IN DECEMBER OF 1998, the Modern Language Association hosted, in San Francisco, its first session solely devoted to Mason & Dixon, which had just been released in 1997. Having fallen utterly under its spell, I co-wrote, with my colleague John Loftis, a paper for that session, and after our early morning MLA presentation, all of the presenters — Terry Reilly, Hans-Joachim Berressem, Frank Palmeri, John and I — went out for breakfast.
Trained as an eighteenth-century Americanist, I had spent some years alternating between studies of eighteenth-century subjects and, as a kind of palate cleanser, publications on postmodern cultural subjects like Star Trek, heavy metal music, and increasingly, on Thomas Pynchon's novels. So when Mason & Dixon was published, I was ecstatic. I thought surely this novel was for me, in some scholarly-mystical way — that I was uniquely suited to study it because of my clever, switch-hitting, eighteenth-century and postmodern research agenda. The MLA post-session breakfast turned out to be a real eye opener: everyone sitting at that table, we all learned, had had the same rather solipsistic thought. All of us were eighteenth-century specialists, and all had “dabbled” in Pynchon studies over the years. But there was not a dilettante among us; we brought to the table a wealth of cultural-historical knowledge that seemed specifically positioned to unpack the bizarre, real-unreal, historical-modern landscape of Mason & Dixon.