The University of Texas at Austin

Law in Popular Culture collection

Oklahoma City University Law Review
Volume 24, Number 3 (1999)
reprinted by permission Oklahoma City University Law Review



       In the Article, the Author reads Mason & Dixon as a kind of unfounding document, a counterfeit history that is fabulistic in its rendering of pre-Revolutionary America. The novel does not seek to pass itself as authentic historical currency. Indeed, Pynchon's deliberately inauthentic representation of the past, like other forms of counterfeit signification, suggests the fraudulent contingency of claims to authenticity. Nonetheless, the novel does embrace the historical imperative of truth-seeking. Catching an "unconstituted" America in the process of discursive and ideological formation, Mason & Dixon is saturated with historical figures, events, and artifacts and is intimately engaged with the voices and forces that were shaping an American identity. For all the playful postmodernity of this novel, a profoundly humanistic, ethical current runs through Mason and Dixon's encounters with America-in-the-making. For it is only through such entrophy-defying openness to, and opening of, our disconcerting past--and the stories we tell ourselves about that past--that we can hope to rediscover, and perhaps partially, provisionally redeem, our present.
The novel is the dream release, the suspension of reality that history needs to escape its own brutal confinements.1
--Don DeLillo     

      About midway through Mason & Dixon,2 Wicks Cherrycoke, the novel's storytelling narrator, sparks a debate among his listeners about the essential nature of history and the historian. The older generation is outraged at the young Ethelmer's assertion that true history rejects truth-claims:
Who claims Truth, Truth abandons. History is hir'd, or coerc'd, only in Interests that must ever prove base. She is too innocent, to be left within the reach of anyone in Power,--who need but touch her, and all her Credit is in the instant vanish'd, as if it had never been. She needs rather to be tended lovingly and honorably by fabulists and counterfeiters, Ballad-Mongers and Cranks of ev'ry Radius, Masters of Disguise to provide her the Costume, Toilette, and Bearing, and Speech nimble enough to keep her beyond the Desires, or even the Curiosity, of Government.3
In this paper, I read Mason & Dixon as an "unfounding" document, a counterfeit history that is fabulously nimble in its rendering of pre-Revolutionary America. Certainly, Pynchon costumes his postmodern historical fiction in enough anachronism, fantastic elements, legend, and parody to place it safely beyond our own desire to govern it by any conventional law of historical fact, possibility, or plausibility--it is a counterfeit that lets us know it is counterfeit, that does not seek to pass itself as authentic historical currency.4 Yet Pynchon's deliberately inauthentic representation of the past, like other forms of counterfeit signification, does suggest the contingent truth-value of claims to authenticity. Indeed, the obvious pun in Cherrycoke's name suggests that claims to stand for "the real thing" are themselves a species of debased, counterfeit currency.
     Still, though the novel may follow Ethelmer's injunction against truth- claiming, it does not dispense with another historical imperative--truth- seeking: "It may be the Historian's duty to seek the Truth, yet must he do ev'rything he can, not to tell it."5 Seeking to catch an "unconstituted" America in the process of formation, Pynchon's novel is saturated in the presence of historical character, event, and artifact. Following Cherrycoke's 


prescription, it casts "a great disorderly Tangle of Lines [...] into the Mnemonick Deep," making contact with "forebears," whom, as the narrator warns in an epigraph, we may otherwise be in danger of "losing [...] forever."6 Such loss of connection, he goes on to assert, "could lose us All,"7 and Mason & Dixon is devoted to countering the amnesiac loss of imaginative and critical engagement with the past. Pynchon's narrative, in its determined and passionate truth-seeking, challenges readers to look both backward and forward, placing past and present in a dialogic relation that points toward the making of history in the future. Through its unfounding of self-evident truth, the novel opens a discursive terrain of what Ethelmer might call "historical innocence"--a terrain innocent of any central interpretive authority. Within this uncharted space, Pynchon "honorably and lovingly"8 recreates and redefines the boundary lines that make up the imagined identity of America.
     Ironically, Pynchon's narrator insists on looking back just as "America" is debating its future as the United States. As the founding fathers prepare to envision a nation, Cherrycoke holds forth in the living room of a prosperous middle-class family of Philadelphia in December 1786, keeping his audience in the company of the past, and of his own disillusionment. "[P]ast all that ought to have been, but never had a Hope of becoming,"9 he has resigned himself to his role as "untrustworthy Remembrancer,"10 whose relinquishing of "subjunctive Hopes"11--America, we are repeatedly reminded, is home of the subjunctive tense, of "all that may yet be true"12--runs counter to the hopeful becoming of a new nation. An idealist exiled in his youth for exposing corruptions of power, he has been shipwrecked "upon these Republican Shores," finding shelter from the winter cold only in Scheherazade-like exchange for his ability to tell stories. Pynchon thus immediately subverts expectation by submerging the (post-Declaration) creation myth of American national history, instead directing our attention to pre-Declaration traumas already on the verge of being lost to collective memory.


     While the nation, we are told, is "bickering itself into Fragments, wounds bodily and ghostly, great and small, go aching on, not ev'ry one commemorated,--nor, too often, even recounted."13 In recounting some of these wounds, including the Mason-Dixon line itself, Pynchon, at least in part, sets his acts of commemoration against the ahistorical bickering and fragmentation of our present-day polis, in which attempts to confront America's past honestly are often dismissed as the heretical and contaminated ideology of tenured radicals. Pynchon's own confrontation with that past asks us to imagine the making of a boundary line that might have seemed "meaningless,"14 as Cherrycoke suggests at the outset, since it was drawn by and for British subjects, but that would come to signify a deeply divided nation.
     In a verse that serves as epigraph to the novel's second section,  "America," the wandering bard and dispenser of heroic couplets, Timothy Tox, figures the Mason-Dixon line as one of the "geometrick Scars" with which its makers are destined "to mark the Earth."15 In reckoning the violence and violation implicit in such line drawing, Mason & Dixon delights in exposing the fraudulent legality of the truth-claims that constituted the colonial foundation of the United States. In Pynchon's revisionist mapping, for example, "Pennsylvania" exists only as "a chronicle of Frauds committed serially against the Indians dwelling there, check'd only by the Ambitions of other Colonies to north and east," while "Maryland" is "an Abstraction, a Frame of right lines [....]"16 These counterfeit demarcations make "America" itself, from the perspective of the colonizer, a discursively constructed landscape of contested property rights and proprietary interests. Indeed, the discourse of the "real" historical characters in the novel helps to generate this landscape.
     In his first cameo appearance, George Washington recounts to Mason and Dixon the history of the Ohio Company, in which his brother played a prominent role and whose investments he had sought to protect in the French-Indian War; he gripes that it was not granted a charter similar to that awarded to the Penns. He nonetheless urges Mason and Dixon to consider investing in the land they survey, at the same time explaining the politics of westward expansion created by the Proclamation Line, which the British declared in order to set a limit on that expansion. In response to Dixon's 


characteristic moral concern-- "Why else refrain from expanding West [...] but out of a regard for the Humanity of those whose Homes they invade?"17--Washington cites the hatred of England among the Ulster Scots populating the American frontier in the Appalachians. He then assimilates that particular historical resentment into the growing sense of an "American" independence, warning the British ministry that "Americans will fight Indians whenever they please, which is whenever they can."18 Washington's "voice" is thus embedded in the specific materiality of political and economic conditions.
     Included in those conditions is, of course, slavery, and Pynchon's humanely satiric portrayal of Washington places him in a peculiar relation to that institution as well. Washington's farcical mimicking of black dialect as he gives orders to his slave, Gershom, shrinks the distance between the "Virginia gentleman" and the oppression that sustained his privileged position. That Gershom doubles as a Jewish comedian playfully invokes the African-American adaptation of the Old Testament narrative of enslavement and deliverance, which casts Washington as a kind of unwitting, good-natured pharaoh. Further, in also playing the role of razor-sharp court jester--he reels off King George jokes in smoky taverns--Gershom, like Pynchon, unmasks the ideological pretensions of power.
     In general, Pynchon situates the ideology of revolution in its discursive and material contexts, bridging the gap between universal ideals and the particular interests they serve. Cherrycoke injects irony into his commentary on the profane applications of liberty "in those days" in comparison to the presumed purity of the present:
"Unfortunately, young people [...] the word Liberty, so unreflectively sacred to us today, was taken in those Times to encompass even the darkest of Men's rights,--to injure whomever we might wish,--unto extermination, were it possible,--Free of Royal advice or Proclamation Lines and such. This being, indeed and alas, one of the Liberties our late War was fought to secure."'19

The subsequent conversation concerns the deliberate extermination of Native Americans through the distribution of smallpox infected blankets, 


and the Reverend's assertion that the Paxton Boys' massacre of Indian women and children near Lancaster in late 1763 simply enforced the same "Wicked Policy."20 He goes on to remind his listeners that even Quakers profited from arms sales to Indians, including defective weapons that "blew up in the faces of their Purchasers, as often as fell'd any White Settlers."21 Later, Dixon challenges the fervent Sons of Liberty by aligning the British with the Americans in their treatment of African slaves and Native Americans. This "old and melancholy History," as Dixon calls it, runs counter to the eschatological hope, the conflation of Christian millenialism and nationalism, expressed by these zealous patriots, who sincerely believe that "Christ's Return" is "next, after us."22
     Clearly, Pynchon's imagination thrives in the unruly (and unruled) domain of late-colonial history, that liminal period between centrifugal expansion and centripetal transcolonial solidarity. Pynchon seems drawn to imagine America before any movement toward artery-hardening entropy has established itself. The crisp, barbed exchanges between the novel's eponymous heroes and various American voices (both Native and nonnative) convey a kinetic, liberating release of thought and action, an energy infused with the caffeine-buzzing of Pynchon's coffeehouse carnival version of eighteenth-century Philadelphia. Mason's own lively exchange with the Sons of Liberty, for example, consists of equal parts political philosophy--Mason counters taxation without representation with virtual representation--and mock-theological debate, as the Sons scornfully equate Mason's notion of virtual representation with the doctrine of transubstantiation. In their eyes, believing that a few men in England embody the will of Americans is akin to believing that the bread and wine of the Eucharist literally embody Christ. Mason obtusely responds with consubstantiation, assuring them that, just as the bread and wine retain their literal substance, so these politicians, "whatever they may represent [...] do they remain, dismayingly, Humans as well."23 But he is soon startled out of his smug condescension by their unanimous vow to resist the Stamp Act. He finds himself bearing witness to the formative moments of a nation, catching "a brief, careening glimpse at how far and fast all this may be moving,--something styling itself 'America,' coming into being, ripening, like a Tree-ful of Cherries in a good summer, almost as one stands and 


watches."24 The "ripening" of this transprovincial conspiracy, this giddy "coming into being," accompanies Mason and Dixon as they "discover" America--fantastic, ludicrous, enigmatic, and generally destabilizing discoveries that Pynchon invites us to share right along with them.
     The Sons of Liberty also make the utopian promise that soon "all boundaries shall be eras'd,"25 and as Mason and Dixon careen through the volatile landscape of America, this promise in some ways seems a reality. Instruments of both scientific and state law, they are dispatched by the Royal Society--an institutional embodiment of Enlightenment rationality in the service of imperial power--to resolve the boundary dispute between the feuding aristocrats, the Penns and Baltimores. Needless to say, rational resolution is not easy to come by. These men of science find themselves increasingly disoriented in an experiential zone where ambiguity and enlightenment are inseparable, where borderlines--between self and other, life and death, natural and supernatural, human and nonhuman--are confounded and crossed more often than they are affirmed and established. Like Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49,26 they confront "lines of force" demarcating a hidden America. Along the way, they are beset by a bewildering array of characters who provoke them to question the causes and effects of their mission.
     Creating this line implicates Mason and Dixon in the line drawing underwritten by the British Empire, and in the use and abuse of scientific knowledge to further imperial ends. The mapping of time and space through new methods and instruments is shown to serve the mapping of imperial hegemony. Cherrycoke refers to the "continental coercion" he witnessed in India, where the East India Company of Robert Clive, with monarchical blessing, generates its "Harvest of Death."27 Clive's brother-in-law, Nevil Maskelyne, is portrayed as ambitious and paranoid in his quest to make longitude useful for maritime navigation. Thus, as Mason and Dixon deploy their finely calibrated technology to draw a line that transforms geography into private property, the Age of Reason and the imperatives of empire converge.
     To unsettle this alliance, Pynchon draws upon non-Western modes of mapping the world. To be sure, the novel pays due respect to the epic scale of Mason and Dixon's achievement, which demanded such arduous 


physical labor and painstakingly exact application of astronomical and surveying techniques in extreme conditions. Mason encounters resistance when he implies that such pinpoint precision represents a superior form of knowledge. As a group ponders the enormous stone ruins of old forts, said by their Native American guides to have been built by an original race of giants, Mason begins to "lecture" on the astronomical alignment of Britain's Stonehenge, lauding both the surveyor's sector and the modern rifle as improvements on a basic principle of measurement: "The finer the Scale we work at, the more Power may we dispose. The Lancaster County Rifle is precise at long range, because of microscopick refinements in the Finish, the Rifling, the ease with which it may be held and aim'd. They who control the Microscopick, control the World."28 One of the guides then mocks this pretense of visionary authority, dubbing Mason "Defecates-with-Pigeons"29 while tersely informing him that his own people dreamed of whites even before their arrival. In his condensed counter- history to the Eurocentric discovery narrative, Native Americans have now come to haunt the dreams of white imagination, which remains blind to their essential humanity.30
     The Feng Shui master, geomancer, and escaped Chinese Jesuit, Zhang, also comically calls out Mason and Dixon's assumptions and presumptions. He challenges the universality of their scientific objectivity by lamenting the "star-dictated indifference of the line to the true inner shape [...] of the Land."31 In his view
Nothing will produce Bad History more directly nor brutally, than drawing a Line, in particular a Right Line, the very Shape of Contempt, through the midst of a People,--to create thus a Distinction betwixt 'em,--'tis the first stroke.--All else will follow as if predestin'd, unto War and Devastation.32
Dixon, more prone to cultural relativism than his partner, is fascinated by Zhang's own compass, the Luo Pan, which respects the boundaries inherent in the natural contours of the land and in the land's "true inner shape." Lines like Mason and Dixon's scar the body of the land, he contends, unleashing Sha, which Pynchon has him translate, in anachronistic 


"Californian," as Bad Energy.33 Pynchon thus imagines the line as a kind of magnet attracting all the bad energy of Western expansion, both cultural and geographic, national and global.
     Within this force field of unstable identities and unmanageable differences, even the boundary between natural and artificial does not hold. An American Golem, fabricated by a lost tribe of Israel, roams the woods to fight against British oppression. And a mechanical duck created by a mad French scientist torments the crew like Frankenstein's monster, replicating a real duck so exactly that its excrement is said to be indistinguishable from the real thing. Ironically, it is this harbinger of artificial intelligence--of counterfeit sentience--that most directly challenges Mason and Dixon to care about the very human consequences of their line. As Mason wonders whether historians will eventually weigh the good against the "not-so-good" effects of their line, the duck's voice intervenes: "'Hark! Hark! You wonder? That's all?' One of the Enigmata of the Invisible World, is how a Voice unlocaliz'd may yet act powerfully as a moral Center. 'Tis the Duck speaking, naturally,--or, rather, artificially. 'What about 'care'? Don't you care?'"34 This artificial voice from the "other side," like those other voices in the novel occluded by Western Enlightenment, sounds the "moral Center" of the novel. As Mason and Dixon are pushed, pulled, and penetrated by the "unlocaliz'd" input they encounter, they develop their capacity to respond to, and to care about, the presence of all this American-style otherness--Dixon, shortly before they leave America, even attacks a slave trader in the street, unchaining his slaves.35
     As the narrative progresses, Mason and Dixon begin to care for one another as well. As in his previous novel, Vineland,36 Pynchon creates convincingly intimate bonds of human relationship that are strengthened by exposure to forces of disintegration and dehumanization. A particularly moving moment of communion occurs when they visit, separately, the site of the Paxton Boys Indian massacre, which occurred about the time of Mason and Dixon's first arrival in America. Each is horrified at the traces of this slaughter, and at the ease with which these Americans seem to have forgotten it, a tendency that Mason prophesies might lead to "their own Dissolution."37 Each feels the awful sacredness place, as they find 


 themselves in prayerful attitudes, wishing vainly for some kind of justice. Dixon sees "where blows with Rifle-Butts miss'd their Marks, and chipp'd the Walls" and "blood in the corner never Cleans'd," but the thought that "no one understood what they said when they died"38 affects him just as powerfully. These unapprehended voices seem to echo mournfully behind them as they hurriedly leave Lancaster: "Each Milestone passes like another Rung of a Ladder ascended. Behind,-- below,--diminishing, they hear, and presently lose, a Voicing disconsolate, of Regret at their Flight."39
     By creating such rich subjectivity for these marginal historical figures, Pynchon liberates them from subjection to the line that has chained their names--the novel's title is Mason and Dixon, not Mason-Dixon. At the same time, he pries loose history, and the historical imagination, from service to the straight-seeming lines of factual chronology, as well as from a canned, mythologized past in which meanings remain fixed and determined. For all the playful postmodernity of this novel, a humanistic, ethical current runs through it, galvanizing American history, and, potentially, the cultural discourse that shapes historical consciousness. Some of the millenial rhetoric currently pervading public spheres expresses the persistent need to construe "America" in utopian terms, as a place where "subjunctive Hopes" may always find fertile ground. But it is only through an entropy-defying openness to and opening of our past, in all its discursive, human complexity--in all its disconsolate voicing--that we can hope to re-discover, and perhaps partially, provisionally redeem our present, "th[is] bare mortal World that is our home, and our Despair."40



*  The author received his Doctor of Philosophy in English from the University of Pennsylvania. Currently, he teaches 9th-grade English at Cesar Chavez High School in Phoenix, Arizona. His research interests include revisionary representations of American history in contemporary American novels, as well as the mechanisms of inclusion/exclusion that inform our public schools.

1. Don DeLillo, The Power of History, N.Y. TIMES, Sept. 7, 1997. See also <>.


3. Id. at 350.

4. Ironically, the novel itself is attractively packaged to resemble an eighteenth-century book, as if to "frame" Pynchon's contrived yet powerfully evocative counterfeiting of eigteenth-century novelistic style.

5. PYNCHON, supra note 2, at 349.

6. Id. at 349 (Since Thomas Pynchon is known for his use of the ellipse, the ellipses inserted by the Author are in brackets [....]).

7. Id.

8. Id. at 350.

9. Id. at 8.

10. Id.

11. Id. at 345.

12. Id.

13. Id. at 6.

14. See id. at 8.

15. Id. at 257.

16. Id. at 354.

17. Id. at 277.

18. Id.

19. Id. at 307.

20. Id. at 308.

21. Id.

22. Id. at 568.

23. Id. at 404.

24. Id. at 405.

25. Id. at 406.


27. PYNCHON, supra note 2, at 153.

28. Id. at 663.

29. Id.

30. Id. at 662-63.

31. Id. at 601.

32. Id. at 615.

33. Id. at 542.

34. Id. at 666.

35. Id. at 699.


37. See id. at 346.

38. Id. at 347.

39. PYNCHON, supra note 2, at 348.

40. Id. at 345.