By Charles Matthews

Sunday, September 5, 2010

18. Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon, pp. 554-596

Mason & Dixon: A NovelTwo: America; 56-60
In his field journal, Mason notes that "Cycles, or if you like, Segments of eleven Days recur again and again," which he ascribes to "the famous Eleven Missing Days of the Calendar Reform of '52." And to Dixon he tells a fantastic tale about being caught up in a time vortex, "finding myself in September third, 1752, a date that for all the rest of England, did not exist."

During their winter break, Dixon and Mason swap the direction they took on their previous break, Dixon going north to New York, where he encounters the same crew that abducted Mason on the last trip, this time more open about their revolutionary activities. In fact, he meets them "at Montagne's Tavern, upon Broad-Way, near Murray Street, which proves to be Head-quarters of the local Sons of Liberty, as well as thick with Intrigue, regardless of the Hour." He also meets up with some who figured earlier in the novel: "Foretopman Bodine, once of the Seahorse," and Philip Dimdown, who is no longer a fop but now "a serious young man upon a Mission whose end may not be predicted." Dixon is questioned by Dimdown as to his sympathies as a Quaker toward the Americans' impending struggle for independence.
"''Tis not how British treat Americans,' Dixon amiably rubescent, ''tis how both of You treat the American Slaves, and the Indians Native here, that engages the Friends more closely, -- an old and melancholy History.... My allegiance, as a Quaker born, would lie, above all, with Christ, -- withal, as a Geordie, for reasons unarguably Tribal, I can have no sympathy for any British King, -- not even one who's paid my wages, bless 'im.'" 
Mason's journey southward takes him to Williamsburg, while along the way he finds an equivalent nascent rebelliousness. In Williamsburg he is invited to play billiards with Col. Washington. The tavern is filled with smoke, and Mason and Washington overhear an argument over someone's use of the word "nigger," in which Washington is surprised to hear the voice of Gershom. "Half the Company seem to believe this is a white Customer, impersonating an African. Others, having caught Gershom's act before, recognize him right away." They began asking him for particular jokes they've heard him tell.

Then Mason recognizes another voice in the crowd, that of "Baby-Phiz Nathe McClean, or I'm a Sailor." McClean has returned to his studies at William and Mary. He tells Mason that he left the surveying party "just in time.... I should have been crazy as Captain Zhang, had I remained a week more." But he also says that "the Captain wasn't just Pipe-Smoaking in the Article of that Sha. We all felt it, as, to Appearance, did you and Mr. Dixon. Surveying a Property Line, that may be one thing, -- clearing and marking a Right Line of an Hundred Leagues, into the Lands of Others, cannot be a kindly Act."

At the end of March, the surveyors go back to work, where they find an uproar over "the great Scandal over the winter involving Tom Hynes, Catherine Wheat, and their Baby." The story of the scandal, which takes up a chapter, owes as much to Mark Twain as it does to the 18th-century novelists like Smollett and Sterne who inform the rest of Pynchon's novel.

Returning to work, Dixon encounters a suspicion that the surveyors may be spies by saying, "'Tis a gormless Spy indeed, who'd lurk where there are no more Secrets to steal. ... What is there that has not been visited, intentionally and not, an hundred times?" Captain Shelby, with whom they left the instruments for the winter, observes that "There is a love of complexity, here in America, ... pur Space waits the Surveyor, -- no previous Lines, no fences, no streets to constrain polygony however extravagant."

Dixon begins trying to learn how to use Zhang's luopan, and notes that Britain is in "the Terrestrial Sign of Draco, the Dragon." But he explains to Zhang that where he comes from, in Durham, dragons "are not at all the Chinese Variety. Some, like the Lambton Worm, lacking Wings and a fire-breathing Capacity, may indeed be of a distinct Species." And he proceeds to tell his version of the legend of the Lambton Worm. Afterward, Captain Shelby alludes to a serpentine mound on the other side of the Ohio which the Indians claim predate their inhabiting the region. He proposes that they investigate some mounds nearer to where they are.

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