By Charles Matthews

Thursday, September 2, 2010

15. Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon, pp. 460-490

Mason & Dixon: A NovelTwo: America; 47-50
By late May, they reach the Susquehanna, where they make attempts to measure the width of the river, finally determining that it's about seven-eights of a mile wide. While they're there a thunderstorm comes up that terrifies Mason, but which Dixon receives with comparative calm.

Now they receive word that they should "return to the Tangent Point, and run the three and a half Miles of Meridian, or North Line, needed to close the Boundaries of the Lower Counties." The orders present young Nathanael McClean, known as Nathe, with a dilemma: He writes a friend that he has fallen in love with a milkmaid whom he calls Galactica, and that the return east will separate them. "For tho' I know next to nothing about the Sex, yet it seems, in my experience, that their reputation for Patience is gravely over-blown, and the faithful sailor's Sweetheart of Song and Romance as mythical as a Mermaid."

For the next three weeks, they are occupied again with the enigmatick Area 'round the Tangent Point, seeking to close the Eastern boundaries of Pennsylvania and Maryland, -- the Commissioners, to appearance, being anxious upon this score. 
Meanwhile, they discuss what lies ahead to the west of the Susquehanna: "Over Susquehanna begins a different Province entirely, and beginning at the Mountains, another differing from that, and so on, -- beyond Monongahela, beyond Ohio." How far they go depends on what the Penns want, Mason observes, "as Maryland's Grant ends just past Laurel Hill, from there West 'tis Penn's Line alone, dividing Penn lands from Virginia, -- who bear none of the Cost." At stake are the iron and coal deposits in the west.

On June 6, they complete the survey that closes the boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania to the east, but the ambiguous area known as the Wedge remains, "resulting from the failure of the Tangent Point to be exactly at this corner of Maryland, but rather some five miles south, creating a semi-cusp or Thorn of that Length, and doubtful ownership." But this is no longer Mason and Dixon's problem. They "are order'd back to Susquehanna, this time to continue the West Line 'as far as the Country is inhabited."

Meanwhile, Darby and Cope, members of the surveying team who work with the chain, are so often asked they are the famous Mason and Dixon that they begin to tell people they are. They even argue over which one gets to be Mason and which Dixon -- the latter being more popular. Eventually, "Maidens in varying ratios of Indignation to Curiosity show up in camp, demanding to see Mason or Dixon, or both. Upon meeting the real Surveyors, 'Well, but you're not him, --' '-- nor you the other.'" Eventually, when Darby and Cope are summoned to see Mason and Dixon, Darby blames Cope, and Cope Darby, for perpetuating the misunderstanding. The chainmen fall to blows, but are interrupted by a delegation of angry axmen who have seen the pay-list and want to protest the hiring of "Darby and Cope, Chinamen." Dixon corrects their misreading of "Chain-men."

Before they cross the Susquehanna, they receive a package from Maskelyne, who has sent them "Fr. Boscovich's Book, De Solis et Lunae Defectibus... [inviting] their Attention to a great Variety of Data within, including a Warning as to the Attraction of Mountains.... 'First the Iron-Lodes disable my Needle,' moans Dixon, 'now the Mountains are about to throw off my Plummet?'" But Mason's worry is that "the Western Slopes of Allegheny may prove less distressing than the Windward side of that wretched Island."

On the other side of the Susquehanna, however, nothing seems very different. The iron-rich earth is red, and the story goes that if it's plowed the right way "it becomes magnetized, too, so that at Harvest-time, 'tis necessary only to pass along the Rows any large Container of Iron, and the Vegetables will fly up out of the ground, and stick to it." The entourage of the expedition has grown, "lengthen'd to a suburbs dedicated to high (as some would say, low) living. Gaming, corn whiskey, Women able to put up with a heap of uncompensated overtime, etc. There is even "the Vásquez Brothers' Marimba Quartet, who often play back-up for the Torpedo, to whom it is the musick of his Youth, his home Waters."

But as the summer goes on, Dixon has the sense that they're being "used" in the service of American politics. Mason posits that Maskelyne could be a French spy working for the Jesuits, which Dixon opines is a "Bit sophisticated for me. Tho' I don't mind a likely Conspiracy, I prefer it be formed in the interests of Trade, -- the mystickal sort you fancy is fair beyond me." Mason takes this to be an allusion to the East India Company." This is, however, only a setup for one of Pynchon's atrocious puns:
"Come, Sir, can you not sense here ... the scent of fresh Coriander, the whisper of a Sarong...?"" 
"Sari," corrects Mason. 
"Not at all Sir, -- 'twas I who was sarong."
Now they near the Redzingers' farm, which causes tension between Allègre and Frau Redzinger. For Peter Redzinger has returned to the farm, having lost his vision of Christ. She tries to tell him about the Frenchman and his duck, but he doesn't listen. Apparently Christ has taught Peter to make golems: "Kitchen-size, -- some of them quite clever, the Tasks they do, -- one that peels and cores Apples, -- ja, even pits Cherries."

Cherrycoke inserts a selection from his Spiritual Day-Book about the German sects in Pennsylvania, which seem to generate "spiritual Wonders." Mason and Dixon are about to encounter some of them when they stop at a tavern called The Rabbi of Prague, which is "headquarters of a Kabbalistick Faith" that has its own "private Salute they now greet Dixon with, the Fingers spread two and two, and the thumb held away from them likewise, said to represent the Hebrew letter Shin, and to signify 'Live long and prosper.'"

There is also supposed to be in the neighborhood a Golem "taller than the most ancient of the Trees" that was "created by an Indian tribe widely suppos'd to be one of the famous Lost Tribes of Israel." They've never seen the Golem, "only heard his steps on the nights when there is no Moon, or his voice, speaking from above the only words he knows, -- 'Eyeh asher Eyeh.'"
"That is, 'I am that which I am,' helpfully translates a somehow nautical-looking Indiv. with gigantick Fore-Arms, and one Eye ever a-Squint from the Smoke of his Pipe. 
They also learn about the author of the Pennsylvaniad, an epic in heroic couplets whose work eclipses that of Alexander Pope: "In the Constellation 'Poesia,' Sir, to frame it in more comfortable terms for you, even the Wasp of Twickenham must be assign'd the Letter Beta, for this Timothy Tox who is its Lumina."

But their conversation is cut short as "great Percussions upon the Earth are heard, coming ever closer. Trees, push'd over, crash to the ground. Bears, Bobcats, and Wolves come fleeing before whatever is just behind." And outside, "great Mud Feet are seen to stir, tall as the Eaves."

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