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.