Large conclusions seem inappropriate for this present stage of earliness in our reception of this wonder-filled new gift from Pynchon. We need to keep our discussions as open and wide-ranging and undogmatic as possible, to place the novel's comic and tragic world views in continual juxtaposition. We need to keep our humility and our sense of humor about us as well, even as we try for readings as ambitious as the novel clearly is. We need to meditate on the irony that Pynchon's deepest exploration of aging and mortality may be also the novel whose humor is freest and most liberated, the book in which Pynchon is able to satirize most trenchantly those personal and artistic traits---creative paranoia and a mania for invisibility---for which he is most notorious.
Most tellingly, we need to reflect on the paradox that Pynchon may have written his most prophetic work by taking his furthest leap back in time, writing an historical novel that problematizes more profoundly than any of his other works what it means to "write" history or measure how history writes us, which includes the study how others have been written in or out as agents of history. Pynchon in Mason and Dixon discovers the sources of the postmodern in the contradictions of the Enlightenment as lived by his two intrepid surveyors and tragicomic antiheroes.
May these topics act as vortices helping to spin off other readers' further explorations.
I also offer a map of the "Arc Corner"/"Post Marked West" sites, for those who might visit.
Note also that an on-line concordance to Mason and Dixon is being assembled. (check out the various Pynchon sites gathered in Yahoo or elsewhere, including the Pomona Pynchon pages).
Some questions for further work on Mason & Dixon:
---Do readers agree with my observations in the first half of this essay about the boundaries of the Eliza Fields narrative, chapters 53-54? Are there other later or earlier references to her adventures in the novel? What is the overall relevance of the Captive's Tale for the novel?
---What is the function of the "oölite prisms" carefully placed along the Line after it is surveyed and cut? How should we interpret Captain Zhang's reading of the reason for their presence? And how should we read the passage on p. 547 contrasting their internal structure with that of the stone in the Egyptian pyramids?
---What is the best history of the Calendar Reform of 1752, in which England and its colonies (among other countries) converted from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar? We should compare such a history with Pynchon's own reading of its significance in Mason and Dixon. Also, how should we relate the "eleven lost days" references to the rest of the novel? As another instance of narrative vortices, of lost and suppressed history, not to mention that gap between "scientific" and institutionally validated ways of ordering the world vs. more ancient and oral traditions, as I have suggested here? Copies of various Acts of Parliament concerning "Calendar Reform" were available in the American colonies, including the following. If Pynchon explored any of these texts, he might very well have been interested in the references below to "poor Job" and "Sufferings"---allusions that need expert commentary. Note also the anti-calendar ballad from 1752.
Perhaps also relevant is a more recent text:
---What is the best history of eighteenth-century astronomical and surveying theory and practice, which readers can consult as a way of measuring Pynchon's portrayal of the sciences in Mason and Dixon ? No doubt some day we will have editions of this novel as richly annotated and illustrated with the arcana of these disciplines as current editions of Moby-Dick may be graced with histories of whaling. One elementary introduction to surveying instruments and history:
---Longitude. Longitude lines were much more difficult to "map" because they are vertical, measuring E/W positioning; they cannot be measured using the rising and fall arc of a star's motion, as latitude lines can. (Latitude lines run E/W but of course measure N/S---that is, one's position between a pole and the equator.) Both latitude and longitude needed to be known to create an Eighteenth-century "global positioning system" for use by mariners, land colonists, etc etc., and there was a huge prize for the taking in the 18th century (as Pynchon alludes to) for solving how to measure longitude accurately.
In researching latitude and longitude problems as they relate to Enlightment science, the place to start is Dava Sobel and William J. Andrews's The Illustrated Longitude (New York: Walker, 1998). (An earlier edition of the book is: Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time [New York: Viking/Penguin, 1996]). The "genius" referred to is John Harrison (1693-1776).
---Can someone collate & research all the references in the novel to the "Ghastly Fop" tales (of which Eliza Field's "Captive's Tale" is apparently one)? Is this figure indeed an invention of Pynchon's? What are analogs for this kind of literature in eighteen-century popular culture, possible sources of inspiration for Pynchon here? Might the "Ghastly Fop" narratives in fact be an alternative narrative line that constantly threatens to usurp the primacy of the Reverend Cherrycoke's narrative? Consider pp. 117 and 527ff., to pick just a few examples. There may be some precedents for Pynchon's play with the genres of fop, nun, and captivity tales in the works of Aphra Behn (1640-89), which remained popular in the eighteenth century- -works such as "The town-fop; or Sir Timothy Tawdrey," "The adventure of the Black lady," "The unfortunate happy lady: a true history of the nun; or, The fair vow-breaker," "The nun; or The perjur'd beauty," and "The dumb virgin; or, The impious vow punish'd."
---How to investigate 18th-century descriptions of Native American cultures, including Indian Mounds? One source: Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, which includes meditations on "Old World" vs. "New World" cultures, etc.
---Are Pynchon's portraits of Indian Mounds also parodies of the "orgone boxes" of Wilhelm Reich that were once popular, especially among the Beats and their followers, including William S. Burroughs? Reich believed his boxes created "negative entropy," a concept that no doubt caught Pynchon's amused imagination when he first encountered it. These boxes are similarly layered and were also usually described as "accumulators" of mysterious energies, as are both Mound and Book in Mason and Dixon. This may be yet another example of how Pynchon finds antecedents in the eighteenth century for the obsessions of post-war American pop culture. Note: what is the relationship between Wilhelm Reich and Norman O. Brown? Brown's theories of eros vs. thanatos (published in the late '50s and early '60s) are an important influence on Gravity's Rainbow, especially its representation of "The Counterforce"---and are themselves indebted to Freud, especially Freud's Civilization and its Discontents.
Good comic reading on Reich's orgone boxes is provided by the following: