By Charles Matthews

Sunday, August 29, 2010

11. Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon, pp. 327-348

Mason & Dixon: A NovelTwo: America; 33-34
In January, Mason and Dixon set up for observation at John Harland's farm, "thirty-one miles more or less due West of the southernmost point of Philadelphia." Hanson displays  curiosity about the surveyors' work, to the annoyance of his wife, and in March he joins the crew as they move south. He tells his wife to take charge of the planting, "just don't put in too many 'them damn' flowers, is all." When he returns, she has planted an acre of sunflowers.
Here is Harland, among the Sunflowers, having Romantic thoughts for the first time. Bets notices it. He is chang'd, -- he has been out running Lines, into the distance, when once Brandywine was far enough, -- and now he wants the West. The meaning of Home is therefore chang'd for them as well. As if their own Fields had begun, with tremendous smooth indifference, to move, in a swell of Possibility. 
Mason and Dixon have determined the latitude of the westward line: 39° 45' 17.4". But now they are ordered to tackle a more complicated problem: the boundaries that separate Delaware from Pennsylvania and Maryland, which are based on a circle whose twelve-mile radius begins at the cupola of the courthouse in New Castle, Delaware. "One reason given for bringing Mason and Dixon into the Boundary Dispute was that nobody in America seem'd to've had any luck with the fiendish Problem of the Tangent Line." It was a geometrical problem that left a wedge of land disputed by all three territories. The dispute wasn't resolved until 1921.

Mason and Dixon spent most of the rest of the year working on the problem of the Tangent Line, the western boundary of Delaware that was supposed to be at a right angle to the boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania, but also tangent to the Twelve-Mile Circle. Their solution was to fudge it. So after a December break, they left the Harland farm and moved west to Lancaster, the site of the Paxton Boys massacre. Both of them are outraged by the slaughter of the Indians, but Dixon is the more diplomatic in talking with the locals in a tavern about it.
"These were said to be harmless, helpless people," Dixon points out in some miraculous way that does not drawn challenge or insult in return. Apprehensive among these Folk, Mason, who would have perhaps us'd one Adjective fewer, regards his Geordie Partner with a strange Gaze, bordering upon Respect.
The response is that "They were blood relations of men who slew blood relations of ours," which doesn't satisfy either Mason or Dixon. "'You must hate them exceedingly,' Mason pretending to a philosophickal interest actually far more faint than his interest in getting out of here alive." Dixon changes the subject by remarking on what one of the men is smoking: he has never seen a cigar before. It comes from Conestoga, and hence is called a Stogie.

The next day, before Dixon awakes, Mason goes to visit the site of the massacre and is appalled by it. He tells Dixon that the place had a strange smell.
"These Louts believe all's right now, -- that they are free to get on with Lives that to them are no doubt important, -- with no Glimmer at all of the Debt they have taken on. That is what I smell'd, -- Lethe-Water.... In Time, these People are able to forget ev'rything. Be willing but to wait a little, and ye may gull them again and again, however ye wish, -- even unto their own Dissolution. In America, as I apprehend, Time is the true River that runs 'round Hell." 
Dixon is aware that Mason dislikes America, but he "has been trying to keep an open Mind." But his own visit to the massacre site dismays him, too. "What in the Holy Names are these people about? Not even the Dutchmen at the Cape behav'd this way."
"Whom are we working for, Mason?"
"I rather thought, one day, you would be the one to tell me."

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