By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

21. Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon, pp. 659-686

Mason & Dixon: A NovelTwo: America; 68-70
They are proceeding at about a mile or two per day, and in August tell the crew that "from here to the Warpath, we'll have no time for gentle recreations, but must stand Watch and Watch for as far west as we may." They hire a ferryman named Mr. Ice to take them across the Yochio Geni [Youghgiogheny] River. While they cross, Ice tells them of how his family was massacred by Indians. On the other side of the river, his nephew holds out a coonskin hat, asking for sixpence for the narrative, which outrages Mason's sensibilities.

As they cross the Cheat River and near the Monongahela, they begin to lose axmen, and the Indians grow more alert. "Cheat is the Rubicon, Monongahela is the Styx." There is an interlude about a chicken that becomes mesmerized by the Line, and the mechanical duck is similarly detained by "A simple, immoderate Desire for the Orthogonal," as Professor Voam puts it. Euphrenia interrupts Cherrycoke's narrative to comment, "The Life of an Automaton cannot, however conceiv'd, strike anyone as enviable," revealing that when she was a student in Paris, she earned money by pretending to be a mechanical oboe player.

Dixon "becomes possess'd by the Horizon," a phenomenon that Crawfford has seen before: the fascination with the West. "You will hear of gold cities, marble cities, men that fly, women that fight, fantastickal creatures never dream'd in Europe, -- something always to take and draw you that way." He warns Mason that when "something requires an unpremeditated cessation to the Line, well, -- Mr. Dixon ... may not be inclin'd to stop." Mason is puzzled by the reference to stopping the Line, but then disaster strikes: Two axmen are killed when the tree they are cutting down falls on them. It is a morale blow, but they proceed.

When they cross the Monongahela, more Indians appear. "'It's like Covent Garden on Saturday Night,' Mason grumbles, '-- what are we become, -- a Show they all must see, or lose credibility among ... whatever Indians have for Fops?'" Crawfford advises them that if the sense trouble, the best thing to do is act insane: "These folk respect Madness. To them 'tis a holy state." Dixon and Mason trade quips about each other's credibility as a madman.

But there still remains the problem of crossing the Great Warpath. Mason argues that "only the Mightiest God may command" the stars, and that therefore, because their line is determined by the stars, they "deserve at least the one small respectful Courtesy, of allowing their Line to cross, without a Mark, your Nations' own Great Path." The Indian, Daniel, takes them out on the path and shows them signs that the Catawbas have been there and have placed poisoned splinters on the way. It unsettles both men, but "Mason, stubborn, wishes to go on." Dixon is concerned that the Indians "want to know how to stop this great invisible Thing that comes crawling Straight on over their Lands, devouring all in its Path." Mason and Dixon argue for eleven days, and "at some point exchange Positions, with Dixon now for pushing on, razzle-dazzling their way among the Indians at least as far as Ohio." Mason, now cautious, warns Dixon that the Indians have been eying his red coat "and you are but the minor inconvenience from which 'twill have to be remov'd."

But finally the Indians agree to let them cross the Warpath, and they are only forty miles short of the end of their survey. "Mason is Gothickally depressive, as Dixon is Westeringly manic." But as they are sighting the Ohio, they "are surpriz'd by a Party of Indians in elaborate Paint-Work." They recognize the Indian they know as Catfish, who "is packing a Lancaster Rifle, slung in a Scabbard upon his Saddle, with an inverted Pentacle upon the Stock, unmistakable in the Moon-light." They recognize the rifle, which Catfish says he took "From a White man I have wish'd to meet for a long time. He was a very bad man. Even White People hated him." Mason warns that "The Sign on it has evil Powers" and Catfish should pry it out of the stock. Dixon, "with a look of unsuccessfully feign'd innocence," asks what happened to the rifle's owner. Catfish shows him the scalp.

On November 5, "the Visto is completed, and the Indians depart, -- as if, as long as a Tree remain'd, so might they." As the company breaks up, the November snows arrive. On the way back east, they pick up Timothy Tox, the poet, and agree to accompany him back to Newark, "'So long as he doesn't bring the Golem,' stipulates Mason.... As 'twill prove, the closer they escort Mr. Tox to the Metropolis, the less Evidence for his Creature's existence will they be given, till at length they must believe that the Poet has either pass'd, like some Indian Youth at the Onset of Manhood, under the Protection of a potent tho' invisible Spirit, -- or gone mad."

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