NEAR THE END OF THE CRYING OF LOT 49, JUST BEFORE A MEETing with what may or may not be the mysterious Tristero, Oedipa Maas reaches a conclusion that lifts her out of individual paranoia and into cultural malaise. Commenting on America, Oedipa asks:
how had it ever happened here, with the chances once so good for diversity? . . . Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth. . . . For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien. .-. . (1)
Published in 1966, in the midst of the complicated decade known today as the Sixties, The Crying of Lot 49 was a clear-eyed depiction of shattered faith in the American experiment and its founding ideals. The novel appeared, for example, just after the botched invasion at the Bay of Pigs, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the military commitment to the Vietnam War in 1965; and just prior to the murder of Martin Luther King, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The culturally sanctioned wave of good feeling following victory in World War II was destroyed.
In Mason & Dixon Pynchon looks back two centuries, from the 1960s to the 1760s, to investigate the formation of the very ideals that would be negated in Lot 49, The timing of the publication of Mason & Dixon is both appropriate and dramatic.
the end of the twentieth century, the span of one hundred years that historians have already identified as "the American century," Mason & Dixon is an appointment with the millennium, a continuing echo of Pynchon's poignant question, "how had it ever happened here, with the chances once so good for diversity?"
Pynchon is not alone, of course, in publishing a summa of the American century at the end of the era. Mason & Dixon joins John Updike's In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996) and William Vollmann's The Ice-Shirt (1990), Fathers and Crows (1992), and The Rifles (1994) as long, sweeping meditations on the mystery of the "New World" and on the inevitable sullying of the American ideal. Summaries at a millennium are not new in American literature. In 1894, for example, Samuel Clemens published Pudd'nhead Wilson, one of his darkest novels, about the disappointment of America. He expressed the spirit of cultural despair in the following excerpt from Pudd'nhead Wilson's calendar:
"October 12, the Discovery. It was wonderful to find America, but it would have been more wonderful to miss it."2 Pynchon does not share Clemens's cynicism, but in Mason & Dixon he suggests that the New World had already "missed it" even before officially becoming the United States when, in the 1760s, two surveyors were employed to create geographical order out of continental complexity.
The early notices of Mason & Dixon point to what Michiko Kakutani calls another variation on Pynchon's "favorite theme" of conspiracy versus chaos: "This time, the overarching tension is between Enlightenment rationalism and absurdist despair; between the orderly processes of science and the inexplicable marvels of nature." (3) Yet Mason & Dixon is more a treatise on the meaning of America than a reprise of Pynchon's familiar theme. The novel is, in the words of Paul Gray and Laura Miller, "an epic of loss" and "a sad book, an old man's book" (4) rather than a paradigm of paranoia. As Anthony Lane notes, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon "were heroic, in a quietly dogged way, and you feel by the close that they deserve a medal for surviving not just the rigors of their professional task but the incalculable travails of Pynchon's fiction." (5)
I would add that their exploration through the American wilderness becomes the reader's journey through the fictional tale. Lured by the promise of America, by an unsullied domain of fresh beginnings and tomorrow, both Mason and Dixon on the one hand and the reader on the other must reconnoiter the slips and slides of history, the twists and turns of the unexpected, the dark remains of the day.
In the eyes of the European settlers, America should have been innocent, but the two surveyors and the reader learn that no one is ever free. If between 1763 and 1767 Mason and Dixon discover that not themselves but forces as various as the Royal Society, the British Navy, the East India Company, the Jesuits, and even extraterrestrials pull the strings, so the reader realizes that the author manipulates the reader through the text.
Mason & Dixon turns the eighteenth-century explorers and the exploring reader toward the west of the setting sun. John Leonard writes that "if V. was Henry Adams and Ludwig Wittgenstein shooting alligators in New York sewers, and Gravity a conjoining of Spengler, Freud, Rilke, Celine and S. J. Perelman, and Vineland a lysergic-acid Icelandic saga, Mason & Dixon is a 'Westward Ho!' to the Culture of Death." (6) Death, defeat, and the New World: not exactly what Columbus, the Pilgrims, Mason and Dixon, and the Founding Fathers had in mind.
I suggest that we read Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon as American Adams, as Pynchon's end-of-the-century, ironic take on a venerable American literary paradigm: that of bonded males leaving the safe but restricted hearth to follow the exciting but dangerous lure of freedom beyond the border. Illustrations of the paradigm are as various as Ishmael and Queequeg on the ocean, Huck and Jim on the river, and Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty on the road; but the constant feature remains two or more men turning their backs on home in order to plunge into the adventure on the other side of the clearing.
Yet of all their American literary forebearers, Mason and Dixon most closely follow the footsteps of Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook. The first mythic hero in American literature, Leatherstocking joins the great Mohican chief to form the first inviolable friendship in American fiction. Pynchon's late twentieth-century irony, however, becomes clear as soon as Mason and Dixon set foot on the American continent. Whereas Natty turns west to escape the sound of the axes, Pynchon's bonded males bring the axes with them. Their contract, after all, calls for them to hack an east-west line to mark the separation of Maryland and Pennsylvania. They are New World Adams who push westward yet who find not an Edenic paradise or a soiled hell but both—a potential garden trampled by the very
humans who seek to cultivate it. Pynchon significantly points to another irony after Mason and Dixon complete their arduous trek on the far side of the border: rather than follow Leatherstocking and Chingachgook and light out for the setting sun, they turn back to England. Pynchon's end-of-the-millennium vision inhibits eighteenth-century space.
There is no place to run. The novel undercuts Frederick Jackson Turner's famous thesis and shows that "the frontier" closed not in the 1890s but the moment the first settlers stepped ashore. In both the 1760s and the 1990s, America has become "our home, and our Despair." (7)
The classic account of this literary paradigm was articulated in 1955 by R. W. B. Lewis. Titling his seminal work The American Adam, Lewis probed the turn toward tragedy when Adamic heroes clash with culture and "pay the price of their own innocence." (8) One does not know for certain, of course, but Pynchon may have been exposed to Lewis's thesis when he was a student. Matriculating at Cornell in 1953 at the age of sixteen, Pynchon had switched majors from engineering physics to English by the time Lewis published The American Adam in 1955. (9) Pynchon then served in the United States Navy from 1955 to 1957 before returning to Cornell to graduate in 1959 with a degree in English.
Lewis's description of the archetypal American literary hero applies to traditional canonical novels of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the very fiction featured in university literature classes in the 1950s. His definition of the American Adam is relevant:
The matter of Adam: the ritualistic trials of the young innocent, liberated from family and social history or bereft of them; advancing hopefully into a complex world he knows not of; radically affecting that world and radically affected by it; defeated, perhaps even destroyed—in various versions of the recurring anecdote hanged, beaten, shot, betrayed, abandoned—but leaving his mark upon the world, and a sign in which conquest may later become possible for the survivors. (10)
Lewis goes on to point out that "the evolution of the hero as Adam in the fiction of the New World . . . begins rightly with Natty Bumppo." (11) Taking his start outside time, and thus "liberated" from social history, Leatherstocking locates himself in what Lewis calls "space as spaciousness, as the unbounded, the area of total possibility." (12) Time, in other words, is the enemy of the
American Adam, who thrives on apparently limitless potentiality in what at first appears to be unbounded territory.
The boundless spaciousness of an entire unsettled continent seems to welcome Mason and Dixon when they land in the New World in 1763, but they soon learn that the potential for hostile encounters lurks behind every tree. Although filling the tale with talking dogs, giant cheeses, mechanical ducks, and other assorted highjinks, Pynchon nevertheless takes care to situate Mason & Dixon in the context of a violent American history that challenges the ideal of American innocence. The reader is aware that the Revolutionary War is less than a decade away by the time the two surveyors complete the Mason-Dixon Line in 1767, but Pynchon also reminds the reader of a military disaster that took place eight years before Mason and Dixon cut down their first tree: Braddock's defeat.
The French victory over Braddock's English forces in 1755 sent shock waves of uncertainty and fear through the settlements east of the Allegheny Mountains. General Edward Braddock was commander-in-chief of British Armies in America. Leading an expedition against Fort Duquesne on 9 July 1755, he was surprised by an attack of French and Indians. Brad-dock lost over half his command, was routed, and died of wounds four days later. Pynchon repeats references to Braddock's defeat throughout the novel to remind the reader of the tenuousness of the colonialists' hold on the new Eden of supposedly boundless possibility.
The overt reference to Braddock's defeat frames Pynchon's covert allusion to Natty Bumppo, for The Last of the Mohicans is subtitled A Narrative of 1757. The point is that General Brad-dock and the Leatherstocking of Mohicans were fighting in the same conflict, what today is known as the French and Indian War. Braddock's death at Fort Duquesne in 1755 presages the massacre at Fort William Henry that Natty and Chingachgook witness in 1757. When The Last of the Mohicans was published in 1826, Cooper's readers would have been aware of these two catastrophic losses by the British and colonialists at the hands of the French and Indians a mere twenty years before the colonialists finally revolted against the English. Pynchon, of course, cannot assume that his readers have historical acuity similar to Cooper's, so he calls attention to Fort Duquesne and then leaves it to the reader to ferret out the allusion to Fort William Henry. Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook are American Adams present at the Fall. Even Cooper, the consummate American romantic, concedes the realist's challenge to the Adamic myth and thus acknowledges the romantic-realistic tension in American culture. Mason and Dixon follow the trail of Leatherstocking and Chin-gachgook into the unforeseen darkness of the new-found forest.
Men of the Enlightenment, personifications of the Age of Reason, Mason and Dixon confidently set out in the belief that their mandate is to bring order to chaos. Whether attempting to define longitude on the high seas at night, or to mark a transit of Venus, or merely to establish property lines between adjacent estates north of London, they exemplify the eighteenth-century's faith in the precision of scientific measurement. Surveyors, astronomers, mathematicians, and explorers, they accept the perils of personal discomfort to advance what they consider to be the precise progression of humanity. Acutely defined lines of demarcation, in other words, are visible signs of human progress away from the gloom of superstition and toward the glare of rationalism.
The immediate reason Mason and Dixon are employed first to chart and then to hack a boundary line hundreds of miles long in the New World is to adjudicate a property dispute between the Penns of Pennsylvania and the Calverts of Maryland, a rational assignment that would seem to be an end in itself. Yet Pynchon the postmodernist knows that the rational gives way to the unexpected. The pristine path first walked in American fiction by Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook and now followed by Mason and Dixon turns out to be a plunge into the unknown and thus into the unmeasurable. Like Leatherstocking, Mason and Dixon consistently appeal to human reason, but they discover that either Magua or mechanical ducks crouch around the next bend.
The border the two surveyors identify, measure, and build at the cost of four years of their lives turns out to be the line that history names in their honor, thereby unexpectedly linking them forever to the tension between North-South, urban-agrarian, and freedom-slavery that explodes a century later in the Civil War. As Natty mutters disapprovingly when he comes across a desecration of trees indiscriminately felled by settlers in The Prairie, "I might have know'd itl I might have know'd it." (13)
My point is that the boundary of order and precision Mason and Dixon establish between quarreling Pennsylvania and Maryland is a fault line. Equally significant is that the east-west Mason-Dixon Line inadvertently runs into a second fault line that signals a border Americans should not have crossed: the north-south Warrior Path originally surveyed by the Indians. Whether Yankee-Rebel or Indian-White, alien cultures collide and clash at markers intended to establish reason. Pynchon exposes the precariousness of the rational in one of the most resonant passages in his entire canon:
Does Britannia, when she sleeps, dream? Is America her dream?—in which all that cannot pass in the metropolitan Wakefulness is allow'd Expression away in the restless Slumber of these Provinces, and on West-ward, wherever 'tis not yet mapp'd, nor written down, nor even, by the majority of Mankind, seen,—serving as a very Rubbish-Tip for subjunctive Hopes, for all that may yet be true . .. safe till the next Territory to the West be seen and recorded, measur'd and tied in, back into the Net-Work of Points already known . . . changing all from subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that serve the ends of Governments,—winning away from the Realm of the Sacred, its Borderlands one by one, and assuming them unto the bare mortal World that is our home, and our Despair. (345)
The compulsion to map and measure, order and own, generates not reason but the forfeiture of dreams. The lie of Manifest Des¬tiny is the result. What, Pynchon asks, is left for humanity in this Age of Enlightenment when all the vistas of possibility have been surveyed?
Pynchon's Adamic heroes confront the specter of time and its threat to boundlessness that R. W. B. Lewis identified as a defining characteristic of the American literary innocent. Benjamin Franklin, an architect of Enlightenment know-how, instructs the newly arrived Mason and Dixon with a warning: "I see our great¬est problem as Time,—never anything, but Time" (287). Although called by the populace "a Magician," a "Figure of Power," and "the Ancestor of Miracle" (488), Franklin understands that humanity's limitation in time eventually curtails its joyous possibilities in space. Mason and Dixon may follow Natty and Chingachgook on the trek west, but with every step they are a minute older. As Cooper points out in The Prairie, at the moment Leatherstocking reaches the western edge of the American plains, he is an old, old man. The next frontier is death.
Time even affects the legal and thus the culturally blessed stature of the border Mason and Dixon labor to mark. The longer the judicial process takes to clarify the official authority of the Line, the more Colonialists lay claim to the real estate and thereby confuse the issue. The two surveyors are hired to separate Pennsylvania and Maryland, but the delays of time inadvertently permit the encroachment of other territories: "Waiting until the legal status of the Wedge becomes clear. Is it part of Pennsylvania? Maryland? or the new entity 'Delaware'?—which on paper at least belongs to Pennsylvania" (470). Pynchon's American Adams are unaware that a culturally sanctioned entity eventually to be known as the United States is taking shape in the wake of the newly defined borders. The birth of a nation signals the fall from spaciousness into time and presages the deaths of Mason, Dixon, Natty, Chingachgook, and the Indians.
Arbitrary geographical borders become culture's fault lines when the boundaries are mere playthings of the powerful and rich. The Calverts of Maryland, for instance, fail to connect Mason and Dixon's Enlightenment precision with the larger issue of the slow but inexorable creation of America:
Indeed, a spirit of whimsy pervades the entire history of these Delaware Boundaries, as if in playful refusal to admit that America, in any way, may be serious. The Calvert agents keep coming up with one fanciful demand after another, either trying to delay or obstruct as long as possible the placing of the Markers, or else .. . giddy with what they imagine Escape, into a Geometry more permissive than Euclid, here in this new World. (337)
To refuse the "seriousness" of America is to ignore the complex nature of the social experiment being authenticated by Mason and Dixon's markings. Natty, Chingachgook, and the Indians flee the echo of the axes that Mason and Dixon wield to mark the line, but the two trail blazers are also caught up in the progress of diminishing space. As a member of their party remarks, "There is a love of complexity, here in America ... pure Space waits the Surveyor,—no previous Lines, no fences, no streets" (586).
Yet the speaker is partly mistaken, as most newcomers to America were in the 1760s. The landscape offers complexity and space, but the speaker is ignorant of what Mason and Dixon learn, and what Natty and Chingachgook already know: that "previous Lines" run through the supposedly boundless forest. The sheer force of colonialism obliterates the otherness of resisting cultures,
The Warrior Path existed long before Mason and Dixon set out to walk the Line that bears their names. Indeed, the humanity of Pynchon's great novel is fully articulated in his acknowledgment of prior boundaries established by the Indians. There is a difference, of course, and the distinction is crucial: whereas the Calverts and the Penns desire a line to sanctify the permanence of property, the Indians design the Warrior Path to be a locale of fluid motion. To them the Path is a river of unimpeded flow. To cut across the Path with the Mason-Dixon Line is to dam a freeway. The intersection of the east-west Mason-Dixon Line and the north-south Warrior Path previews the inevitable collision of cultures in a newly settled land that should have been innocent. Innocence, in other words, is always in dialogue with corruption.
The implied agreement with the Mohawk fighters is that the Warrior Path designates the westernmost extension of the Mason-Dixon Line:
"We'll be crossing Indian trails with some regularity,—these don't trouble the Mohawks in particular. But ahead of us now, there's a Track, running athwart the Visto, north and south, known as the Great Warrior Path. This is not merely an important road for them,— but indeed one of the major High-ways of all inland America. So it must also stand as a- boundary line,-—for when we come to it, we shall not be allow'd to cross it, and go on." (646)
The advancing Americans define the Warrior Path in concrete terms as a geographical entity that may be quickly crossed with¬out littering or disturbing the trail. As Mason remarks, "It'll take us a quarter of an hour. We'll clean up ev'ry trace of our Passage" (646). The Mohawks, however, define the Path in abstract terms as a spiritual line of demarcation not to be violated by European intersection. Like the east-west boundary that will arbitrarily identify Yankee and Rebel a century later,
so the north-south Warrior Path is a fault line that when disturbed explodes into the cataclysm of extermination. Pynchon's sad irony is that both Hides claim the authority of nature. A Mohawk warrior explains to Mason: "As the Stars tell you where it is you must cut your Path, so do the Land and its Rivers tell us where our Tracks must go" (675).
In one of the novel's most poignant moments, Pynchon describes the American future to be born from the intersection of the two fault lines: "Were the Visto to´ve cross'd the Warrior Path
and simply proceeded West, then upon that Cross cut and beaten into the Wilderness, would have sprung into being not only the metaphysickal Encounter of Ancient Savagery with Modern Science, but withal a civic Entity, four Corners, each with its own distinguishable Aims. Sure as Polaris, the first structure to go up would be a Tavern" (650). Businesses would soon proliferate for miles in each direction along both trails, and just behind the tavern owners, the merchants, and the prostitutes would be "Fleets of Conestoga Waggons, ceaseless as the fab´ld Herds of Buffalo, further west,—sunlit canopies a-billow like choir-sung promises of Flight, their unspar'd Wheels rumbling into the soft dairy nightfalls of shadows without edges, tho' black as city soot" (650-51).
With a splendid stroke of historical connection, Pynchon links the accelerating tension at the crossing of the fault lines in the 1760s to the defeat of General Braddock and the massacre at Fort William Henry in the 1750s. Armies of Indians were the deciding factor in both disasters; and now, as Mason and Dixon approach the Warrior Path, their ax men begin to desert in fear, fully aware that the ghosts of 1755 are "growing": "as the latent Blades of Warriors press more closely upon the Membrane that divides their Subjunctive World from our number'd and dreamless Indicative, Apprehension rising" (677).
The Indians fear a future that the Europeans cannot see. Picturing the Mason-Dixon Line as "a great invisible Thing that comes crawling Straight on over their Lands, devouring all in its Path" (678), the Mohawks discern no purpose in the boundary except to create a corridor for its own sake. Enlightenment notions of precision, measurement, and property mean nothing to them. Dixon fails to persuade Mason to stop at the intersection, and his warning becomes Pynchon's lament for the sullying of the promise of America: "and what of its intentions, beyond killing ev'ry-thing due west of it? do you know? I don't either" (678). But Pynchon knows, and what he knows is that the Mason-Dixon Line became "an Avenue of Ruin" (679)
Mason & Dixon is Pynchon's elegy for the American dream. Both the last, best hope for humanity and the continent of despair, America at one time was, in the famous words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, "a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent." (14) Like Fitzgerald,
Pynchon knows that man did hold his breath—and then cut down the trees. How had it ever happened here, Pynchon asks in The Crying of Lot 49. Mason & Dixon is his answer. It happened way back in the past because, in the rush to establish Enlightenment order on pristine complexity, the new American Adams hacked out the fault lines of the future.
1. Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1966), 181-82.
2. Samuel Langhome Clemens, Pudd'nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins, ed. Sidney E. Berger (New York: Norton, 1980), 113.
3. Michiko Kakutani, "Pynchon Hits the Road with Mason and Dixon," review of Mason & Dixon, New York Times, 29 April 1997, Bl.
4. Paul Gray, "Drawing the Line," review of Mason & Dixon, Time, 5 May 1997, 98, and Laura Miller, "Pynchon's Line: The Great American Recluse's Postparanoid Epic," review of Mason & Dixon, Village Voice, 6 May 1997, 43.
5. Anthony Lane, "Then, Voyager," review of Mason & Dixon, New Yorker, 12 May 1997, 98.
6. John Leonard, "Crazy Age of Reason," review of Mason & Dixon, The Nation, 12 May 1997, 67.
7. Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon (New York: Henry Holt, 1997), 345. Further references will be noted parenthetically within the text.
8. R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 91.
9. See Nancy Jo Sales, "Meet Your Neighbor, Thomas Pynchon," New York, 11 November 1996, 60-64.
10. Lewis, The American Adam, 127-28.
11. Ibid., 91.
13. James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie: A Tale, ed. James P. Elliott (1827; Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985), 83.
14. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (1925; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 140.
In: Thomas Pynchon Mason & Dixon. Edited by Brooke Horvath and Irving Malin. London, Associated University Press, 2000, pp. 73-83.