Nacht and English Department Host Pynchon Symposium

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“I think the story goes something like this,” began Penn State professor of english Kathryn Hume: “When a journalist from Life magazine went to Pynchon’s house to talk with him after the publication of Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon jumped out of a window and hopped on a bus that took him 200 miles away in order to avoid the journalist.”

This story and other Pynchonian legends were shared at Tuesday’s Thomas Pynchon symposium, organized by Nacht magazine and the English Department. Pynchon, author of novels including The Crying Lot of 49, Vineland and, most recently, Inherent Vice, is famous for being a recluse. The symposium was brought together as a continuation of Laura Backup’s article on the Thomas Pynchon wiki, and the theme of marginalia and fan culture in the most recent edition of Nacht Magazine.

The talks focused more on his later books, particularly his most recent (_Inherent Vice_) which was published in August 2009. All three speakers emphasized the gap in Pynchon’s career, a 17 year long break in publishing from Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973, to Vineland in 1990. They also discussed the unexpected—and critically disfavored—direction that Pynchon has taken his writing.

Hume, author of Pynchon’s Mythography: An Approach to Gravity’s Rainbow, gave the first talk, which concerned Pynchon’s protection of certain values in his later work. Hume made the argument that in his earlier works, like many of his deconstructionist contemporaries, Pynchon tried to break down societal conventions and values. However, in the works Against The Day and Mason & Dixon, she argued, Pynchon has shown an effort to defend the importance of the specific institutions of family and religion as important and meaningful despite their semi-arbitrariness.

The second talk was titled “Pynchon and The Internet,” and was given by University of British Columbia assistant professor of english Jeffery Severs ‘96, whose thesis advisor was current English Departmant Chair Peter Schmidt. Severs talk focused on Pynchon’s initial distrust of computers in the sixties and seventies, and his paranoia towards the Internet in more recent works. According to Severs, Pynchon disliked computers because of their reliance on strict binaries. Later, Pynchon became more paranoid about the connectedness of the Internet, even going so far as comparing it to peering into others’ lives when they are not expecting it.

Keith O’Neill, a professor from SUNY Dutchess and author of “Against the Grain: Reading Pynchon’s Counter-Narratives,”: gave the third and final talk, entitled, “Look Out, There’s A Monster Coming!”. O’Neil argued that the poor critical reception of Pynchon’s later works was in part due to his movement towards escapist novelistic forms like the gothic and the murder mystery.

“College is an example of a place where there’s a lot of competing demands,” commented Eli Epstien-Deutsch ’10, editor of Nacht and host of the symposium, when asked why college students should read Pynchon, “We’re part of a demographic in which a lot of forces are interested in soliciting our attention one way or another. I think that the need to figure out where to direct your attention in terms of values, knowing how to filter things and charting your course is something that Pynchon’s work explores.”

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