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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Search for Identity Thomas Pynchon (b. 1937)

[6241] Anonymous, Anti-Communist Poster Showing Russian Soldier and Joseph Stalin Standing over Graves in Foreground; Cannons and People Marching to Siberia in Background (1953), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-117876].

Thomas Pynchon has become famous as the man who does not want to be famous. Little is known about this author’s personal life: we know only that Pynchon was born in 1937 on Long Island, New York, and that he graduated from Cornell University in the 1950s, after which he served in the navy. Though he is notoriously reclusive, he reportedly lives somewhere in northern California. Devoted fans track Pynchon sightings much like the Elvis Presley fans who record rumored appearances by “the King.” Unlike Elvis, though, Pynchon most certainly is still alive, and because of his insistence on remaining private, he has figured in debates about the importance of biographical information in literary analysis. For critics who believe that an author’s life events is essential to understanding his/her writing, Pynchon’s silence leaves a frustrating information gap. However, some are less bothered, including critics who believe that an author’s biography is immaterial when compared to a text’s “cultural” history–that is, the general history of politics, entertainment, social issues, cultural trends, and the like during the years of the text’s composition.

Pynchon is known for writing densely detailed, nonlinear narratives that mirror the complexity of the postmodern condition. His plots are complicated, as are his themes, so his texts can be challenging for even the most careful readers. His works are also known for their humor; in Pynchon’s short story “Entropy,” soldiers crash Meatball’s party to find communists but end up joining the fun. Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49 offers a good entrance into his longer fiction, because it combines a complex structure with an engaging wit as it explores the nature of being American: the heroine tries to determine a connection between a mysterious legacy left to her and a similarly mysterious, secret alternative to the U.S. postal service.

Teaching Tips

  • If you have students who are majoring in the sciences or interested in science fiction, try to get them involved in these discussions. These students rarely have the opportunity to discuss their areas of expertise in literature classes, and they can help their fellow students to better understand Pynchon’s allusions. Also, you may have students who can provide updated information about the theories and scientists mentioned in the text.
  • Students who rely heavily on biographical information when they read and interpret literature may wish to know more about Pynchon before interpreting his writing. This would be a good time to briefly teach students about the New Critics’ approach to reading literature, including their ideas about the intentional fallacy. You might emphasize the importance of close reading–students should learn how to think about and discuss not only the general ideas in a text but also its language. Choose a phrase or sentence, and ask them to discuss the connotations of each word. As for the intentional fallacy, ensure that students do not assume that a text means a certain thing because that interpretation agrees with the author’s biography: it is impossible to ever truly know the author’s intention.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What is “entropy”? Why is it an apt title for Pynchon’s story?
  2. Comprehension: What is a “lease-breaking” party? Why is this detail important? What does this days-long party tell us about Meatball Mulligan and his friends?
  3. Comprehension: The perspective shifts frequently and abruptly between “upstairs” and “downstairs” scenes. Mark the locations of the shifts to determine why Pynchon intersplices the narratives in this way. How does this technique affect your understanding of both stories? What do upstairs and downstairs characters represent?
  4. Context: Why do the soldiers say they’re looking for communists? Consider this in relation to [6240] (“Look behind the mask! Communism is death” poster) and [6241] (anti-communist poster).
  5. Context: The story takes place in February 1957, in Washington, D.C., a center for those involved in the civil rights movement as well as for intellectuals, the military, and protesters. Pynchon shows interactions among a wide variety of such characters, from freewheeling musicians to U.S. Navy enlisted personnel. Discuss the importance of Washington, D.C., and other urban areas as gathering places for people with disparate ideas.
  6. Context: Saul talks about how “Miriam has been reading science fiction again. That and Scientific American. It seems she is, as we say, bugged at this idea of computers acting like people.” Consider how twentieth-century technological innovations such as space travel have brought the stuff of science fiction to life. How do these innovations and ideas affect our notions of reality and the meaning of life? Consider the 1969 Apollo 11 moonlanding [6899] as an example of reality pushing the boundaries of the imagination.
  7. Context: The musicians downstairs are described as wearing “horn rimmed sunglasses and rapt expressions.” They “smoke funny-looking cigarettes which contained not, as you might expect, tobacco, but an adulterated form of cannabis sativa.” What is cannabis sativa? Discuss how Pynchon uses this reference to the drug culture to characterize these men. Why do you think the narrator uses the Latin (“scientific”) name? What does it say about his relationship to drug culture?
  8. Exploration: Pynchon is famously secretive about his own life, so we have to analyze the story without any information about his biography or cultural or literary influences. Why do you think an author might wish to remain unknown? How does the lack of information about him affect your reading of the story?
  9. Exploration: Pynchon’s characters discuss scientists and scientific ideas to make sense of the world. Research one of these scientists or ideas (Gibbs, Boltzmann, entropy, thermodynamics, etc.) to better understand the story.
  10. Exploration: Analyze the conversations that appear throughout the story in relation to Saul and Meatball’s discussion of communication theory, including the ideas of “noise” and “leakage.” When speaking to each other, how can people differentiate meaning from the surrounding noise and leakage?
  11. Exploration: Aubade (her name means “a morning song”) hears in the hothouse “a motif of sap-rising”: “That music rose in a tangled tracery: arabesques of order competing fugally with the improvised discords of the party downstairs, which peaked sometimes in cusps and ogees of noise.” What is a fugue? How does Pynchon use fugue-like structure in this story? Locate his “melodies” and “countermelodies” and compare them to those in a fugue by a musician such as Bach.

Selected Archive Items

[6240] Anonymous, Look Behind the Mask! Communism Is Death (n.d.), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-80757]. 
Propaganda poster depicting Stalin and a skull. Anti-communism in the United States peaked during the 1950s Red Scare. Many political, union, and popular culture figures were accused of being communist and subversive. Writers responded to the Red Scare in such works as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The remainder of this poster reads “From Lenin to Stalin . . . the word is one thing, the fact another.” Cold War politics often made labor organizers unpopular, as depicted in Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart.

[6241] Anonymous, Anti-Communist Poster Showing Russian Soldier and Joseph Stalin Standing over Graves in Foreground; Cannons and People Marching to Siberia in Background (1953), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-117876]. 
Thomas Pynchon’s work is rife with references to contemporary and historical events, popular culture, and politics. “Entropy” opens with a description of a supposedly cosmopolitan and urbane group in Washington, D.C.–a passage that admits its own irony in what is perhaps a reference to the politics of the anti-communist McCarthy era.

[6899] Neil A. Armstrong, Moon Landing, Apollo 11 (1969), 
courtesy of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. 
Photograph of astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. and the Lunar Module (LM) taken by Neil A. Armstrong with a 70mm Hasselblad lunar surface camera. Writer Thomas Pynchon’s works are full of scientific language and allusions and explore the shifting demarcations between science and science fiction.

[7105] New York Times Paris Bureau Collection, London Has Its Biggest Raid of the War (1941), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. 
Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow has four main plots and many subplots. World War II London, however, is a prominent setting in this work. Pynchon’s fascination with science and technology, as well as popular culture, animates this novel which includes an investigation into the V2 rocket program developed by Germany for bombing England during the war.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6