Bobbie Ann Mason 1940-
American short story writer, novelist, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Mason's career through 2001. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 28, 43, and 82.
Considered a significant voice in southern literature, Mason has attracted a large degree of critical attention for her short stories and novels. Mason's fiction, set primarily in rural western Kentucky, revolves around the central theme of social and cultural change in the region, and her characters typically find themselves in a continual state of upheaval caused by the change. Mason is known for her spare prose laced with numerous references to icons of popular culture, and she is recognized for her artfully crafted tales of self-realization set among blue-collar workers and country people.
Born in Mayfield, Kentucky, Mason has used her upbringing in the rural south as a backdrop for most of her fiction. Mason attended the University of Kentucky where she began to be exposed to a diverse range of authors including Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and J. D. Salinger. She began her writing career as a journalist, working for the Mayfield Messenger during summers and the University of Kentucky student newspaper, the Kernel. After graduating, Mason moved to New York, where she worked for the Ideal Publishing Company, writing for magazines such as Movie Stars, Movie Life, and T.V. Star Parade. Although she enjoyed writing for publications covering aspects of popular culture, Mason chose to return to the academic world and earned a doctorate from the University of Connecticut in 1972. Her dissertation on Vladimir Nabokov's novel Ada was published in 1974 as Nabokov's Garden: A Guide to “Ada.” While at the University of Connecticut, Mason began writing short stories which she submitted to the New Yorker magazine. After twenty submissions, her first published story appeared in the magazine in 1980. That work, “Offerings,” was later reprinted in her collection Shiloh, and Other Stories (1982). Mason went on to write several novels, short story collections, and a memoir, establishing a promising literary career.
Mason's first two collections of short fiction—Shiloh, and Other Stories and Love Life (1989)—employ present-tense narration to relate stories about characters torn between the world they have always known and their desire for change and independence. In these works and in longer pieces such as In Country (1985) and Spence + Lila (1988), Mason makes liberal use of references to popular culture icons, which she utilizes to illustrate her characters' alienation from their heritage and family traditions. In the novel In Country, Mason's heroine uses the music and lyrics of rock singer Bruce Springsteen to help define herself and come to grips with the legacy of the Vietnam War. In Spence + Lila, Mason focuses attention on the small, trivial aspects of life in a convincing portrayal of a long-married couple who battle through the wife's ordeal with breast cancer. Spence and Lila have been married for over forty years and Lila's upcoming surgery forces them to face the prospect of being separated for the first time since World War II. In the novel Feather Crowns (1993) Mason shifts her setting to the turn of the century. The work takes place in Kentucky in 1900 and follows a farm wife named Christianna Wheeler who gives birth to quintuplets. Overnight, the modest Wheeler tobacco farm becomes a haven for curious passers-by as people flock to see—and hold—the tiny babies. As events unfold, Christie and her husband find themselves drawn away from home as a carnival sideshow attraction. The book is a meditation upon fame, self-determination, and the conflict between superstition and science. Clear Springs (1999), Mason's memoir, follows her adolescence in rural Kentucky and comments on the generation of Americans who were raised in the 1950s.
Critics have used terms such as “minimalism” and “dirty realism” to describe Mason's writing style. Many reviewers have praised her use of simple prose peppered with Southern dialect and the trappings of contemporary life. Although Mason's spare narrative style has been faulted by some reviewers, her skillful evocation of the details of everyday existence has been considered by most critics as her strongest asset. Other commentators have derided Mason's writing for the authorial distance she maintains. These critics believe that her invisibility as an author causes difficulty in allowing readers to become involved in her stories. However, many reviewers have agreed that her characters' moments of self-realization are executed with skill and grace, and that such moments override her tendency to distance herself from the works. Overall, critics have asserted that Mason's stories are effective and entertaining.
SOURCE: Wilhelm, Albert E. “Private Rituals: Coping with Change in the Fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason.” Midwest Quarterly 28, no. 2 (winter 1987): 271–82.
[In the following essay, Wilhelm discusses the effects of social change on the lives of everyday people, a primary theme in Mason's stories.]
As her double given name might suggest, Bobbie Ann Mason was a Southern country girl who made her way to the sophisticated East. She grew up on a small dairy farm in Western Kentucky. Later she worked for a publishing company in New York City and earned graduate degrees from universities in New York and Connecticut. As a child she avidly read Nancy Drew and other girl-detective mysteries and as a young woman she published a critical study of Nabokov's Ada. Her book of collected stories, Shiloh, and Other Stories (1982), won the Ernest Hemingway Award (for the year's most distinguished first fiction) and was a finalist for the American Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In the early 1970s Mason was a teacher at a small state college in Pennsylvania; now her own stories appear prominently in anthologies used in thousands of college classrooms. Mason's critical reputation continues to grow, and her fictional world has been described by Maureen Ryan as “paradigmatic of the contemporary South” and much of modern America (294).
Such diverse biographical data may help one to appreciate a major theme in Mason's fiction—the effects on ordinary people of rapid social change. Indeed most of her characters are residents of a typical “ruburb”—an area in Western Kentucky that is “no longer rural but not yet suburban” (Sheppard 88)—and they usually suffer the bewildering effects of future shock. A young woman in one story observes that one day she “was listening to Hank Williams and shelling corn for the chickens” while the next day she “was expected to know what wines went with what” (207). In another story a divorced mother laments the fact that families “shift memberships, like clubs” (167) and a stepfather is “like a substitute host on a talk show” (173). Almost all of Mason's characters share, to some extent, the plight of the mentally retarded adults in “A New-Wave Format”; they “can't keep up with today's fast pace” and “need a world that is slowed down” (217).
Mason, of course, can document such problems because she too has experienced cultural dislocation. In an interview with Professor Yu Yuh-chao (Louisville, Kentucky, February 22, 1985), she contrasted her work with that of the writers of the Old South. “In the older generation,” she said, “there was a much stronger sense of the place of the South, sense of the family, and sense of the land. I guess the newer writers are writing about how that sense has been breaking down. … There is a difficulty retaining identity and integrity in the face of change.” Mason went on to compare her personal situation with that of Nabokov: “I was strongly influenced by his vision of things. … He was an exile and he carried around two cultures in his experience. I feel the same way about the South and the North and I feel like an exile.”
In describing her “ruburb,” then, Mason provides much more than sociological documentation. She is primarily interested in exploring the crises in individual lives that are provoked or intensified by radical changes in social relationships. To be sure, such crises are hardly new. Arnold van Gennep pointed out many years ago that “the life of any individual in any society is a series of passages … a succession of stages with similar ends and beginnings: birth, social puberty, marriage, fatherhood, advancement to a higher class, occupational specialization, and death” (2–3). In traditional societies, however, these transitions were usually marked by definite ceremonies which served to bridge the gap between old and new. Such rituals for “incorporating the individual into the group and returning him to the customary routines of life” helped to “cushion the disturbance” or buffer the shock which necessarily accompanied any transition (ix). In the society portrayed by Mason, though, one casualty of rapid change has been ritual itself. Painful transitions have become more frequent and more intense, but the adaptive and adjustive response previously offered by ritual is frequently lacking. In some of her stories Mason concentrates on certain universal and inevitable life crises like entering puberty and growing old—transitions for which specific rituals were once vital but are now largely abandoned. In other stories she deals with family crises like separation and divorce which have only recently become commonplace and for which most Western societies have never developed any adequate rituals. Thus, many of Mason's characters suffer from what Orrin Klapp has termed “poverty of ritual” (126). In the absence of any clearly established common ceremonies, they must frequently improvise or develop impromptu ritual. Old rituals have become relics or “empty events”; any new rituals are often “despairingly privatized” (Klapp 137).
The story in Mason's collection which is most explicitly concerned with a time of passage marked by specific rituals in traditional societies is “Detroit Skyline, 1949.” This story documents a rather confused and unceremonial passage from childhood to adolescence. In a pattern that is typical of many initiation stories, Peggy Jo leaves the protected environment of her farm home and journeys to the big city. For the innocent Peggy “everything about the North [is] confusing” (40). She is especially bewildered by Lunetta Jones whose elaborate clothes and thick lipstick (described as “man bait”) exude adult sexuality (40–41). To make matters worse, Peggy is alternately invited to grow up and exhorted to remain a child. When she watches Howdy Doody and Lucky Pup on television, her cousin says she is “too old for those baby shows” (41). When she expresses an interest in adult problems, she is told, “That don't concern younguns” (43). In short, the initiate has no adequate guide to lead her through this uncertain urban landscape. In one key scene Peggy says that her mother “seemed as confused as I was” (49). Although Peggy experiences much that is new, her journey of self-discovery is surely incomplete. In fact, she never actually sees Detroit—only a fuzzy picture of its tall buildings on the TV screen. The climax of Peggy's experiences is not her own rebirth but her mother's miscarriage. Her mother loses the baby she didn't know she had, and Peggy's own search for a mature identity is abortive.
In “The Climber” Mason focuses on the problems of growing older and, specifically, on one individual's frightening intimations of mortality. For Dolores that discovery of a lump in her breast portends a dramatic change, but, as her name suggests, she remains an isolated lady of sorrows who can share her fears with no one. The story begins with a comment about “walking with Jesus” (109), but TV evangelism has replaced any real community of believers. Instead of meaningful liturgy Dolores hears only a disco spiritual with no words other than the constantly repeated title. When Dolores needs supporting hands, the only ones she can visualize are those of Phil Donahue, and they are nothing more than dots of light on a video screen. The only ritual of reassurance in which Dolores can participate is her regular telephone conversation with her friend Dusty, but Dusty remains a disembodied voice who never actually appears in the story. In the absence of real ritual, Dolores tries to make her own. Like those who must deal with grief in Emily Dickinson's poem “The Bustle in a House,” Dolores repeatedly performs the rituals of housecleaning. Later, after her doctor assures her that she has fibrocystic disease rather than cancer, she is happy that he prescribes a strict diet. In her formless world this diet will provide a “welcome guide for living, something certain” (119). At the same time, however, she feels slightly cheated. Her brush with death has not really been a significant existential crisis since the threat has not been strong enough to provoke a real...
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SOURCE: Kling, Vincent, and Bobbie Ann Mason. “A Conversation with Bobbie Ann Mason.” Four Quarters 4, no. 1 (spring 1990): 17–22.
[In the following interview, originally conducted in October 1988, Kling discusses academic approaches to Mason's writing and prompts the author to comment on her favorite stories.]
She isn't recondite, she isn't grotesque, she isn't minimalist, she isn't experimental, she isn't ideological. She stands quietly shoulder-to-shoulder with her characters, unruffled and unjudging no matter what they say or do, and yet passionately committed to their every move and every gesture. She guards their right to be themselves. Like so many...
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SOURCE: Krist, Gary. Review of Spence + Lila, by Bobbie Ann Mason. Hudson Review 42, no. 1 (spring 1989): 127–28.
[In the following mixed review of Spence + Lila, Krist applauds Mason's writing, but wishes the novel was more satisfying.]
[Bobbie Ann Mason's] new short novel Spence + Lila is exactly what we've come to expect of the author of Shiloh, and Other Stories: a simple, straightforward tale of ordinary people in ordinary circumstances, told with extraordinary perception and precision. Like Carver, Mason has a turf, and this book finds her again returning to that area of rural western Kentucky she has already made her own. It's a...
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SOURCE: Jersild, Devon. “The World of Bobbie Ann Mason.” Kenyon Review 11, no. 3 (summer 1989): 163–69.
[In the following review, Jersild discusses the characterizations in Spence + Lila and Love Life. Jersild asserts that protagonists in Mason's fiction rely on the physical details of their lives to keep them grounded, but tend to remain disconnected from their feelings.]
It was seven years ago, in 1982, that Bobbie Ann Mason published Shiloh, and Other Stories, her first collection of short fiction. Except for some nitpicking reviews which complained that Mason was female, wrote in the present tense, and published in the New Yorker...
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SOURCE: Underwood, Karen. “Mason's ‘Drawing Names.’” Explicator 48, no. 3 (spring 1990): 231–32.
[In the following essay, Underwood compares the husbands and boyfriends in Mason's short story, “Drawing Names” to the biblical three Wise Men.]
In her short story “Drawing Names,” Bobbie Ann Mason treats her reader to a modern-day version of the journey of the Wise Men, an imaginative retelling of the classic tale of bringing gifts, with contemporary setting, characters, and issues.
Three of the sisters in “Drawing Names” have brought their men to the farm. Peggy and Iris have brought their husbands Cecil and Ray; Laura Jean has...
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SOURCE: Morrissey, Thomas J. “Mason's In Country.” Explicator 50, no. 1 (fall 1991): 62–64.
[In the following essay, Morrissey analyzes the bird metaphors in the novel In Country.]
Birds and images of flight help to elucidate the psychological states of the principal characters of Bobbie Ann Mason's compelling post-Vietnam War novel, In Country. Sam Hughes, posthumous daughter of a Kentucky farm boy killed at Quang Ngai, and her Uncle Emmett, a veteran whose life is stalled, struggle to come to terms with a war that has been banished from public consciousness.
Emmett's quest for an egret, a heron-like bird similar to a species he...
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SOURCE: Kinney, Katherine. “‘Humping the Boonies’: Sex, Combat, and the Female in Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country.” In Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature, edited by Philip K. Jason, pp. 38–48. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Kinney examines how In Country metaphorically depicts the relationship between women and war.]
Sex and war are the oldest of metaphorical bedfellows. Since World War II, writers of war literature have become increasingly explicit in using the language and imagery of sexuality to define their emotional and moral relationships to war. In the final chapter of The...
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SOURCE: Stewart, Matthew C. “Realism, Verisimilitude, and the Depiction of Vietnam Veterans in In Country.” In Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature, edited by Philip K. Jason, pp. 166–79. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Stewart discusses what he feels to be the merits and flaws in the depictions of Vietnam veterans in the novel In Country.]
Bobbie Ann Mason's 1985 novel In Country is the story of teenager Sam Hughes's remarkable desire to come to terms with the Vietnam War and of her maternal uncle Emmett Smith's equally remarkable inability to do the same. Sam's desire to know about...
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SOURCE: Hill, Darlene Reimers. “‘Use To, the Menfolks Would Eat First’: Food and Food Rituals in the Fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason.” Southern Quarterly 30, nos. 2–3 (winter–spring 1992): 81–89.
[In the following essay, Hill discusses the significance of food in Mason's Shiloh, and Other Stories and In Country. In particular, Hill compares the modern-day meals in Mason's stories to more traditional southern fare, such as that of Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding.]
Southerners take their food and how they eat it very seriously. Traditional foods and food rituals are important parts of the southern identity. One would not find traditionalists drinking...
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SOURCE: Dwyer, June. “New Roles, New History, and New Patriotism: Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country.” Modern Language Studies 22, no. 2 (spring 1992): 72–78.
[In the following essay, Dwyer argues that Samantha's quest to learn Vietnam's history in In Country represents a redefinition of patriotism, history, and the family structure.]
The Vietnam War decentered the American soldier; instead of heroically inhabiting the conflict, he became the Other, an individual far removed from the true meaning of the event. At best, he was misunderstood, at worst, ignored. The non-combatants, those people who are traditionally devalued and defined only in terms of the...
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SOURCE: Benedict, Pinckney. “Good Country People.” Washington Post Book World (5 September 1993): 5.
[In the following review, Benedict identifies the strengths and weaknesses of Feather Crowns.]
In Feather Crowns, Bobbie Ann Mason once again proves her mastery over the world of specific physical detail. Her previous fiction, both stories and novels, has made frequent unabashed use of brand-name commodities to limn symbolically the narrow dimensions of her characters' lives. Her fascination with mercantile additions to the language—Doritos, Coca-Cola, Pampers, Kleenex—often takes on an incantatory quality, as though the gaudy organization of the...
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SOURCE: Alther, Lisa. “Fame and Misfortune.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (24 October 1993): 2–3.
[In the following review, Alther discusses the pacing of Mason's lengthy novel Feather Crowns and its colorful language.]
As Feather Crowns opens, it is 1900. A Kentucky farm wife is giving birth to quintuplets, the first ever recorded in America. As I read, I became deeply worried—needlessly, as it turned out—that this long novel was going to be another paean to the good old days of subsistence farming, when life was hard but hearts were hardy—the primordial Waltons myth that always sustains Americans when urban going gets tough.
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SOURCE: Levy, Andrew. “Back Home Again: Bobbie Ann Mason's ‘Shiloh.’” In The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story, pp. 108–25. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
[In the following essay, Levy discusses the short story “Shiloh” and how it fits into the overall history of the short story genre.]
In 1980, Bobbie Ann Mason's first major short story, “Shiloh,” appeared in the New Yorker.1 The story was an immediate critical success. It was reprinted in Best American Short Stories in 1981, and became arguably the most heavily anthologized short story of the last decade; the collection that followed, Shiloh,...
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SOURCE: Clark, Michele. “Signs and Portents.” Women's Review of Books 11, no. 6 (March 1994): 19.
[In the following review, Clark examines Mason's skillful use of details in Feather Crowns.]
Most of Feather Crowns takes place in 1900, at a time when rural preachers are predicting apocalypse and in a place where people discover signs of God's will in everything from meteor showers to “the way a pair of birds sat on a branch.” Many people believe an earthquake will happen on the New Year; at “the dawn of the new century,” it will herald the Last Judgment.
Instead, Christie Wheeler, a young wife and mother who lives outside Hopewell,...
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SOURCE: Krasteva, Yonka. “The South and The West in Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country.” Southern Literary Journal 26, no. 2 (spring 1994): 77–90.
[In the following essay, Krasteva maintains that while In Country takes place in an American South changed by urban life and pop culture, Mason does not strip her fictional world of the tenets of Southern tradition and community.]
It has often been suggested that the New South emerged after the two World Wars, and after World War II in particular, when its regional isolation diminished and its presence in the political life of the country began to be felt with Jimmy Carter's election as president. It can be...
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SOURCE: Folks, Jeffrey J. Review of Feather Crowns, by Bobbie Ann Mason. World Literature Today 68, no. 3 (summer 1994): 569.
[In the following review, Folks offers a positive assessment of the writing and characterizations in Feather Crowns.]
In Feather Crowns Bobbie Ann Mason traces the life of Christianna Wilburn Wheeler or “Christie,” a young farm woman in western Kentucky who gives birth to the first recorded set of quintuplets in North America. Mason's historical fiction, which is inspired from an actual event but creates a wholly fictionalized community and richly detailed setting, succeeds admirably in telling “a life story” with realism...
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SOURCE: Blythe, Hal and Charlie Sweet. “The Ambiguous Grail Quest in ‘Shiloh.’” Studies in Short Fiction 32, no. 2 (spring 1995): 223–26.
[In the following essay, Blythe and Sweet discuss the universal Grail myth and how it relates to the short story “Shiloh.”]
Bobbie Ann Mason is often viewed as a minimalist, a contemporary school of fiction not without detractors. As Barbara Henning notes, “many critics … are suspicious of [minimalist] stories because of the lack of metaphoric depth” (690). Henning then refutes these critics by demonstrating in “Shiloh” that Mason employs synecdochic details (e.g., Leroy's body, the truck, crafts, kits, birds,...
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SOURCE: Mason, Bobbie Ann and Albert E. Wilhelm. “An Interview with Bobbie Ann Mason.” In Bobbie Ann Mason: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 128–34. New York: Twayne Publishers; London: Prentice Hall International, 1998.
[In the following interview, Wilhelm talks with Mason about her background and its influences on her writing.]
[Wilhelm:] How have your early experiences influenced your writing?
[Mason:] When I was growing up, there were two pastimes that were most important in shaping my literary direction. One was my early obsession with jigsaw puzzles. I loved to work puzzles, and all the women in my family still do. We love...
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SOURCE: Pollack, Harriet. “From Shiloh to In Country to Feather Crowns: Bobbie Ann Mason, Women's History, and Southern Fiction.” Southern Literary Journal 28, no. 2 (spring 1996): 95–116.
[In the following essay, Pollack examines Mason's role as a southern literary figure, and asserts that Feather Crowns cemented Mason's place as a noted women's historian.]
What will it be like to read Bobbie Ann Mason's Shiloh a century from now? Will her specific allusions to the contemporary—to pop music, to brand names, to the backdrop of Kroger's and K-Mart—require a reader to grope and imagine a way towards a particular, not fully...
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SOURCE: Wilhelm, Albert E. “Bobbie Ann Mason: Searching for Home.” In Southern Writers at Century's End, edited by Jeffrey J. Folks and James A. Perkins, pp. 151–63. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1997.
[In the following essay, Wilhelm examines Mason's portrayal of the effects of social change on her characters. Wilhelm refutes criticism that judges Mason's work as repetitive, demonstrating that her central theme is an important component of the “Big Bertha Stories” in Love Life as well as In Country.]
In the Bobbie Ann Mason story “Lying Doggo,” a young woman proclaims, “One day I was listening to Hank Williams and shelling corn...
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SOURCE: McKee, Kathryn. “Old Roots, New Routes.” Women's Review of Books 16, nos. 10–11 (July 1999): 27–28.
[In the following review, McKee favorably compares Mason's Clear Springs to the genre of the traditional Southern autobiography.]
At the end of a century in which telling your own story—particularly your own Southern story laced alternately with rage and ambivalence—has been high fashion, Bobbie Ann Mason does something different. She does not talk about race or idealize a way of life that never existed. She does not confront the reader with a poverty-stricken, emotionally barren youth, and she does not paint the moment she became a writer as...
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SOURCE: Fine, Laura. “Going Nowhere Slow: The Post-South World of Bobbie Ann Mason.” Southern Literary Journal 32, no. 1 (fall 1999): 87–97.
[In the following essay, Fine argues that Mason's depiction of the South in her short fiction lacks the traditional values found in the stories of other southern writers such as Flannery O'Connor.]
In his 1930 story “A Rose for Emily” William Faulkner depicts a South in painful transition. The Old South, with its history of slavery, racism, and cruelty masked by a genteel front, battles the forces of the New South, mercantile, unconcerned with beauty. In Flannery O'Connor's stories, the South is peopled by shallow,...
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SOURCE: O'Brien, Timothy D. “Oppositions in In Country.” Critique 47, no. 2 (winter 2000): 175–90.
[In the following essay, O'Brien discusses symbolism and imagery in the novel In Country, noting how these elements lend depth and breadth to Mason's characters as well as the novel itself.]
Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country presents a surface rarely disturbed by signs of its coded structure. The characters and the world they inhabit seem real; the emotional and physical problems they face familiar. Much of the commentary on the novel, in fact, focuses almost exclusively on the novel's characters—Sam and Emmett particularly—as if they were real...
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SOURCE: Price, Joanna. “Shiloh, and Other Stories.” In Understanding Bobbie Ann Mason, pp. 20–53. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Price examines Mason's use of central themes and metaphoric images to illustrate how the characters in Shiloh, and Other Stories adapt to changes in their daily lives and in their landscape.]
Mason's first collection of short stories, Shiloh, and Other Stories, was generally well-received by critics. Robert Towers observed that Mason “is one of those rare writers who, by concentrating their attention on a few square miles of native turf, are able to open up new and...
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