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  • From the Ground Up:The Evolution of the South-West Africa Chapter in Pynchon's V.
  • Luc Herman (bio) and John M. Krafft (bio)

When Thomas Pynchon sent the rewritten version of his first novel, V., to J. B. Lippincott editor Corlies ("Cork") Smith in the spring of 1962, he explained in his April 19 cover letter that the text was "short...chapter 9, i.e., Mondaugen's SW African adventure." 1 He felt the chapter needed to be redone "from the ground up." Pynchon was only half-finished with the revision at that point, so he asked Smith for "a week or two more to screw around in." If that extension was impossible, then Smith could remove the paragraphs at the end of chapter 8 that led in to the South-West Africa adventure (V. 227–28), a passage in which the narrator introduces German engineer Kurt Mondaugen and describes him as telling his story, "over an abominable imitation of Munich beer" (228), to Herbert Stencil in the Rusty Spoon, a Manhattan bar. On April 26, 1962, Smith encouraged Pynchon "[b]y all means" to "go ahead and screw around with Mondaugen's Southwest Africa adventure" but pleaded for delivery by May 10 "at the outside." [End Page 261] The correspondence we have does not indicate when Pynchon delivered the chapter, but on May 28, Smith wrote, rather laconically, "I think the chapter is fine." 2 Fine, indeed. "Mondaugen's Story" is arguably the finest chapter in V. This essay describes the parallels and differences between an earlier, typescript version of that chapter and the revised, published version, and thereby shows just how fast a learner Pynchon was at the outset of his literary career. By better integrating the chapter with the rest of the novel, he achieved a balance between historical accuracy and creative fictionalization that turned Mondaugen's story as retold by Stencil into a disconcertingly bleak and compelling narrative about twentieth-century dehumanization. Through its development of the dream as a vehicle of (historical) truth, the narrative also suggests a commitment, at this early stage in Pynchon's career, to the power of modernist representation.

The earlier version of the South-West Africa chapter, titled "A Siege-Party," is part of the typescript of V. held by the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. 3 There it is chapter 20 (ts 344–87) out of thirty chapters in all (totaling 685 pages) and runs approximately twelve thousand words, compared to the revised version's nineteen thousand. Strangely, typescript pages 356–59 are said in a Ransom Center note to be "not present in this accession," but the sentence that begins at the bottom of page 355 continues quite coherently at the top of page 360. Throughout the chapter are many small corrections to the typed words in what is probably Pynchon's handwriting. 4 "Mondaugen" is typed as "Mondangen" in most instances, and the second n is not always corrected to a u. Just as in the published novel, the preceding chapter in the typescript leads up to a description of the meeting [End Page 262] between Stencil and Mondaugen in the Rusty Spoon, beginning on page 342. However, page 343 of the typescript is a puzzling sheet. Instead of featuring a normal page number and regular text, it has only "page 343" written large in green pencil, followed by an indecipherable sign, perhaps an ampersand, and the word "original." The handwriting is clearly not Pynchon's.

Long galleys of V., also held by the Ransom Center, seem to provide the missing link. 5 The final, unfinished sentence on typescript page 342—"A week or so later, in one of the secluded side-rooms of the Rusty Spoon, they were arguing over an abominable imitation of Munich beer"—continues in the galleys with "the dilemma of the scientist or positivist in today's decadent world" (lg 86). Mondaugen pursues this topic briefly and then brings up "old captain Godolphin" (lg 87), a major character from an earlier chapter (the Florence episode) who also figures in the story the engineer is about to tell. Mondaugen's comments on science, his mention...


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