John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, and fictionalizing history

There are two books which I both enjoyed thoroughly the first time I read through them, but I recently (this summer) read through both of them again, and my conclusions are a little different.  Whereas I had previously not thought of them as being much alike, suddenly I realized that they have a number of points in common, for all that the authors wrote from very different standpoints and apparently with different purposes.  The first (in publication date) is John Barth’s uproarious satirical send-up of the historical poet Ebenezer Cooke’s poem “The Sotweed Factor:  Or, a Voyage to Maryland” called The Sotweed Factor (tobacco grower/merchant), first published in 1960.  The poem which the fictional Cooke writes is also known in Barth’s satire as “The Marylandiad.”  Pynchon’s 1997 satire is set in the Americas also, but on the section between Maryland and Pennsylvania which came to be known as the “Mason-Dixon line,” and is entitled (you guessed it) Mason and Dixon.  Pynchon creates a character occasionally mentioned named “Timothy Tox,” who supposedly wrote in the past a poem known as “The Pennsylvaniad,” and has various scenes in which another weed entirely (pot) is consumed by the characters.  In some ways, Pynchon is taking on Barth’s fiction as much as he is imposing changes on his own, because he changes the way in which the fictional world itself is handled.

In Barth’s satire, Ebenezer and his twin sister are polymaths, and their separation and gradual rejoining are a part of the overarching plot structure, though much of the novel is a sort of picaresque trip around the Colonies in the end of the 17th and the first part of the 18th centuries.  Pynchon’s satire is set about a generation later, just before the Revolutionary War, though it starts before that with a fictionalized history of how Mason and Dixon meet up and go about forming a working relationship.  Their story is told (and partially imagined) by the “Reverend Cherrycoke,” a fictional character who supposedly was with them on their expedition to America, and is relating (and sometimes bowdlerizing) the tale for a family group.  In contrast to Barth’s satire, in which the characters are extremely well-educated, Pynchon’s satire takes place in an late Enlightment atmosphere in which some people know some things, but about which it is in fact the reader who must be the polymath in order to follow all the different Pynchonesque threads of narrative.  Mason and Dixon is more of a satire for specialists than Barth’s book and than Gravity’s Rainbow, in that both Barth and the earlier Pynchon tell more universal “jokes” or spend more time explaining their frame of reference; slyly, of course, but the explanations are still there.  In Pynchon’s book on the two astronomers/surveyors, however, one gets the feeling that some of the best punchlines are reserved for mathematicians, scientists, historians, surveyors, and engineers of all kinds; Barth’s book is more purely satirical and literary in nature.  Pynchon’s later book is also told with rather less of the boyish glee that those followers of Pynchon since Gravity’s Rainbow might be expecting, while the boyish glee itself is to be found in the character of Jeremiah Dixon as painted by Pynchon.

In both novels, Barth’s and Pynchon’s, one of the major subjects is what has come to be known as “culture shock,” in which the visitors from England are astounded by the difference of culture in America, or what sometimes seems like a total lack of culture, even to the tolerant Dixon.  There is also more of outright material escaped from a fantasy novel in Pynchon’s work, which might at first seem to be at variance with his strong tendency to follow a daybook from Mason’s and Dixon’s expedition.  There is, for example, a Learned English Dog who speaks, and a mechanical Duck, an exaggerated version of the interest of the time in automatons and machines.  In Barth’s novel, though many, many incidents are far-fetched, they don’t invite comparison to a fantasy novel.

Both novelists feature additional poetry in their books, Barth keeping to the subject of Cooke’s grievances with America, where he has come to claim an inheritance of a “sotweed” plantation, though the poetry fragments he gives are widely at variance except in structure with the real poem Cooke wrote.  The poems Pynchon contributes to his book are manifested as plenty of anachronistic comic songs, but few with the satirical, orgiastic, and scatological wit of those in Gravity’s Rainbow.  Both writers make up fictional meetings between their fictionalized characters and other real historical figures, but Pynchon spends more time actually constructing dialogues that, though odd and unlikely, seem emblematic of what we know of the historical characters.  An example of this is an encounter between Mason and Dr. Johnson and Boswell which takes place in a tavern.  Barth takes another tack; for instance, he creates long sections of a lascivious journal supposedly kept by Captain John Smith about his own sexual exploits.  There is more rowdinesss of this sort in Barth’s book (and one must guess that he inspired Pynchon early), whereas Pynchon seems to rely in an allusive and elliptical way to what (he must have known) readers expect from reading his earlier books.  A hint of this is in the cue-like mention of something being colored “magenta and green,” a color combination which occurred with frequency in Gravity’s Rainbow, almost as if readers were some of the Pavlovian dogs from the earlier novel, taught to salivate with anticipation at the repetition of “magenta and green” and to expect something major to happen.

Both books end “not with a bang but a whimper,” though this is not to say that the endings are not significant.  They are very different, however.  Barth’s book ends with its satirical edge unhampered, however much the characters have declined in fortunes, whereas Pynchon’s book ends on an elegiac note for the end of Jeremiah Dixon, who died sometime before Charles Mason, and the later final illness of Mason, bringing to a halt the worldly close friendship of the two men.  So vivid has been the picture of otherworldly visitations and unearthly happenings, however, that there seems to be almost a certain hope suggested.  Certainly, though the two books cater to some extent to slightly different audiences, the characters live beyond the novels for us, the readers.  I hope you will have the time and patience to read one or both of them, as they well repay the trouble.


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2 responses to “John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, and fictionalizing history

  1. Tony Suppa

    Loved this piece. Both books (and authors) are personal favorites of mine as well. There’s a great anecdote about Pynchon sweetly acknowledging a debt to Barth towards the end of the article linked above


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