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On the Mason Dixon Line:


Billie Travalini, Fleda Brown

August 2008

Joseph P. Wood

In BC Hall and CT Wood’s travelogue, Big Muddy: Down the Mississippi through America’s Heartland, they claim that the old dividing line between North and South, the Mason-Dixon, is arbitrary and outdated, a relic from a property dispute by two English astronomers in the 1760s.

In BC Hall and CT Wood’s travelogue, Big Muddy: Down the Mississippi through America’s Heartland, they claim that the old dividing line between North and South, the Mason-Dixon, is arbitrary and outdated, a relic from a property dispute by two English astronomers in the 1760s.

I suspect Travalini and Brown – and the writers contained within On the Mason-Dixon Line: An Anthology of Contemporary Delaware Writers – would adamantly disagree with Hall’s assertion that Mason-Dixon Line in present day America is meaningless. In fact, the editors’ introduction claims that the line, partially located on the western border of the state, gives the state immense cultural meaning:

…we’re Yankee, but barely. We’re a state that hardly knows whether it’s Northern or Southern. Stretching ninety-six miles along the eastern coast of the United States, Delaware, the first state to ratify the constitution, and one of four border states during the American Civil War, is as diverse and interesting as any state in the nation.

The editors posit that Delaware is not only North or South, but rather an idiosyncratic synthesis of those cultures. A reader might conclude that the work contained within the anthology would speak to the particulars of the Delaware experience, and in the manner of Hall and Wood – or other North vs. South literature – create a cohesive and complicated pastiche on what it means to straddle both regions.

In creating this anthology, however, Travalini and Brown have not so much solicited work about Delaware as much as solicited writers with biographical ties to Delaware. The result is a collection of compelling prose and capably crafted poetry, but the reader is sometimes left uncertain about what constitutes a Delawite sensibility. For example, a good portion of the prose inhabits generalized, domestic worlds gone awry and the self-realizations that occur in the face of chaos.

In Fleda Brown’s haunting and harrowing personal essay “Anatomy of a Seizure,” the reader watches a family try to deal with a son’s degenerative paralysis. Maribeth Fischer’s equally moving essay “Stillbirth” documents the struggles of a daughter in Iowa trying to reason out her mother’s divorce. While most of the prose in this collection gives careful attention to character development and narrative, and while there is a healthy diversity of tone and voice, much of the work feels less located in a particular region and more grounded in a broader American context. Moreover, when some of the work does investigate the function of place, it is a location eons away from the Mid-Atlantic, such as McKay Jenkins’s “And None Came Back” about a climbing expedition gone bad in Glacier National Park or Elissa Schappel’s “The Green Fairy” about absinthe addiction in Portugal.

There are two prose pieces, however, that feel squarely rooted in Delaware (albeit wildly different portions): Bonnie MacDougal’s excerpt from her novel Out of Order and the start of Travalini’s own memoir Bloodsisters. MacDougal dives into the world of Delaware blue-bloods. Lawyer, senators, and other well-groomed elite mince about a giant estate where piano music and tuxedoed waiters are ubiquitous background. The excerpt depicts a people inextricably linked to larger urban centers (DC and Philadelphia), and yet who are culturally self-contained. Travalini, on the other hand, introduces her readers to the tribulations of the working poor. Her narrator is a ten year-old girl who returns to her biological parents in Wilmington after spending most of her life with her adopted mother, Mama Cope. Travalini expertly depicts a Delaware where wide open rural spaces quickly lead to crammed urban neighborhoods, and where one’s class is not the same as one’s kindness.

The poetry in On the Mason-Dixon Line has a more consistent regional air. Many of the poems utilize the specifics of Delaware landscape, such as the Brandywine and Symrna Rivers, Delaware Park, and farmland giving way to strip malls. More often than not, the poems primarily are concerned with the fates of ordinary individuals or occasionally, a notable historical figure. Most of the poems in the collection are highly narrative and descriptive, sometimes at the expense of musical complexity and attention to line. However, some of the poets – such as David Scott, Allison Funk, WD Snodgrass, and Jeanne Murray Walker – have both a wonderful gift of story and a finely-tuned lyricism. For instance, Murray-Walker’s sestina, “Betting in Bright Sunlight at Delaware Park,” tells the story of a nameless gambler – and one who, it is implied, has had his fair share of rough luck. But the poem’s resonance does not rest in its narrative but in its prosodic and figurative complexity:

Rags shaken in the wind, her mane. Her head
eats light, drinks furlongs. He can’t even see
the blue until the photo. There’s she still.
And first. And his. He rises beyond the track,
beyond his hands, his rings, his blue tattoo,
his shoes. The crowd divides to let him pass.

Murray Walker’s ear is impeccable: she creates subtle yet pointed drama in the short sentences of the second and third lines, and then follows them in a long sentence where the poem’s subject metaphysically “rises beyond” the gauche adornments on and of his body (the “rings”, for instance, one imagines not to be on the subtle side). The figurative moment in the stanza is heightened through the musical variation. Not all the poems in this collection are this finely constructed – but the ones that are resonate.

Ultimately, the collection – intentionally or unintentionally – is not so much a literary exploration of Delaware’s Southern and Northern attributes, as the title would suggest. Rather, On the Mason-Dixon Line is more about how Delaware fits into a larger national narrative. Perhaps, the Mason-Dixon Line is not a distinct line between two opposite cultures, but more a point where local particulars give greater breadth to the spirit and ideals of America.

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