American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

MASON & DIXON (1997). Thomas Pynchon (1937- ) refers to the sea extensively in the first 200 pages of his 773-page novel Mason & Dixon. Some twenty years after the fact, Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke is recounting a sailing expedition that he undertook in January 1761 aboard the British frigate Seahorse and his shipboard encounter with Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who are ostensibly sailing around the world to regain their “sanity.” Images of eighteenth-century nautical life abound, including depictions of sailors with mouths open, with braided hair, wearing strange hats, puffing on pipes, and eating potatoes. Some seamen are described as jealous and loutish and frequently drunk, especially when asked to perform duties high in the masts or below on the lower deck. Others are desperate and dirty, and still others are daring and full of good humor. Once Mason and Dixon begin to map the American territories, the locale shifts from shipboard to the southern part of the United States, and the nautical references cease.

Too little is known about Pynchon’s reclusive life to speculate about his penchant for including such detailed seafaring information as, for example, that no sailing ship would come intentionally to the windward side of another. In one significant nautical image, Mason compares the loss of his wife to having lost his anchor, drifting in unknown waters, and trying to reorient himself by aligning his position with celestial bodies and planets.

A voyage backward and forward in time, the novel may have been set in the eighteenth century, but the issues addressed, such as slavery, boundaries, and questions of time and moral responsibility, are of contemporary importance. [See also V.]

Ralph Berets