Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 517
Because of Thomas Pynchon’s passion for privacy, little is known about his life. He was born Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr., into a family that lived in Glen Cove, East Norwich, and Oyster Bay—all on Long Island in New York. His father, an industrial surveyor and a Republican, eventually served as town supervisor of Oyster Bay. Pynchon was sixteen when he graduated from Oyster Bay High School in 1953. He was class salutatorian and winner of an award for the senior attaining the highest grade average in English. With a scholarship at Cornell University, he first majored in engineering physics but, though he was doing well academically, abandoned that curriculum after the first year. A year later, he decided to do a hitch in the U.S. Navy before completing his baccalaureate degree. He attended boot camp at Bainbridge, Maryland, and did advanced training as an electrician at Norfolk, Virginia. His two years in the Navy, partly spent in the Mediterranean, provided Pynchon with a number of comic situations and characters that he later exploited in his fiction, such as in “Low-Lands,” V., Gravity’s Rainbow, and Mason and Dixon. Pynchon finished at Cornell as an English major and graduated in 1959. While at Cornell, he took a class taught by Vladimir Nabokov; Nabokov’s wife, Vera, who did her husband’s grading, remembered Pynchon for his distinctive handwriting.
Pynchon lived briefly in Greenwich Village and in uptown Manhattan before taking a job with the Boeing Company and moving to Seattle. With Boeing for two and a half years (until September, 1962), he worked in the Minuteman Logistics Support Program and wrote for such intramural publications as the Minuteman Field Service News and Aerospace Safety. After leaving Boeing, he lived in California and Mexico and completed V., which was published in 1963 and hailed as a major first novel.
Over the years Pynchon was rumored to be living in various places, including California, Mexico, and Oregon. In the late 1970’s, he made a trip to England that mysteriously was noted in the national newsmagazines. For a long time the author eluded his pursuers, but in the 1980’s he supplied a few tantalizing autobiographical facts in the introductory essays he wrote for his Slow Learner collection and for the 1983 Penguin reprint of Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, the 1966 novel by his Cornell classmate Richard Fariña.
In 1996, Nancy Jo Sales, writing for the magazine New York, traced Pynchon to the Manhattan apartment he shared with his wife, Melanie Jackson (also his agent), and their son. The following year a photograph of Pynchon taken by James Bone appeared in the London Times Magazine, and a camera crew from the Cable News Network (CNN) taped Pynchon walking down a street. In these instances, Pynchon fought unsuccessfully to suppress publication or broadcast of his likeness. In 2004, however, the author voiced depictions of himself in two episodes of the animated television series The Simpsons: season 15, episode 10, “Diatribe of a Mad Housewife,”which first aired on January 25, 2004; and season 16, episode 2, “All’s Fair in Oven War,” which first aired on November 14, 2004.