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American Literary History 12.1&2 (2000) 187-215



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Sari, Sorry, and the Vortex of History:
Calendar Reform, Anachronism, and Language Change in Mason & Dixon

Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds

Who will see that all past time is driven back by the future, that all the future is consequent on the past, and all past and future are created and take their course from that which is ever present? . . . I have heard from a certain learned man that the movements of the sun, moon, and stars constitute time, but I did not agree with him.

Augustine, Confessions, Books 11 & 23

In one of Mason & Dixon's countless flashbacks, Jeremiah Dixon's infamous teacher, William Emerson, nails down the late-eighteenth-century scientific project:

The Telescope, the Fluxions, the invention of Logarithms and the frenzy of multiplication, often for its own sake, that follow'd [Emerson's training] have for Emerson all been steps of an unarguable approach to God, a growing clarity,--Gravity, the Pulse of Time, the finite speed of Light present themselves to him as aspects of God's character. It's like becoming friendly with an erratic, powerful, potentially dangerous member of the Aristocracy. He holds no quarrel with the Creator's sovereignty, but is repeatedly appall'd at the lapses in Attention, the flaws in Design, the squand'rings of life and energy, the failures to be reasonable, or to exercise common sense,--first appall'd, then angry. We are taught,--we believe,--that it is love of the Creation which [End Page 187] drives the Philosopher in his Studies. Emerson is driven, rather, by a passionate Resentment. (220)

Emerson's resentment makes him no less representative of the late-eighteenth-century scientific mood: to "discover" the laws of nature--and thereby to know God--encouraged the naming of data empirically recorded, data such as the Transit of Venus. Such recording, on paper if not always on the earth's body itself, as with Charles Mason and Dixon's five-milestones, fulfilled the Royal Society's mission of improving knowledge in the physical sciences, meanwhile bringing in an era of physical mapping approaching the metaphysical. Alongside this new classificatory urge came a passion for "correction," not only to "set the record" of nature straight so far as God's laws of nature go but also to settle human understanding--and sometimes nature itself--to accord with those laws.

My essay will explore two such attempts at "correction" via "mapping" in the decade before Mason and Dixon's mission in the New World: Samuel Johnson's Dictionary (1755), an attempt to capture and record language as spoken at an ironically fertile period of linguistic change, and the calendar reform from Old Style to New Style, resulting in a correction of human lived days to accord with the data of the heavens--a correction resulting in the loss of the eleven days so worrisome to Pynchon's Charles Mason. I will also investigate some of the cultural ramifications of these "corrective" measures inasmuch as they participated in redefinitions of class in eighteenth-century England and the US. If the Royal Society's mission was to map a more scientifically accurate account of the universe and its laws, the new boundaries established by the Royal Society's efforts were just that: new maps drawn over old maps already in place. Johnson's was not the first dictionary, or even the first dictionary of English, for example; the New Style calendar reestablished days of the year, but it did not invent the days any more than the Mason-Dixon line reinvented state or national boundaries. But like the Mason-Dixon line, dictionary making and calendar reform served the symbolic purpose of clarifying the old maps, of signifying a scientifically "modern" understanding of space and time, finally of physically recording a culture intent on redesigning the natural world in light of intellectual categories. Mason & Dixon reenacts these attempts, but perhaps more importantly it records personal and cultural undoings of scientific borders so...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4365
Print ISSN
0896-7148
Pages
pp. 187-215
Launched on MUSE
2000-04-01
Open Access
No
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