Line, Vortex, and Mound:

On First Reading Thomas Pynchon's Mason and Dixon

[graphics drawn from Mason and Dixon's cover, with apologies and thanks to Raquel Jaramillo, the cover designer]


by Peter Schmidt [1]

---in memory of Isaiah Berlin

"There is a love of complexity here in America... pure Space waits the Surveyor,--- no previous Lines, no fences, no streets to constrain polygony however extravagant,--- angles pushing outward and inward,--- all Sides zigging and zagging, going ahead and doubling back, making Loops inside Loops,--- in America, 'twas ever, Poh! to Simple Quadrilaterals."



In the summer of 1997 a force like a gravitational field drew me to reading Thomas Pynchon's Mason and Dixon. Perhaps it was its subjects, Enlightenment science and the contradictions in American democracy that came to be marked by Mason and Dixon's famous line. Perhaps it was the rumored portraits of colonial America, especially Philadelphia, near where I live. Perhaps it was that I heard that in Mason Pynchon had created his greatest straight man, in Dixon his liveliest comic hero. At any rate, I bought the book soon after summer vacation began and read its first pages in a subterranean coffee shop in Philadelphia (without yet realizing how appropriate such a setting would be). Once I began reading Mason and Dixon I could not put it down for long. Not only was the humor irresistible, making me remember how much I'd enjoyed encountering the bad song lyrics or following that ricocheting aerosol can in the second chapter of 49. I also quickly discovered how much my poor cerebral synapses had missed Pynchon's patented mix of highjinks, metaphysics, and penumbras; I could feel all kinds of unused parts of my brain firing up again as paradoxes were posed and allusions and analogies multiplied on every page.

But I also noticed that the book's humor was more thoroughly interwoven with melancholy and a sense of mortality than ever before in Pynchon's work. Gravity's Rainbow confronts the meaning of mortality as well (or the terrifying lack of meaning in anonymous warfare), but it is more concerned with mass obliteration than it is with individual aging and loss. Mason and Dixon makes us empathize with the dailiness of the lives of its protagonists to a far greater extent than any of the previous novels: it follows a relationship between two human beings in detail over several decades, giving us a sense of both its intimacy and its tensions in a way that is unprecedented in Pynchon, for heretofore his most memorable characters have been isolatoes (to use an appropriately Melvillean word). It is not fashionable to say this in these days of High Theory in literary criticism and cultural studies, but I think it is important for the record to confess that this is the first Pynchon novel that made my eyes fill with tears (in the "Last Transit" chapters, when the aging Mason and Dixon visit each other for the last time). And I have a hunch I'm not alone.

Thomas Pynchon's Mason and Dixon will join other immortal male pairs in literary history, as rich in their interactions and as unimaginable outside of their bond as Vladimir and Estragon, Ishmael and Queequeg, Boswell and Johnson, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise. And they will now be linked in our collective memory not because of obscure scientific achievements they were hired to do together but because of the irresistible and edgy talk that Pynchon has given them, their repartee and often comically incompatible ways of questioning and questing. I thought of Dickens and Fielding and Sterne more than I ever have before in reading Pynchon; with this novel he is not only writing historical fiction but allowing us to meditate on the deep connections between literary tradition and his postmodernism in ways that we have not before been encouraged to do. I also was reminded of Melville, not the Melville of Moby-Dick (the fullest American precedent for the ambition of Gravity's Rainbow) but the Melville of Pierre, Confidence Man, and particularly the underrated Israel Potter, a tragicomic historical novel which, like Mason and Dixon, is set in the Revolutionary period and features irreverent vignettes of Franklin and other historical figures while it chronicles the misadventures of "minor" players on history's stage.

So yes, I love this new novel. For all of us in American studies in particular, it is an invaluable gift. I am aware of flaws in the novel and could be spend some very happy hours arguing about them. But Mason and Dixon is a book for the ages, not just one for our nervous and ungrateful time, and I would like here to offer one reader's gesture of thanks, a gift meant to be my own personal counter to the insult the novel recently received when it was not even nominated for the 1997 National Book Award. As a tribute this essay is meant to be both modest and ambitious---a culling of thoughts on a first reading of the novel taken from notes and cross-references I made as I read rapturously and steadily in it through June and then part of July 1997.

First, I would like to consider the role of the "Captive's Tale" of Eliza Fields (chapters 53-54) in the larger context of the novel. A look at this inset tale will allow a consideration of the role that all of the novel's many set-pieces and subplots and digressions play within its "main narrative," the Reverend Cherrycoke's story of Mason's and Dixon's Line and lives. Eliza's story may not merely be a strange and comic interlude in the good Reverend's story. It is in fact quite difficult to define when the Captive's Tale begins and ends and what it means; it also appears to upset any stable hierarchy we may construct between primary and secondary narratives.

Second, I will look at the significance of the surveyors' encounter in Chapter 61 with an Indian Mound in western Pennsylvania. Much of Pynchon's novel suggests that the "modern" world is a legacy of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and its contradictions---both in the world of popular culture (pizza, sandwiches, sunglasses, stimulants and depressants, feng shui and orgone boxes, etc.) and in the world of "high" culture, particularly the natural and human sciences. Mason and Dixon's training exemplifies not only the world of Enlightenment science but also the emerging new understanding of cultural history created by Enlightenment thinkers and culminating in the philosophy of Kant and Hegel. Mason and Dixon's experiences while practicing science in the field, however, are another story, especially in Dixon's case. Dixon's encounter with the Mound exemplifies not only how modern science arose out of the limits of eighteenth-century science (particularly Newtonian physics); it also shows that Enlightenment science is intimately implicated in Enlightenment theories about the laws supposedly governing culture as well as nature, laws which allowed Europe to evaluate and make use of "foreign" civilizations. The Indian Mound's refutation of Enlightenment attempts to "know" it in Mason and Dixon coincide with contemporary theories of cultural and postcolonial studies.

This essay will end with some brief ideas for further research, info on Vaucanson and his Duck (!), and a map of and directions to the White Clay Creek state park area that is the site of the "Arc Corner" and "Post Marked West" monuments, the Delaware "Wedge," etc. Topics covered (if you want to Leap to these, click here):

  • on Oölite prisms
  • on Vaucanson and his Duck
  • Calender Reform, 1752
  • Eighteenth-century astronomy and surveying
  • the Longitude problem
  • precedents for the Ghastly Fop episodes, in 18th-century drama and earlier writers, such as Aphra Behn's stories
  • histories of the Jesuits
  • what is Feng Shui? Shan? Sha?
  • Indian Mounds and 18th-century discourse
  • the Mounds & Wilhelm Reich's "orgone boxes" [1950s]

The piece is in three parts, with links, to ease download time. To continue, click on the '&' sign below:



[1]. Some quick notes about myself, if it's of any interest. I teach American literature at Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In fact, I did a course on Melville and Pynchon in Fall 1998 which featured M-D at the start of the semester and M&D at the end; it was be repeated in Fall 2001, with Israel Potter and Lot 49 dropped to make room for a certain Leviathan called GR. Here's the 2001 syllabus.

I confess I have tried several times to finish Vineland, to no avail, and have never got around to reading V., though I want very much to read these novels now that I have finished Mason and Dixon. I also confess guilt for deeply loving the novel that Pynchon fanatics tend to disparage, The Crying of Lot 49---and as an aside I would also suggest that Pynchon's off-hand comment on this novel in his intro to Slow Learner may not necessarily have to be read as a put-down, as it often is. (Forgetting or passing beyond what he thought was important to learn is a frequent motif in the intro essay describing Pynchon's sense of how he grew as a writer.) I am an admirer of Gravity's Rainbow, though my interest in it is defined more by astonishment, fear, wonder -- all necessary ingredients for the proper sense of readerly paranoia -- than affection. "Entropy" is pretty cool, despite Pynchon's dis of it in the intro essay, but TP's also right that "The Secret Integration" is his best story. I read it as the secret history of suburban whiteness encountering (or being "integrated" with) another America, its history of racial injustice. For this reason, it's also a crucial precedent for Mason & Dixon. One last point: a number of points that Pynchon makes in the Slow Learner intro -- especially about accents and character -- provide crucial clues to his concerns while he was working on his novel about the Line. He definitely didn't want to repeat the form & style of GR, and didn't.

I would like to cite here two intelligent reviews of Mason and Dixon that provided nourishing food for thought for this 1997 essay: T. Coraghessan Boyle, "The Great Divide," New York Times Book Review, May 18, 1997, p. 9; and Mark Feeney, "Gravity's boundary; in Mason and Dixon Thomas Pynchon merges wild burlesque and desperate seriousness to create his own map of American history," Boston Globe, May 4 1997, Book Section, D17.