The Writing Disorder


david cowart



An interview with
                  DAVID COWART

Author of
                  THOMAS PYNCHON AND THE
                  DARK PASSAGES OF HISTORY
2011, University of Georgia Press

david cowart book on pynchon

David Cowart has been a published author for over thirty years. That’s quite an accomplishment for most people who’ve chosen writing as a profession. But David writes about very specific things, like contemporary American fiction, and one subject in particular, has taken him down this long, sometimes cavernous path. When you read one of David’s books you realize that he is passionate about his work, and that he is very passionate about one contemporary American fiction writer: Thomas Pynchon.

Pynchon’s literary work covers some 50 years, so you’d think there would be enough material there to write several books. But during this period, Pynchon’s only chosen to write occasionally, and often years pass between books. Which is fine with David, allowing him to spend time with his family, teach, and take some vacations. David currently teaches at the University of South Carolina, where he is a Louise Fry Scudder Professor and a Board of Trustees Professor. That’s his day job. The rest of the time he’s writing about what he loves most — fiction, and primarily contemporary American writers like Don DeLillo, and of course, Thomas Pynchon.

We sat down recently for an interview—he is his office, and I in mine—and spoke (over the phone) about a variety of subjects. When we ran out of time, we decided to continue the interview at another time. This is Part I of my interview with David Cowart.


The Writing Disorder: Talk about your new book, Thomas Pynchon and the Dark Passages of History.

David Cowart: In an earlier book (History and the Contemporary Novel), I had become interested in historiography. For a long time the historical novel was patronized as a type of pseudo-genteel genre. Henry James, for example, said it was doomed to a fatal cheapness. But Pynchon, defending Ian McEwan, actually referred to himself as an historical novelist.

If you think about claims made for representations of the past, whether by professional historians or by historical novelists, it generates some very interesting perceptions. My notion is that an historical novelist of genius, when well-informed, is perhaps better able to negotiate an encounter with the past than an actual historian, who is cursed with the obligation to remain factual. Neither novelist nor historian has all the facts, for some have disappeared from the record. For a long time, historians allowed themselves unconsciously to write versions of history that were too shapely—while novelists, naturally more self-conscious, more aware of what we now call meta-historical perspectives, offered more reliably self-conscious narratives about the past. In this, I’m merely echoing points made by that great theorist of historiography, Hayden White, author of a 1973 book called Metahistory, in which he showed how the same little span of nineteenth-century history, as told by four different historians, warped by turns through romance, satire, tragedy, or comedy. (He got these categories from Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.) Anyway, it was quite an eye-opener. You can take White’s precepts and discover that a narrative of American history that concludes with the Great Depression takes the shape of tragedy. Same thing if narrated from the perspective of native Americans. The comedic version—depending, again, on perspective—emerges if you end on a triumphalist note: the taming of the frontier, say, or the conclusion of World War II.

To bring to consciousness history’s fictive dimension is, I think, a great advance for historiography, and something that perhaps the really great historical novelists, from Sir Walter Scott forward, knew all along.

When I was shaping the new Pynchon book, I was looking for some kind of conceptual anchor, and I discovered that it would be easy and natural to think about the emphasis in his work on history.

TWD: Would it be similar to documentary filmmakers today, where you sort of get their take on history or a particular event?

David: I certainly think of Errol Morris (I’m less familiar with Ken Burns) as a filmmaker animated by what I would characterize as a postmodernist recognition of just how labile the past is, history is, discourse is, representations of any kind, and so the most sophisticated filmmakers, documentarians, and novelists are all contriving to show their awareness of the perspectival problematic.

TWD: Can you talk about the influence of German culture on Pynchon’s work?

David: I have wondered about that for a long time. I remember, years and years ago, this must be the early ’70s, Richard Poirier, the only teacher I ever read a Pynchon book with, at Rutgers, in passing remarked that Pynchon seemed to be hostile to things German. In a way, any such hostility would be part of an apostolic succession, given the author’s possible connection with Nabokov (who taught at Cornell while the future author was a student there). His wife being Jewish, Nabokov had personal experience with the dark side of German culture.

What I find reading Pynchon is that he knows a hell of a lot about German culture. He seems to have immersed himself in the history of German colonialism in south-west Africa (present-day Namibia). In V. and Gravity’s Rainbow, he depicts a little-known corner of the colonial enterprise that is harrowing, utterly horrific. In the latter novel, he depicts his protagonist on a journey through what he calls The Zone, the collapsed entity that was the Third Reich.

Pynchon displays considerable knowledge of the German language and literature, too. I first discovered the poet Rilke by reading Pynchon—and it was a total revelation. I think Pynchon does appreciate German culture, but he is constantly looking at it from a global perspective. He likes to think about long-range trajectories of culture and globalization. And he can see how important German thought has been to western experience, western culture. But he remains acutely aware that certain German passions, German conceits, are dangerous in a variety of ways, especially the Faustian appetite for more power, more knowledge, at whatever spiritual cost. It is something I think that runs through all of Pynchon’s work. Very interesting topic, I think.

TWD: When did you first become interested in Thomas Pynchon? What was your first experience or exposure?

David: This is a story I love to tell. It has to do with being in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia in 1969 and 1970. You were sent out to the back of beyond—cut off from other Americans, but they also sent with you a book locker, a shelf of books, and you found yourself reading through them. One of the books that caught my eye, with its distinctive paperback cover, was Pynchon’s V. I remember that I read very deeply because I was kind of making up for all the skipping around I had done as an undergraduate, filling the many holes in my education. I didn’t understand V., but I was quite exhilarated by it. I had the wonderful sense that this is changing my life—and it did. I had no electricity and after dark had to read by Coleman lantern. Periodically, you’d run out of kerosene, and you had the choice of walking out among the hyenas to get more, or going to bed early. For that book, I braved the hyenas.

It was an intellectual turning point: I did my dissertation a few years later on Pynchon.

I’m one of the few people who’s been in both the Peace Corps and the Army. I was one of the last people drafted in this country. While I was in the Army, I was impatient to get on with graduate school. In my last days in the service, I was accepted into the graduate program at Rutgers, and it was just at this point that Gravity’s Rainbow came out and, shortly thereafter, a brilliant response, in Saturday Review, written by Richard Poirier, who, as it happened, was the graduate director at Rutgers. I was kind of uninformed about where I was going. I thought, how serendipitous. And of course his was one of the courses I took in my first semester back in school. He was a superb teacher who taught by frustrating you. One of the books we studied in his class was The Crying of Lot 49, which I had read once previously. The course was an introduction to graduate literary studies, so we read a variety of texts. We’d read Anthony and Cleopatra one day and Pynchon the next. Poirier would play a version of Twenty Questions with us, he’d say look at this sentence, or look at this phrase, or look at this word, and then we would spend sometimes as much as three hours trying desperately to say something he thought worth hearing. And he would say, “Um hmm, what else?” I found it very frustrating because I wanted him to lecture, to share his vast knowledge. We would try in every way to get him to impart what he knew, but he would not do so. It was frustrating at the time, but it was very informative, it did teach me what a fine method Socratic pedagogy might be.

TWD: When did your interest in Pynchon turn scholarly?

David: My first published paper was on a Shakespeare sonnet, but that was for a graduate student journal. My first real professional publication came from writing about The Crying of Lot 49 (in fact, it began as a paper for Poirier). I discovered that the painter Pynchon refers to in that novel, Remedios Varo, really existed. And at that time, virtually nobody in the States had heard of her. This is in part a testimonial to his sensitivity, that he could recognize and turn to his own allusive ends work that would wait another decade or two to be properly known and celebrated.

His description of Varo’s painting Bordando el Manto Terrestre (“embroidering the earth mantle”) is important to what Oedipa Maas experiences in the story. Oedipa’s remembered encounter with the painting is what scholars call a mise en abyme, a miniature version of the whole story. Varo depicts girls in the top room of a circular tower embroidering a great tapestry that is extruded through slit windows to cover—or, rather, to fill up and become—the world.

Oedipa seems to understand that Varo is reversing the paradigm of perception. We think the world is out there flowing in through our senses. We think that’s what sensory perception is. What the artist suggests is that we, in our own cranial tower, weave the world, and extrude it, push it out there and take it for reality. But it is a personal reality. And this is the thing that troubles Oedipa Maas, she’s trying to decide if what she sees (the Tristero, this enormous conspiracy), is really out there, or if she’s just “weaving” it in her mind. As I researched Remedios Varo, I discovered that a number of her paintings, though not described in the book, seemed actually to complement Pynchon’s own iconography, his imagination, his conceits.

That was my first published paper. When it came time to write a dissertation, I remember hesitating between E.M. Forster and Pynchon. Since everybody told me to do Forster, I decided to do Pynchon. And I had not studied American literature very much, I was really more specialized in British literature. But I did take a keen interest in current fiction. Of course once you write a dissertation, that’s what you are. I was actually hired to teach modern/contemporary American literature. That was my good fortune.

So: that paper, that early graduate school effort, got developed and worked up, and actually got published. Then the dissertation, which became my first book, Thomas Pynchon, The Art of Allusion, 1980. And though I read and taught and wrote about the work of others, I always was watchful and anticipating new work by Pynchon. As it happened, he did not publish another novel for seventeen years after Gravity’s Rainbow. I really appreciated that, because I could kind of catch up on things. And then came Vineland, which everybody was excited about, since he had been silent for so long. Some kind of block, we think, but don’t know, because we know so little about this author. Since then, he’s loosened up, he’s produced more books.

TWD: He’s doing a lot more work now than he used to.

David: Yes, and I have kept my hand in. Whenever he published a new novel, I would try promptly to write something about it. As a result, my most recent book is the product of reading, teaching, and writing about Pynchon’s work over thirty years—almost forty, in fact.

Now I’m working on a short, introductory book for students new to The Crying of Lot 49.

TWD: So how do you get students today to get interested in someone like Pynchon?

David: English majors and graduate students usually do know about Pynchon. But he’s still not a household name. It’s a little bit frustrating when people ask about your interests, and you say you love to read, and they say, “what do you read?” or “Whom do you teach?” And I mention Pynchon, and there’s a blank look, they don‘t recognize who he is.

Literary fiction exists now more and more in the margins, and that can be troubling or it can be enabling. DeLillo says that the serious novelist in our time operates at the cultural periphery, but he also affirms that that’s actually a pretty good vantage. So with students, I always try to — they know from the outset that I am very passionate about this. I think he’s a marvelous writer. And they’re sufficiently impressionable, they’re sort of new to it, they’re looking for something to sink their teeth into, something to be excited about. And they take their cues from the nearest passionate reader, who often happens also to be their teacher. If you’re not being coercive or beating them over the head with it, you enjoy considerable influence. They see that this has generated a lot of excitement on the part of the teacher or whomever, and that generates curiosity and interest.

He’s a strange writer. You can always do a quick account of the bizarre things that Pynchon includes in his work. Everybody’s heard about the alligators in the sewer, but I never heard about them until I read V. Or the basic idea of Gravity’s Rainbow: a person whose sexual arousal coincides with the pattern of V2 rocket hits in London during WWII. That’s bizarre on the face of it. But it turns out, also, to be an extraordinary paradigm for reversing common sense notions of cause and effect. What he wants to do there, and I think elsewhere, because he is scientifically well-informed, is to contrive ways to dramatize, bring home to the reader, the displacement of a Newtonian scientific model by a Heisenbergian or Einsteinian or quantum model. The first sentence of Gravity’s Rainbow is “A screaming comes across the sky…” And if you read for a while, or think about it a little bit, you realize that, because the Rocket breaks the sound barrier, an explosion has in fact preceded that screaming. That’s sort of a modest scientific point, one that’s not particularly surprising, but it introduces a profound meditation on the ways in which the supposed laws of cause and effect get scrambled as science pushes its frontiers. I feel strongly that Gravity’s Rainbow is the greatest American novel published since 1945.

TWD: A lot of the material in Pynchon’s novels is based on his own experiences, and based on history and truth.

David: Yes, the tricky thing there, of course, is to determine, in the absence of much in the way of biographical information or detail or personal revelation, the extent of the personal experience it might figure. I was convinced, for example, when I picked up Vineland after that seventeen-year wait, that Pynchon must have become a father in the interim. (I had myself experienced parenthood in those years.) I was intrigued to notice him, just in passing, making remarks about a character who was proud to show his mother-in-law that he know how to change a diaper or which way the wiping was supposed to take place with baby boys or baby girls. Well, I was apparently a year off. The book came out in 1990, and Pynchon’s son Jackson was born in 1991. But in some of my conversations with other ardents, there has been speculation that there may have been some other child out of wedlock. That could be part of his experience in this book.

Presumably—may it be far hence—he will pass away, and the various people who know him will come forward and we’ll get more of the full story. One of the conditions of intimacy with Pynchon is, like you don’t talk about Fight Club, well you don’t talk about Pynchon.

TWD: There’ve been numerous books written about Pynchon’s work, why do you think there’s never been a biography?

David: Well, there’s just too little material. And it’s too easy to wander into speculation. I’ve had to be very cautious myself. But I’ve had the good fortune to count John Krafft among my scholarly friends. We’ve been communicating since we were both graduate students—thirty-odd years. John probably knows more about Pynchon than anyone outside his circle, and he probably has a better archive than anybody else. Although there hasn’t been a biography, I know there will be one someday, possibly written by Krafft, or Krafft and another person. But it’s going to need more information. All we’ve got now is an outline, we know where he went to school, when he graduated. We know he served in the Navy, and where he trained, he probably served in the Mediterranean. We know he got married to his longtime companion and agent, Melanie Jackson, in 1990. That fills five pages, maybe ten.

TWD: Well, people are always writing biographies that are speculative on famous people. I’m just wondering why no one has attempted something.

David: The more I think about it, the more interesting that question becomes. There’s an inhibition that can set in, if you are the least bit nervous about bringing yourself to the attention of the author you’re interested in. One thinks of Nabokov. During Nabokov’s life, if you introduced certain ideas into your critical writing about him, I couldn’t give you a specific example, but there was this idea that maybe he’d come after you, and satirize you in print, and make you look foolish. There is, of course, the possibility that you would be jacked-up in print for writing aggressively about Pynchon’s private life.

I know there are a number of examples of his lawyers coming down hard on anyone trying to publish his likeness, or invade his privacy. CNN a couple of years ago tried to publish his image. They got him walking down the street, and the lawyers came down. Finally, CNN compromised by not identifying Pynchon in the footage. But he’s fairly easy to spot, walking down the street. There’s a paparazzo who photographed Pynchon at this time, as well. There are a few things like this, but I do think that people are a tad nervous about further invasions of Pynchon's privacy.

TWD: So whom does Pynchon write for?

David: I think he writes for people who are passionate. People who care passionately about incandescent language, who want, if possible, to see culture and history and the progression of our civilization rendered as story. Always what we want from art is what Frost calls the momentary stay against confusion. And even the most innovative or experimental artist I think needs to give us something of that. So we live in times which in fact Pynchon helped to define, the era of paranoia. It was only months before the Kennedy assassination in 1963 that Pynchon’s first novel came out and revealed its author as the poet of paranoia. And this is important, a great achievement on the part of the artist is to be that aware—to have the ability to place her or his finger on the pulse of the culture—to define the cultural moment. So I think he writes for people who want better to understand where things are now in these parlous decades after the moment of triumph in World War II (which I recently heard an impercipient but print-oriented person call World War Eleven). Pynchon seems to have tracked the energy, as Henry Adams says, out of one century, the twentieth, and well into the twenty-first. And so, even among sensitive readers, he’s not for every taste. But go to Pynchon if you really want a handle on things, of the kind that is not to be had in the pages of New York Review of Books or the nightly news, or places like that. There’s a certain kind of earnest discourse which tries to grapple with these questions but constantly disappoints. And writers like Pynchon or Don DeLillo or any number of truly gifted and insightful and talented and disciplined writers do contrive to deliver that thing we want art to give us. We want art to please us, to delight us. One laughs out loud reading Pynchon. And we want it to tell us something that makes things a little more understandable. The big question in Pynchon studies seems to be Pynchon’s spirituality. Is Pynchon a religious person? Is he drifting towards a religious stance? Sort of the same thing happened in Nabokov studies. Nabokov has kind of been taken over now by critics who make him a heteroclite apologist for religion. And I think that’s happened a little bit with Pynchon. I think they’re wrong. I think he’s a little too tough-minded for that sort of thing. He plays with supernatural conceits but without, as Wordsworth says, recommending them to faith.

David Cowart: Some Favorite Authors
Thomas Pynchon
Don DeLillo
James Joyce
E. M. Forster
Richard Powers

David Cowart: Some Favorite Books
Gravity’s Rainbow
White Noise
Mao II
Operation Wandering Soul

David Cowart took his bachelor's degree at the University of Alabama. After teaching in Ethiopia in the Peace Corps, he took an M.A. at Indiana University, then served two years in the U.S. Army (in Panama). He took his doctorate at Rutgers University in 1977. Professor Cowart has since taught at the University of South Carolina, where he has been named a Louise Fry Scudder Professor and a Board of Trustees Professor. For three years, in the mid-nineties, he served as Director of Graduate Studies in English. He has been honored with a number of teaching awards, as well as important grants and fellowships, including an NEH Summer Stipend and a year-long NEH Fellowship. He has held Fulbright chairs at the University of Helsinki and at Syddansk Universitet in Odense, Denmark. In addition to lecturing in Latvia, Germany, and the Czech Republic, he has presented keynote addresses at international conferences in England, Poland, Japan, and Germany. In 2005, he toured Japan as a Fulbright Distinguished Lecturer. He is a consulting editor for the journal Critique.

In his major scholarly work, Professor Cowart has focused on American fiction in the period after 1945. In addition to the books listed on his author page, he is the author of approximately one hundred articles, notes, and reviews. His book on Don DeLillo won the SAMLA Studies Award in 2003. He is now working on a seventh book, in which he examines the idea of literary generations in the postmodern period.

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