The Rocket

“An injustice that will not cancel out”:
Slavery and the Voice of the Victim in Mason & Dixon

By Michael D. Koontz

Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (1997), as an example of postmodern historiography, reveals how “history” is problematical: “history” is not linear, progressive, or necessarily based upon factual evidence. As Jerome McGann’s argues in “History, Herstory, Theirstory, Ourstory,” positivistic or empirical knowledge is neither complete or stable insofar as it too depends upon who is “reading” the facts — that is, each “reading” depends upon the reader, a person who has been affected by differing “inertias” (or Geists) of the time in which the facts were read and interpreted. But Mason & Dixon lends a voice to those who, historically, have not had a voice. In other words, within the “great Tangle of Lines” and the “Mnemonick Deep,” Mason & Dixon gives voice to slaves of the late-Eighteenth Century. Pynchon revisits this period, it seems, so as to explore what the Enlightenment really accomplished insofar as the (political and religious) freedom of men is concerned. In other words, like Voltaire’s pseudo-philosopher Pangloss, the Geist of the Enlightenment promised that “‘all is for the best’” (Candide 23), that because of the Age of Reason — i.e., the Age of Discovery, the Age of Science — mankind would enter into a new phase of history in which man’s new-found “inalienable rights” would grant him freedom to live and do as he pleased without political or religious oppression. Yet, for Pynchon, this promise was not realized, for as we find in Mason & Dixon, behind the Age of Reason lies a “wrong unrighted” (68): slavery.
In his recent account of Mason and Dixon, Edwin Danson reports, In Drawing the Line: How Mason and Dixon Surveyed the Most Famous Border in America (2000), that

In 1750, the Merchants Trading to Africa Company, the last major London company engaged in the nefarious [slave] trade, began slaving out of Bristol. In the year Mason and Dixon voyaged to America, slaving was at its height, with more than 150 ships transporting forty-five thousand Africans annually across the Atlantic to the American colonies. Thirty-five percent went to the settlements of New England, but the majority went to the middle and southern provinces; 10 percent of Maryland’s population was made up of African slaves working the tobacco fields. (8)

With this information in mind, the story of Mason and Dixon seems almost inconsequential next to the horror and shock that Cherrycoke causes us to witness and experience in his narrative. Thus, it is evident that Pynchon wants us to see that slavery actually undermines and problematizes our fond recollection of the Age of Reason, for it causes us to re-vision what really happened, what really transpired during the development of America as, at first, an independent nation and, now, the only remaining superpower in the late-Twentieth and early-Twenty-first Centuries. Pynchon uses, then, the story of Mason and Dixon as a vehicle to situate us in a historical period that needs to be reexamined, to be retold so as to force us to confront the difficult, if not incredulous and untold, versions of America’s past — to see the other side of the (historical) Line, as it were. Here, we should note that Pynchon does not necessarily sympathize with slaves — he allows his characters to do so.
Before we continue with this discussion, however, we need to point out that critics of Mason & Dixon have failed to offer us in-depth analyses of slavery in the novel perhaps because criticism of Mason & Dixon, on the whole, is scarce (although it is slowly emerging), or perhaps because the issue of slavery is unworthy of discussion — that is, as it relates to the novel, for, to some, it may be only pointing out the obvious. Nonetheless, some critics do, in fact, make references to slavery in Mason & Dixon, however, only in passing. For example, in “Thomas Pynchon and the Fault Lines of America,” David J. Greiner contends that Mason & Dixon explores the failure(s) of America before it was even settled and, later, when America won its independence from England: “In the eyes of the European settlers, America should have been innocent, but the two surveyors and the reader learn that no one is ever free” (75). Greiner’s observation is not only poignant and perspicacious, but it also lends support to the notion that despite what side of the Line we are on — master or slave, nation or colony — we are inextricably bound to the consequences of history. For Greiner, “Death, defeat, and the New World: not exactly what Columbus, the Pilgrims, Mason and Dixon, and the Founding Fathers had in mind” (75). Moreover, despite his discouraging reading of the novel, he is correct to assert that “Pynchon […] takes care to situate Mason & Dixon in the context of a violent American history that challenges the ideal of American innocence” (77). However, Greiner forgets to note that Mason & Dixon is not set only in America: Pynchon takes our two surveyors to South Africa and Britain where they are either witnesses to or victims of the ills of slavery (in the broadest sense), or both.
Jeff Baker, in “Plucking the American Albatross,” echoes Greiner’s conclusions, adding:

Certainly, in Mason & Dixon, Pynchon emphasizes this aspect of the conflicts that characterized the birth of the United States more than another. Slavery, in fact, permeates the novel, and its grim aspect is evident long before the surveyor and the astronomer reach the colonies. (172)

Aside from this comment above, Baker’s discussion is centered upon the inherent contradictions between “the revolutionary rhetoric” (172) and the actual aim of the American revolution — to secure the freedom of the Americans so that they could “protect” (172) the slave trade so as to perpetuate their “economic foundation” (172), and, in the end, win their independence. The irony in this, Baker points out, is that while America freed itself from its master, Britain, America continued to enslave Africans for its economic betterment. Thus, America’s position along the master-slave Line was reversed when it seceded from Britain: it became the enslaver rather than the enslaved.
Baker rightly points out that in the novel, “Mason and Dixon are so surprised to see [slavery] in the colonies” (172). Their surprise is, however, already apparent before they voyage to America during a conversation about Bradley’s death, the Royal Society, and their excursion to South Africa while tracking the Transit of Venus. In the following example, the emergence of an American identity — as separate or apart from Britain — is certainly part of Dixon’s consciousness, an identity differentiated on the basis of slavery. Mason begins:

“[…] Savages, Wilderness. No one even knows what’s out there. And we have just, do you appreciate, contracted, to place a Line directly thro’ it? Doesn’t it strike you as a little unreasonable?”
“Not to mention the Americans…?”
“Excuse me? They are at least all British there, — aren’t they? The Place is but a Patch of England, at a three-thousand-Mile Off-set. Isn’t it?”
“Eeh! Eeh! Thoo can be so thoughtful, helping me cheer up wi’ thy Joaks, Mason, — I’m fine, really, — ”
“Dixon, hold, — are you telling me now, that Americans are not British? — You’ve heard this somewhere?”
“No more than the Cape Dutch are Dutch…? ’Tis said these people keep Slaves, as did our late Hosts, — that they are likewise inclin’d to kill the People already living where they wish to settle, — ”
“Another Slave-Colony…so I’ve heard, as well. Christ.” (248)

Here, Dixon distinguishes between what it means to be British and what it means to be American: that to be American is to enslave and, in the case of the Native Americans, eradicate people for the purpose of colonizing a “Patch of England.” Moreover, Dixon’s dialogue reveals disdain for slavery — he considers Mason’s ignorance of American slavery so outlandish that Dixon thinks Mason’s “Joaks” are an attempt to lighten his mood. Thus, Mason’s “Christ” is a response which elicits his shared attitude that Americans are uncivilized people who, unlike the British, not only live in the “Wilderness” physically, but also, because Americans condone slavery, live in the “Wilderness” metaphorically.
With this in mind, In “Lightness and Gravity: Calvino, Pynchon, and Postmodernity,” Alessia Ricciardi claims that such a reading “ought to prompt an examination of the relationship between formations of the postmodern and of national identity” (1062), which, for our purposes, is sensible if only because we have noted that Pynchon returns to the Enlightenment so as to examine its effects on contemporary America. What is important to take away from Ricciardi’s article is the following:

The basic narrative, then, looks like a failed quest romance insofar as the line drawn by the two surveyors is of little help in mapping the uncharted continent and thus creating order our of chaos. Finally, the characters will end up questioning the very principle of mapping, as the project of the line increasingly comes to symbolize the frontier’s violence. It is precisely through it artificial formalization of the border between a free and slave state that the line serves as a reminder of the pervasive ugliness of colonialism, constantly bringing to mind the white man’s massacre of the Indians and the brutal commerce of slavery. (1065)

For Ricciardi, the United States’ national identity is, then, consistent with our analysis of the above dialogue between Mason and Dixon. But, as Edwin Danson notes, “when Mason and Dixon stepped ashore in Philadelphia that gray November day [15 November 1763], the America they found was substantially different from the one they expected” (Drawing the Line 7). Yet, unlike Pynchon’s personages, the historical Mason’s and Dixon’s astonishment at America was not due to slavery — at least according to Danson — but rather to the American colonists’ “Discontent and anger” (7) directed towards King George III and the British Parliament, for the colonies found themselves without voting rights or representation in Parliament all the while paying taxes to, and thus supporting, the British Empire. It is only later, for Danson, that “the Mason-Dixon line acquired a darker, more sinister meaning” (9). For, as William Ecenbarger confirms in Walkin’ the Line: A Journey from Past to Present Along the Mason-Dixon (2000), the Line “came to symbolize the division between the slaveholding South and the free North” (13) during the Congressional debates over the Missouri Compromise of 1820.
On this note, Charles Clerc concludes, in Mason & Dixon & Pynchon (2000),

So the Mason-Dixon Line that was meant to solve problems by its very presence created more problems than ever anticipated. The line itself has no moral or spiritual basis — it was only a line, a scar, a swath, but it has many symbolic ramifications. The line created fracture, divisiveness, fragmentation, in the same way slavery did. (104)

However, for Pynchon, the Line does have a moral and spiritual basis, but only because he has the privilege of looking back, as it were, to the effects the Line had on America. That is to say, the Mason-Dixon Line metamorphosed in the minds of Americans from something that “represents order, clarity, finiteness” (104) — something that, in its conception would solve a boundary dispute — to something “imperialistic” (104), divisive, and, in the end, racist.
In his new study, Negative Liberties: Morrison, Pynchon, and the Problem of Liberal Ideology (2001), Cyrus R. K. Patell claims, “Slavery in the United States […] was not simply a matter of being designated free or unfree; it was also a matter of being white or black. […] in the United States racism played a powerful role in the perpetuation of slavery because it mitigated what would otherwise be a clear contradiction of the idea[s]” (84) espoused by the Declaration of Independence. Patell argues that negative liberty — a concept, born of “Enlightenment philosophy” (82), which means that individualism does not only consist of “self-possession and self-fulfillment” (82) but also possession of property (in a broad sense) — is at the root of slavery (property) and thus a “deformed U.S. culture” (83). Moreover, as we have pointed out, Patell’s justification for slavery insofar as it violates the Declaration of Independence is based upon the justification of racism: i.e., that “black people are inferior creatures and therefore deserve to be nothing but property” (85).
Patell’s argument is well-grounded and situates Mason & Dixon against the backdrop of Enlightenment values: Reason, science, progress, individualism, “inalienable rights” (in the Lockean sense: life, liberty, and property):

[…] with Mason & Dixon, which depicts a world of imperialism in which slavery is ubiquitous, Pynchon makes his closest approach yet to [Toni] Morrison’s territory. Together, these two writers help us to expose the flaws within the national narrative that U.S. culture has woven around its conception of individual freedom and to imagine a new cosmopolitanism able to promote the ideals of self-autonomy and self-expression and to expose and defeat slavery and oppression wherever they exist. Morrison and Pynchon thus point the way to a new way of conceiving individual and communal identity that will enable us to reject the Old, Bad History and begin to write anew. (196)

Here, Patell provides us with a compelling argument: that Pynchon (along with Morrison) is writing so as to educate his audience — casual and professional readers — to rethink what individualism means and what its implications are with respect to the Enlightenment, and to re-vision what it means to be an American in the late-Twentieth and early Twenty-first Centuries (in other words, over the past two hundred years, have we really resolved the nightmare of slavery insofar as it is a part of our past?). But, the question must be asked: why rewrite history? Why look back, as it were, to an America before it was the United States? Indeed, Patell suggests that we must rid the national narrative of “Bad History” in order to re-conceptualize individualism within a “communal identity.” The problem with this conclusion is that it supposes that a) we can rewrite history (if history does, in fact, exist), and b) we can thus rid ourselves of the past and “begin to write anew.”
It is not the purpose of this chapter to argue for or against history — we have already discussed this issue in the Chapter One. However, we must note here that, according to postcolonialist Derek Walcott in “The Muse of History,” historians have written the voice of the underrepresented out of what we consider history. In a passage on historiography, Walcott writes:

[…] the method by which we are taught the past, the progress from motive to event, is the same by which we read narrative fiction. In time every event becomes an exertion of memory and is thus subject to invention. The farther the facts, the more history petrifies into myth. Thus, as we grow older as a race, we grow aware that history is written, that it is a kind of literature without morality, that in its actuaries the ego of the race is indissoluble and that everything depends on whether we write this fiction through the memory of hero or victim. (371)

Referring to “patrician writers” (370) who venerate history as objective and factual, Walcott is questioning the notion of “historical truth” (371) and its validity. That is to say, what we call history — what we often associate with fact, truth, and tradition — depends solely on who is reporting history: “hero or victim.” In this case, “hero” refers to slaveholder and “victim” to slave. Walcott asks, “But who in the New World does not have a horror of the past, whether his ancestor was torturer or victim? Who, in the depth of conscience, is not silently screaming for pardon or for revenge?” (371). Since the voice of the slave has been silenced by virtue of “amnesia” (372) — or, what he calls “pietistic” (372) colonial literature — the only thing that the marginalized slave (or voice) can do is “try and understand why this happened” (372), although, for Walcott, there is no definitive conclusion to understanding.
With Walcott’s vision of history in mind, and history’s bias toward the master, what can be said of Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon is simply that it is a novel which attempts to give a narrative voice to the slave, i.e., to the “victim.” Whether Wicks Cherrycoke reports Mason’s and Dixon’s visit to South Africa and St. Helena, Britain, or America, we find that Mason & Dixon is laden with discussions about the enslavement of African peoples, the massacre of Native Americans (or, Indians), and the victimization of people relatively powerless trapped within a power structure (e.g., Mason and Dixon by the Royal Society). And, through Cherrycoke, Mason, and Dixon, we see that Pynchon is “screaming for pardon,” that is, he wants to expose the horrors and injustices of slavery, and to treat the victimized peoples in the novel sympathetically and humanely. For instance, after an exchange between Cherrycoke and Ives and Elizabeth LeSpark about the Lepton Ridotto (Chapter 41) — a ridotto being a gathering for music and dance, often in masquerade (popular in Eighteenth Century England) — that they all attended at Lord and Lady Leptons’ Castle, Cherrycoke writes the following in his journal:

“What is not visible in [Ives LeSpark’s] rendering […] is the Negro Slavery, that goes on making such no doubt exquisite moments possible, — the inhuman ill-usage, the careless abundance of pain inflicted, the unpric’d Coercion necessary to yearly Profits beyond the projectings even of proud Satan. In the shadows where the Forge’s glow does not reach, or out uncomforted beneath the vaporous daylight of Chesapeake, bent to the day’s loads of Fuel from the vanishing Hard-wood Groves nearby, or breathing in the mephitic Vapors of the bloomeries, — wordlessly and, as some may believe, patiently, they bide everywhere, the undeclared secular terms in the Equations of Proprietary Happiness.” (412)

Cherrycoke, as we can see, sympathizes with the plight of the slaves in America (and, it should be said, in South Africa). What is more, the fact that they exist “wordlessly” lends credence to our argument that Cherrycoke recognizes their voicelessness, the “pain inflicted” on their lives for the good of “Profits.”
The passage above further shows us that Ives’s “rendering” is nothing more than that — a rendering, but one that does not give voice to the slave. Cherrycoke, by virtue of his own comments, does provide us with his “rendering” and thus foregrounds his biases in the novel; in other words, Cherrycoke’s reading of Ives’s story is one in which Cherrycoke reveals his preoccupation with slavery. This explains, perhaps, why Cherrycoke takes us to South Africa and America, for Mason and Dixon encounter slavery in both. Moreover, we must recall and keep in mind that Cherrycoke’s immediate audience — i.e., the people to whom he is telling this story — is his family: J. Wade and Elizabeth LeSpark and their children (Tenebrae, Pitt and Pliny), Ives LeSpark (J. Wade’s brother) and his son (Ethelmer). In fact, Pynchon tells us that Cherrycoke’s “Tale” (6) is a children’s story:

Thus, they [Cherrycoke’s family] have heard the Escape from Hottentot-Land, the Accursed Ruby of Mogok, the Ship-wrecks in the Indies East and West, — an Herodotic Web of Adventures and Curiosities selected, the Revd implies, for their moral usefulness, whilst avoiding others not as suitable in the Hearing of Youth. The Youth, as usual, not being consulted in this. (7)

As we said in Chapter One, Cherrycoke’s story is deliberately didactic — it is meant, in the traditions of Horace and Sidney, to teach and delight. What is disturbing about this “‘Tale about America’” (7) is, as Cherrycoke tells us, “‘It begins with a Hanging’” (8). In other words, the association of violence with America (and the story as a whole) both entertains and teaches — on the one hand, Cherrycoke commences the story in order to produce excitement (“‘Excellent!’ cry the Twins” [8]), but, on the other hand, it teaches the LeSpark family that America, even before its inception as an independent nation, was violent and malevolent. And for our purposes here, this malevolence is in the form of slavery.
Our first encounter with slavery in the novel occurs when Mason and Dixon arrive in Cape Town, South Africa (Chapter 7). Cherrycoke reports before this, however, that

“[…] To change Hemispheres is not abstract turn, — our Attentions to the Royal Baby, and the rest of it, were Tolls exacted for passage thro’ the Gate of the single shadowless Moment, and into the South, with a newly constellated Sky, and all-unforeseen ways of living and dying. So must there be a Ritual of Crossing Over, serving to focus each Pollywog’s Mind upon the Step he was taking.” (56)

What is important to note in this passage is Cherrycoke’s association with “the South” with “all-foreseen ways of living and dying,” for this seems to foreshadow what we encounter in America: south of the Mason-Dixon Line is considered the American South, the section of the United States associated with slavery. Moreover, to cross into the South — to pass beyond a threshold — implies that Mason and Dixon (and we) will encounter something new yet problematical, something that defies the norms and values we are accustomed to north of the Equator (and, more specifically, in Europe). This conclusion is evident when the twins Pitt and Pliny say, “‘It [the crossing of the Equator] sounds more like a Punishment. Did somebody make it a crime to cross the Equator?’” (56). The Revd explains that when one does cross into the Southern Hemisphere, “‘[…] for one Instant […] our Shadows lay perfectly beneath us’” (56), which resembles one holding one’s breath. That is, one recognizes that he or she is entering “[…] this new Hemisphere, this haunted and other half of ev’rything known, where spirit-powers run free among the green abysses and the sudden mountain crests” (58). In other words, it is a part of the world which is uncivilized and does not rely on Reason and science to make sense of the world.
When Bonk, the Dutch police officer, asks Mason and Dixon why they have traveled to Cape Town, Dixon responds, “‘We’ve but come to observe the Sky…?’” (59). Bonk is suspicious of their motives (after all, Mason and Dixon are English) and retorts, “‘To “observe” anything more Worldly, — Our Fortifications, Our Slaves, — nothing like that, eh?’” (59). But this is exactly what Mason and Dixon do: they have gone to South Africa in order to track the transit of Venus and, during their stay, they observe (or survey) Dutch Cape Town. The juxtaposition between “Sky” and “Worldly” suggests a Line between the ideal (the sky) and reality (the world). And so, as a police officer, Bonk is a “Functionary” (58) of the Dutch government and is thus a spokesperson and representative of a colonial nation — therefore, his assumption, his attitude is one of a “hero,” or master. He presumes that slavery is a condition of the world, that it is ubiquitous. Mason, in turn, “remonstrates” (59) and assures Bonk that his and Dixon’s business is that of the British King. Nonetheless, Bonk is still suspicious: “Yet if Mason is acting so unrestrain’d with a Deputy direct from the Castle itself, how much more dangerous may his rattling be in the hearing of others, — even of Slaves? He [Mason] must therefore be enter’d in the Records as a Person of Interest” (59). Here, Bonk defends the arrogant colonial attitude that “‘As upon a ship at sea, we do things here in our own way, — we, the officers, and you, the passengers. […] As there is nowhere to escape to, easier to do as the Captain and Officers request, eh?’” (59). Like slaves, Mason and Dixon must abide by the rule of the Dutch “Functionar[ies]” and cause “‘no disruptions’” (59) to the system(s) of order in place. This explains why Bonk records Mason (and Dixon) and in his “Records as a Person of Interest” — thus we see that Bonk is a slave in the sense that he follows the rules and regulations of the Dutch authority. (And, as we continue to read the novel, we discover that Bonk too grows “sick of the Company’s control [… and] puts his family in an ox wagon and heads north to become a farmer” [qtd. in Clerc 127] in order to be free).
Mason and Dixon then penetrate deeper into the Dutch colonial structure/system in South Africa, moving from Bonk (who, as we have said, represents the governmental/legal/policing aspect of colonialism) to the Vroom family (who represent the culture of a colonial nation): “[…] this European settlement so precarious, facing an unknown Interior with the sea at their backs, forced, step after step, by the steadfast Gravity of all Africa, down into it at last…. It is another way of living where the Sea is higher than one’s Head, and kept out provisionally” (63). Much like America with its “unknown Interior with the sea at their backs,” Cape Town sits between the uncanny, unfamiliar land and threatening sea. Thus, it is not surprising that

[…] the Dutch have sifted Dixon as unreliable in any white affairs here. They have noted his unconceal’d attraction to the Malays and the Black slaves, — their Food, their Appearance, their Music, and so, it must be obvious, their desires to be deliver’d out of oppression. (61)

As the Dutch neither have the comprehension to make sense of or the vocabulary to describe/categorize him, Dixon is “swiftly deem’d eccentric” (61) and “Simply Not Suitable” (61). Dixon’s behavior — i.e., his interaction with the Malays and slaves — threatens the Dutch colonial power structure, for, by interacting with the oppressed, Dixon is implicitly recognizing them as human beings, as people. Dixon’s interplay with slaves, thus, disrupts the Enlightenment notion of liberty — as Patell has pointed out — that slaves were treated as property simply because of their race (i.e., as Cherrycoke tells us above, these people are “Black”).
Cornelius Vroom — “Patriarch” (62) of the Vroom family — perpetuates the division between masters and slaves — that masters are human beings and slaves are property. Cherrycoke reports that Cornelius “has forbidden his daughters [Jet, Greet, and Els] to eat any of the native Cookery, particularly that of the Malay, in his Belief that the Spices encourage Adolescents into ‘Sin,’ by which he means Lust that crosses racial barriers” (62 – 63). Here, we can exterpolate that Cornelius’s bigotry has been learned (for this to be true, we must accept the idea that “Beliefs” are taught and learned) and is being passed onto his children (this example, of course, flies in-the-face of Cherrycoke’s liberal didacticism). What is more, Cornelius translates, and thus equates, lust into sin into race. Put another way: Cornelius’s conservatism — i.e., his fear of change or diversity — and religiosity (“Sin”) undermine his capacity to see, so-to-speak, beyond “the coming Armageddon of races” (63); that is to say, Cornelius’s anxiety (“anxious meditations” [63]) breeds his fear of change, his fear of diversity (which becomes ever so important when we think about the American melting-pot). As Jerry A. Varsava argues in “Thomas Pynchon and Postmodern Liberalism,” “[…] liberalism […] refer[s] to that short list of beliefs that liberals have traditionally called virtues — toleration, respect for civil liberties, acknowledgement of property rights, concern for the disadvantaged, (qualified) faith in reason, etc.” (64). While Varsava’s discussion focuses on two of Pynchon’s earlier novels, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Vineland (1990), his definition of liberalism is appropriate to our discussion here, for we should immediately recognize that Cornelius does not embrace the tenets of liberal thought. He does not want his children to interact with Black slaves or Malays for fear that they (the children) may become tainted by — i.e., that his children may come to accept, like Dixon — the Malays and Black slaves, thus becoming “Simply Not Suitable” (61).
This point may explain why Cornelius “keeps loaded Elephant-Guns in both the front hallway and the Dispens in back” (Mason & Dixon 63), for the threat of invasion (i.e., the invasion of liberal ideas) scares him. This fear is, if it is not already apparent, particularly acute in Cornelius’s “Belief” that “the native Cookery” is somehow infested with “Spices” that encourages one to commit sin, which, in this case, may not necessarily entail a transgression of God’s law or commandments, but rather an offense which is reprehensible or unacceptable to a community/culture (although we should not overlook the moral/religious implications). While Cornelius may not necessarily truly believe his own absurd logic, he nevertheless has contrived a barrier, as it were, between his family (the colonists) and the natives (the colonized) based on the notion of sin, of breaking with the norm (which we might also say about how the colonists and early Americans justified their wars and eradication of Native Americans). He has constructed, in turn, a cultural barrier founded on everything that is illiberal and colonial: intolerance, racism, elitism, and emotion (fear, religion). Thus, if the Vroom children are prohibited from crossing such a line, or division, then they too will become incapable of hearing or listening to the voices of the underrepresented — like their father, they will know only the arrogant colonial voice, what Walcott explains as a product of the reporter (i.e., the voice of the “hero or victim”). However, Pynchon implies that such intolerance creates a “restless House-hold” (60) and causes paranoia (a familiar Pynchon theme), as is the case with Cornelius and his fellow colonists:

Deep in the curfew hours, in bed with his pipe, he imagines laughter outside windows, even when the wind drowns out every sound, — slave laughter. He knows they watch him, and he tries to pay close Attention to the nuances of their speech. Somewhat as his Neighbors each strenuous Sunday profess belief in the Great Struggle at the End of the World, so does Cornelius, inside his perimeter of Mauritian smoke at the hour when nothing is lawfully a-stir but the Rattle-Watch and the wind, find in his anxious meditations no Release from the coming of Armageddon of the races […]. (63)

Cornelius is, it seems, haunted by what Cherrycoke calls “slave laughter,” which signals to us that Cornelius may in fact understand that Black slaves and Malays are people and not property, for their laughter (humor) is part of the human experience and implies emotion, sentience, and the ability to communicate (which, in turn, implies intelligence). It signals to Cornelius that “they” are not so different than “us.” If this is the case, then perhaps Cornelius’s paranoia can be viewed as a form of guilt which is, on the whole, suppressed by the rigidity of his conservative values. His suppression can only be explained by the fact that he “imagines laughter outside” — i.e., his guilt haunts his conscience.
Diverging for a moment from an examination of the Vroom family, we must familiarize ourselves with the idea of ghosts in literature (after all, we have suggested that Cornelius is haunted by guilt, but guilt for what exactly?). Mason & Dixon is saturated with references to ghosts and, as we can see from the long passage above, the wind (which we shall suggest is the force of the ghost, ever reminding us, and the characters, that the novel is in fact haunted). According to Miguel Tamen in “Phenomenology of the Ghost: Revision in Literary History,” “a ghost is an apparition, a force from the past, from which nothing but its incalculable, if invariably unpleasant, effect may follow” (295). From this definition, it is easy to understand that what haunts Cornelius also haunts us: the history of slavery in the world and, for Pynchon, the inherent problem/contradiction between slavery and an America founded on “certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What is more, Tamen offers us the notion of “controlling ghosts” (297), which he defines as the following: “It seems that the control of a vision implies the notion that in a certain sense we already possess, at least potentially, its ultimate meaning, a foreknowledge of its ultimate consequences” (297). For us, this may be best explained via Cornelius: his guilt may stem, as we have suggested, from his recognition (at least, subconsciously) that Malays and slaves are human. But why this should haunt him, Tamen might suggest, is simply due to the fact that he may understand, at an inherent level, that slavery will be problematical — especially in the face of the French and American Revolutions which sought freedom for all peoples.
For example, Cherrycoke explains that a ghost is indeed what haunts us, whether it be imaginary, real, or a convention employed to explain what cannot be explained:

Men of Reason will define a Ghost as nothing more otherworldly than a wrong unrighted, which like an uneasy spirit cannot move on, — needing help we cannot usually give, — nor always find the people it needs to see, — or who need to see it. But here is a Collective Ghost of more than household scale, — the Wrong committed Daily against the Slaves, petty and grave ones alike, going unrecorded, charm’d invisible to history, invisible yet possessing Mass, Velocity, able not only to rattle Chains but to break them as well. (68)

The “Collective Ghost” is both an apparition of the past and the present: it represents the collective wrongs — “petty and grave ones alike” — committed historically against slaves, that is, enslaved people (for Pynchon, the Dutch colony is only but one example of where this “Collective Ghost” resides and haunts). In the passage above, Cherrycoke recognizes that although the slaves’ voices have gone “unrecorded,” their plight, their presence, and the sins committed against them are palpable. That history has “charm’d invisible” the voice of the victim (i.e., the powerless) does not make that voice any less important, necessary, or invisible. That is to say, if history is problematical — as we noted in Chapter One — then it is possible, even likely, that enslaved peoples have voices or, put differently, stories. As we said above, slavery is a historical problem, something that Cherrycoke also recognizes: “Indifferent to Visibility, wrapt in the melancholy Winds that choir all night long, persists an Obsession or Siege by something much older than anyone here, an injustice that will not cancel out” (68). In other words, the problem of slavery — i.e., the “Mass, Velocity,” or force — cannot be undone or unforgotten and shall thus haunt both the past and present. Patell supports this last point when he explains, “[Pynchon’s] novels make us realize that the official narrative masks some abiding problems that refuse to go away as well as some difficult choices that can be deferred for only so long” (32). The “official narrative masks” are the voices of the heroes, of the masters — Mason & Dixon represents what follows the “deferred,” i.e., the need to expose the horrors and injustices of slavery in “official narrative masks.”
Mason and Dixon observe the horrors of slavery firsthand and are sympathetic — and thus they are the personages who, as the heroes of the novel, demystify or de-mask the ills of slavery: “Mason, as he comes to recognize the sorrowful Nakedness of the Arrangements here [Cape Town], grows morose, whilst Dixon makes a point of treating Slaves with the Courtesy he is never able to summon for their Masters” (69). Here, Mason and Dixon begin to recognize the ills of slavery, the injustices, the horrors. Thus, Mason tells Dixon, after “[…] they entertain prolong’d Phantasies upon the Topick [of slavery]. They take their Joy of it” (69), that “I have found it of help, Dixon, to think of this place as another Planet whither we have journey’d, where these Dutch-speaking White natives are as alien to civilization we know as the very strangest of Pygmies, — ” (69). What is problematical with this passage is Mason’s fantasy, that is, his inability to reconcile reason with emotion: slavery is wrong (emotion) but useful and ubiquitous (reason). In other words, by imagining that Cape Town is “another Planet” is to refuse its reality, and thus Mason is not obliged to confront or engage it for what it is: “an injustice that will not cancel out.” Thus begins Mason’s and Dixon’s journey throughout a world that, like America, is innocent, untamed, and holds so much promise for all people except enslaved or “savage” people, or property. Dixon remarks, “‘Mason, of Mathematickal Necessity there do remain, beyond the Reach of the V.O.C., routes of Escape, pockets of Safety, — Markets that never answer to the Company, gatherings that remain forever unknown, even down in a Butter-Bag Castle’” (69). Mason and Dixon do not find these “routes of Escape” in South Africa, but rather it seems America — or, at least, the promise or idea of America: Dixon confirms this, “‘It may content us, as unhappy grown Englishmen, to think that somewhere in the World, Innocence may yet abide, — yet ’tis not among these people. All is struggle, — and all but occasionally in vain’” (67).
Indeed, “Innocence” is not among the Dutch in Cape Town, nor is it among Mason and Dixon. One of the most disturbing episodes in Mason & Dixon, at least in the “Latitudes and Departures” section of the novel, concerns Austra, the Vroom’s slave-girl. After she has “enter’d [Mason’s] bed” (64), we learn that “‘Austra, good Sir, — ’tis a common name here for Slaves’” (65). In other words, Austra is not a name but rather a label that denies individuality, freedom, Being (in the Heideggerian sense). In this sense, and as we shall see below, Austra has been commodified, i.e., made into a product rather than recognized as a human being. A further example of this is when we learn that Johanna Vroom, the family matriarch, has instructed Austra to engage in sexual relations with Mason because he is white, which will in turn yield a higher price (and thus profit) for a slave baby:

“All the Mistress prizes of you is your Whiteness, understand? Don’t feel disparag’d, — ev’ry white male who comes to this Town is approach’d by ev’ry Dutch Wife, upon the same Topick. The baby, being fairer than its mother, will fetch more upon the Market, — there it begins, there it ends.” (65)

Austra’s explanation reveals that “the same Topick” — i.e., Johanna’s instructions and Austra’s actions — is common practice among the Cape Town Dutch. In this sense, common practice and habit have displaced conscience and compassion for these people. Mason’s “‘What, no Sentiment, no Love […]’” (65) reveals his shock and outrage at the prospect of such (ab)use of slaves, of people: “‘Why, in England, no one has the right to bid another to bear a child’” (65). Austra does not know how to react to Mason’s outrage (and, it seems, his contradiction of what she assumes to be a ubiquitous condition of all women). First, Austra explains that “‘[Johanna] is the Mistress, I do as she bids’” (65), then she tells Mason: “‘Poh. White Wives are much alike […]. Many have there been, oblig’d to go on bearing children, — for no reason but the man’s pride’” (65). Here, Austra’s comment exposes her assumption that all women are subjugated by men. While this may be true (historically, women have been socially, politically, and economically subservient to men), Mason refutes this and says, “‘Our women are free’” (65). Here, Austra understands the plight of women — she is, after all, not only a slave but a “Slave-girl” (64) — while Mason appears to be ignorant of the historical record, as it were.
Ironically, what follows this conversation is the pursuit of Mason by the Vroom women and their slaves: “Mason’s Day, long and fatiguing, is spent popping in and out of doors, being caught alone in different rooms with different females of the household […]” (66). In this sense, Mason himself has been commodified — i.e., made an object of domination — and thus he becomes aware, at least in a narrow sense, of the plight of a slave: “Only slowly does it dawn on him that this goes on here all the time, — being likely the common Life of the House […] to make use of him, perhaps not quite time enough for them to come to despise him” (66). In fact, Mason becomes so agitated by and anxious about Cape Town that he begins to have nightmares about “‘[…] this miserable Viper-Plantation’” (71). He tells Dixon,

“Heaven help me, […] my Dreams reveal this Town to be one of the colonies of Hell, with the Dutch Company acting as but a sort of Caretaker for another…Embodying Power, ’s ye’d say, altogether,— Ev’ryday life as they live it here, being what Hell’s colonials have for Routs and Ridottoes,— ” (71)

Here, Mason’s “another…Embodying Power” reveals a Pynchonian theme stemming throughout all his novels: paranoia of the They. In Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Pynchon’s third and arguably most accomplished novel, we are witness to a war (World War Two) in which an ominous yet palpable power structure (They) controls and dictates and controls everything and everyone: “[…] the Firm […] it is well known, will use anyone, traitors, murderers, perverts, Negroes, even women, to go get what They want” (Gravity’s Rainbow 33). What is problematical about this passage from Gravity’s Rainbow is the idea that individuality, freedom (i.e., free will and free choice), and the concept of an authentic self are all false or imaginary contrivances created for the sake of masking Their power, Their control. Mason’s dream, however, only touches upon this large-scale power structure at-work — Mason & Dixon does not take issue with this “Embodying Power” to the extent that Gravity’s Rainbow does, although as Pynchonians, we know the theme is certainly present in the novel. Nonetheless, we must wonder — and wander like Mason and Dixon do in the novel — if slavery in Mason & Dixon is simply a raw expression of what life inside the universe of Gravity’s Rainbow, that is, the Twentieth Century is like. In other words, have the terms of slavery only changed in the past 250 years to encompass everyone instead of only a few? If we answer in the affirmative, then Mason’s dream of Hell on earth is prophetic and indeed worthy of being deemed nightmarish.
Chapter 7 concludes with an exchange among Cherrycoke, Ethelmer, and Tenebrae in which Cherrycoke reminds his audience that “‘[…] History is the Dance of our Hunt for Christ […] and History is redeem’d from the service of Darkness, — with all the secular Consequences, flowing from that one Event, design’d and will’d to occur’” (75 – 76). In other words, Cherrycoke argues, at this point in the novel, for a linear and progressive history, one that is guided by the Geist of Christianity: salvation and redemption. But Ethelmer is not convinced — in fact, he maintains throughout the novel his skepticism that the “Darkness” of history serves any good whatsoever:

“Including ev’ry Crusade, Inquisition, Sectarian War, the millions of lives, the seas of blood […]. What happen’d? He liked it so much being dead that He couldn’t wait to come back and share it with ev’rybody else?” (76)

Slavery is, indeed, “an injustice that will not cancel out” — there is no salvation, no redemption, no excuse for the ills of humanity. The Vrooms are but one instance, one fictitious example of the inhumanity, the obscenity of slavery, of domination over the powerless. Ethelmer’s “What happen’d?” is rhetorical just as much as it is real — in other words, what did happen? What went wrong? Ethelmer’s questions reveal the tensions and anxieties of the Twentieth Century in that just as Christ has failed to come back to redeem the humanity so has America failed to protect and defend the freedom and civil liberties of everyone, despite one’s sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, political philosophy, and so forth. Even more problematical, though, from Ethelmer’s questions is if Christ does not exist — that is, if God does not control or have power over the fate of humanity — then we must wonder who is in charge. Pynchon, it seems, does not side with the existentialists in that if God does not exist, then we are responsible for ourselves and thus in control of our well-being. As said before, They, as a palpable yet elusive force, control the fate of mankind, which suggests that no one is free or can choose. Just as Austra is the slave-girl of the Vrooms, so are the Vrooms the subjects of the Dutch East India Company: “As the Company seeks to confine all the Dutch of the Cape Colony behind a Boundary it has drawn, and to rule them radially from a single Point, the least immoderate of Feelings, in such a clos’d Volume, may prove lethal” (68). No one is happy to be accountable to someone or something else, which seemed to be the promise of America during its inception. That is, the idea(l) of America, at least from its inception, meant less government, less religious zealousness (i.e., less control) and more personal freedoms. But since the 1930s, personal freedoms in America have been appropriated by liberal ideologues — with the exceptions of the Civil Rights Amendment (1965) — and thus America has become less free and more dependent on the government to solve all problems, personal and socio-politico-economic, which in turn have increased taxation. Nonetheless, as we have digressed, it is important to recognize that for Pynchon any form of slavery is inhumane and intolerable.
When, in Chatper 8, after “[…] relentless supper done, the Vrooms, as is their Custom, retire out front to the Stoep” (80), we witness the Vroom daughters engage in another “Custom” which reflects their control and emotional/psychological abuse of their slaves. Cherrycoke deems this custom “‘irresistibly perverse’” (80) and relates a sort of game of “‘Codes,’” “‘Steps,’” and “‘Eye-play’” (80) played by the Vroom daughters and male and female slaves. It is a game, on the surface, of adolescent flirtation, but, as we continue to read, it is a game of domination:

“Some Belles like to ‘boss’ their male Slaves about in front of the young men, whilst others wish to be caught gazing after Slave-girls with unconceal’d envy. Over the Range of Desires, they are shameless, these Dutch girls of all ages, for they are the Girls of the end of the world, and the only reason for anyone to endure church all day Sunday is to be reminded of the Boundaries there to be o’erstepped. The more aware of their Sins as they commit them, the more pleas’d be these Cape fold,— more so than Englishmen, who tend to perish from the levels of Remorse attending any offense graver than a Leer.” (80)

This passage unveils the transmission of cultural values from one generation (“these Dutch folk”) to the next (the children); the cultural value in question here is that of slavery, of domination. Cherrycoke’s comment that the Dutch attend church only to be reminded of their sins, and that they are “more pleas’d” by them, explains why Mason and Dixon light out, like Huck Finn as it were, for the country side. Christianity has failed the Cape Dutch — they have failed to see that Christianity is a religion that preaches tolerance, fellowship, and love for all people regardless of their differences or supposed inferiority. Thus, Cherrycoke’s “end of the world” is ironic in the sense that he sees these people as irredeemable. And so, Mason’s “‘I’d rather be out here’” (83) — “here” being at the Observatory situated in Table Mountain — is a rejection of what he has witnessed, and to what he has been subjected. That there are “[…] two distinct Worlds [… in South Africa], the Company maintaining their separation, setting Prices, seeking as ever total control […]” (81) is too much for either Mason or Dixon to accept: Cherrycoke goes so far as to call it “Moral Displeasure” (85).

Works Cited

Baker, Jeff. “Plucking the American Albatross: Pynchon’s Irrealism in Mason & Dixon.” Pynchon and Mason & Dixon. Ed. Brooke Horvath and Irving Malin. Newark: U of Delaware P. 2000. 167 – 88.

Clerc, Charles. Mason & Dixon & Pynchon. Lanham: UP of America, 2000.

Danson, Edwin. Drawing the Line: How Mason and Dixon Surveyed the Most Famous Border in America. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2001.

Ecenbarger, William. Walkin’ the Line: A Journey from Past to Present Along the Mason-Dixon. New York: M. Evan and Co., 2000.

McGann, Jerome. “History, Herstory, Theirstory, and Ourstory.” Theoretical Issues in Literary History. Ed. David Perkins. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991. 196 – 205.

Patell, Cyrus R. K. Negative Liberties: Morrison, Pynchon, and the Problem of Liberal Ideology. Durham: Duke UP, 2000.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. New York: Perennial, 1965.

---. Gravity’s Rainbow. New York: Penguin. 1973.

---.Mason & Dixon. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

Ricciardi, Alessia. “Lightness and Gravity: Calvino, Pynchon, and Postmodernity.” MLN 114.5 (1999): 1062 – 77.

Tamen, Miguel. “Phenomenology of the Ghost: Revision in Literary History.” New Literary History 29 (1998): 295 – 304.

Voltaire. Candide. New York: Penguin, 1947.

Walcott, Derek. “The Muse of History.” The Postcolonial Studies Reader. Ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. New York: Routledge, 1995. 370 – 74.