Where’s Wanda? The Case of the Bag Lady and Thomas Pynchon

by Charles Hollander

Politically satirical letters sent during the 1980s to the editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser in California signed by Wanda Tinasky may be the work of novelist Thomas Pynchon. Physical evidence includes Tinasky’s letters being written on a typewriter similar to one Pynchon used and handwriting similarities. The Tinasky letters and Pynchon’s credited works use satirical puns in half–names and sexual jokes. Tinasky’s politics, like Pynchon’s, proclaim the artist as an active citizen who operates behind a satiric facade. This evidence is, if not conclusive, at least persuasive.

* * * *

Hollander himself has commented as follows: This essay has been published for some time and I stand by it as my opinion. I’ve come to believe there were a number of people who wrote as Wanda. It seems to have been a community activity to publicly and anonymously show disrespect for some of the North Coast’s prominent personalities. But I must say there are some "voices" that are definitely not Pynchon’s, and whose concerns are not Pynchonian.

There is one period when Wanda’s concerns matched Pynchon’s, and Wanda’s style and tropes seemed very close to Pynchon’s. In this article I’ve found twenty-four (24) distinct similarities. I guess I can only claim that I believe Pynchon wrote some of the Wanda letters.

From another angle, then, it seems I have developed a typology of Pynchon’s favorite tropes, or literary devices, in trying to prove that Pynchon was Wanda. I managed to categorize twenty–four of Pynchon’s favorite manoeuvres and this typology should prove very helpful to Pynchon students, whether or not they choose to believe Pynchon wrote "The Wanda Letters," or at least the ones I cite. So read on and make up your own mind. Sometimes good arises out of confusion. (03.05.2006)

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Suppose, with the help of some as–yet–unknown technology, suspicions arose that Samuel L. Clemens was not only newspaperman and novelist Mark Twain, but also political satirist and letters–to–the–editor writer Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby. (He wasn’t. Nasby was the nom de plume of newspaper editor David Ross Locke. But suppose.) The idea that Clemens had another, hitherto concealed, literary identity would require a re–evaluation of his entire body of work—in a more political light. That’s what’s currently happening with the novelist Thomas Pynchon, who may or may not be a politically satirical letterist named "Wanda Tinasky."

Over the course of the 1980s, Tinasky (and her other aliases, among them, "Muriel Titmouse," "Phoebe Caulfield," and "Kirk Rotomontade") sent about seventy–five letters to the editor of a small Northern California newspaper, The Anderson Valley Advertiser (AVA). Although Tinasky described herself in the letters as a bag lady, forced to sleep under bridges and to scavenge for food, her letters were stylish, highbrow, and witty comments on life on the North Coast. During the summer of 1995, Bruce Anderson, AVA’s publisher, decided to collect the letters into an anthology. They are now published as The Letters of Wanda Tinasky (1996).

Wanda Tinasky could not be found, nor, naturally, could Phoebe Caulfield or any of the others. The idea that the letters were Pynchon’s had been rumored since the 1990 publication of Vineland, set on the North Coast. Pynchon had an address in California, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles, during the time the letters were sent—in Aptos, Santa Cruz County—and similarities between the letters and Pynchon’s work were striking. The famously reclusive Pynchon denied authorship through his agent; but the unhoodwinkable Anderson and his associate Fred Gardner circulated a sampler of the letters, seeking confirmation or refutation of the rumor that Tinasky and Pynchon were one.

Identifying the author of the Wanda Tinasky letters is a lot like reading a whodunit. What do we know? Three types of evidence link Tinasky and Pynchon: physical evidence (and inferences from that), similarities of writing styles, and similarities of political concerns. Rather than pivoting on a single irrefutable fact, the case that Tinasky is Pynchon builds incrementally along these three fronts.

Tinasky herself drops a few clues. In a letter published in October 1985, she mentions having worked for Boeing, decades before. That Pynchon worked for Boeing in Seattle is well documented; he wrote at least one technical article under his own name while he worked there ("Togetherness," Aerospace Safety, December 1960). Vineland contains a description of a mid–air airplane hookup very like the mid–air refueling techniques developed at Boeing during the 1950s. Because tens of thousands of people knew of it, that coincidence, in itself, proves nothing. Even if we believe Tinasky, the initial suspect list is hundreds of thousands of former Boeing employees.

In an April 1986 letter, though, Tinasky refers to "a novel I have in process, based on the romantic lives of several of our more public personalities." Using this clue would narrow the suspect pool to North Coast novelists who once worked for Boeing, perhaps a couple hundred published and unpublished writers. Alexander Cockburn (letter to the New York Press 30 Aug 1995) rounds up a handful of the usual suspects—North Coast novelists Jim Dodge, Michael McClure, James Crumley, and Cormac McCarthy—but fails to make a detailed or convincing case why any of them might be Wanda Tinasky. Pynchon remains the major suspect.

Is there any hard evidence? A smoking gun? As anyone who’s read his share of formula mysteries will tell you, the solutions to many such stories depend on matching typewritten samples or samples of handwriting. The Tinasky letters from the beginning come off typewriters very similar to the one on which Pynchon wrote signed letters during the early 1980s and to the typewriter used to type the manuscript of Vineland. In addition, the letters I’ve seen (both Tinasky’s and Pynchon’s) are similarly well typed, with few corrections or overstrikes, and few handwritten interlinear or marginal additions.

Handwriting is nearly as personal an identifying characteristic as fingerprints. Although not as certain as matched hair fragments or DNA–matched samples, handwriting is often strong enough evidence for the courts. Can we conclusively demonstrate that the hand that scribbled the interlinear and marginal notes of the Tinasky letters is Pynchon’s?

Lacking the vast resources of the FBI, I compared the Wanda letters to the dust jacket of Clifford Mead’s Thomas Pynchon: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Materials, which features a block–lettered—not cursively scripted —poem of Pynchon’s, and found a hand very similar to the notes in the Tinasky letters. Paying particular attention to the letters c (which nearly lapses into cursive), t (which has a characteristically wide and flat cross mark), and m (which has the quality of the McDonald’s logo), I found very strong similarity, strong enough to say the two handwritings are "nearly identical." Because I am neither a document archivist, graphologist, nor typewriter repairman, my opinions aren’t very "expert."

Clifford Mead, head of Special Collections at Oregon State University, who is considered an expert on Pynchon materials, has said: "Having examined some of the original materials submitted to the AVA by ‘Wanda Tinasky,’ and having compared them to authentic Pynchon typescripts and handwriting, it appears most probable (based upon the peculiar irregularities of the struck letters) that the Tinasky letters I’ve seen were written on the same typewriter that Pynchon is known to have used in the past. Also, it appears the Wanda Tinasky’ signature matches Thomas Pynchon’s handwriting as well."

Lacking an eyewitness to the "crime," we have only circumstantial evidence. We have Tinasky, a self–described former Boeing employee (like Pynchon), a novelist (like Pynchon) with a work in process about the California North Coast (like Vineland), who uses a typewriter very similar in font to Pynchon’s (who uses that typewriter similarly, too; they both favor 60 characters a line), and whose block–lettered handwriting is nearly identical to Pynchon’s. We also have Pynchon’s works themselves, which often revolve around questions of mistaken identity, concealed identities, and forged documents.

In any mystery worth reading, the detective must account for the motives of the suspects. I think one driving motive in this mystery is Dada. Pynchon is now, has always been, and probably will ever be a practicing Dadaist. Michael W. Vella, in an article in the journal Pynchon Notes, explores how V. shows that "Pynchon was enriched by the Dadaist and surrealist heritage." Indeed, if we go back to Pynchon’s youth, we find he was always something of a hoaxer. His high school yearbook attributed to him the anonymous farcical columns "The Voice of the Hamster" that appeared in his high school paper. As a college student he sometimes affected costumes for parties.

With Wanda showing the defining Dada tendency "pour épater la bourgeoisie" (a slogan coined by Gustave Flaubert and merrily taken up by the Dadaists, which translates, roughly, "to flabbergast the conventionally minded"), we have yet another similarity. Pynchon and Wanda both enjoy shocking the bourgeoisie. In most of the Tinasky letters Wanda seems The Voice of the Hamster Redux, exhibiting the same impulse toward mischief–making as the adolescent hamster—more mature, but strikingly similar in diction, rhetoric, and subject matter.

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Another approach to positing identity requires detailed demonstration of the similarity between tropes Pynchon uses in his credited works and those Tinasky uses in her letters to the AVA. The confluence of styles of the Tinasky letters and Pynchon’s work is so striking as to amount to matching literary fingerprints. Not that all of the letters are masterpieces, or even good (everybody has better days): most of them seem tossed off, what the Beats called "automatic writing." The Tinasky letters are often casual, unedited reactions to the events of the day on and around the North Coast. They are mostly "quickies," not up to the level of Pynchon’s credited work; and he may be denying them out of coyness more than anything else.

Among the earliest of the Tinasky letters are two so silly that they could only be Pynchon jokes. In the first, Muriel Titmouse—Muriel Titmouse!—solicits funds for the "Protest Our Thieves" (POT) Foundation: she’s raising funds for an "Onan Generator." A concerned IRS agent named Phullup N. Bloated responds in a following week, warning readers that the POT Foundation is not a tax–exempt organization and suggesting that members write to the "Infernal Rev–in–you Serve–us" about it. Titmouse is a body–part pun (tiny tits), like Dewey Gland in V. and Peter Pinguid in The Crying of Lot 49 (both greasy pricks). The POT Foundation is a subculture of marijuana growers, like many of the North Coast pot growers in Vineland, like the underground Sons of the Red Apocalypse in "Low–lands," or the kids’ secret Inner Junta in "The Secret Integration"; like the subculture of the disinherited "Tristero" in Lot 49, or the antiestablishment "24fps Film Collective" in Vineland.

Although the actual D.W. Onan & Son Co. manufactures first–class electrical generators, an "Onan generator" creates for Wanda an irresistible opportunity for a naughty masturbation pun, reminiscent of the limerick guy from Decatur who made love to a LOX generator in Gravity’s Rainbow. Naming the IRS flips the bird (as Pynchon does typographically in Gravity’s Rainbow, p. 566) at the government. The bogus name (Full Up ‘n Bloated) flames real IRS agents as hogs—all in two short paragraphs.

A 7 June 1984 Tinasky letter to The Mendocino Commentary features the political insight "People are being murdered so that I can have bananas three pounds for a dollar." That’s Wanda’s allusion to all the U.S. corporations whose puppet regimes in Latin America sent their police chiefs to be trained in torture tactics at American bases in order to avoid what LaFeber calls Inevitable Revolutions. U.S. Army manuals for training counter–insurgents in eleven South and Central American countries were made public in September 1996. Such training programs have been on–going since the 1960s or earlier (Washington Post 21 September 1996: A9).

The allusion also recalls the Lot 49 law firm Warpe, Wistful, Kubitschek, and McMingus, which in turn reminds us that Juscelino Kubitschek was a former president of Brazil, a popularly elected and duly constituted official, who was forced into exile when (in 1964) the CIA overthrew the Brazilian government and set up a military regime, as Gerard Colby describes in Thy Will Be Done.

That 7 June 1984 letter also mentions the Muse of Poetry, which seems to be Wanda’s way of saying "Give unto the Corporations that which is the Corporations’''; and give unto the Muse that which makes it tolerable for the rest of us to live under Them—including bad jokes, questionable puns, feigned controversy, and simulated indignation.

In mid–May 1984, Tinasky writes that events have conspired against her "to give me my worst month since I got out of Buchenwald." Pynchon often uses indicative names and place–names to give characters compact backgrounds and histories. Oedipa Maas in Lot 49, for example, comes from a suburban town named Kinneret–Among–the–Pines. Kinneret is a name for the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus’s ministry flourished. After the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Galilee became the main center of Judaism in Palestine; Zionist colonization of the region began at the end of the nineteenth century. By naming Oedipa’s subdivision Kinneret, Pynchon suggests that Oedipa is a Jewish girl, from a Jewish neighborhood.

The allusion to the Buchenwald concentration camp achieves the same effect for Wanda. In a later letter, Tinasky signs off from the "Commune of the Crippled Jewish Nudist Lesbian Mothers for Peace." This is another Pynchon trope: giving a suggestive allusion early on and a confirming datum later. Why does this matter? Why would Pynchon go to such lengths? Using a Jewish persona (Tinasky), a survivor of one of history’s darkest chapters, to carry the narrative in his letters allows him a more alienated posture and higher moral ground from which to operate. In Ulysses, James Joyce similarly used the Jewish Leopold Bloom to comment on Catholic, "priest-ridden" Ireland. Post–Holocaust Tinasky—empty as a pocket, with nothing to lose—feels free to be outrageously outspoken.

A letter from "Phoebe Caulfield" in early 1984 recalls her older brother, Holden, and inverts the old joke that the reclusive Pynchon was really the reclusive J. D. Salinger. Hey, maybe Salinger’s Tinasky! But Phoebe’s letter also contains a pretty good limerick to AVA publisher Bruce Anderson:

A zealous young stringer named Bruce
Used words to sufficiently goose
All the people in town
And for miles around . . .
Just like the old REALIST used(t).

It’s another Pynchon (not Salinger) fingerprint, recalling limericks throughout his oeuvre and particularly in Gravity’s Rainbow, for example:

There once was a thing called a V–2,
To pilot which you did not need to–
You just pushed a button,
And it would leave nuttin’
But stiffs and big holes and debris, too.

In a May 1984 letter Tinasky uses the idiom "86’d." The term "86’d" is commonly heard slang (meaning for an employee to be fired or discharged, or for a drunk to be put out of a bar); but it’s less common in print because it’s obscure; and how does one write it: "Eighty–sixed?" or "86’d?". In the essay introducing his collection of short stories Slow Learner — published that same year—Pynchon uses it in the first paragraph, the same way. Alone, "86’d" proves nothing; but together with other favorite words and tropes, a familiar pattern is building.

Bruce Anderson is nothing if not a kneejerk "no" man when dealing with establishment politics, a pose that earned him twelve days in jail for contempt of court in June 1996. Prophetically calling Anderson an "old–fashioned masochistic horsewhippable editor" in 1984 makes explicit Tinasky’s sensitivity to raising state affairs to public ridicule, her alertness to the wages of Menippean (political) satire—malign retribution. This alertness (called paranoia by the naive) has served Pynchon well since 1963 when he allegedly fled Mexico City to avoid a Time magazine photographer sent to take his picture following the success of V.

As Harry Levin reminds us in "The Wages of Satire" (Playboys and Killjoys 1987), political satirists who challenge power are often victims of that power. John Dryden was beaten by the Earl of Rochester’s thugs; François Marie Voltaire was beaten by the Chevalier de Rohan’s and—when he had the nerve to protest—was clapped into the Bastille (Écrasez l’infâme indeed!). Juvenal was exiled by the Roman Emperor Domitian, Victor Hugo by Emperor Louis Napoleon, and Daniel Defoe (the "Father of Modem Journalism") was pilloried for seditious libel. So much for exposing the Emperor’s new clothes.

The first sentence of Tinasky’s 15 May 1985 letter runs to nineteen or twenty typewritten lines. It’s a Thomistic synthesis, as identifiable as Pynchon’s prose style (as Van Gogh’s brush strokes are not Gauguin’s and Mozart’s trills and grace notes are not Haydn’s): a long paratactic sentence with a series of clauses set off by commas (with an illuminating parenthetical inside, many of them, because otherwise the punctuation would become too cumbersome), that drops an unattributed quod libet here and there (to see if the reader can "spot that quote" and identify its author, and thereby his or her political bent, as a clue to what is going on), that uses italics—setting conjunctions & ampersands used as conjunctions & ampersands next to conjunctions & ampersands used as italicized nouns (ands and &s)—to force the reader to attend more deeply; that has Wanda feigning a FULL RAGING SNIT!?!, only to undercut the whole construct of alleged anger by making yet another questionable pun at the end, linking her old underwear to her older Underwood. If Tinasky is not Pynchon, it could only be someone who’s studied Pynchon’s prose style for twenty years and can mimic his sentence and paragraph architecture at will.

Who else is subtle enough to pull off such a ploy? If not Pynchon, who? The usual suspects? A rival author? Charles Bukowski, a.k.a. Harry Chinasky, with a girlfriend named Wanda in Barfly? A Pynchon scholar? Ed Mendelson? For six years? Finding the time while eking out a living? Immersing himself in the Mendocino scene? And then changing his mind? Then there’s the question of talent: a Pynchon forger would have to be very learned and skillful. Okay, okay, this is setting up a straw–man argument: it’s not fair calling on those not in agreement to come up with another suspect as the author of the Tinasky letters.

With the Pynchon—Tinasky conundrum we have two published authors, Thomas Pynchon and "Wanda Tinasky." That’s a fact. We have an accumulated body of circumstantial and stylistic evidence that incrementally suggests they are one. That’s an opinion—perhaps a bit premature here—based on inference. It’s not fair to place the burden of proof on the disbelievers. But if Wanda isn’t Pynchon, then there is another classy writer out there of whom none of us has ever heard—someone calling him– or herself Wanda Tinasky—who writes a hell of a lot like Pynchon.

An 8 May 1985 letter makes fun of a local group it calls the Norm deVall Circle Jerks, another adolescent masturbation put–down (men and women are masturbating throughout Vineland); and Brent Pusberger is a body secretion putdown of TV sports guy Brent Musberger (who is mentioned twice in Vineland). These tropes reduce their targets to mere body functions, as by naming a whole Southern California (Trasero) county in Vineland for the hind quarters of an animal, Pynchon reduces all its people to unmentionable body parts, "bleepholes," merely good enough to pass solid waste.

In that letter, Tinasky also names Voltaire ("The Father Of The Enlightenment"). Voltaire’s given name was Arouet, but he didn’t hide behind "Voltaire" (French for "high-backed armchair"): he took and used his new judgmental identity brazenly, as Cassius Clay became Mohammad Ali. I’m not sure what Tinasky is after here, beyond getting Écrasez l'infâme into print: literally, "Crush the infamous." That phrase, one of Voltaire’s apothegms that became an anti–Church slogan on the eve of the French Revolution, came to mean something like "Crush the Church—State." It pops up repeatedly as a slogan of nineteenth–century French "free–thinkers," and in the Tinasky letters. In Vineland, the slogan of the Pisk sisters, Ditzah and Zipi, of the "24 fps Film Collective" is "Smash the State!" Just another echo of Voltaire, again connecting Pynchon and Tinasky: same thoughts, nearly the same words (in and out of French).

Pynchon often cites other writers, enlisting them as allies by alluding to them by name, half–name, or by names of characters in their works. In the 15 May 1985 letter, Tinasky introduces someone called "Auntie Gwladys." The name Gwladys is borrowed from one of P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster stories, another allusion dropped, in which Bertie falls for a girl named Gwladys. His Auntie Dahlia is appalled. "No good can come of association with anything labelled Gwladys or Ysobel or Ethyl or Mabelle or Kathryn," she says. "But particularly Gwladys." You’d have to have read your Wodehouse, or The New Yorker, to know that all those ys imply an anti–Welsh slur. With Ethyl (an anti–knock gasoline additive, tetra–ethyl lead) may come a not–too–thinly veiled anti–petrochemical knock as well.

Wodehouse, a writer of light genre novels—"musical comedies without music" he called them—was captured by the Germans at the outbreak of the Second World War. Under house arrest at a Berlin hotel, Wodehouse (an alleged political innocent) was somehow persuaded by a representative of the Columbia Broadcasting System to give a series of broadcasts in which he made light of his experiences and the war. He made five broadcasts before the Germans understood that he spoke in such a heavily ironic manner he meant the opposite of what he said. But because of these broadcasts, his postwar reputation plummeted, and he might have been tried and executed for treason (like William Joyce, who propagandized for the Germans as "Lord Haw–haw") had not such native ironic–speaking intellectuals as Malcolm Muggeridge, Evelyn Waugh, and George Orwell intervened on his behalf.

Wodehouse’s career was long, and he appeared at times one thing and then another: columnist, novelist, lyricist, playwright. It is hard to pin him down, but Queen Elizabeth II. knighted him, in 1975, when he was ninety–four, despite his political peccadilloes. Tinasky alludes to Wodehouse, a writer who got himself into political trouble, who was rescued by Muggeridge (the curmudgeon), Waugh (the satirist), and Orwell (the political satirist). As a man is known by the company he keeps, Wanda is known by the allusions she drops.

Pynchon uses indicative names and place names to give characters compact backgrounds. Here Tinasky invokes a literary character to invoke another writer (Wodehouse) whose antifascist views and deeds were well enough known. This is an example of what I term misdirection. In his credited works, Pynchon often mentions a character of another writer in his text, only to nudge us toward the writer himself. A name in the text (Auntie Gwladys) leads us to something outside the text (the biography of Wodehouse) where the relevant information resides.

In Vineland Pynchon mentions the names Orwell and Brecht and alludes to the biography of the well–known antifascist writer George Orwell (who fought against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War and was seriously wounded) and Bertolt Brecht (who fled Nazi Germany only to run afoul of the House Unamerican Activities Committee, and who returned to East Germany). Tinasky herself mentions Orwell and Brecht. In so doing she heists one of Pynchon’s most indirect tricks, a subtlety that makes it unlikely Tinasky is not Pynchon.

After a circumcision–castration joke (not unlike the Major Marvey episode in Gravity’s Rainbow) at the expense of Bruce Anderson, Tinasky alerts Anderson to possible assassination attempts, referring (we’re told) to a recent drug "hit" in the Mendocino area. "Assassinated"—not executed, "snuffed," or merely "killed"—puts a particularly political spin on the warning: we seldom hear of an apolitical assassination." In Tinasky’s hands assassination implies politics. As all of us are, Pynchon is particularly sensitive to assassinations and assassins: In Gravity’s Rainbow he even has a resort especially for assassins. Here Tinasky implies we live in a time when cadres of organized assassins operate in the daily scheme of things. And with drug gangs, the Unabomber, ATF personnel, Arizona selectmen, the FBI, Oklahoma City bombers, Latin American death squads, Branch Davidians, the CIA, the IRA—where does it end?

In her 6 June 1984 letter Tinasky introduces the fable form by name, "Wanda’s Fables," and offers the fable of "Jesus on the Golf Course" in a 20 June 1984 letter. We know Pynchon has liked fables since his first short story "The Small Rain." In his introduction to the 1992 Donald Barthelme collection The Teachings of Don B. (an essay of Edwardian elegance as contrasted with Wanda’s schtick), Pynchon explains how his late friend and colleague used "Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories, and Plays." In so doing, Pynchon reveals himself, somewhat, and what he thinks are the tricks of the satirical trade. Just coincidentally, Tinasky uses many of the same devices.

"The old bleep was bullbleeping us." Tinasky here (6 June 1984 letter to the AVA) uses a type of enthymeme, conjuring up in the mind’s ear the unspoken words "The old fart was bullshitting us." Other types of enthymeme are the incomplete syllogism and the incomplete analogy. For example, "All men must die: Socrates is a man . . ." leaving the listener to conclude the unspoken, "Socrates must die." Or, "Paul Ludwig was to Adolf as Lyndon Baines was to . . ." leaving the listener or reader to identify the unnamed successor, "Richard." If we grasp the pertinent clue of "successor" the relationship Hindenburg was to Hitler as Johnson was to Nixon should arise in one’s mind; by extending the process of filling in the blanks we infer, "Hitler is analogous to Nixon." For Tinasky (and Pynchon) the enthymeme has a twofold purpose: it engages the reader by making him work while reading, and it might reward him with a surprising naughty joke or a forbidden political joke. At the same time it alerts the reader to the importance of filling in blanks that may take on a political cast as a means of evading the censor.

Pynchon has been using the withheld punchline since his earliest work, and he even says as much in "The Secret Integration." "Tim knew as well as Etienne, the professional comic, when your listener had guessed your next line, so he didn’t say anything." Pynchon is great at leading us up to something, something with blanks to fill in, and then letting us do that ourselves. It is another of Pynchon’s identifying literary fingerprints—the enthymeme. Tinasky uses it time and again.

Another is the proverb. Tinasky’s 20 June 1984 letter ends with a proverb: "For some people, you can’t be too obvious." Gravity’s Rainbow contains a series of "Proverbs for Paranoids" including, "If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers." V. offers, "Keep cool, but care." And in Vineland Pynchon writes, "Maybe forget, but never forgive." Like Tinasky, Pynchon uses proverbs, pithy apothegms, to pepper his prose.

Another fingerprint is word play. In the same letter Tinasky lets fly the cute Spoonerism "ious pshit," which seems another nod to P. G. Wodehouse and his character Psmith. Later in the letters Tinasky mentions the palindrome "Ukiah haiku." Not that Tinasky (or Pynchon) is the only person in the world who likes to play with Spoonerisms and palindromes, but added to the accumulating menu of her favorite tropes, this word play is another incremental link of Tinasky to Pynchon.

Yet another is look–alikes. Tinasky’s 11 July 1984 letter with the photo of look–alike Russians that is the vehicle for jokes is reminiscent of the passage in Vineland where Pynchon develops the Hollywood treatment of a basketball film using look–alike stars to double for NBA players and coaches, conjuring TV images of ballplayers whose faces are recognizably distinct and their equally recognizable Hollywood analogues: actor Michael Douglas as NBA coach Pat Riley, actor Sean Penn as Boston Celtic all–star Larry Bird. But for height, they sorta–kinda fit. Look–alikes are another form of enthymeme, conjuring human faces in the mind with words. Much of Tinasky’s joking playfulness likens Mendocino folks to well–known look–alikes, some comparisons flattering, others invidious.

Half–names are another Pynchonesque device Tinasky uses. In one letter she writes about well–known California figures Weyerhauser vice president Charlie Bingham and State Assembly Speaker Willie Brown as "Charlie Bleep and Assembly Speaker Bleep." The technique recalls Lot 49, where Pynchon used "Secretaries James and Foster and Senator Joseph" to dump on Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. Both Tinasky and Pynchon conjure up whole people, indeed whole historical periods such as "the McCarthy era," by only half–naming them—another form of enthymeme.

The egregious pun is also a Pynchon fingerprint. In one letter Tinasky offers a pun attributed to science fiction writer turned utopian social reformer (a category that holds a special place for Pynchon) H. G. Wells, "I see England is still looled by mandolins," to mean "ruled by mandarins." Pynchon began his punning career in high school, using a whole short story—about an old Englishman who got drunk by falling into a wine vat at a distillery—just to set up the questionable pun "Old Fotheringay’s got high on grape juice! Haw! In the still of the knight!" In Gravity’s Rainbow he uses two or three pages to set up "For De Mille, young fur henchmen can’t be rowing."

Both Tinasky & Pynchon show great antipathy to the Rockefellers. In Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon makes a lot of fun at the expense of the Rockefellers without ever naming them directly. In a letter written in early March 1985, Tinasky suggests a homosexual liaison between President Jimmy Carter and "Nellie" Rockefeller—Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, former governor of New York and vice president of the United States, an egregious heterosexual who will probably be remembered best for dying at age 72 in the apartment of his research assistant, Megan Marshak, then about 25 years old.

Let’s see. Tinasky is similar to Pynchon . . . in using (1) fables, (2) puns, (3) limericks, (4) enthymemes, (5) proverbs, (6) word play, (7) spot–that–quote, (8) look–alikes, (9) body–part jokes, (10) musturbation jokes, (11) pot jokes, (12) Jewish narrators, (13) writerly sentences and paragraphs very similar to those in Pynchon’s credited work, (14) indicative naming and half–naming, (15) allusions to antifascist writers and satirists (like Voltaire, Swift, Orwell, Brecht, Wodehouse, and Wells) whom Pynchon also summons as allies in his oeuvre, (16) the early allusion confirmed by a later one, (17) misdirection, the allusion to something inside the text that leads us to something important outside the text; and in sharing (18) a political consciousness, (19) sensitivity to assassination, (20) alertness to the wages of satire, (21) willingness to "épater la bourgeoisie!" (22) willingness to "écrasez l'infâme!" and (23) antipathy to the Rockefellers (leaders of the clique of new wealth that disinherited Pynchon’s extended family during the Great Depression).... Tinasky plays with her readers: "Well, maybe I’m Pynchon and maybe I’m not! Can you Out me?"

Of course there is no proof here in scientific terms, but how many points of congruence need we demonstrate before we can say the two writers are identical? What are the rules for discerning a literary female impersonator? Because Pynchon refuses comment, as usual, readers must ultimately judge for themselves.

If the stylistic evidence seems compelling, as it does to me, then we should be alert to some one thing that might convince us, be the straw that breaks the camel’s back of disbelief. Tinasky’s allusions get really close to Pynchon’s family, so much so that it would be a stunning coincidence for anyone other than Pynchon to come up with the connections Wanda unwittingly reveals.

Early in Tinasky’s letter writing career, in a 19 May 1983 letter to The Mendocino Commentary, Wanda claims to have overheard a remark made by former U.S. Senator Burton K. Wheeler (D. Mont.) to San Francisco poet Kenneth Rexroth. Although it is possible the two met, it is implausible, because Wheeler was twenty–three years older than Rexroth, and they traveled in decidedly different circles. Here Wanda exhibits a twenty–fourth Pynchonean fingerprint, implausibility: juxtaposing unlikely people and the ideas associated with each. It is a defining characteristic of Menippean satire that characters in it are often reduced to the attitudes or theories, doctrines or dogmas for which they stand, and plot becomes the interplay of these ideas as embodied in the interplay of the characters representing them. Here, Tinasky is using a Menippean trope, another Pynchon favorite.

Wheeler, an early Woodrow Wilson appointee, was a populist who, as a senator in 1924 ran for vice president on the reformist Progressive Party ticket under U.S. Senator Robert La Follette (D. Wisc.), a supporter of Theodore Roosevelt and the reformist Progressive, or "Bull Moose," Party of 1912. Although Wheeler and La Follette both had long and curious careers that doubled back on previously held positions, at least in 1924 they agreed to stand together on some "Progressive" planks.

The 1924 Progressive Party platform called for abolition of child labor, recognition of the legal fight of unions to exist and to bargain collectively, breakup of monopolies, and public control (through referenda) over proposed giveaways of oil–bearing Federal land—this last on the heels of the Teapot Dome scandal. (As the junior senator from Montana, Wheeler played a prominent role in the Senate inquiry into Teapot Dome that resulted in the resignation of Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty.) The Progressives received 24 per cent of the popular vote. Populist Burt Wheeler was perceived as a campaigner for the underdog, the "little man." The winner of the 1924 presidential election was "Silent" Calvin Coolidge, representative of "business as usual."

Kenneth Rexroth, a poet of high literary aspirations, translated Japanese poetry and wrote a volume of what might be known today as "ecological" poetry, In Defense of the Earth (1956). He also wrote several volumes of essays, some utopian in tone. Alternative Society: Essays from the Other World (1970) gave him high stature as a planet–saver with social reformers and thinkers of the hippie period. He became something of a personage around San Francisco, his respected opinions often quoted in the media.

Implausibly, Tinasky writes that she overheard Burton K. Wheeler once say to Kenneth Rexroth, "Don’t forget that between the public and home plate is the backstop, and we’re all part of the backstop." The barefaced unlikelihood (perfectly acceptable for a fiction writer) that the staid populist Wheeler would ever say any such thing to the flamboyant counter–cultural Rexroth should alert the staunchest Wanda supporter: this is a vintage Thomist parable.

What does it mean? I have demonstrated elsewhere ("Pynchon’s Politics") the way that Pynchon views the history of this century as a contest (like a baseball game) between two large and powerful "teams": the old coal–steels–railroads interlocking directorate guys against the newer oil–plastics–aircraft interlocking directorate guys. Here "Tinasky" refers to the backstop on a baseball field as a safety net that prevents wild pitches and foul balls from harming the spectators. The genuinely populist politicians who come from and look out for the little people ("Government of the people, by the people, and for the people. . .") and the culture custodians (novelists, film makers, poets, rock groups, futurists) can participate in the national life as antiestablishmentarians: indeed, it is their moral obligation to participate as the backstop, the safety net of the people.

By exercising their citizenship to the fullest, socially active poet–politicians can articulate the needs of a society to the plutocracy—who may be forced to make reforms before social dysfunction becomes epidemic. That may not be direct and forceful enough for some on the Left, but every once in a while, by, such exercise, progressive poet–politicians can effect some changes for the better. Indeed, after Vineland was published, some changes were made to the forfeiture clauses of the R. I. C. O. laws, to stem the tide of abuse but they’re still a mess (post hoc fallacy duly noted). The best antiestablishmentarian poet–politicians can hope for is gradual improvement, not unlike the Fabian Socialists in England at the end of the last century. Otherwise, we all must wearily endure.

In that May 1983 Tinasky letter, in a parable about the function of the backstop in baseball, as mediated through alienated Holocaust survivor "Wanda Tinasky," as attributed to populist politician Burton K. Wheeler, as spoken to "utopian" poet Kenneth Rexroth, is Pynchon’s aesthetic credo: the artist should be a semi–public figure, involved in the politics of his day, an extraconstitutional check on the holders of great power that corrupts greatly. In retrospect, we can see how this creed has motivated Pynchon all along.

The personal tie–in became especially evident when Thomas R. Pynchon Sr.’s obituary was published (Newsday 23 July 1995). Pynchon’s father, who lived to be eighty–eight, was taught Sunday school as a child by Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, Ethel, in the town of Oyster Bay, New York. John Gable, executive director of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, reported that the elder Pynchon was the last person he knew of who vividly remembered childhood encounters around town with the bluff and hearty ex–president, who died in 1919. Recently, Thomas R. Pynchon Jr. married Melanie Jackson, the daughter of Nancy Dabney Roosevelt, herself the granddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt. As John Gable commented, "The Roosevelts and Pynchons were very close."

Wanda Tinasky refers to the Progressive Burton K. Wheeler, who leads us to the Progressive Robert La Follette, who leads us to the founder of the Progressive Party, Theodore Roosevelt, whose granddaughter is the mother–in–law of Thomas R. Pynchon Jr. This chain of associations is similar to one in Lot 49, where the princely Thurn and Taxis family leads us to the Rothschilds, who lead us to J. P. Morgan & Co., which leads us to the stockbrokers Pynchon & Co., who were relatives of Thomas R. Pynchon Jr. (see my "Pynchon's Inferno").

If Tinasky isn’t Pynchon, it is a staggering coincidence that Wanda should mention Burt Wheeler. (How many people know that Burton K. Wheeler ran for the vice presidency in 1924? Or that Wheeler made a career of being a thorn in the side of certain "Wall Street Interests," according to The National Cyclopedia of American Biography?) In Vineland, "Zoyd" Wheeler’s given name is mentioned only once, at his wedding. It is Herbert Wheeler. Marrying Margaret "Frenesi" Gates (herself a third–generation leftist), Zoyd becomes "her" Burt Wheeler. This may seem contrived, but that is the way Pynchon has been using indicative naming since his earliest short stories—as in "The Secret Integration," where he mentions James G. Blaine and invokes the presidential election of 1884. Apparently, in 1983 Pynchon was already thinking of a name for his good–natured schlemiel, "Zoyd," that would load him with historical resonance. Zoyd Wheeler is to the narcs as Burton K. Wheeler was to big business?

The view of artist as active citizen (if we can regard a writer who insists on anonymity as an active citizen) is the final plank in the case that Thomas Pynchon and Wanda Tinasky are one. In her letters Tinasky claims to be a bag lady living on scraps, sleeping under bridges, refusing to grant interviews or allow photographs just like Pynchon). In his credited works Pynchon undertakes to be a public person, involved in the events of the day just like Tinasky). They are each other’s complement. But Pynchon fiercely guards his privacy because he is aware of the punitive wages of satire. He preserves his invisibility while mouthing–off at North Coast community leaders under the cover of Tinasky; but he blows that very cover by publishing Vineland.

Was it De Tocqueville, commenting on the political process in America, who said, "Americans are like mushrooms; they’re raised in the dark, fed a load of manure, and when one pokes his head up, it gets cut off?" That must be the way the private Pynchon–Tinasky sees it; otherwise, why all the subterfuge? He–she warns us that "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance." Ironically, the equation is reversible: "The price of eternal vigilance is liberty."

So, those who say Thomas Pynchon and Wanda Tinasky are not the same person must reckon with the facts that Pynchon was in the same place as Tinasky when the letters were written; that Pynchon and Tinasky share similar backgrounds, motives, typewriters, and handwriting; and that Dadaists Pynchon and Tinasky employ at least two dozen of the same rhetorical devices. Tinasky reveals tell–tale data and concerns that appear in Vineland, only slightly modified. Some of them imply information only someone close to the Pynchon family would know. Pynchon and Tinasky, having similar politics, are perfect complements.

Finally, from what little is known about Pynchon, he appears to be anything but an unself–conscious man. He has cultivated the persona of the cool, aloof, mysterious, above–it–all "author" since his college days. All along, he has known his place and role in American letters—political satirist. Hence, his insistence on privacy, anonymity. It’s time that Pynchon’s oeuvre be re–evaluated in this more political light, because he wants to be "outed"—but only by close reading of the text.

The Tinasky letters round Pynchon out and display the Swift and Sterne, the Dickens and Twain, the Dante and Voltaire in his writing. They also display his sarcastic, curmudgeonly Petroleum V. Nasby wit and the Shakespearean range of his voices and sensibilities. Tinasky makes more human the Pynchon who felt it necessary to remain half–hidden through interesting times. Ironically, Tinasky explicitly displays Pynchon’s implicit passion for historically based good government, his concern for active citizenship, and his abiding love of country.



This essay is an expanded version of one that was published in the New York Press, 23 Aug. 1995.
Critique 38, No. 2, Winter 1997: 145–159.


Colby, Gerard. Thy Will Be Done. New York: Harper, 1995.
Factor. T.R., ed. The Letters of Wanda Tinasky. Portland, OR: vers libra, 1996.
Hollander, Charles. "Pynchon’s Politics: The Presence of an Absence." Pynchon Notes, 26-27 (1990): 7-59.
_____. "Pynchon’s Inferno." Cornell Alumni News, Nov. 1978.
LaFeber, Walter. Inevitable Revolutions. New York: Norton, 1993.
Levin, Harry. "The Wages of Satire." Playboys and Killjoys. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Mead, Clifford. Thomas Pynchon: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary, Materials. Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey, 1989.
Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. New York: Lippincott, 1966.
_____. Gravity’s Rainbow. New York: Viking, 1973.
_____. Introduction. The Teachings of Don B. By Donald Barthelme. New York: Turtle Bay, 1992.
_____. Slow Learner. New York: Little, 1984.
_____. V. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1963.
_____. Vineland. New York: Little, 1990.
Rexroth, Kenneth. In Defense of the Earth. New York: New Directions, 1956.
_____. Alternative Society: Essays from the Other World. New York: Herder, 1970.
Vella, Michael. "Pynchon, V, and the French Surrealists." Pynchon Notes, 18-19 (1986): 29-38.
"Wheeler, Burton K." National Cyclopedia of American Biography. 1942.

© all rights reserved, alle Rechte beim Autor, Charles Hollander 1997

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Other Essays on Thomas Pynchon by Charles Hollander

Pynchon’s Inferno Cornell Alumni News Nov. 1978: 24–30.

Abrams Remembers Pynchon Pynchon Notes 36-39 (1995-1996): 179-80.

Pynchon’s Politics: The Presence of an Absence Pynchon Notes 26-27 (1990): 5–59.

Pynchon, JFK and the CIA: Magic Eye Views of The Crying of Lot 49 Pynchon Notes 40-41 (1997): 61–106.

Does McClintic Sphere in V. Stand for Thelonius Monk? — Forthcoming in Notes on Contemporary Literature. From the Thelonius Monk Website.

Jokes and Puns in Gravity’s Rainbow Pynchon Notes 46-49 (2000–2001): 204–207.

Index Main Page Vorwort-Preface Die Parabel Dekonstruktion Michael D. Bell Summary Biographie Literatur Richard Fariña Robert Frost Galerie Luddism Mason & Dixon Monographien u. Aufsätze Muster – Patterns Schweine Slow Learner Soccer Proverbs for Paranoids Vineland Weiterführende Literatur Wernher von Braun Fay Wray The Wizard of Oz The Zero Pynchon Web-Links

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