Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon (1997)

Mason & Dixon

Nevil Maskelyne

Mark Smith posted the following on the Pynchon List: wrote of Nevil Maskelyne:

>Does anyone have any idea to what extent Pynchon
>is taking literary liberties with his construction
>of this highly interesting and complex character?

As far as I can gather, Maskelyne seems to have been a dullard of epic proportions. Quoting from Dava Sobel's book Longitude, p. 112: "Maskelyne, who put off marrying until he was fifty-two, enslaved himself to accurate observation and careful calculation. He kept records of everything, from astronomical positions to events in his personal life (including each expenditure, large or small, over the course of four-score years), and noted them all with the same detached matter-of factness. He even wrote his own autobiography in the third person :'Dr. M,' [....] "he seemed never to have been young. Described by a biographer early on as 'rather a swot' and 'a bit of a prig,'.." Sobel's book also chronicles the incredible mean spiritedness of the man who was the main personification of the lunar distance method of calculating longitude, and the extent Maskelyne went to in order to prevent clockmaker John Harrison from claiming the prize.

"Maskelyne's Cambridge connections brought him into contact with Bradley, the third Astronomer Royal and the two of them became prime movers in furthering a longitude solution. Maskelyne was part of the longitude committee, which became a clear conflict of interest when John Harrison was waiting for the committee to provide him with a ship, so that he could prove his method worthy. In the summer of 1761 William Harrison (son of John) was awaiting sailing orders in Portsmouth in what was to be the definitive test of the timekeeping method of measuring longitude. He was kept waiting five months, and was not allowed out of port until October! Harrison's father had already stunned the Board of Longitude as early as 1737 and the 1741-42 report of the Royal Society praised Harrison's timepiece profusely. At this same time Bradley and Maskelyne were attempting to claim the prize money of twenty thousand pounds sterling (a king's ransom), using the lunar method, while influencing the operation of the Board of Longitude from within.

"William suspected that Dr. Bradley had deliberately delayed the trial for his personal gain. By holding up the Harrison trial, Bradley could buy time for Maskelyne to produce proof positive supporting the lunar distance method. This may sound like a paranoid delusion on William's part, but he had evidence of Bradley' own interest in the longitude prize. In a diary, William had recorded how he and his father chanced to encounter Dr. Bradley at an instrument maker's shop, where they incurred his obvious antagonism: 'The Doctor seemed very much out of temper,' noted William, 'and in the greatest passion told Mr. Harrison that if it had not been for him and his plaguey watch, Mr. Mayer and he should have shared Ten Thousand Pounds before now.'"

There is ample evidence elsewhere in this excellent book of Maskelyne's single-minded devotion to his own causes at the expense of fair play. In short, I do not see such a close relationship between Pynchon's Maskelyne and the historical one.

[Emphasis added]


Mason & Dixon
Mason & Dixon - Thomas Pynchon