Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, December 16, 2016

Pynchon, Henry Adams, and the twentieth century

I mentioned in a previous post Pynchon's interest in The Education of Henry Adams, and I think that interest might profitably be linked with certain others. In his introduction to Slow Learner Pynchon describes his early reading of the novels of John Buchan and how from Buchan and other writers of thrillers he learned to be interested in a particular period of history:

The net effect [of reading many books in this genre] was eventually to build up in my uncritical brain a peculiar shadowy vision of the history preceding the two world wars. Political decision-making and official documents did not figure in this nearly as much as lurking, spying, false identities, psychological games…. My reading at the time also included many Victorians, allowing World War I in my imagination to assume the shape of that attractive nuisance so dear to adolescent minds, the apocalyptic showdown.

(I wonder whether he read The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers — a superb example of the genre. I bet he did. )

It's noteworthy, first, that this is the period in which several of Stencil's historical reconstructions in V. are set, and likewise the whole of Against the Day (that behemoth which looms before me). And it is precisely the period that Henry Adams describes in The Education. Moreover, in that aforementioned chapter on “The Dyanamo and the Virgin” Adams's chief interlocutor is Samuel Pierpoint Langley, one of the pioneers of aviation, who designed and built airships — and one of the chief plots of Against the Day features the group of teen airshipmen called the Chums of Chance.

So while the contrast between the Virgin and the Dynamo is clearly vital to Pynchon, it's really the whole period that captured his imagination, in a way that he has never really got over. He seems, like Virginia Woolf though for very different reasons, to have concluded that at some point in the early twentieth century human nature changed — or perhaps the world itself changed.

We'll get back into these questions when we get to Against the Day, but Louis Menand — who may be the most insightful critic of Pynchon now that Edward Mendelson has for lo these many years been occupied by other things — wrote in his review of of the novel:

I can’t do the math, but I think that the idea behind “Against the Day” is something like this: An enormous technological leap occurred in the decades around 1900. This advance was fired by some mixed-up combination of abstract mathematical speculation, capitalist greed, global geopolitical power struggle, and sheer mysticism. We know (roughly) how it all turned out, but if we had been living in those years it would have been impossible to sort out the fantastical possibilities from the plausible ones. Maybe we could split time and be in two places at once, or travel backward and forward at will, or maintain parallel lives in parallel universes. It turns out (so far) that we can’t. But we did split the atom—an achievement that must once have seemed equally far-fetched. “Against the Day” is a kind of inventory of the possibilities inherent in a particular moment in the history of the imagination. It is like a work of science fiction written in 1900.

Reading this I'm reminded of C. S. Lewis's comment in his great history of sixteenth-century literature that while the distinctions among science, magic, and alchemy all seem pretty straightforward to us, they did not seem nearly so straightforward five hundred years ago, when a single figure might practice all of them with no sense that he was engaged in multiple and conflicting activities.

We'll see, when we get to the Behemoth, whether like Menand I see it as a book largely about possibilities now foreclosed that were once open — a book that writes the past as though it were the future. But for now I just want to register the point that this sense of being stuck somehow between past and future, of trying to navigate what one has inherited while simultaneously watching much of that inheritance evoporate in the heat of an increasingly technological society, and of not knowing what exactly to think about all the changes and what they mean — all this is in Henry Adams, and it's no wonder he was (is?) so important to Pynchon.


  • Ah - the quote from Menand makes "Against the Day" sound a little bit like Francis Spufford's "Red Plenty," which is certainly a book that "writes the past as though it were the future."

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