a comic monologue: “The Business of the World is Trade and Death, and you must engage with that unpleasantness, as the price of your not-at-all-assur’d Moment of Purity.---Fool.” (247). More gossip and speculation re connections between the Astronomy biz, multinational corporations (“Chartered Companies”), and Slave Colonies. M&D testy and nervous with each other (worried about their journey?). What happened to Dixon during his return to Durham (chronicled in ch. 24) that introduces the melancholy notes M. hears on p. 253? Note also D’s paradox posed about memories and the past (253). A general observation: M&D’s conversation progresses as dialectic does: via antitheses, skepticism, and feints and parries. Yet a bond is there: for each of them, no other associate can play these games and speculations so well, a small respite from their essential loneliness. Note also the very last sentence of this chapter, ending Part I.