Drawing the Line. Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon

By Mag. Sebastian Fasthuber

Works cited
Pynchon, Thomas: "Mason & Dixon". New York: Owl Books 1998.
Stingl, Nikolaus: "... not so much transported as translated. Unterwegs zur deutschen Fassung von Mason & Dixon". Schreibheft. Zeitschrift für Literatur 52 (May 1999), 219-221.
Philipp, Claus: "Auf der Suche nach dem 'Nullpunkt' der USA". Interview with the translator Nikolaus Stingl. Der Standard 18 Sept. 1999.

Online reviews of Mason & Dixon
Detje, Robin: ".. und hänget die Erden an nichts". Berliner Zeitung 9 Oct. 1999.
Hummel, Volker: "Global Player im 18. Jahrhundert". Heise online 20 Sept. 1999.
Klier, Walter: "Postmoderner Lederstrumpf". Wiener Zeitung 14/15 Jan. 2000.

Krause, Werner: "Ein böses Erwachen". Kleine Zeitung 9 Oct. 1999.
Schader, Angela: "Grenzgang in guter Gesellschaft". Neue Zürcher Zeitung 12 Oct. 1999.

Schmidt, Thomas E.: "Zwei flogen übers Kuckucksnest". Die Welt 11 Sept. 1999.

All German quotes were translated into English by the author.

"'Twas not too many years before the War,-
  what we were doing out in that Country together was brave,
  scientifick beyond my understanding,
  and ultimately meaningless,- we were
  putting a line straight through the heart of the Wilderness,
  eight yards wide and due west,
  in order to seperate two Proprietorships,
  granted when the World was yet feudal
  and but eight years later to be nullified
  by the War of Independence." (p. 8)

Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon (1997) is a novel that is hard to deal with within the framework of a conventional summary - not only on account of the volume but also because of the many digressions and excursions there are. So in my presentation I am going to focus on three of the most interesting themes of the book: The tension between the real and the fictional - the Ghastly Fop-episode serves as an examples -, the drawing of the line and the various meanings of the word "line" in Pynchon's novel and finally about the road to or the making of the German translation of the novel.

Mason & Dixon is the story of the astronomer Charles Mason (1728-1786) and the surveyor Jeremiah Dixon (1733-1779) who attained fame through the draw of the borderline between the States of Pennsylvania and Maryland - which would later become the border to divide the American North from the South and so the border between states where slavery was forbidden from those where it was common. The book is divided into three parts: The transit of Venus which the surveyors watched in South Africa, the American expedition (by far the largest part, about two thirds of the novel) and and an appendix about the lives of Mason and Dixon after the expedition. The latter dies at early an age. Mason, after living in England for a while, takes his family to America. His sons will stay there and become American citizens.

So Pynchon's novel is dealing with the birth of a nation and about the various birth-pains involved. As in all Pynchon, there are conspiracies (here, the Jesuits want to take over the world) and a great amount of science (this time, astronomy and surveying). But the most significant fact is that the book is written in 18. Century English, with the spelling of that time, for example including a lot of capitals. But Pynchon would not be Pynchon, would he not include modern bits such as giving his narrator the name Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke.

Now let us move on to the tension between the real and the fictional in Mason & Dixon.

Travel on ...

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