Skip to Content

Pynchon's New Worlds

International Pynchon Week 2017

La Rochelle, June 5-9, 2017


The Other America: Caribbean Crosscurrents in Mason & Dixon
Heidi Lavine

Scheduled in the Auditorium - Médiathèque: Friday 9 June, from 09:30 to 10:00

In his 2010 monograph, Pynchon's Postnational Imagination, Sascha Pöhlmann limns the global implications of colonial America and colonizing Britain's transatlantic relationship in Mason & Dixon.  As a joint practitioner in and beneficiary of global capitalism and the slave labor undergirding it, Pynchon's pre-national America is always already hegemonic, a dual space of oppression and rebellion against tyranny. This duality is further emphasized, as Pöhlmann notes, by the text's repeated acts of parageography (that is, 'the superimposing of alternative maps of the world upon more familiar ones') as a means of palimpsistically critiquing contemporary acts of American capitalist excess (142).

Extending upon Pöhlmann's critique, this paper examines a specific New World site over which Pynchon inscribes the transatlantic relationship: the coffee and sugar-producing islands of the Caribbean.  Indeed, Mason & Dixon is shot through with West Indian references, from Dutch-Caribbean love potions to Barbadian pirate flags, and this colonial loot proves the vehicle for some of the novel's most pointed critiques of American capitalism.  Mary Janvier's coffeehouse, for example, boasts a bar '[h]ewn from some gigantick Tropical Tree,' sports 'immoderately colored Colonial wallpaper, tropickal Blooms with Vermilion Petals and long, writhing Stamens and Pistils of Indigo,' and serves up 'sugar…in lucent brown cones great and little, Ic'd Cupcakes by the platter-ful…no table that does not hold some sweet memento, for those it matters to, of the cane thickets, the chains, the cruel Sugar-Islands' (328-9).  When one disgusted patron harangues his fellow gluttons for ingesting '[a] sweetness of immorality and corruption…bought as it is with the lives of African slaves, untallied black lives broken upon the greedy engines of the Barbadoes,' he must contend with a chorus of whiny protests that defend exploitative consumerism: 'we are middling folk, our toil is as great as anyone's, and some days it helps to have a lick of molasses to look forward to, at the end of it' (329).  This attempt to elide working-class labor with slave labor and to justify exploitation of the Caribbean because of British tyranny over America leads the narrative voice to wonder:

[m]ay unchecked consumption of all these modern substances at the same time, a habit without historical precedent, upon these shores be creating a new sort of European?  [L]ess respectful of the forms that have previously held Society together, more apt to speak his mind, or hers, upon any topic he chooses, and to defend his position as violently as need be? (330)

Ultimately, I argue that Caribbean New World signifiers like sugar and Benjamin Franklin's favorite 'Blue Jamaica' coffee function as one of the novel's most potent critical brews.