With fantasy elements, Thomas Pynchon’s epic
historical novel, Mason & Dixon
(1997), is a retelling of how British surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon established the boundary line between Pennsylvania and Maryland. Winning the New York Times
Best Book of the Year in 1997, Mason & Dixon
received a warm critical reception. Pynchon, best known for his complex, elaborate, and imaginative novels, especially his 1966 novel, The Crying of Lot 49
, also writes nonfiction and short stories. A highly elusive man, his physical whereabouts are unknown.
The book opens on a December night in Philadelphia in 1786. The narrator, Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke, is spending the night at his sister’s house, where he plans to entertain his family with stories and anecdotes. His young nephews, bored with listening to the adults talk, ask Cherrycoke to tell them a story with battles and heroic men.
Cherrycoke tells them the story of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon who are responsible for the Mason-Dixon line, a boundary that they drew up just before the American War of Independence. Cherrycoke begins by describing the iconic first meeting between these two men back in Portsmouth, England, in 1761. He admits that he wasn’t at the meeting, but he believes the story told to him by Mason and Dixon.
In England in 1761, everyone is worried about the possibility of the French attacking British cargo ships. The furthest thing from their minds right now is what is happening in America. Mason and Dixon board the ship the Seahorse
, praying that they survive the trip. As expected, French soldiers attack the ship and many British men die.
Cherrycoke, also on the Seahorse
, stays below deck, tending to the injured. Thanking Cherrycoke for his help, Mason and Dixon take the ship back to England for repairs. Agreeing to travel with them when the ship is ready, Cherrycoke soon sets off with the men to South Africa.
In South Africa, Mason and Dixon clash with the locals. Dixon enjoys sleeping around, not caring if he impregnates anyone. He doesn’t plan to take responsibility for any children. Mason, on the other hand, cannot stomach the thought of leaving a child behind. He restrains himself, not having sex with anyone.
Cherrycoke learns that the men are astronomers. They are charting the Transit of Venus from different parts of the world. The purpose of charting the sky is to make it easier for British ships to navigate the seas. One day, however, the British authorities order Mason to travel to St. Helena while Dixon stays in Cape Town; the men fear that their days mapping the stars together are over.
The astronomers reunite briefly in England before they go their separate ways again. Mason returns to his family, who beg him to leave the skies alone. He has two young sons with whom he doesn’t spend nearly enough time. Meanwhile, Dixon returns to his mentor, William Emerson. William wants Dixon to join the Jesuits, but he cannot face the idea of giving up stargazing.
One day, the Crown assigns Mason and Dixon a job in America. They barely set foot on American soil before they are visited by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin wants to know more about their political and religious affiliations, particularly Dixon’s possible connection to the Jesuits. Franklin wants to build a communications network around America, and he believes the Jesuits can help.
Mason and Dixon head west to chart the boundaries of Philadelphia. Worrying about the violence against Native Americans, they wonder how they can avoid the fighting. At this point, Cherrycoke and his family reflect on how poorly the Americans treat the native people. They are glad that Mason and Dixon feel the same way.
A year later, Mason and Dixon attempt to plot out a Philadelphia boundary line. They bicker about the right way to set the line and their measurements never match up. As they work to find a solution to the boundary problem, fighting erupts all around them, and they reflect on what it means to be at war.
Mason and Dixon finally go their separate ways again. Mason heads to Long Island and learns more about how the wider public feels about colonization. Dixon heads to Virginia where he spends more time with Benjamin Franklin, indulging in good food and too much gambling. Losing money, he heads for Newark, where he plans to meet Mason.
From Newark, they journey together across America, completing their boundary line as they go. When they finish drawing up the boundary line for Philadelphia, they return to England, where they are posted to separate assignments. They never work together again, but now, they are more than work colleagues. They are best friends who traveled the world together.