Mason & Dixon

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Mason & Dixon
Mason n dixon.jpg
First edition cover
AuthorThomas Pynchon
CountryUnited States
GenrePostmodern novel, historical novel Biography
Published1997 (Henry Holt and Company)
Media typePrint (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages773 pp
813/.54 21
LC ClassPS3566.Y55 M37 1997

Mason & Dixon is a postmodernist novel by U.S. author Thomas Pynchon published in 1997. It presents a fictionalized account of the collaboration between Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon in their astronomical and surveying exploits in Cape Colony, Saint Helena, Great Britain and along the Mason-Dixon line in British North America on the eve of the Revolutionary War in the United States.

The novel is a frame narrative told from the focal point of one Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke – a clergyman of dubious orthodoxy – who, on a cold December evening in 1786,[1] attempts to entertain and divert his extended family (partly for amusement, and partly to keep his coveted status as a guest in the house). Claiming to have accompanied Mason and Dixon throughout their journeys, Cherrycoke tells a tale intermingling Mason and Dixon's biographies with history, fantasy, legend, speculation, and outright fabrication.

Plot structure[edit]

The novel's scope takes in aspects of established Colonial American history including the call of the West, the histories of women, North Americans, and slaves, plus excursions into geomancy, Deism, a hollow Earth, and — perhaps — alien abduction. The novel also contains philosophical discussions and parables of automata/robots, the after-life, the eleven days lost to the Gregorian calendar, slavery, feng shui and others. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Nevil Maskelyne, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Jefferson, and John Harrison's marine chronometer all make appearances. Pynchon provides an intricate conspiracy theory involving Jesuits and their Chinese converts, which may or may not be occurring within the nested and ultimately inexact narrative structure.

" ... 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... "

Mason & Dixon (p. 350)

Rather than a mistake or flaw on Pynchon's part, this narrative structure is constructed to be inexact in a precise fashion; it demonstrates the fragility, rather than the secure foundations, of any historical record, and in truth, history itself. The Cherrycoke narrative shifts internally from one point of view to another, often relating events from the view of people Cherrycoke has never met. His story shifts its emphasis based on which members of his family are in the room — veering toward the adventure-heroic when the young twin boys are listening, veering away from the erotic at the insistence of more prudish (and richer) relatives. Also, a parallel story read by two cousins, an erotic 'captured by Indians' narrative, works its way into the main thread of Cherrycoke's story, further blurring and finally obliterating the line between objective history and subjectivity — what "really happened" is nothing more than a construction of several narrators, perhaps one of whom directly is the author.

Pynchon employs an exaggerated version of the spelling, grammar, and syntax of an actual late 18th century document, further emphasizing the novel's intended anachronism.

John Krewson, writing for The Onion's A. V. Club observed, "Whatever meanings and complex messages may lie hidden in Pynchon's text can, for now, be left to develop subconsciously as the reader enjoys the more immediate rewards of the work of a consummate storyteller. Pynchon is one, and he never quite lets you forget that while this might be an epic story, it's an epic story told to wide-eyed children who are up past their bedtime."[1]


Mason & Dixon was one of the most acclaimed novels of the 1990s. According to Harold Bloom, "Pynchon always has been wildly inventive, and gorgeously funny when he surpasses himself: the marvels of this book are extravagant and unexpected." Bloom has also called the novel "Pynchon’s late masterpiece."[2] John Fowles wrote: "As a fellow-novelist I could only envy it and the culture that permits the creation and success of such intricate masterpieces." In his review for The New York Times Book Review, T. Coraghessan Boyle wrote, "This is the old Pynchon, the true Pynchon, the best Pynchon of all. Mason & Dixon is a groundbreaking book, a book of heart and fire and genius, and there is nothing quite like it in our literature..."[3] New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani said, "It is a book that testifies to [Pynchon's] remarkable powers of invention and his sheer power as a storyteller, a storyteller who this time demonstrates that he can write a novel that is as moving as it is cerebral, as poignant as it is daring."[4]

During a conversation with Leonard Pierce of the A.V. Club, Harold Bloom said, "I don't know what I would choose if I had to select a single work of sublime fiction from the last century... it would probably be Mason & Dixon, if it were a full-scale book, or if it were a short novel it would probably be The Crying Of Lot 49. Pynchon has the same relation to fiction, I think, that my friend John Ashbery has to poetry: he is beyond compare."[5]

Mark Knopfler wrote a song about the book called Sailing to Philadelphia with James Taylor.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Krewson, John (29 March 2002). "Review: Thomas Pychon: Mason & Dixon". A.V. Club. Retrieved 2015-01-15.
  2. ^ Bloom, Harold. Thomas Pynchon (Bloom's Major Novelists). NY, Chelsea House 2003. "Editor's Note" viii.
  3. ^ Boyle, T. Coraghessan (18 May 1997). "The Great Divide". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-09-01.
  4. ^ Kakutani, Michiko (29 April 1997). "Pynchon Hits the Road With Mason And Dixon". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-09-01.
  5. ^ Pierce, Leonard (15 June 2009). "Harold Bloom on Blood Meridian". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 2013-09-01.

Further reading[edit]

  • Clerc, Charles. Mason & Dixon & Pynchon. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000.
  • Hinds, Elizabeth Jane Wall, ed. The Multiple Worlds of Pynchon's 'Mason & Dixon': Eighteenth-Century Contexts, Postmodern Observations. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2005.
  • Horvath, Brooke, and Irving Malin, eds. Pynchon and Mason & Dixon. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2000.
  • Kopp, Manfred. Triangulating Thomas Pynchon's Eighteenth-Century World: Theory, Structure, and Paranoia in 'Mason & Dixon'. Essen, Germany: Die Blaue Eule, 2004.
  • Sigvardson, Joakim. Immanence and Transcendence in Thomas Pynchon's 'Mason & Dixon': A Phenomenological Study. Stockholm, Sweden: Almquist & Wiksell International, 2002.

External links[edit]