Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Mason &Amp; Dixon &Amp; the Ampersand

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Mason &Amp; Dixon &Amp; the Ampersand

Article excerpt

"It goes back," he might have begun, "to the second Day of Creation, when 'G-d made the Firmament, from the waters which were under the Firmament,'--thus the first Boundary Line. All else after that, in all History; is but Sub-Division."

--Mr. Edgewise (Mason & Dixon 360-61)

And wherever you may stand, given the Convexity; each of you is slightly pointed away from everybody else.... Here in the Earth Concave, everyone is pointed at everyone else,--ev'rybody's axes converge,--forc'd at least thus to acknowledge one another,--an entirely different set of rules for how to behave.

--Resident of Terra Concava (Mason & Dixon 741)

for the Times are as impossible to calculate, this Advent, as the Distance to a Star.

--Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke (Mason & Dixon 6)

The story goes that Thomas Pynchon was heavily involved in the graphic design of his 1997 novel Mason & Dixon, inside and out. In particular, he is said to have been involved in the making of the novel's cover (Mxyzptlk). The dust jacket comes in two parts, a paper jacket and a transparent overlay. The paper jacket features the title, in an eighteenth-century-looking typeface, magnified and spread across the front and back. On the front of the transparent overlay are the more legibly sized author name and title running across the top and bottom. It is a distinctive design, but it may also serve a purpose other than marketing. Without making too much of something as (by definition) superficial as cover design, we are given space to think about its significance by the fact of Pynchon's attention to its details. One particular detail that I believe is significant results from the way in which the title is expanded and placed--the ampersand that fills the space between author name and title. In effect, the centra lly placed ampersand is magnified to the point that it moves from the background to become the central element, more illustration than typography.

The emphasis on the ampersand is likely no accident, because it points to what I will argue is a central idea in the book, one that is essential to its vision and so, also, to its difference from its author's earlier works. Mason & Dixon's ampersand is more than historically accurate; it expresses the shift in Pynchon's thinking that the novel represents. As he spins a picaresque historical tale in Mason & Dixon, Pynchon also tells a new, more hopeful story about America, emphasizing relation, connection, and possibility. At the center of this new story is the ampersand.

Mason & Dixon is in many ways a novel about lines. It is the story of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, astronomer and surveyor, who from 1763 to 1767 were in charge of drawing and blazing the 233-mile latitudinal line dividing the Penns' Pennsylvania and Lord Calvert's Maryland, the line that later came to divide North from South, free states from slave. The novel follows them, in part 1, "Latitudes and Departures," from their meeting in 1760, when they travel to Cape Town to observe the Transit of Venus between the earth and the sun and help determine the Solar Parallax, to Mason's side trip to St. Helena for further measurement, to their return to London, and finally, in part 2, "America," to their acceptance and execution of a commission to chart the disputed southern border of Pennsylvania. The novel ends in part 3, "Last Transit," with their return to England, Dixon's death, and Mason's eventual relocation to America. The tale is told by the Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke, who was a member of the expedition and who has come to stay (and stay and stay) with family on the occasion of Mason's demise in 1786. Mason, as astronomer, and Dixon, as surveyor, are professionally dedicated to the measuring, charting, and drawing of lines. The task that occupies the majority of their time in the novel is to plot and cut an 8-yard-wide line. …

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