By Charles Matthews

Friday, August 27, 2010

9. Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon, pp. 257-288

Mason & Dixon: A NovelTwo: America; 26-28
Mason and Dixon arrive in Philadelphia, which Cherrycoke informs his audience was "second only to London, as the greatest of English speaking cities." It is mid-November and "a rousing Evangelist" has just visited the city, leaving a wave of religious enthusiasm behind him. "Even Quakers are out in the Street, bargaining with unexpected pugnacity, for a share of this Population suddenly turn'd into Christliness." Cherrycoke recalls when Whitefield visited and Philadelphia was "delirious with Psalms." This somehow turns the talk of his audience to music, and Ethelmer performs a song "the fellows sing at University": "To Anacreon in Heaven," noting a phrase that ascends "like a Sky-Rocket" and observing
"'Tis ever the sign of Revolutionary times, that Street-Airs become Hymns, and Roist'ring-Songs Anthems, -- just as Plato fear'd, -- hast heard the Negroe Musick, the flatted Fifths, the vocal portamenti, -- 'tis there sings your Revolution.... 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!" DePugh cries. 
Cherrycoke resumes his narrative with the encounter of Mason and Dixon with Benjamin Franklin in an apothecary where they have gone to order medicines for their journey into the wilderness. Franklin helps them stock up on laudanum and save money, too: "Strangers, heed my wise advice, -- Never pay the Retail Price." They then adjourn to Franklin's favorite pub, The Blue Jamaica, where, when Dixon goes to relieve himself, Franklin questions Mason about his partner's "Calvert connections," noting that the Jesuit Le Maire "is native to Durham and a particular friend of Dixon's teacher, William Emerson." Mason is shocked to infer that Franklin is asking him to spy on Dixon: "I am sorry the Politics here have become so, as one would say, Italian, in their intricacies."

Dixon returns, and when Mason exits for the same need, Franklin starts to work on Dixon about Mason's "East India Company Connections" and particularly Sam Peach, whose name Dixon feigns not to recognize: "One of thoase lads in The Beggar's Opera...?" Franklin fails in his mission to set the surveyors on each other, but introduces him to some women, Molly and Dolly, and invites them to hear him play the glass armonica at The Fair Anchor that evening. There they meet a Mr. Tallihoe of Virginia, who wants to arrange for them to visit Col. Washington.

So the next day they are off to Mount Vernon, where George Washington "turns out to be taller than Dixon, by about as much as Dixon rises over Mason." Washington is not "the incompetent Fool depicted in the London press, and he smiles when he hears Dixon's northern accent, "though owing to the state of his teeth he is reluctant to do so when in company, -- a smile from Col. Washington, however tentative, is said to be a mark of favor." He notes that he has relatives who talk the way Dixon does. Washington has surveyed the West himself, and they discuss the political and legal conflicts and pitfalls involved.

Washington calls for Gershom to bring them "some Pipes, and a Bowl of the new-cur'd Hemp. And another gallon of your magnificent Punch." Gershom is "An African servant with an ambiguous expression" whom Washington calls, quoting John 1:47, "an Israelite in whom there is no guile." Dixon takes mild offense: the Earl of Darlington used to call Dixon's great-uncle George, who was his steward, the same thing. But Gershom tells him not to take offense "about that Israelite talk" because he is "of the Hebrew faith." And he bends his head to display his yarmulke. When Washington asks for some hog jowls, Mason is surprised that Gershom should be asked to serve pork, but Gershom says "the Sect I belong to, is concern'd scarce at all with Dietary Rules." And Washington observes, "Yet if a Jew cooking pork is a Marvel, what of a Negroe, working a Room?" Gershom, he explains, is a stand-up comedian working "a circuit of Coaching-inns" and earning "an income per annum which creeps dangerously close to that of his nominal Master, me."

Martha Washington, "a diminutive woman with a cheerful rather than happy air, who seems to bustle even when standing still," joins them. Mason and Dixon divide their attention between the Washingtons, Mason discussing astronomy with Martha while Dixon talks with Washington about the history of the Ohio Company, in which Washington's brothers are investors. Washington talks about the expedition of Céléron de Bienville in the Ohio Valley, in which he buried lead plates to mark the claim of the French to the territory. This attracts Mason's attention too, and there is much discussion about the electrical possibilities of lead plates. Washington says he dug up a few, and when Dixon sees them he is startled to see markings in Chinese on them. Washington then grows suspicious of Dixon and asks him for the Masonic password, which Dixon fortunately has learned. Washington is put at ease, and explains that Jesuits from Quebec sometimes show up "to work some mischief down here -- so a fellow has to be extra vigilant, is all."

Later, Franklin explains that the Jesuits are believed to have a form of telegraphy that involves balloons and mirrors, and that there are Telegraph Squads composed of "elite teams of converted Chinese... The Sino-Jesuit conjunction may prove a greater threat to Christendom than ever the Mongols or the Moors. Pray that more than the Quarrel over Feng Shui divides them."

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