Thursday, March 26, 2015

Thomas Pynchon's 115th Dream

Hibbing High School, Hibbing Minnesota, From The Air (Source: Minnesota Historical Society)

"I think I'll call it America" / I said as we hit land"
-Bob Dylan (Robert Allen Zimmerman), Hibbing High School, Class of 1959 [1]

Dear Reader, for this inaugural excursion into the American landscape, indulge me for a moment and let me parse the above epigram. If your tastes gravitated once towards the mythical and legendary, this brief quote may cause you to recall a series of stories and images, of the Mayflower, an oaken sloop dashed upon a rocky Massachusetts coast, of Colonies of the Bay and Lost varieties, of Myles Standish standing proud, or even of the Wampanaog emissary Tisquantum planting oily mossbunker in the Plymouth loam. You may even imagine the leathery boot with rusted lachets making transition from gunwale to granite, with a weatherbeaten William Bradford in oilskin frock declaring the visto unfurling before his eyes a map made real, of meridians and parallels, hachures and rosa ventorum—all becoming trees and sand. He thinks he’ll call it America, so the epigram goes, with nary a mention of Vespucci or Vinland, at least not yet.

Here are the beginnings not of America, but of “America,” words belonging to one “Captain Arab,” the Captain of the Mayflower who is not ingrained in our historical consciousness as much as he is part of our pop cultural landscape. He is a character in “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” Bob Dylan’s raucous send-up of the American originary myth from his 1965 album, Bringing it All Back Home. It is a song known as much for its false start—Dylan begins to sing “I was riding on the Mayflower/When I thought I spied some land”[2] before breaking down in laughter and having to restart the song—as for its fabulous concoction of a New World replete with French bistros (staffed by angry servers and exploding cookware), English hot dog stands, “hobo sailors,” malfunctioning telephone booths, bowling alleys, and even a cameo appearance by a jail bound Christopher Columbus. This is not the duck-jacketed Dylan we see on the hazy cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, huddled with Suze Rotolo on the corner of Jones and West 4th Streets—as idyllic an image of Greenwich Village as we will ever know. This is Electric Dylan, appearing rakish and squinty-eyed on the cover of Bringing it All Back Home, sitting on a musty couch in a cluttered living room in Woodstock, New York with a reclining Sally Grossman. They are surrounded by mid-sixties ephemera, from Robert Johnson and Françoise Hardy albums, to a Time magazine cover featuring Lyndon B. Johnson, and even a wayward Fallout Shelter sign. (Aficionados of this album will recall that the original version this photo shoot reveals a book at Dylan’s feet—the Bollingen edition of Richard Wilhelm’s translation of the I Ching, the same version that inspired Philip K. Dick to write The Man in the High Castle three years before.) “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” finds our former folk revivalist about to become the Stratocaster-wielding De Tocqueville we know from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival—parrying his sonic parting shot on unsuspecting ears thanks to a rollicking version of “Maggie’s Farm” (the third track from Bringing it All Back Home), barely drowning out the audience’s caterwauling.

This historical comparison is not far-fetched. Something like the booing at Newport can be found, perhaps not surprisingly, in some of the first travelogues of the American landscape. In 1709, the English explorer John Lawson wrote A New Voyage to Carolina, an account of his experiences among the Catawba and Waxhaw tribes in North and South Carolina. He took keen interest in how their warriors “have a Tune, which is allotted for that Dance; as, if it be a War-Dance, they have a warlike Song, wherein they express, with all the Passion and Vehemence imaginable, what they intend to do with their Enemies; how they will kill, roast, sculp, beat, and make Captive, such and such Numbers of them; and how many they have destroy'd before.”[3] Alexis De Tocqueville, in the first chapter of the first book of his Democracy in America (1835), would map his own interest in song to the physical “Outward Configuration of North America”—a true description of the North American landscape on par with Lawson’s. Pages of rapturous prose evoking everything from the tributaries feeding into the Great Lakes, spreading into “vast marshes, losing themselves in the watery labyrinth,” to the fertile valleys between the Alleghenies and the “godlike” Mississippi, find De Tocqueville noting how the “Indian knew how to live without needs, suffer without complaint, and die with a song on his lips.”[4] I am partial to the version of this passage appearing in the 1835 Henry Reeve translation—“The Indian could live without wants, suffer without complaint, and pour out his death-song at the stake.”[5]  In his notes, Reeve traces De Tocqueville’s knowledge of Indian death rattles to Jesuit writer Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix’s history of the French-Indian war, Histoire de la Nouvelle-France (1744). Reeve, a cautious documenter as there ever was (he was a lawyer and friend of the blind Swiss naturalist, François Huber), also noted Charlevoix’s account of French explorer Samuel de Champlain’s travels with Iroquois and Huron war parties, yet did not delve into a well-known part of this episode: while one war party was torturing its prisoners, Champlain, who refused to participate initially, resolved any moral dilemma by ending one captive’s suffering with a coup de grâce to the skull with the bloodied stock of an arquebus. Instead, Reeve gave ear to a Huron warrior berating a prisoner for “all the cruelties which he had practised upon the warriors of their nation,” who, before the violent deed, tells the prisoner “that if he had any spirit he would prove it by singing.” Thanks to Reeve, the whole incident becomes a kind of musical commentary. The Huron warrior “immediately chanted forth his death-song, and then his war-song, and all the songs he knew, ‘but in a very mournful strain,’ says Champlain, who was not then aware that all savage music has a melancholy character.”[6]  Could this be one of the earliest descriptions of the Blues? It would not be hard to imagine a Lawson or De Tocqueville, in essence musical anthropologists in disguise, transforming into an Alan Lomax, plumbing the depths of the wilderness to catalogue the distinct strains of a musical America, searching along the Mississippi for the elusive blues guitarist Robert Johnson, who would, of course, haunt Dylan’s early work.

Dylan would later craft a kind of musical theogony, casting Johnson as an Alabama Athena or Mississippi Minerva, “a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor.”[7] And such talk of crazed wanderings, of lightning bolts and explosions of mad genius should remind us that Dylan’s “Arab” is a cipher for that other famous American seagoer, the mercurial, monomaniacal, “ungodly, god-like” Captain Ahab of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851). Like Leo Marx, we would declare Melville’s seaborne yarns as constituting that most American of conventions, the landscape tale, incorporating everything from a young harpoonist in Typee securing passage “across an inscrutable Pacific wilderness” to the whaleship Pequod leaving a foamy wake like “the track of a railroad crossing a continent.”[8] Now, the landscape metaphor is more deeply ingrained, literally. Ishmael, who has assumed Moby-Dick’s narrative mantle only because he has “lived to tell the tale,” considers a deep, grim significance under Ahab’s impassioned fervor: the Captain’s “full lunacy subsided not, but deepingly contracted; like the unabated Hudson, when that noble Northman flows narrowly, but unfathomably through the Highland gorge.”[9] The riverine metaphor, with its relentless directionality, suggests something of a sinister corridor raging through the mad captain’s designs, a mania perhaps best encapsulated in his tête-à-tête with Moby-Dick, “from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee,”[10]  a moment punctuated by the launch of blood-tempered harpoon. “Arab” has no pretensions, and playing electric bard to Melville’s Ishmael, Dylan sings:
He said, “Let’s set up a fort
And start buying the place with beads”
Just then this cop comes down the street
Crazy as a loon
He throw us all in jail
For carryin’ harpoons.[11]
For Dylan, his 115th dream was a hallucinatory romp, part-Woody Guthrie, part-Rimbaud, echoing other famous travels. I would be remiss in not mentioning Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck, who channels Twain’s own experiences as a river pilot, drifts lazily, memorizing the landscape, using his own words to animate the world along the banks of the Mississippi. Here, explorer, folk and blues singer, and river pilot alike are allied in a kind of cultural revision with fabulist, humorist, and scholar, all sounding a course through their own personalized America, transforming its landscape into a shared memory, an “America” for all. No wonder, then, that Constance Rourke introduces her own excursus on “American Humor” with another riverine metaphor, one less glib than Ishmael’s: “In the nation, as comedy moves from a passive effervescence into the broad stream of a common possession, its bearings become singularly wide.”[12] The main device for wanderings along the internal navigable waters of the “American” consciousness is the line. Were I to share my own impressions of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” to a friend, I would say something like, “There’s this line I really like. It’s really funny. It goes like this …” Yet the line can also be quite literal, for when Huck meanders down the Mississippi, taking in the world from horizon to horizon, he “sets out” anchoring lines along the cottonwoods, notices the “pale line” marking the transition from river to sky, the “long black streaks” formed by currents in the still, morning waters. For Leo Marx, Huck’s lines are especially apposite, as “Sentences flow in perfect cadence, without strain or stilted phrase or misplaced word.”[13] In short, to mark a course through the landscape is to write the landscape. And to write the landscape, the implement of choice creates a mark, from a harpoon’s jagged scar, to a flatboat’s spumy backwash, to the groove on a 33 1/3 rpm long-player. 

Leave it to Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, astronomer and surveyor, respectively, to engage in the original act of writing the American landscape. Like their historical namesakes, the titular heroes of Thomas Pynchon’s 1997 novel Mason & Dixon are entrusted with creating, and more importantly, inscribing the figurative lines of demarcation that will separate Pennsylvania from Maryland, and Maryland from Delaware—the “purest of intersections mark’d so far upon America.”[14] It is Pynchon’s most linear (and in a sense, straightforward) narrative. Matching “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” in hilarity and tone (if not in subject matter), Mason & Dixon charts a different course for the founding of America. Astronomers and surveyors hobnob with familiar figures cast in comic light, such as a marijuana-growing George Washington who moonlights as a stand-up comic and a mysterious, smoke-lensed Benjamin Franklin crafting his own version of the Dutch East India Company in the Ohio Valley. The art and science of geodesy still takes center stage as Mason and Dixon travel throughout the world to first record the Transit of Venus before interacting with shadowy syndicates and marshal arts societies on the eve of the American Revolution. In the end, the novel progresses along with the line of demarcation, a fact not lost upon the narratives, weaved often into interlacing, coiled strands that in some way or form always seem to concern lines, whether figurative or literal. The act of surveying and casting meridians and parallels begins with taking the readings of stars, a process that is not unlike the writing of narratives—at least this is how in one of the novel’s manifold inspired moments, Mason describes geodesy to Dixon as “Numbers nocturnally obtain’d be set side by side, and arrang’d into Lines, like those of a Text, manipulated until a Message be reveal’d.”[15] Conversations hardly stray away from such conceits, and the link between map, landscape and writing culminates in a moment echoing De Tocqueville’s “Outward Configuration of North America” (translated by Reeve as “Exterior Form of North America”) when a fellow surveyor tells Dixon, “This ‘New World’ was ever a secret Body of Knowledge,— meant to be studied with the same dedication as the Hebrew Kabbala would demand. Forms of the Land, the flow of water, the occurrence of what us’d to be call’d Miracles, all are Text,— to be attended to, manipulated, read, remember’d.”[16] 

But to what extent is the creation of such lines fiction? As recounted by one of the novel’s main narrators, the Rev’d Wicks Cherrycoke, “The Line makes itself felt,” and yet “as long as its Distance from the Post Mark’d West remains unmeasur’d, nor is yet recorded as Fact, may it remain, a-shimmer, among the few final Pages of its Life as Fiction.”[17] The fictions in Mason & Dixon are recursive, layered upon each other and creating a dense narratological web. As in Dylan’s 115th dream, here fact also mixes with fiction, as evidenced by the epigrams from nonexistent books that appear alongside more familiar names. Those with an inclination towards Aristarchus and Hipparchus, and who have also just taken in cameo appearances by novelist Patrick O’Brian as well as colonial American analogues for Popeye and “Mister” Spock, may take some refuge in the following passage from Timothy Tox’s fake-epic poem, the epically titled Pennsylvaniad, itself another example of Mason & Dixon’s “geodesickal” imagination:
Let Judges judge, and Lawyers have their Day,
Yet soon or late, the Line will find its Way,
For Skies grow thick with aviating Swine,
Ere men pass up the chance to draw the Line.[18] 
With such talk of “aviating swine,” we remind ourselves that sometimes pigs do indeed fly—and they surely do in Mason & Dixon. Dixon is a protégé of the mathematician William Emerson, who teaches surveying as literal flight above the landscape (reducing the modernist notion of the aerial “God’s eye view” into pure technique) and claims that before surveyors “learn’d to fly, they had to learn about Maps, for Maps are the Aides-mémoires of flight.”[19] And mapmaking is “a journey onward, into a Country unknown,—an Act of Earth, irrevocable as taking Flight.”[20] 

Making maps, telling stories, writing lyrics—all these are “Acts of Earth” which not only document, but also create the American landscape. And the process is translated ninety degrees, from the orthogonal space of map to the rough surface of a wall. At least this is that the Wolf of Jesus, a Jesuit operative plotting not cartographical revenge, but true bloodlust against Colonials from a fortified monastery in Québec, reveals during one of the many fantastical passages in Mason & Dixon: “As a Wall, projected upon the Earth’s Surface, becomes a right Line, so shall we find that we may shape, with arrangements of such Lines, all we may need, be it in a Crofter’s hut or a great Mother-City,—Rules of Precedence, Routes of Approach, Lines of Sight, Flows of Power,—.”[21] To make a map is to make a wall, and to cast something on a wall is to tell a story of the land. George Rippey Stewart, that erstwhile documenter of American place-naming, wrote of this urge to project when he noted how “The frontier was not only of the land, but also in the minds of men” who “enjoyed pastoral landscapes no longer, but looked admiringly at the canvases of the Hudson River School—chasms and waterfalls and rough mountains in the mist.”[22] These canvases, hung on American walls in Stewart’s idyllic New England are not unlike those found by rock critic Greil Marcus in 2007 on a pilgrimage to Hibbing, Minnesota to see Dylan’s alma mater, Hibbing High School. Marcus lit off on this trip based on a former Hibbing resident’s testimony, “If you’d been to Hibbing, you’d know why Bob Dylan came from there. There’s poetry on the walls.”[23] Upon his arrival to Hibbing High, Marcus indeed did see something on its walls: “We gazed up at old-fashioned but still majestic murals depicting the history of Minnesota, with bold trappers surrounded by submissive Indians, huge trees and roaming animals, the forest, and the emerging towns.”[24] 

The tour of Hibbing High concludes with a dream-like vision of the very auditorium where Robert Zimmerman began his transformation into Bob Dylan. There, on the auditorium walls, “gilded paintings of muses waited; they smiled over the proscenium arch, too, over a stage that, in imitation of thousands of years of ancestors, had the weight of immortality hammered into its boards.”[25] It is a lovely image, of ghosts from time immemorial, of landscapes fading into an earlier history. Here, then, are the origins of Dream Number 115, our peregrination through the heart of the wilderness into something that is truly, deeply, ours. America. At least that’s what we think we’ll call it.



A version of this essay was first published in the first issue of Manifest: A Journal of American Architecture and Urbanism (2013). Infinite thanks are in order to the editors Anthony Acciavatti, Justin Fowler, and Dan Handel, for allowing me to be part of this issue. This essay is for them. 

[1] Bob Dylan, “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” by Bob Dylan, in Bringing it All Back Home, CBS, 1965, 33 rpm.
[2] Ibid.
[3] John Lawson, A New Voyage to Carolina; Containing the Exact Description and Natural History of That Country: Together with the Present State Thereof. And A Journal of a Thousand Miles, Travel'd Thro' Several Nations of Indians. Giving a Particular Account of Their Customs, Manners, &c. (London, 1709).
[4] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Arthur Goldhammer, trans. (New York: Library of America, 2004), 21, 28. This reads a bit less dramatic in French: “L’Indien savait vivre sans besoins, souffrir sans se plaindre, et mourir et chantant.” De Tocqueville, De la démocratie en Amérique, Volume 1 (Paris: Lévy, 1864), 37.
[5] De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Book 1, Henry Reeve, trans. (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1862), 9.
[6] Henry Reeve, Appendix to De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume 2 (New York: Appleton, 1899), 833.
[7] Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One (New York: Knopf, 2004), 282.
[8] Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 [1964]), 196, 282.
[9] Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1851), 204.
[10] Ibid., 633
[11] Dylan, “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” CBS, 1965, 33 rpm.
[12] Constance Rourke, American Humor: A Study of the National Character (New York: NYRB Classics, 2004 [1931]), 11.
[13] Marx, “Pilot and Passenger: Landscape Conventions and the Style of Huckleberry Finn,” American Literature, Vol. 28, No. 2 (May, 1956), 146, 131.
[14] Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon (New York: Henry Holt, 1997), 469.
[15] Ibid., 479.
[16] Ibid., 487.
[17] Ibid., 650.
[18] Ibid., 257.
[19] Ibid., 504.
[20] Ibid., 531.
[21] Ibid., 522.
[22] George R. Stewart, Names in the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States (New York: NYRB Classics, 2008 [1945]), 270.
[23] Greil Marcus, “A Trip to Hibbing High School,” Daedalus, Vol. 136, No. 2, On Sex (Spring, 2007), 116. A version of this essay appears in Marcus, “Hibbing High School and the ‘Mystery of Democracy,” in Colleen Josephine Sheehy and Thomas Swiss, eds. Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan’s Road from Minnesota to the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 3-14.
[24] Ibid., 119
[25] Ibid.

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