The Straight Dope

Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr was born to Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Sr. and Katherine Frances Bennett Pynchon on May 8, 1937 in Glen Cove, Long Island, New York. They moved to East Norwich when Thomas, Jr was just a child. His father became town supervisor of Oyster Bay and later an industrial surveyor. He has two siblings, sister, Judith and brother, John.

He graduated from Oyster Bay High School in 1953 at the age of sixteen, salutatorian of his class and winner of the Julia L. Thurston award for "the senior attaining the highest average in the study of English." A scholarship to Cornell University and enrollment in the division of Engineering Physics followed. At the end of his sophomore year he left Cornell for service in the Navy.

He returned to Cornell in the fall of 1957 transferring to the College of Arts an Sciences from which he would attain his degree in English. During this time, he took a course from Vladimir Nabokov, was on the editorial staff of the The Cornell Writer , and also published his first short story: "The Small Rain" (The Cornell Writer, March 1959). He received his B.A. in June of 1959 with "distinction in all subjects."

Publication of many other short stories followed: "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna" (Epoch, Spring 1959), "Low-lands" (New World Writing, 1960), "Entropy" (Kenyon Review, Spring 1960), and "Under the Rose" (The Noble Savage, May 1961). Upon graduation, Pynchon had many options including, several fellowships (a Woodrow Wilson for one), teaching creative writing at Cornell, becoming a disk jockey, and consideration as a film critic for Esquire.

Instead, he began work on his first novel, V., while in New York and, with the money from the publishing of "Low-lands" making the trip possible, later in Seattle during a job with the Boeing Company. He worked there as an "engineering aide" writing technical documents from February 2, 1960 to September 13, 1962. He finished V. in California and Mexico, and it was published in 1963. It won the William Faulkner Foundation Award for best first novel of the year.

The publishing of a short story, "The Secret Integration" (The Saturday Evening Post, December 19, 1964) and parts of a work in progress "The World (This One), the Flesh (Mrs. Oedipa Maas), and the Testament of Pierce Inverarity" (Esquire, December 1965) and "The Shrink Flips" (Cavalier, March 1966) followed. His second "novel", The Crying of Lot 49, was published in 1966 and won the Richard and Hilda Rosenthal Foundation Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

He wrote "A Journey into the Mind of Watts" for The New York Times Magazine (June 12, 1966), and, as his success in avoiding any public exposure (heh, heh) continued for the next seven years, he worked on Gravity's Rainbow which was finally published in 1973. In 1974, it shared the National Book Award for fiction with Isaac Bashevis Singer's A Crown of Feathers. It was also unanimously selected by the judges for the Pulitzer Prize in literature, but the selection was overruled by the Pulitzer advisory board whose members called it "unreadable," "turgid," "overwritten," and "obscene." No prize was given that year.

Gravity's Rainbow (originally titled "Mindless Pleasures") was also awarded the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1975 which is given every five years to a work of fiction; however, Pynchon declined the award through a letter, suggesting that it be given to another author. He wrote, "The Howells Medal is a great honor, and, being gold, probably a good hedge against inflation, too. But I don't want it. Please don't impose on me something I don't want. It makes the Academy look arbitrary and me look rude. . . . I know I should behave with more class, but there appears to be only one way to say no, and that's no."

In the following years, any knowledge of Pynchon's whereabouts became increasingly valuable and scarce. His early short stories, excluding "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna" and including "The Secret Integration" were published in 1984 under the collected title Slow Learner with the first autobiographical notes from the author; in 1989, he was awarded the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship ($310,000 over five years), and in 1990 Vineland was published.

The Excluded Middle

The obituariness of the biography above might be due to the well noted disappearance of Pynchon from the public eye. Let me try to fill in some of the space between publishings with what others have written about Pynchon -- some friends others just questers.

Lewis Nichols in "In and Out of Books" writes that Pynchon, during his last years at Cornell, was "a constant reader -- the type to read books on mathematics for fun . . . one who started the day at 1 p.m. with spaghetti and a soft drink . . . and one that read and worked until 3 the next morning" (8).

Vladimir Nabokov didn't remember Pynchon very well, but his wife recalled Pynchon's "unusual handwriting: half printing, half script."

Jules Siegel, in his article for Playboy, remembers Pynchon informing him that Nabokov's Russian accent was so thick it was hard to understand anything he said. Also, when asked about the complexity of V. , Pynchon replied, "Why should things be easy to understand?"

In 1965, Siegel reports that Pynchon was living in Manhattan Beach, California where he was working on what would become Gravity's Rainbow which it seems he had begun soon after the publication of V. and interrupted it to write The Crying of Lot 49.

He sent Irwin Corey to accept his National Book Award for Gravity's Rainbow which was dedicated to his good friend Richard Farina who, two days after his book, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, had been published, died in a motorbike accident in 1966. As his elusiveness increased so did the theories surrounding him.

The most outlandish: John Calvin Batchelor claimed Pynchon was J. D. Salinger -- not true. Sightings continue to occur. He's not as reclusive as one might think. It's not like he never goes out in public. David Gale mentions that Pynchon was doing research in 1979 in London, and in October of 1987 was in Boston. Pynchon is also thought to have lived in Aptos, California for an extended period of time between completion of Gravity's Rainbow and Vineland.

Who knows where he is now? And who cares? I don't want you to know who I am.

I urge one to look at the following articles if one has the urge for more information, but I feel I'm treading dangerously into Tabloid Land, and I fear I will never get back if I don't turn around and follow my crumbs or click my heels now. Feel free to investigate the FAQ and, by the way, the Mathew Winston article has an excellent history of Pynchon's family whose history Pynchon himself satirizes via the Slothrops in Gravity's Rainbow .

Main Works Consulted and Cited:

Gale, David. "The Quest for Thomas Pynchon." Tatler, January, 1990: 188.

Nichols, Lewis. "In and Out of Books." New York Times Book Review, 28 April 1963: 8.

Siegel, Jules. "Who is Thomas Pynchon . . . and why did he take off with my Wife?," Playboy 34 (March 1977): 97, 122, 168-74.

Winston, Matthew. "The Quest for Thomas Pynchon." Twentieth Century Literature 21 (October 1975): 282.

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