Since the publication of his first novel in 1967, Thomas Pynchon has established himself as a artificer of postmodernist literature – and arguably the most important American writer since Melville. Lauded by readers, critics, and his literary peers alike, he has only produced eight novels in the past 50 years. His writings, however, often encompass a vast array of subject matter, styles, and themes. Due to his eruditeness and experimentation, many have compared his work to that of James Joyce. His first novel, V., won the William Faulkner Foundation Award for best debut novel, and his magnum opus, Gravity’s Rainbow, was selected to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1974. However, the Pulitzer Advisory Board did not allow it because they were offended by its content – so no award for fiction was given that year. But, the novel did receive the National Book Award. Pynchon is also a MacArthur Fellow and is regularly considered a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. A very private person by nature, he is famous for his avoidance of personal publicity. Very few photographs of him have ever been published, while rumors about his location and identity have been circulating since the 1960s.
After graduating from high school as class salutatorian, he enrolled at Cornell University under a scholarship. It was 1953 and he was only 16 years old. Although he entered the university to study engineering physics, he later transferred to the English department. At the end of his sophomore year, he left Cornell for two years to serve in the U.S. Navy, returning in 1957. During this time, he studied under the legendary Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov, a writer who similarly had a talent for gallows humor and unconventional story lines. In March 1959, during his senior year, his first published story, "The Small Rain," appeared in the Cornell Writer. That same year, he received a Bachelor of Arts in English. He graduated with distinction and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
Considering his reputation for being reclusive and shy, it will probably not come as a shock that Pynchon has not been caught chummily attending his Cornell class reunions. Nonetheless, his status as one of the greatest living authors certainly keeps him on his alma mater’s radar. In 2009, Cornell celebrated the 105th birthday of its Creative Writing program with a panel discussion on how its alumni shaped American literature during the 20th century. Among the panelists was Molly Hite, a professor of English at Cornell. Commenting on how mysterious and complex Pynchon's writing style is, Hite joked, "First generation Pynchon scholars still call each other at night and read passages, sometimes backwards, to see if they mean anything." Hite also quoted another famous passage – from The Crying of Lot 49 – which certainly indicated that Pynchon was still very much thinking of his college days: “A sunrise over the library slope at Cornell University that nobody out on it had seen, because the slope faced west.”