Researching Thomas Pynchon often involves scouring book sellers’ listings, and I’ve gotten a few items doings so, though the limitations of my budget more often than not prevent me from getting most of the things I would like to get. Still, one can find interesting bits of information. For instance, Pynchon’s signed contract for the liner notes that were published with Spiked! The Music of Spike Jones can be picked up at the moment for $20,000. The item doesn’t seem particularly interesting unless you’re into signatures, but its presence on the market allowed me to discover that Pynchon got $3,000 for his 1,000 to 4,000 word essay, as it is described in the document. Sometimes the information isn’t so straightforward. For instance, in two of Ken Lopez’s catalogs, Pynchon’s essay “Hallowe’en? Over Already?” is described as “[a] write-up by Pynchon on the school’s Halloween picnic.” The description turns out to have been false, although the quote from the one-line bio, “Tom is a writer,” is correct. I found these things out when I had a chance to look at the piece and write an article, “Thomas Pynchon and the Vacuum Salesman in Guadalajara.” an expanded version of which I published on Berfrois as “P.’s Public Story.” The lesson here is to regard with skepticism information that appears in book sellers’ catalogs unless, perhaps, direct quotation is involved, but even then, with so much money exchanging hands, forgery is a possibility, which brings me to my present interest.
A few years ago, a signed Mason & Dixon and a presentation letter showed up on the market for $30,000. The listing, which has since vanished, I assume because the items sold, was unusual in that it quoted the letter in full. I saved the listing’s text because of the letter:
Mason & Dixon NY: Henry Holt, (1997). Hardbound in dust jacket. First edition. Presentation copy inscribed by Pynchon to William Plumley, head of the University of Charleston award committee that chose Pynchon for their Appalachian Medallion: “For William Plumley, With appreciation and thanks. Thomas Pynchon.” TOGETHER WITH a Typed Letter Signed from Pynchon declining the award and presenting the book. One quarto page on Mason and Dixon letterhead dated June 23, 1997, in full:
“Dear Mr. Plumley, Regretfully, I must decline the Appalachian Medallion. Rationally or otherwise, I have a history of trying to avoid, whenever possible, all such awards. I am grateful to you for the chance to do so ahead of time, as well as for the honor, of course, of even being thought of on the same list as Eudora Welty and Robert Penn Warren. I do, however, hope that you will accept, with my thanks, the copy of Mason and Dixon enclosed. Part of the novel is set in Appalachia—I’ve tried in it to remain true to the spirit of the region and the people, whom I continue to admire and respect. Yours truly, Thomas Pynchon.”
It goes without saying that books signed by Pynchon seldom surface on the market and autograph material by him is among the most difficult of any living author. There have been a few known instances where he has donated a signed book to a charity auction, but genuine presentation copies of his books are truly rare, and rarer still is Pynchon correspondence — and this letter is especially nice. Along with the literary references and mention of his own book, Pynchon explains his ethos of anonymity that has caused him to studiously avoid awards, interviews, and photographs throughout his career. A search of auction records shows no evidence of a Pynchon letter ever having appeared at auction. A superb pair of Pynchon items, the only inscribed book with a presentation letter that we know of.
My problem, or Pynchon scholars’ problem, is trusting the listing. (I contacted two well-known figures in the Pynchon community. One said the letter’s text sounded authentic, but that sounding authentic doesn’t make it so. The other didn’t think the letter was real, despite the price. I also asked Martin Eve to post the listing on his blog, but no one contacted him about it.) Finding, or imagining, a reason for the book’s appearance is easy: after Plumley died, his heirs sold his library, some parts of which are now available in university archives. Verifying the authenticity of the letter, or at least the part about Pynchon being offered the Appalachian Medallion, should be more straightforward: contact the organization that gives out the medallion and find out if Pynchon was offered the award. Doing so is more difficult than you might think and not simply because there is another Appalachian Medallion, one handed out by Appalachian State University that is more easily researched. The medallion associated with Charleston University, the Appalachian Medallion Award, no longer seems to exist. The most recent recipient that I can find is Nikki Giovanni, who received it in 1998, instead of Pynchon one may wonder, and no one, or at least no one whose contact information I could find, at Charleston, when I was contacting people about Pynchon’s turning down the award, could tell me anything about recipients or potential recipients.
The question I have is: Does anyone know about Pynchon’s turning down the Appalachian Medallion Award? Maybe Boris Kachka, who was able to get in touch with people many Pynchon scholars would be happy to speak with when he did his profile for the New Yorker, could have found out?