In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Postmodern Historiography: Politics and the Parallactic Method in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon
  • Christy L. Burns (bio)
Abstract

In Mason & Dixon, Pynchon develops an important new method for postmodern political insight, introducing a parallactic method that allows him a dialectical representation of “America” as it was in the mid-to-late eighteenth century and as it is now, by various implications. In his use of parallax, Pynchon interweaves a critical representation of imperialism’s oppressive practices with a history of science and exploration. While other writers have invoked parallax as a perspectival method in order to challenge univocal narrative form, Pynchon works the concept more radically into his fictional treatment of historiography. Avoiding any semblance of an apolitical sketch of the past—or simple didactic critique—he uses the same method that Mason and Dixon employed to chart the transits of Venus and to draw their boundary line, applying parallax to a series of triangulated views, starting with Mason’s and Dixon’s attempts to assess the New World and eventually delivering a temporal form of parallax, a synchronization of the past with the present. Pynchon’s latest novel becomes his most political one, addressing social concerns such as racism, sexism, market culture, and agency. The novel critiques America’s past (and by implication its present) while also recasting history, reinterpreting it in a way that might influence future trajectories. Pynchon continues his long-established interrogation of pragmatic America’s optimism about agency, while invoking a larger cultural imaginary in search of a new national/cultural image. —clb

In 1997, Thomas Pynchon published Mason & Dixon, his much anticipated history of America written from the perspectives of the astronomer and surveyor sent over from England to draw the famous boundary line. Their work was necessitated by a long-standing dispute between overlapping land grants of the Penns, of Pennsylvania, and the Baltimores, of Maryland1; the job took nearly five years, from 1763 to 1768, and during that time the journals and letters of these two men record alternating shock and fascination with the functioning of society in the New World (see Mason). Pynchon draws on this historical material to create a fantastic, comedic, and at times seriously political novel. Pynchon’s work has always inclined toward the voices of cultural dissent—the counterculture of the 1960s being one of his more obvious inspirations, and the rebellion of the Luddites against mechanization a subtle revelation.2 In Vineland, however, Pynchon’s critique of governmental authority takes on a more central role, and in Mason & Dixon—which was some twenty-four years in the making—he develops an important new method for postmodern political insight.3 Pynchon introduces a parallactic method that allows him a full and yet contentiously dialectical representation of “America” as it was in the mid- to late eighteenth century and as it is now, by various implications. In his use of parallax, Pynchon interweaves a critical representation of imperialism’s oppressive practices alongside a history of science and exploration. While other writers, like James Joyce, have invoked parallax as a perspectival method in order to challenge univocal narrative form, Pynchon works the concept more radically into his fictional treatment of historiography.4 Avoiding any semblance of an apolitical sketch of the past—or simple didactic critique—he uses the same method that Mason and Dixon employed to chart the transits of Venus and to draw their boundary line, applying parallax to a series of triangulated views, starting with Mason’s and Dixon’s attempts to assess the New World and eventually delivering a temporal form of parallax, a synchronization of the past with the present.

In her review of positions on postmodernism’s politics, Susan Rubin Suleiman identifies three general clusters among intellectuals and writers: those who pursue a “postmodernism of resistance” through experimental work that allows previously silenced groups to speak in contra-normative modes of representation; those who argue that postmodernism lacks a firmness of values and principles and so fails to have any political effect (that is, it disavows universals); and finally those whom Suleiman identifies as “cultural pessimists,” who believe neither in the efficacy of decentered experimentation nor in the claims of universals (the...

Additional Information

ISSN
1053-1920
Launched on MUSE
2003-11-05
Open Access
No
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.