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The Multiple Worlds of Pynchon's 'Mason & Dixon'

The Multiple Worlds of Pynchon's 'Mason & Dixon': Eighteenth-Century Contexts, Postmodern Observations

Edited by Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 232
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    The Multiple Worlds of Pynchon's 'Mason & Dixon'
    Book Description:

    Thomas Pynchon's 1997 novel 'Mason & Dixon' marked a deep shift in Pynchon's career and in American letters in general. All of Pynchon's novels had been socially and politically aware, marked by social criticism and a profound questioning of American values. They have carried the labels of satire and black humor, and "Pynchonesque" has come to be associated with erudition, a playful style, anachronisms and puns -- and an interest in scientific theories, popular culture, paranoia, and the "military-industrial complex." In short, Pynchon's novels were the sine qua non of postmodernism; 'Mason & Dixon' went further, using the same style, wit, and erudition to re-create an 18th century when "America" was being formed as both place and idea. Pynchon's focus on the creation of the Mason-Dixon Line and the governmental and scientific entities responsible for it makes a clearer statement than any of his previous novels about the slavery and imperialism at the heart of the Enlightenment, as he levels a dark and hilarious critique at this America. This volume of new essays studies the interface between 18th- and 20th-century culture both in Pynchon's novel and in the historical past. It offers fresh thinking about Pynchon's work, as the contributors take up the linkages between the 18th and 20th centuries in studies that are as concerned with culture as with the literary text itself. Contributors: Mitchum Huehls, Brian Thill, Colin Clarke, Pedro Garcia-Caro, Dennis Lensing, Justin M. Scott Coe, Ian Copestake, Frank Palmeri. Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds is Professor and Chair of the English Department at SUNY Brockport.

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-668-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Note on Quotations from Mason & Dixon
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. The Rounds of History

    • Introduction: The Times of Mason & Dixon
      (pp. 3-24)
      Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds

      Thomas Pynchon’s 1997 Mason & Dixon is a novel obsessed with time. A “postmodern” novel, it reconstructs a historical period, the mid- to late-eighteenth century, with both an accuracy surpassing many bona fide histories and a disregard for the actual past seldom met with in a historical novel. Its play of and with histories, along with its determinedly late-twentieth-century timbre, makes time — and especially its passing — a constant focus. From first to last, from character Charles Mason’s melancholia associated with his wife’s passing, to the deep and broad concern with calendar reform in the novel, to the very fact of...

    • 1: “The Space that may not be seen”: The Form of Historicity in Mason & Dixon
      (pp. 25-46)
      Mitchum Huehls

      At the conclusion of Mason & Dixon’s thirty-second chapter, Jeremiah Dixon receives a letter from his long-time mentor, William Emerson, who has entrusted Dixon with a watch of perpetual motion that never requires winding. Dixon has written to Emerson to report that the watch was swallowed by R.C., a member of the surveying party, and Emerson’s reply bears the challenging post-script, “Time is the Space that may not be seen. —” (326). This essay reads Mason & Dixon as a literary attempt, not to render time visible, but to produce meaning from time itself. As such, Thomas Pynchon incorporates temporality...

  6. Consumption Then and Now

    • 2: The Sweetness of Immorality: Mason & Dixon and the American Sins of Consumption
      (pp. 49-76)
      Brian Thill

      Nowhere is the complex narrative engagement with the position of the modern ethical subject in relation to the global commodity culture more profoundly drawn than in the works of Thomas Pynchon, and Mason & Dixon in particular stands as a narrative summa of his career-long interest in the historical dimensions of that position. This is not because the novel is more immediately concerned with the operations of a social ethic within the narrow dimensions of its plot and narrative (in fact, it is probably less concerned with such operations on that level than Gravity’s Rainbow or Vineland), but because the...

    • 3: Consumption on the Frontier: Food and Sacrament in Mason & Dixon
      (pp. 77-98)
      Colin A. Clarke

      Stationed In Cape Town to observe the Transit of Venus, Charles Mason finds himself bemoaning the lack of variety to be found in Dutch Cape kitchens, a lack which has driven his partner Jeremiah Dixon to sample every available ketjap and Malay delicacy in hopes of avoiding “[t]he smell . . . of Mutton-fat vaporiz’d and recondens’d, again and again, working its way insidiously, over the years of cooking, into all walls, furniture, draperies . . .” (86). Just as this scent of cooked sheep seeps into the walls and so becomes a constant underlying presence in the Vroom household,...

  7. Space and Power

    • 4: “America was the only place . . .”: American Exceptionalism and the Geographic Politics of Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon
      (pp. 101-124)
      Pedro García-Caro

      Irving outlined the troubled, ambivalent attitudes toward the genocide committed against Native Americans by whites: incredulity — confirmed by a silence, which not always sounds condemnatory — or indignation — spoken through many acts of contrition — are only two, perhaps the most prevalent, of the many possible outlooks on the American Holocaust. Assuming the relentless impact of the Westward expansion of the country, Irving’s prediction anticipates the destruction not only of the East Coast Indians, but of all the Native American peoples and their ways of life across the territory claimed by the United States in successive years: “They will vanish like a...

    • 5: Postmodernism at Sea: The Quest for Longitude in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before
      (pp. 125-144)
      Dennis M. Lensing

      Thus does Pynchon’s narrator describe the first great moment of the scientific adventures of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, and the most significant astronomical event of 1761. For the first time in over 120 years, the planet Venus moved across the face of the sun, providing an unprecedented opportunity for measuring the scale of the solar system. The scientific academies were well prepared for this event, and astronomers and their instruments had been dispersed around the world, the better to judge the true magnitude of the Solar Parallax, which would yield an accurate determination of the distance from earth to...

  8. Enlightenment Microhistories

    • 6: Haunting and Hunting: Bodily Resurrection and the Occupation of History in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon
      (pp. 147-170)
      Justin M. Scott Coe

      Just before publication of Mason & Dixon, Thomas Pynchon wrote a review of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, in which he says that “to assert the resurrection of the body [is] today as throughout history an unavoidably revolutionary idea” (“Heart’s Eternal Vow”).¹ In other essays, such as “Is it OK to be a Luddite?,” Pynchon almost defensively asserts that he is not being “Insufficiently Serious” in his ecomiums to “violations of the laws of nature,” especially “the big one, mortality itself.” Again, in “The Deadly Sins/Sloth,” he risks accusations of naïve historical nostalgia by recalling for...

    • 7: “Our Madmen, our Paranoid”: Enlightened Communities and the Mental State in Mason & Dixon
      (pp. 171-184)
      Ian D. Copestake

      Madness as both a blanket description for a host of abnormal mental states and the way in which these states are perceived by the sane, has been a recurrent presence in Pynchon’s work throughout his career. His fiction of the 1960s and 70s established a particularly powerful and enduring association with paranoia, while Pynchon’s novel, Vineland (1990), saw Zoyd Wheeler struggling to assume a post-radical state of socialized normalcy in the Reagan era through receipt of a “mental disability check.” The novel opens with Zoyd contemplating the fact that “unless he did something publicly crazy before a date now less...

    • 8: General Wolfe and the Weavers: Re-envisioning History in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon
      (pp. 185-198)
      Frank Palmeri

      Throughout his novels, Thomas Pynchon combines strict fidelity to previously forgotten historical records with conjectural or fantastic narratives which nevertheless contribute to making a moral or political argument. In Mason & Dixon, he employs this characteristic strategy with events at the intersection between two kinds of narrative in eighteenth-century history. The first concerns labor history, and in particular the wages for weavers, who were among the first workers to experience the effects of an early industrializing economy. This narrative interest figures in Mason & Dixon because of the efforts of weavers in the southwest of England in late 1756 and...

  9. Works Cited
    (pp. 199-212)
  10. Notes on the Contributors
    (pp. 213-214)
  11. Index
    (pp. 215-222)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 223-223)