When I was thinking about the book to review, I decided to choose a controversial one. Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon is sometimes ironic, sometimes comic, but it was very useful to me in terms of understanding the historical and cultural conditions of pre-colonial America. Let me start with explaining and justifying my choice. Mason & Dixon is a book that breaks conventions and stereotypes typical for its literary style. Here Thomas Pynchon is noted for his postmodern approach to the historical fiction. At the surface layer, the book may appear merely entertaining and not scholarly enough.
But a careful reader will analyze numerous allusions and reminiscences evident in the text; often the message is hidden between the lines. Mason & Dixon is not a mere reinvention of the classical eighteenth-century novel, though written in that particular old-fashioned style, but a contemporary view on the pre-colonial culture. Pynchon is often blamed for anachronism, but the style of the novel helps to dig into the unique atmosphere of those times. The frontier zone situated in the place where nowadays the meeting point of Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey is, has been surrounded by legends and fiction stories.
Pynchon focuses on historical and cultural aspects of pre-colonial America without loosing the sense of magic and mystery. Mason & Dixon can be identified as the study of archetypes on which the nation is based. Now let me summarize the plot briefly. The protagonists of the book are Charles Mason (1728-1786) and Jeremiah Dixon (1733-1779), a surveyor and an astronomer from England; it’s worth noticing that they are the historical figures. They met in London and finally they came to America to map and measure. Pynchon vividly describes their sea voyage and a stay in Capetown.
Mason and Dixon’s ultimate goal was establishing what would be further known as the Mason-Dixon Line separating Pennsylvania from Maryland and North from South. They were moving to the Cape of Good Hope. The Mason-Dixon line is one of the key symbols of the story. The message that artificial boundaries are no good is expressed. But they characters themselves have a special attitude to what they are doing: “Nothing will produce Bad History more directly nor brutally, than drawing a Line, in particular a Right Line, the very Shape of Contempt, through the midst of a People…” (Pynchon 2004, p.
615) True and everlasting friendship between the main characters underwent numerous challenges and difficulties, often losing their way and finding themselves in the middle of nowhere as they attempt to draw a straight line across wilderness. Mason and Dixon spend enough time in the pubs and taverns, full with coffee and tobacco, which empathizes the idea that Americans are the nation of simple and hard-working people, not obsessed too much by aristocratic and bourgeois values. The description of the lifestyle of early settlers done masterfully and is of great interest.
I will add more details when analyzing every character or episode separately, so now let me start the in-depth analysis of the book. A reader feels like witnessing the birth of America, with all the challenges and difficulties, with the explorations and gains. Mason & Dixon is an epic and a saga but still a very valuable piece of historical fiction. The image of Founding Fathers is far from perfect because they favoured unreasonable practices such as machinations and falsifications. There are episodes they may seem ridiculous, for example, Franklin playing a glass harmonica in a coffeehouse or Washington smoking light drugs.
But such an interpretation makes their historical portraits more lively and vigorous. The issue of Native Americans demands special attention. A well-knows episode with Paxton Boys is very illustrative. This episode was the result of racial and political unrest during Pontiac’s Rebellion, when a group of men from Paxton attacked the peaceful settlement of Conestoga Indians without any sound reason. The next target was a settlement of Moravian Indians, but they managed to escape to Philadelphia.
Paxton Boys initiated a march on Philadelphia, so Benjamin Franklin and other leaders were to carry out the negotiations with Paxton Boys. This march to Philadelphia was the first significant escalation of the conflict between frontiersmen and Native Americans. Pynchon comments this event in the following way: “The Paxton Boys were but implementing…Wicked Policy of extermination…” (Pynchon 2004, p. 308) Racism, colonization and slavery are among the important issues covered in the book. When sailing from London to the New World, Mason and Dixon stop at various colonial outposts, for instance, South Africa and Dutch Sumatra.
The author doesn’t chose the easiest way of condemning such practices from the contemporary perspective but shows how slavery jeopardized the development of the new nation, escalated tension between the colonists and the oppresses, and perverted the priceless values of liberty, fraternity and equality. But the author admits that slavery was an inevitable reality of those times as well as the driving force of America’s quick economic success. Pynchon’s descriptions of slave trade and terror that went along with the drawing of the West Line are very powerful and descriptive.
Much controversy surrounds the problem of slavery in Pynchon’s book. We come across such phrases as “Who says Slavery’s so terrible, hey? ” (Pynchon 2004, p. 427) or “…Commerce without Slavery is unthinkable…” (Pynchon 2004, p. 108) Still, in my opinion the true attitude to slavery is expressed by Revd, who journalizes that, “the Negro Slavery…goes on making such no doubt exquisite moments possible,- the inhuman ill-usage, the careless abundance of pain inflicted, the unpric’d Coercion necessary to yearly Profits beyond the projectings even of proud Satan. ” (Pynchon 2004, p.
412) In Pynchon’s book it’s almost impossible to tell the real details from imaginative, but it’s the atmosphere of the young and brave America that is important. Mythology matters as much as history. Cultural manifestations of the pre-colonial era are in the focus of Thomas Pynchon. The ideas of Enlightenment are explored from the contemporary perspective; the author comes to the conclusion that these ideas produced a great impact over the development of American nation. Still, there’s much critique over the idea of rationality that ruled over the Age of Reason.
Mason and Dixon’s comically show extreme devotion to logic and precision and they tend to start sophisticated scientific discussion here and there. Pynchon embodies his criticism of the Age of Reason in the funny images of the Learned English Dog and Mechanical Duck. Another concepts and ideas that impacted America, according to Pynchon, were the pre-Renaissance beliefs including superstition, naturalism, and animism. The author does a great job comparing modern and classical science. The author scrutinizes the forces and the factors having led America to its present state.
He investigates how history, culture, and mythology contributed to the formation of the great nation and the grand enterprise. We see that Pynchon dares explore the reasons of America’s success and the foundations of American Dream. An interesting episode takes place when the characters fall through calendars into a missing more than ten days. Pynchon suggests that there are always many calendars and many lines, and that history may have different versions. That’s why the historical truth of Pynchon is very peculiar.
The author of Mason & Dixon doesn’t have any illusions concerning historical event and freely speaks about people who made their fortunes, “selling weapons to French and British, Settlers and Indians alike. ” (Pynchon 2004, p. 31) Tomas Pynchon has an unusual talent of connecting past with present; he bridges the gap between the 18th and the 20th, sometimes even the 21st centuries. Let’s take, for instance, the following passage: “Is it not the very Rhythm of the Engines, the Clamor of the Mills, the Rock of the Oceans, the Roll of the Drums in the Night, why if one wish’d to give it a Name, – ‘Surf Music! ’” (Pynchon 2004, p. 264)
Everyone knows that the traditional African folk rhythms inspired the pioneers of surf music of the 50’s and rock-n-roll of the 60’s. And this is only one out of the great number of similar cases from Mason & Dixon. I believe that the author uses this stylistic device to stress the connection between the generations and different historical epochs as well as urges the reader to look for the deep roots of any cultural phenomena. Mark Knopfler’s famous song, Sailing to Philadelphia, was inspired by Pynchon’s book. I believe that the arguments of Pynchon are not always scientific and scholarly but still somehow believable.
It’s hard to judge whether the argument of Pynchon is plausible; anyway I can’t help admiring his creativity. Pynchon is definitely aware of the conventional historic works dealing with pre-Revolutionary period but he takes a conscious decision to present an alternative vision of American history. As for the possible improvements I would suggest, a little more serious approach might be taken to exploring historical issues. The book is well-organized and the narrative flows easily and naturally; the arguments are supplied with evidence but without going deep into the details.
There’s a clear logic that ties everything together. The story doesn’t have linear plot, but it doesn’t bring any mess into Mason & Dixon. I have consulted another authoritative source devoted to the same issue, namely the Drawing the Line: How Mason and Dixon Surveyed the Most Famous Border in America by Edwin Danson. This author portrays the social and historical context of drawing the Mason-Dixon Line similarly to Pynchon; still, he concentrates more on the surveying methods they used. This book proves that Pynchon’s argument is plausible. Now it’s high time to summarize my paper.
Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon is an interesting and worthy piece of historical fiction dealing with the pre-colonial period in America. In Pynchon’s book actual rendering of the events always goes together with the analysis. But the author not only offers his personal interpretation of history but encourages the reader to think by himself. Mason & Dixon undoubtedly provides much food for thought. Simultaneously, it’s very enjoyable, easy-read, humorous, and keeps the reader glued to the pages. It’s a difficult reading but it’s worth an effort.
The birth of the Republic and the pursuit of happiness are the values behind the book. Revd refers to the word “Liberty” as a concept, “unreflectively sacred to us today. ” (Pynchon 2004, p. 307) Mason & Dixon was important for me in terms of gaining a deeper insight into the American history. But this book gave me something even more valuable. It gave me inspiration and pride for my nation. Bibliography Pynchon, T. 2004. Mason & Dixon. Picador Danson, E. 2000 Drawing the Line: How Mason and Dixon Surveyed the Most Famous Border in America. Wiley
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