Mason & Dixon

msndxMason & Dixon
by Thomas Pynchon
1997 / 773 pages
rating 10 / historical fiction

Reading this for the Pynchon reading group – it’s my second reading and I loved it the first time.  The group is doing a fairly close reading progressing at the rate of about 25-30 pages every two weeks.  We do a lot of annotations, connections and commentary on various, virtually unlimited, aspects.

For a detailed over-view,  summary,  annotation, etc. (no spoilers) see:


I’l stick the results of my hosting duties on this page and a review of the whole book HERE,   but I’m not going to do notes on the whole book – go to the Wiki above.So I cover Chapters 10 – 12, on February 15-28:

Page 94: 

As Planets do the Sun, we orbit ’round God according to Laws as elegant as Kepler’s. God is as sensible to us, as a Sun to a Planet. Tho’ we do not see Him, yet we know where in our Orbits we run,- when we are closer, when more distant, when in His light and when in shadow of our own making…. We feel as components of Gravity His Love, His Need, whatever it be that keeps us circling. Surely if a Planet be a living Creature, then it knows, by something even more wondrous than Human Sight, where its Sun shines, however far it lie.”     –
Revd Wicks Cherrycoke, Unpublished Sermons

Nice epigraph for an opening –

Cherrycoke’s’ sermon is lovely – “unpublished” as it would not be exactly what parishioners of his time would approve.    There were Presbyterians, Lutherans, Congregational, Anglicans, Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopals, Quakers, German Reformed and other religions represented in Philadelphia in 1786.

But for Cherrycoke to be preaching a metaphor of science to religion is interesting.

4.2.5** Orrery:

Jules Verne’s:

An Orrery is 3 dimensional – Nessel has added mappemonde (maps) to the  earth part – proving that the orrery is an accurate representation of the solar system.  This is what the original observations of the Transit of Venus were about – in the time of  Mason & Dixon it’s about getting the timing of the movements down.

** Transit of Venus:
This is really pretty cool (although from 2012):

Page 95 – Dr. Nessel is fictitious, I believe,  but the discovery of a new planet is real – Uranus – 1781 – just 5 years prior to the frame setting.  

1280px-Delisle_-_Mappe-MondeHerschel first reported the discovery of Uranus on April 26, 1781, initially believing it a comet.[12]

“Remember the time you snipped off a lock of your hair,  and we fashioned it into a comet, and we placed it in the Orrery?”
***  “Mappemondes”  –  plural of mappemonde”   a medieval map of the known world showing the two hemispheres as separate circles.

***  “A Vector of Desire” – Lacan –

“…traveling the Atlantic to and fro by Falmouth Packet as easily as taking the Machine to New Castle.” ???

Solar Parallax:
Mason and Dixon at the Cape:…99M/0000099.000.html



Against Accumulation: Moby-Dick, Mason & Dixon, and Atlantic Capitalism

Scott K . Borchert


It is not until we encounter an excerpt from one of Cherrycoke’s sermons, positioned as the epigraph to chapter thirty-five, that we find the most precise articulation of the novel’s philosophy of history. Undoubtedly one of the text’s most crucial passages, it reads:

Facts are but the Play-things of lawyers,— Tops and Hoops, forever a-spin…. Alas, the Historian may indulge no such idle Rotating. History is not Chronology, for that is left to lawyers,— nor is it Remembrance, for Remembrance belongs to the People. History can as little pretend to the Veracity of the one, as claim the Power of the other,— her Practitioners, to survive, must soon learn the arts of the quidnunc, spy, and Taproom Wit,— that there may ever continue more than one life-line back into a Past we risk, each day, losing our forebears in forever,— not a Chain of single Links, for one broken Link could lose us All,— rather, a great disorderly Tangle of Lines, long and short, weak and strong, vanishing into the Mnemonick Deep, with only their Destination in common (349).

What is remarkable about this passage is that it is nearly a point-for-point reinterpretation of Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” When Cherrycoke says that “History is not Chronology” nor “a Chain of single Links,” he echoes Benjamin’s opposition to history as a “progression through homogenous, empty time,” a “Universal history” that only “musters a mass of data to fill that homogeneous, empty time” (“Theses” 261-262). Indeed, Cherrycoke’s alternative philosophy—that history is not “a Chain of single Links…[but] rather, a great disorderly Tangle of Lines, long and short, weak and strong, vanishing into the Mnemonick Deep, with only their Destination in common”—strongly suggests Benjamin’s “Angel of History”: “Where we perceive a chain of events, he [the Angel] sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet” (“Theses” 257).


Another thing – while doing a bit of research on this sermon, I discovered that the guy to whom Mason gave his journals was one John Ewing in Philadelphia and that he was a Rev’d.

For our fiction, Cherrycoke is a Revd and apparently a close friend of Mason. They are both very interested in astronomy, one as a professional the other as a lay-person. I think this character may have been inspired by the Revd John Ewing, a Presbyterian minister and Provost of Univ of Penn – also apparently a friend, certainly more than an acquaintance, of the real life Mason and also interested in astronomy (observed two Transits of Venus, anyway).

** How the volume arrived at Penn is unknown. The earliest record of it being present in the library comes from May 1914. There is some possibility it came to Penn thanks to the fact that upon Mason’s death in Philadelphia in 1786 he left many of his books and papers to Rev. John Ewing, an early provost at Penn. See Cope and Ewing, “The Astronomical Manuscripts Which Charles Mason Gave to Provost the Reverend John Ewing during October 1786,” Proceedings of the APS 96.4 (1952), 417-423. -Editor **
John Ewing
“The Astronomical Manuscripts which Charles Mason Gave to Provost the Reverend John Ewing during Oct. 1786,” co-authored with H. W. Robinson, PAPS, Aug 1952


And the incredible thing about Pynchon (one of many incredible things) is that he doesn’t parade his research in front of his reader.   He actually deliberately makes light of it to make his point.  I suppose he’s internalized the substance to the extent he can just pop these little surprises into the narrative whenever it’s appropriate.
Page 111
The Hanging of Lord Ferrars for the murder of John, his Stewart
Lord Ferrers killed Mr Johnson, his land-steward, was tried, condemned for murder and hanged at Tyburn on 5 May 1760. He is the last British peer to die a felon’s death.

Special coats made for the occasion with the Thirteen-Turn Noose Motif to the Braiding
Traditional hangman’s noose has 13 turns’s_knot

(In today’s day and age they’d sell t-shirts.)
Mason sees Florinda at the dock (October, 1861).  They first met at the hanging of Earl Ferrers (real name – Lawrence Shirley) (,_4th_Earl_Ferrers) at Ferrer’s hanging on May 5,  1760.  At the time she’d apparently been “a rising Beauty of the Town” and Mason was attending the hangings to meet women.   It apparently  suited his melancholy following the loss of Rebekah.

Florinda’s first words to him are rather forward (to my thinking!) –

**  “Do you think he’ll get much of a hard-on then?”

Hmmm…..   omg ….  yes!

And then we get into a long subjunctive digression for a possible discussion of the “death erection”  and its relation to guilt or innocence  – and I have no idea when we come out of Mason’s mind.

“He’ll be days late thinking up any reply to speech as sophisticated as this. “In my experience,” he MIGHT say, “’tis usually …” … “she will not blink, her nostrils may flare.”   It goes on from his apparently later fantasy of what he might have said,  to blending in with the scene of the hanging.

Page 112
Fwiw, a “modesty piece” is a little piece of fabric (lace or something) put in the cleavage of a low-cut bodice.

and a “Fop” is a male clothes-horse- a bit overly concerned with clothes and appearance –

The scene changes swiftly from the heavy flirting of Florinda and Mason when Earl Ferrers arrives for his hanging.

Ferrers is hung with a silk rope – (and so an unsubstantiated historical version goes)

This section is wonderfully well detailed,  (seamen throwing unchewable sausages) and either found in some source or invented. Does it matter? (Perhaps in a different book it would).   A lot of popular history (non-fiction)  is written this way these days – not so dusty-bone dry as the textbooks when the authors take what is available from sources like letters and journals and then embellish “logically” for interest.

**  References to Indi:
“Aye , Silk’s what they fancy out in India with their Thuggee,- ”    (Indian – refers to an act of Thugs)

** “… another tasty Bite for old Kalee,-“
Try  “Kali”  –
Fwiw, Kali is apparently the goddess of Time, Change and Destruction –

Page 113

*** Ferrers apparently not only got a hard-on but … he ejaculated –

And then while Mason and Florinda are sipping French wine as if at a little soiree, there is some kind of problem with the gallows trapdoor

***  ““These frightful Machines!’ she pretends to lament, ‘ — shall our Deaths now, as well as our Lives , be rul’d by the Philosophers, and their Army of Mechanicks?’”

The trapdoor has malfunctioned and Mason explains so then the reader’s question becomes why did Pynchon have Florinda say what she did?  – to raise the issue of machines – industrial revolution , measurements,  etc. and point in the direction of – (but not specifically “at”) the malfunctioning trapdoor problem – (And yes,  Ferrer strangled to death on the rope.)

More on Ferrer and the malfunctioning trapdoor – This is from a new book called “The Thirteenth Turn: A History of the Noose” by Jack Schuller – Oct. 2014.

And, at the end of the paragraph, that seemingly innocuous little sentence:

**  “He notes a sudden drop in the local Temperature.”

which might have several  of meanings:
1.   Realistically:  The local temperature did go down and it’s unrelated to the paragraph.
2.   Representationally:  – The temperature between Mason and Florinda cools because of Mason’s techie talk. (local)
3.  Symbolically:    Ferrer has gone to hell.  (still local but different cause).
4.  Metaphorically – Was Mason strangled by Florinda?
5.  Literarily:  is Pynchon using a type of “sentimental” narrative fallacy (seeing cause and effect where they are not necessarily linked for the sake of the narrative)  called the “pathetic fallacy” (see Ruskin – a stickler for realism) in having the weather imitate the emotional content (for the sake of the story)? – Does he do this often?  –  I’d personally say yes, definitely and he uses it quite a lot.   –  This is NOT a bad thing to do – it simply doesn’t reflect “reality.”
6.  Alternatively:  What if there are trapdoors in space/time and … what if they don’t work right (whatever “right” would be) and the victims (us) get strangled instead of hung.  (lol)

Ah – enough of that!

**  Bubb Dodington, George  –  a very wealthy English nobleman who was involved in politics, lending money to the nobility and spying on the Catholic Jacobites – ,,_1st_Baron_Melcombe

“Georgie is a particular friend” of Florinda and Mason envies him.

“There’s one says Pearse as he fell in the well…”
Gloucestershire proverb –  (Gloucestershire Notes and Queries, Volume 1 and page 391,  if you get lost) –…&source=bl&ots=fNeRMcRddO&sig=TV7a-t_2jPaYlzmRnI0jemcv9QI&hl=en&sa=X&ei=jorrVL-WA4ihNruWhKgO&ved=0CB4Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Pearse%20&f=false   :

And then we are told “What Mason does not, consequently, understand, is that, having recon’d him harmless, she has decided to get in a bit of exercise, in that endless Refining which the Crafts of Coquetry demand, using Mason as a sort of <it> Practice-Dummy.”

** Is this whole Tyburn hanging scene another example for the themes of  commerce, slavery and the gallows (all or part) on a different level?  Or is it something else – Mason’s background with women?   Why is Pynchon including this event and why in this manner?

The times change back to 1861 and Florinda and Mason discuss Florida’s “men” as the evening and its smell of ocean and Eastern cooking approaches. Then enter Florida’s fiancé, “a Figure that lacks but a Scythe in its Grasp,” Mr. Mournival (great name), a “tall cadaverous Personage, whose Eues cannot be clearly seen, hides in the Twilight.  Charlie, Charlie … You must have been one of the Zanies?”

Dixon is apparently there – or he suddenly appears so the chapter ends with:

“A Chinaman, a Jesuit, and a Corsican are riding up to Bath …”  (Why to Bath?)


And by our own Toby Levy:

Chapter 11 and other questions – (lol) –

1.  If the Rev. C. did not go to St. Helena, how can this part of the tale be told?   How does that apply or relate to books of history – sources? reliability? etc?

2.  Is Uncle Ives’ question (#2)  answered or evaded by the Rev. (105-6)?

3.   St Helena’s eerie atmosphere and eternal gale-force winds causing hallucinations and sadness: not exactly the best place for poor Mason, assigned there by the Royal Society.  How is it for Maskelyne?  This is the story coming up I guess –

4.   And do we have a more complete answer to the question of why the book started where it did – the letters re Transit at the Cape?

5.  Are the characters of Mason and Dixon getting “rounded out?”  (ala Forster)

6.  Is the setting static or dynamic or something in some middle somewhere?

7.  What other typical history or literature questions would a discussion of this book use –
A. “Who is the narrator and is he reliable?”;  (done so far)
B.  Does the setting work as a character?   (???)
C.  Are the characters  “flat” (as in stereotypes) or “rounded” (as in “individualized”).   Some of each?
D.  Are women treated as diversions, like wine and song,  so far in the story?  Does this treatment change from scene to scene and/or woman to woman?  Should it? (Perhaps not if all the other characters except M&D are at least semi-stereotyped? – what other stereotypes of women could be used for a category as big as “women.”) –  Lots more on this later in the book.


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