Mason, Bobbie Ann (Vol. 154)
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.
Nabokov's Garden: A Guide to “Ada” (criticism) 1974
Shiloh, and Other Stories (short stories) 1982
In Country (novel) 1985
Spence + Lila (novel) 1988
Love Life (short stories) 1989
Feather Crowns (novel) 1993
Clear Springs: A Memoir (memoirs) 1999
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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...
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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 writers, Bobbie Ann Mason says that she waits patiently for her characters to disclose themselves through attitude and action, through the clothes they wear or the music they listen to. One of her greatest strengths is what she does with those characters after they've made themselves known to her. She has the uncanny wit to take them as she finds them, to accept them as they are without dressing them up or down.
It calls for one kind of skill to keep the pale fires burning or to launch Flaubert's parrot in its dizzy flight, another kind, just as exacting, to make us forget that an artist is at work. Convoluted surfaces and self-referential devices are not for Bobbie Ann Mason. She's written astutely about Nabokov, but she doesn't...
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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 place where the subtle rhythms of farm life blend seamlessly with the loud shimmying of TV, Burger Kings, and rock-and-roll—an amusingly compromised Arcadia that her characters seem to accept as perfectly natural.
The book begins with Spence and Lila Culpepper, Kentucky farmers passing into old age, driving to a hospital to have a gristly knot in Lila's breast investigated. The knot, it turns out, is a malignant tumor, and Lila's breast must be removed; later she must undergo another operation—this one more dangerous—in which the blood vessels to her brain are cleaned of plaque. The book focusses on Lila's reflections in the hospital as she examines her past, her relationship to her husband and three children, and the...
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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 (qualifications apparently comprising a genre), the critical reception of that volume was noisy and positive; critics saw in Mason a newcomer who showed not only promise but also maturity of vision and technique. Since then, she has published two short novels, In Country (1985) and Spence and Lila (1988), and now, a collection of stories called Love Life.
In Shiloh, Mason introduces us to the people who remain her focus: the country folk of western Kentucky, people just past the old ways and into the new, just off the farms and into the factories, caught between the garden and the “Burger Boy.” She writes about truck drivers and supermarket clerks and carpenters, real estate agents and...
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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 brought her lover, Jim; and Carolyn, the fourth sister, expects her lover, Kent, to join them at any time. It is these men who represent the three Magi, and the fourth Wise Man, as defined by Henry Van Dyke in his novella “The Story of the Other Wise Man.”
Peggy's husband Cecil, who, Carolyn notes, bought his way into the family, is as Melchior, who bore a coffer of gold to Christ the King. Cecil's life is defined by the money he made as a Gulf franchise owner. To the other family members, Peggy and Cecil have a certain status. Peggy directs the pouring of the dinner beverages like a queen ordering her maidservants, and their daughter Cheryl counts off her Christmas gifts at the end of the day as though they were a king's...
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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 saw (or imagined he saw) in Vietnam, opens a channel of communication between him and his niece and serves as a symbol of the survivors' questions about the war. Although Emmett, like the other vets, is reluctant to discuss the fighting, he will talk about the birds that are his only positive memory:
That beautiful bird just going about its business with all that crazy stuff going on. Whole flocks of them would fly over. … Once a grenade hit close to some trees and there were these birds taking off like quail, ever' which way. We thought it was snowing up instead of down.
The incongruous juxtaposition of a grenade and gracefully ascending birds...
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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 Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell celebrates Thomas Pynchon's portrayal of the masochistic desire with which veterans will relive their combat experiences. Fussell argues that in Gravity's Rainbow, “for almost the first time the ritual of military memory is freed from all puritan lexical constraint and allowed to take place with a full appropriate obscenity” through Pynchon's use of “the style of classic English pornographic fiction” (328, 330). The literature of the Vietnam War was and is being written during a period marked in Fussell's words by “the virtual disappearance … of the concept of prohibitive obscenity, a concept which has acted as a censor on earlier memories of ‘war’” (334).
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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 Vietnam and to understand its consequences is striking because of her age and the intensity of her feelings. A war which ended when she was but a child is at the center of her life; as the narrator states: “She was feeling the delayed stress of the Vietnam War. It was her inheritance” (89). Sam has only just graduated from high school in the small, rural Kentucky town of Hopewell, but instead of concentrating seriously on college plans, summer work, or her future she is preoccupied with thoughts of her father, who was killed in Vietnam prior to Sam's first birthday without ever having seen her. She also finds herself attracted to Emmett's friend Tom, a Vietnam veteran who returned from the war sexually dysfunctional. Finally, she is beset...
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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 hot tea with cream instead of coffee for breakfast or steaming coffee for lunch when they could have “ice tea.” These southerners fry their catfish and eat it with hushpuppies; they do not poach fish in dill sauce with a side dish of “pasta.” Simple taste preferences aside, one would not want to eat “like Yankees.”
This facet of regional identity has contributed to family and community solidarity through eating rituals southerners use as touchstones of how “things ought to be”; these food traditions, rooted in agrarian necessities, have made for definition, security and stability in southern society. Southerners have expected to eat large meals of home-grown, home-cooked traditional foods, such as Virginia...
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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 conflict, struggled in their turn for dominance. The event was devastating and without shape: neither side was sure of its place, or of its role, or of what had happened. Curiously, everyone seemed on the margin and no one in the center. Painful as the Vietnam War was, it facilitated a number of important changes. New historians, whose belief that the truth of major events may be perceived in the words and actions of secondary players and bystanders, went to work.1 More questions began to be asked about the traditional roles of soldier and non-combatant.2 And perhaps most importantly, the average citizen was forced to consider what was meant by the term “patriotism.”
Bobbie Ann Mason's 1985 novel...
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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 supermarket shelf has subsumed the role of religious liturgy, or of poetry.
This latest novel, set for the most part on a tobacco farm in western Kentucky in 1900, invokes a litany of the brand names of that era, but to substantially different effect. Scott's Carbolated Salve, Vegetine Blood purifier, Turkish Pile Ointment, Dr. Koenig's Hamburg Breast Tea: These are not nostrums on which the Wheelers, provincial farmers, depend. Rather, the products in the town's stores and on advertising cards stand as signs to them, harbingers of a commercial world gathering strength beyond the boundaries of their communal, hardscrabble lives.
When that immoderate world invades the Wheelers' land, as it inevitably must, 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.
The opening pace of the book was so leisurely that I felt I was actually living the cycle of the seasons, as fields were tilled and crops were planted and harvested by an extended family of unremarkable country people. But my own attention was sustained because I grew up on an Appalachian tobacco farm 50 years after this story takes place, so I was fascinated by Mason's vivid and accurate depiction of the routines of such a setting. I was also riveted by her use of the antique words and cadences of that region, where life may be toilsome and boresome yet people can be pert-near the thoughtfullest you could ever encounter.
Mason reminded me of superstitions I had long since abandoned in my...
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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, and Other Stories (1982), was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the American Book Award, and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and won the Ernest Hemingway Award for First Fiction.2 Mason's distinctive style traits—popular culture references, present tense, blue-collar and rural subject matter—have, with or without her direct influence, become dominant trends in the contemporary American short story. She is considered one of the chief representatives of a school of fiction variously named “dirty realism,” “K-Mart realism,” or “minimalism”: linguistically spare, thematically populist, and consciously antiliterary.3 This school developed such vogue during the 1980s that Mason's own work went...
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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, Kentucky, gives birth to healthy quintuplets. Hopewell's mayor proclaims the births “the eighth wonder of the world,” and the town's preachers declare them a sign of something good, perhaps the Second Coming. The extended Wheeler household of tobacco farmers quickly becomes a magnet for journalists, quacks, do-gooders, barren women, women who have lost babies and every sort of entrepreneur and curiosity seeker.
Yet even with this turn-of-the-century, apocalyptic backdrop, the real strength of Bobbie Ann Mason's third novel lies in its presentation of homely details—details that so often go unnoticed, the daily events that ultimately express the vast design of creation. Christie Wheeler becomes empowered through her...
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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 argued that the war in Vietnam had a similar impact upon the South. Referring to the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, Irene, the mother of the heroine in In Country, tells her daughter: “It was country boys. When you get to that memorial, you look at the names. … You look at the names and tell me if they are not mostly country boy names” (338). The treatment of the Vietnam war in In Country, as well as in Jayne Ann Phillip's Machine Dreams and in Larry Brown's Dirty Work, testifies to the end of the cultural and historical isolation of the South and to the emergence of a postmodern awareness of the self's existence in a post-human, post-Christian world, and of the essential narratability of history itself. Many...
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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 and balance. In first-person narration, Mason reveals a woman whose ordinary life is transformed by a unique event. Driven by curiosity and by her insistence on keeping her heart alive, Christie triumphs by stubbornly preserving her selfhood within a world in which she, as a relatively poor, uneducated rural woman at the turn of the century, would be expected to have little self-determination.
The appealing realism and intelligence of Mason's central character illuminate a complex weave of class status, racial background, family connection, personal ambition, and happenstance events that largely determine one's life in the agrarian community. Perhaps most determinative is gender, and Mason uncovers the essential divide...
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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, and trade names) to create “a metaphoric frame for comparison and reflection” (690).
Mason not only employs these details, but, we contend, she undergirds “Shiloh” with a more complex, unified pattern. More specifically, Mason, in the tradition of such twentieth-century American writers as Eliot, Malamud, and Cheever, structures her story around one of the major archetypes in Western culture, the Grail myth. Ultimately, this myth lends universal significance to the seemingly minutiae-laden lives of a twentieth-century western Kentucky couple in a troubled marriage, emphasizing by contrast the gap between what used to be and what ambiguously remains today.
Mason quickly establishes the Moffitts'...
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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 putting together the colors and patterns and seeing the full design emerge. It's thrilling and satisfying, especially discovering that the most unlikely piece belongs. Second, I helped my grandmother piece quilts, and that was another version of working a puzzle. These childhood loves are probably my strongest early artistic sources.
And so I loved words, which are bits of language you can piece together to make stories. I was always fascinated by words. New words were little mysteries, sounds without meanings, tunes that caught in my brain insistently. My favorite course in high school was Latin, and then I took French in college. To my regret, I didn't learn to speak it. When I went to France, I thought I had never heard...
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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 recoverable past? Will that future reading reveal Mason's fiction as more accurately described by the term “historical” than by “contemporary,” uncovering an unlikely generic resemblance to Edith Wharton's fiction: that is, to fiction that captures a specific culture, still vaguely familiar, but so specifically of a particular time and place—fashionable New York in the early twentieth century or small-town America in the 1980s—that it is also “historical,” evoking the details, habits, conflicts, and anxieties of a historical moment?
Shiloh, the historical place name that entitles Mason's first collection, introduces characters inattentive to “the insides of history” (16), who have for the most part...
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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 for the chickens and the next day I was expected to know what wines went with what” (Shiloh 207). In “Graveyard Day,” a divorced mother observes that families “shift membership, like clubs” (167), and “a stepfather is like a substitute host on a talk show” (173). In a third story, entitled “A New-Wave Format,” the developmentally disabled characters “can't keep up with today's fast pace” and “need a world that is slowed down” (217).
Such fragmentary passages, lifted almost at random from Mason's fiction, reflect her persistent concern with rapid social change and its dramatic effect on ordinary people. In the course of some fifty years, Mason has herself experienced dramatic changes in...
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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 her escape from a Southern self that was stifling a better one. Her writing is not an agonizing exploration of her past, but a powerful and beautifully articulated retelling of that exploration, a sharing with the reader of the process that has allowed her to say “at last I feel I know where I am.” A sense that the place where she finds herself is a good one, and that her journey to it has been well worth the effort, combines with shimmering, powerful language to make Clear Springs Mason's best book.
Clear Springs is not autobiographical writing in a conventional sense. The reader learns a great deal about Mason's childhood, for example, but less about her teen years. We drop in on episodes from her adult...
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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, narrow-minded whites, representatives of both the New and Old South, who assume a superiority based on their race while demonstrating a gaping ignorance of their shortcomings. O'Connor uses her bladelike humor to teach her smug characters important lessons, the ultimate being that the world is ordered by a class and colorblind God. The truth is there and knowable, but the characters are blind until O'Connor teaches them to see. Bobbie Ann Mason, in her 1980s short stories, portrays an entirely different South.
Whether factually accurate or not, a certain idea of the South has passed through the generations of southern literature. The writer Brenda Marie Osbey finds the “quilt” of southern literature threaded together by...
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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 people whose lives continue beyond the novel. Sam perhaps forgets about the wounded and impotent vet Tom and advances toward her college degree at the University of Kentucky. Emmett likely goes on to live a happier life while flipping burgers at Burger King rather than flipping out during flashbacks to his Vietnam experience. The familiarity of the novel's surface makes it easy to project these characters into the future, to worry about their “lives” outside the fiction. However, this familiar, representational surface can, if the reader permits, do something else: it can obscure the novel's rich, symbolic subsurface, or so I call it, though it is more “on the page,” more in the words than any representational meaning that the...
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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 surprisingly wide worlds for the delighted reader.’1 Anne Tyler recognized Mason as already “a full-fledged master of the short story.” Tyler applauded Mason's compassionate treatment of her characters who, although feeling “bewilderment” at the changes that confront them, nevertheless try to adapt to them with an “optimistic faith in progress.”2 Tyler observed that “it is especially poignant that the characters in these stories, having led more sheltered lives than the average reader, are trying to deal with changes that most of us already take for granted.”3 Mason herself has reflected that the “strength of my fiction has been the tension between being from there and not from...
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Fuller, Jack. “Bobbie Ann Mason Sees Reality on Sale at K Mart.” Chicago Tribune (19 February 1989): sec. 14, p. 1.
Fuller criticizes Mason for populating her stories with clichéd characters and situations in this review of Love Life.
Gunn, Drewey Wayne. “Initiation, Individuation, In Country.” Midwest Quarterly 38, no. 1 (autumn 1996): 59–73.
Gunn compares the journeys of Samantha and Emmett in In Country with those of traditional heroine and hero figures.
Henning, Barbara. “Minimalism and the American Dream: ‘Shiloh’ by Bobbie Ann Mason and ‘Preservation’ by Raymond Carver.” Modern Fiction Studies 35, no. 4 (winter 1989): 689–98.
Henning discusses Mason's and Raymond Carver's translation of the American Dream in their short stories.
Johnson, Diane. “Southern Comfort.” New York Review of Books 32, no. 17 (7 November 1985): 15–17.
Johnson offers an analysis of In Country and Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist providing comparisons between the two works.
Lohafer, Susan. “Stops on the Way to ‘Shiloh’: A Special Case for Literary Empiricism.” Style 27, no. 3 (fall 1993): 395–407.
Lohafer discusses results of a study of literary...
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