Bobbie Ann Mason

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Albert E. Wilhelm (essay date winter 1987)

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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 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...

(This entire section contains 3403 words.)

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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 conversion.

In “The Ocean” Mason introduces a retired farmer and his wife who barrel down the highway in their super-deluxe cabin-cruiser and yell out to a perfect stranger, “Which way's 65!” (148). This query contains a significant pun since Imogene and Bill Crittendon are seeking not only the proper interstate to Florida but also a route that will allow them to reach old age with dignity and meaning. By asserting that the interstate highway is “like the ocean” (148), Mason suggests that the Crittendons have really been set adrift. Like many old people today they have few meaningful contacts with family or friends. Florence sends identical postcards with the same meager message to their three children who are scattered all over the country. Having sold his farm, Bill feels lost without a cow or dog. When he tries to pet someone else's collie in a campground, he discovers that the dog bears the ominous name Ishmael. In fact, the Crittendons too are modern-day Ishmaelites. Their literal journey to Florida soon ends, but they never reach their spiritual destination. When they arrive at the beach, Bill is repulsed by the campground full of old people. Finding no ritual to guide him toward his own old age, Bill feels only fear and loathing.

In well over half of the stories in Mason's collection, a major character is confronted with divorce or separation, and this emphasis begins in the title story “Shiloh.” If van Gennep's schema of rites of passage remains applicable today, Leroy and Norma Jean Moffitt are bogged down in the intermediate or liminal stage of transition. The stability of their old relationship is clearly gone, but they can discover no way to progress to a new mode of existence. Leroy's tractor-trailer rig, a symbol of his old lifestyle, has been wrecked, but “he is not sure what to do next” (1). Thus, his “temporary disability” is more than the physical injury to his leg; it becomes emblematic of his and Norma Jean's overall condition.

Finding no common ritual to accommodate their personal crisis, the Moffitts try to invent their own. Thus, Norma Jean's days are filled with the contemporary equivalents of sympathetic rites—ceremonies “based on belief in the reciprocal action of like on like, of opposite on opposite, of the container and the contained … of image and real object or real being” (van Gennep 4). For example, her efforts to build a new body by lifting weights reveal also her efforts to build a new self. She doesn't know exactly what to make of her husband and her marriage, so she frantically makes all sorts of other things. By making electric organ music she strives for new harmony. By cooking exotic new foods she hopes to become what she eats. Even though her double given name may suggest a typical good-old Southern girl, Norma Jean is definitely striving to be a new woman.

Her husband Leroy also has an ironic name since he is no longer the king of his castle. Even though he must sometimes dodge the barbells swung by Norma Jean, he too is obsessed with making things. He occupies himself with craft kits (popsicle stick constructions, string art, a snap-together B-17 Flying Fortress) as if putting together these small parts can create a more comprehensive sense of order. No doubt he is also seeking craft in its root sense of power or strength. At one point Leroy reveals his yearning for some sort of rebirth by commenting that his popsicle stick cabin “reminds him of a rustic Nativity scene” (1). In an effort to create a real home, Leroy toys with the notion of “building a full-scale log house from a kit” (2). Having failed to make a family because of the accidental death of their baby, he and Norma Jean must now join together in a cabin-raising and “create a new marriage” (3).

One major component of a traditional ritual of passage was a journey—either actual or symbolic. This story also ends with a trip, but this time the pilgrimage is clearly futile. In an effort to find peace, the Moffitts go to a battlefield. The final irony which caps this ill-fated second honeymoon is that Leroy and Norma Jean discuss their failing marriage while sitting in the Shiloh cemetery.

In “The Retreat” Mason describes another couple who are experiencing marital problems, but here she also comments on the diminished role of church rituals in helping deal with life's crises. In this story sermons are full of words like “pucelage” and “maturescent,” and the elements for Communion come straight from the Kwik Pik Market. For Shelby Pickett, a rural Methodist minister, the annual church retreat is a vital part of life's cyclic rhythm. In the middle of winter he looks forward to this time of spiritual renewal. For his wife Georgeann, however, the retreat offers nothing more than a shallow workshop on Christian marriage enhancement which concentrates on seven kinds of intimacy. Here the mystical number has clearly been shorn of all its magic. Georgeann likes to attend wedding ceremonies, perhaps because her participation in the ritual reaffirms old values and provides reassurance, but lately it seems that Shelby has been preaching nothing but funerals.

Even though church rituals no longer serve their intended purpose, Georgeann does experience a ceremony of change. In order to be reborn, she must first become an outcast. When she is infested with body lice, she is treated almost like a leper and must perform an elaborate “ritual cleansing, something like baptism” (141). Later she escapes the restrictive boundaries suggested by her husband's surname (Pickett) and makes an extended journey without taking a single step. She explores both outer space and her own inner space merely by piloting a Galaxian rocket ship in an electronic game arcade. Finally, in an action that is reminiscent of traditional rituals of sacrifice, Georgeann chops off the head of a sick chicken. Earlier she had tried to heal the chicken, but now her action is swift and decisive. Similarly, she no longer hesitates with regard to her own situation. She has decided to abandon her respectable role as preacher's wife in order to pursue a new identity.

Mircea Eliade has commented that ritualistic “death provides the clean slate on which will be written the successive revelations whose end is the formation of a new” person. Indeed, the old person “cannot be changed without first being annihilated” (xiii). In “Graveyard Day” Mason focuses on the difficulty of terminating old relationships so that new ones can develop. Waldeen has been divorced from Joe Murdock for several months, but she can't “get rid” of her ex-husband “just by signing a paper” (172). In fact, Waldeen is now dating another man named Joe and comments that the important men in her life seem interchangeable because all have born this same first name. Waldeen needs a dramatic break with the past, and she resists marrying this latest Joe because he would be like a “sugar substitute” (166).

Even though this story contains no ritual to help carry Waldeen beyond the confusion of divorce, it does display a continuity of ritual in response to death. Twice each year Joe McClain or his relatives clean the family cemetery. The cyclic pattern of death and rebirth described by Eliade is echoed here by the fact that pots of live geraniums are brought out to the cemetery each spring and taken away for winter storage each fall. The regularity of these rituals to honor the dead is so reassuring to Waldeen that she apparently tries to embrace them to serve her own needs. As she watches Joe McClain clean tombstones and rake leaves, she suddenly has a comforting thought—that “the burial plot, not a diamond ring, symbolizes the promise of marriage” (177). If she marries her new Joe, she will eventually take her place beside him and earlier generations of McClains in this rural graveyard. Her final action in the story is to jump headlong into the leaves that are piled for burning on the very spot that she has imagined will be her gravesite. To be sure, such an impulsive action leaves the story very open-ended, but the curiously mixed images here suggest that she is finally willing to let the old be burned away so that she can rise from the grave as a new being.

In “Drawing Names” Carolyn Sisson has also experienced divorce, and she is currently observing the disintegration of her larger family unit. The family gathers for a holiday celebration, but it is, in fact, breaking apart because the old rituals necessary for maintaining family solidarity are gone. The decay of such rituals parallels that of the “broken” and “crumbling” ornaments which decorate the “pitiful tree” (102). Carolyn's mother observes that “it don't seem like Christmas with drawed names” (94). She means, of course, that giftgiving this year has become less personal and more like a marketplace transaction. Anthropologists such as Raymond Firth have pointed out that the formal rituals of giftgiving reaffirm “the social relationship that the gift symbolizes. The transfer of the material thing is a recognized expression of the importance of the immaterial relationship between the persons, and this is enhanced by removing the gift out of the sphere of everyday transactions” by such means as special wrappings and presentation ceremonies (Symbols 376). At this family gathering, however, such ceremonies are extremely perfunctory. Another almost universal ritual of solidarity, the shared meal, is also painfully truncated in this story. Christmas dinner begins without ceremony “when the plate rattles” (100), and no one even bothers to ask Pappy to “turn thanks” (101). Carolyn's boyfriend never arrives for the meal, and her father leaves the table abruptly after eating only a few bites. Even the simple rituals of greeting, interpreted by Raymond Firth as “telectic rites” to mark the “putting off of the old and putting on the new” (“Verbal and Bodily Rituals” 3), are badly jumbled. As family members arrive, the constant “noise of the TV” almost drowns out the greetings (96–97). Jim Walsh, the lover of Laura Jean, is not really accepted by the family. As if to compensate for his feelings of insecurity, his artificial greetings come forth in “a booming, official-sounding voice, something like a TV announcer” (98). Carolyn's mother is a seamstress, and at one point in the story she comments that she could not find a dress pattern large enough for one of her customers. Rituals, of course, are patterns for living, but this extended family seems to have outgrown its old patterns for fashioning solidarity.

Other stories in this collection contain numerous additional examples of inadequate or improvised rituals. In their accelerated world Mason's characters confront all the life crises common in traditional societies as well as some troubling new ones. But all too often they must do so without the support of shared ceremonies. Writing some fifty years after the initial publication of van Gennep's key work on ritual, Solon T. Kimball has argued that “rites of passage deserve attention within themselves” even in contemporary society. He goes on to explain: “The critical problems of becoming male and female, of relations within the family, and of passing into old age are directly related to the devices which the society offers the individual to help him achieve the new adjustment. Somehow we seem to have forgotten this—or perhaps the ritual has become so completely individualistic that … an increasing number of individuals are forced to accomplish their transitions alone and with private symbols” (xvii–xviii). In her “few square miles of native turf” (Towers 38), Mason clearly documents such a poverty of ritual and shows a variety of characters valiantly trying to cope by means of their own improvised rites of passage.

Works Cited

Eliade, Mircea. Birth and Rebirth. New York, 1958.

Firth, Raymond. Symbols: Public and Private. Ithaca, 1973.

———. “Verbal and Bodily Rituals of Greeting and Parting.” The Interpretation of Ritual. Ed. J. S. LaFontaine. London, 1972.

Gennep, Arnold van. The Rites of Passage. Trans. Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee. Chicago, 1960.

Klapp, Orrin E. Collective Search for Identity. New York, 1969.

Mason, Bobbie Ann. Shiloh, and Other Stories. New York, 1982. Citations to Mason's fiction derive from this volume.

Ryan, Maureen. “Stopping Places: Bobbie Ann Mason's Short Stories.” Women Writers of the Contemporary South. Ed. Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson, Mississippi, 1984.

Sheppard, R. Z. “Neighbors” [a review of Shiloh, and Other Stories]. Time, 3 Jan. 1983: 88.

Towers, Robert. “American Graffiti” [a review of Shiloh, and Other Stories]. The New York Review of Books, 16 Dec. 1982: 38–40.

Yu, Yuh-Chao. Interview with Bobbie Ann Mason. Louisville, Kentucky, 22 February 1985. Typescript provided the author by Professor Yu.


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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Bobbie Ann Mason and Vincent Kling (interview date October 1988)

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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 situate her craft anywhere notably close to his. Perhaps she wouldn't mind (what writer would?) a comparison with Katherine Anne Porter. My experience has been that green undergraduates and burnished critics alike come away with the certainty that something has happened in “Nancy Culpepper” or “The Rookers,” just as in Porter's “The Grave” or “The Circus.” Mere vignettes—such small detail, such commonplace episodes. Yet we finish fairly bemused by the depth at which we know Miranda. Everything appears to have arranged itself, to have fallen into place through some routine domestic economy that anyone could manage.

This kind of seeming artlessness requires concentration and skill beyond most writers' capacity. Everything is there as an unassuming object in a simple scene, but everything is an enormously charged symbol of every event and every feeling. The bullet-pocked log cabins in “Shiloh” become in themselves the marriage that has grown to be a civil war. A woman's ordinary vegetable garden in Spence + Lila gently gets transformed through timing and arrangement into a temporary but triumphant paradise regained. A young girl seeing television for the first time in “Detroit Skyline, 1949” has to adjust her vision before she can make out the dim figures on the screen; that need for adjustment becomes her whole emotional venture into joy and pain as she tries to take in what she only half-understands. And all that rendered detail ends in felt experience, in the completeness that comes of coherent, valid emotion. This is a writer who cares about her characters and has the craft to make us do the same.

Talking with Bobbie Ann Mason when she was here at La Salle University in October of 1988 was as much a pleasure as I'd anticipated, but in a very different way. I thought I'd get her to talk about the continuity of Southern literature, about being a woman writer, and about pastoral. She gently warded off those professorial-style questions and took the conversation where she wanted it to go. The more she did, the better it went. I felt like Pascal, who said he went to Montaigne expecting to find a style but that he came away having found a person.

[Kling:] As an academic, I suppose I'm accustomed to applying labels and categories. So if I ask about scholarly treatments of pastoral it's to say that I came to the end of Spence + Lila and thought, “We're in a garden, and life has triumphed, and growing things are being harvested and the couple is back together in every sense.” So I wondered if Bobbie Ann Mason (being a Ph.D. in literature) had thought about Louis Simpson on pastoral, for instance. I can't imagine any writer doing such a thing, but I wondered if you'd started with an overall pattern.

[Mason:] You say you couldn't imagine any writer stopping to think about Louis Simpson at that moment. Of course I wouldn't; it would get in the way. I think I knew intuitively the progress of the story from sickness to health, and it's emotionally the way things had to progress.

But a writer thinks about things really in quite literal, specific terms. Is Lila going to have chemotherapy in the story? Does she feel well enough to come home from the hospital? Does she feel well enough to go out to her garden? What is growing in the garden? I mean you're stuck on that level, that's the level you operate on. Really you're working out all the surface details, and if they're right then the other will come through. But you can't start with the thematic content and work backwards.

You said earlier today that the story you read (“Midnight Magic”) began when you saw a man sitting in a car that had “Midnight Magic” painted on the back and he looked terrible, so you asked yourself what could have brought him to that point.

Yes, that's the kind of scene that triggers my imagination. With the “pastoral” scene at the end of Spence + Lila—you know that's a personal story and I don't mind saying it was drawn very closely from my parents. But also they became fictional characters at some point so that I was able to deal with them without too much baggage, personal baggage. Still, I know what it's like to see my mother in the garden and so my mother was in the garden, with the beans and the cucumbers getting ripe. That's the time to get her laughter; it was the sound of her laughter that was the important thing to me. The sound of her laughter, her attitude, her feelings for the garden and her connection with her husband—just all those emotional things. You could call it pastoral if you want to, but it was not the way I went about it.

I'm not surprised. Most people who exercise a demanding craft don't seem to be helped by thinking about it in a distanced, theoretical way.

It's a perspective I couldn't possibly have as I write. Maybe intellectually I could have it later, or maybe I could be shown things about my work by critics and reviewers that would surprise me and please me and ring a bell and I'd say, “Oh yeah, that's what I was trying to do.”

It's a different language, and not just a different language, but maybe a different thought process and different side of the brain in operation in the creative process as opposed to the critical process. Not that a writer isn't capable of both or that a critic isn't capable of both either; we all have different ways of operating.

I guess I have a kind of perverse reaction to a lot of labels. I tend to want to resist some things. If you say I'm a Southern writer I want to say, “Oh, not really,” or if you say I'm not a Southern writer I might say, “Of course I am!” There's that kind of perverse habit of mine I have, and then there's a kind of resistance I have out of my own personal experience to academic approaches.

When I was teaching and would go into the classroom and I would be teaching Southern literature, I would feel compelled to instruct the kids on the pastoral and the Agrarian movement and all that belongs under that topic. I would feel that I had to impose all of that on them because as a teacher one has to be the authority and since then, since I no longer teach, I never want to be in that position again. I never want to be in a position of being a false authority, and as teacher I never really felt secure in the knowledge I was trying to impart to them or in my supposed authority. So it feels very liberating to me not to have to come on that way, just to talk in a more straightforward way about what I do and what is important to me in what I write. But I'm resisting your questions!

That's perfectly all right. I can always come up with categories and labels. The excitement now is to hear what you say irrespective of what I'm asking, just as I like it when a student says, “I don't agree,” or, “I don't like the way you're running this class.” I'm not a very secure person, but I'm glad when that happens.

I've been thinking a lot lately about academic approaches as opposed to the creative process. I've visited classes and the students very often want to know what something means or what the theme is, or they're discussing the symbols. Those were certainly not the things I thought I was dealing with when I wrote the story, but they very well may be there in the finished product.

In that situation it's a little hard for me to say what is exciting about the work for me and what went into it and what I thought I was doing. Here's an example from my novel In Country. The character Emmett sometimes wears a skirt. He wears a wrap-around Indian-print skirt with elephants on it. Somewhere, some student has written a term paper about why he's wearing a skirt. Well, when I wrote this—it was one of the first scenes I wrote when I began writing In Country—I was captivated by the idea of this guy putting a skirt on and I didn't know why he was doing it, but that was one notion I kept from the very beginning throughout the whole process of writing—this guy in a skirt. It was mysterious and I had to develop it as I went along and make discoveries about it, but in the final analysis I can't reduce to any meaning why he wore that skirt. Still, it's an indelible part of the story; it's part of the fabric.

When I went to Kentucky during the filming of In Country the wardrobe mistress showed me the skirt that Bruce Willis was going to wear in the movie. There it was. It was made tangible. She had found it in a thrift shop or somewhere. It was from the 60's, an Indian-print wrap-around skirt with elephants on it. I had made it up in my mind, but it actually existed. To me it was a lot more exciting to see that skirt come to life than it was to know that somebody had written a paper telling what that skirt meant because seeing the skirt come to life was more in tune with the imaginative process. It was the way I saw it in my imagination and it was what it meant in my imagination—just the textures of it, the elephants on it and all that.

I don't mean that the person writing the term paper about what it meant is barking up the wrong tree. But seeing that actual skirt made concrete reminded me of what was special to me about it in the novel. It was the vitality of it. You always come to the question of whether the work is interesting or not. Does this follow this? Is this passage dull? Do the characters come to life and are they interesting? Do you care about them? What are they eating for breakfast? Where are they going today? How are they going to deal with this problem? That's the level you're operating on when you're writing and I think it's the level you're operating on when you're reading, but not when you're trying to analyze.

A very general question about where Nabokov might fit. I think your first book was about him. How did you move from such a self-conscious artist to your own seemingly artless way?

There's a strong connection in the business of that skirt. I was very charmed to read Nabokov once in an interview when he gave his response to the movie of Lolita. He loved the way the actress drew her sweater around her shoulders. He thought that was just lovely. Apparently in his mind it evoked the true Lolita. It evoked something about her vitality and what she meant to him as a character. He was a writer who resisted characterization and analysis of meaning and he thought that everything was on the surface, except that the surface was a prism of infinite mirrors and reflections. There are certain affinities I feel with Nabokov, and you know that I wrote my dissertation on him in graduate school. But I don't think his influence or connection should be blown out of proportion; there are many other influences in my life too.

Like your mother's garden. That's beautiful. That stays with me. What about other writers you grew up with?

Well, I didn't read much good writing when I was in high school. I didn't discover literature until college. In high school I read Forever Amber and Peyton Place and a lot of pseudo-science things like The Search for Bridey Murphy.

Oh, for heaven sakes, we're the only people left who remember that, you and I. I can't wait to put that in.

There was no one to steer me in any direction, so I just drifted. When I got to college I read Salinger, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe.

Was there anyone when you started out writing fiction you thought you wanted as a model, or did you immediately say, “I just want to put down whatever I have felt, experienced, remembered”?

No, I started writing in college. I guess Scott Fitzgerald was my favorite and I thought his writing was so beautiful, stylistically, and the romance of his generation was all so pure, soft. He was probably my strongest influence at that time.

What about favorites among your own stories? They get strong reactions from other readers. My students loved “Shiloh.” I love “Detroit Skyline, 1949.” I remember the margarine, the old TVs; I remember the Red scare. Maybe it's about being a certain age.

A number of people have said the same thing to me about “Detroit Skyline,” and I think it's because they have a personal connection to those memories. So different people have different favorites. My favorite of what I've written is In Country. I feel that's special.

I'm proud of the novel and awed by the characters—very fond of the characters. I feel proud of it because I felt it touched on something that reaches a lot of people and that's why I'm excited about the movie. The movie reaches a much larger audience than I could. It's not my work exactly, but it's going to reach someone. I think the subject is very important. I wouldn't say that about other things I've written, but in that case just the subject alone is very important. I guess one story I'm especially fond of is “Nancy Culpepper.” I could identify with her a lot.

Thanks for such a thoughtful and honest exchange. I'm learning more through your not answering my questions. Why don't I just ask an open question. What hasn't come up that you would really want to say? What would you want a reading public to know?

You asked about other things that shaped me, other shaping influences. Well, you know, you can look at the evidence. You can look at the fact that I wrote a book about Nabokov and that I'm from the South, and that I liked Scott Fitzgerald, but the real shaping influence? I guess it's really the Southern culture that has had the most profound influence on me personally.

I'm writing about some kinds of people that aren't restricted to the South; they're all over. But they're people I come from and am still connected to. Readers who don't know about their world are often mystified by my writing, or they may understand the writing OK but would never dream that I might have come out of that world, so they treat me as if I'm somehow remote from it, but that's not really true. I keep trying to explain something about the hold of that culture and the pervasiveness of it and how it's all around us.

Yet people who read books aren't necessarily knowledgeable about that world. You know, this goes back again to my resistance against the academic because I'm writing about people who wouldn't know a good book if it hit them on the head and, you know, I care about those people.

It may bother me that they don't read, but I don't think that their lives are any less valid or that their emotions or feelings are any less complex. I'm not even sure where I belong myself. I still have one foot in that culture and it drags me back, and yet it nourishes me too. I'm not sure whether it's better to be sophisticated or not.

Let me think. I think I have somewhere to go with this. You know, these people—some of them may be sending money to those tele-evangelists and they may be voting for Bush and who knows what else they're going to do, but I feel like their lives are ignored and that they're put down for those things that I just mentioned, when, you know, maybe that's not everything about them. It's so easy to ignore them because they have no power.

I actually write about people on the way up, people in the middle classes, and I guess people associate the Kmart with my characters and say in a kind of condescending way that these are people who have nothing better to do than shop at the Kmart or that their values are so shoddy and materialistic that they're defined by the Kmart. Well, I really resist that, resist that very much, because as I said—and I've said this before—if they could afford to shop at Saks Fifth Avenue maybe they would, but they can't. They're caught up in the limited appeal of what Kmart has to offer and the people who are doing the criticizing probably have more money and can go to better stores. I just find that a kind of hypocrisy. I can't accept it. So, you know, its not that I'm celebrating the Kmart but I'm very aware of the limitations of these characters' world and of what's informing and defining their responses. I feel very sympathetic towards them for those reasons.

Principal Works

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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

Gary Krist (review date spring 1989)

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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 implications of her own death. Her husband, meanwhile, is going through his own quiet crisis, trying to conceive of life without Lila. Along the way, the various Culpeppers must endure the manifold indignities of modern hospital life.

Does all of this sound familiar? It should, since this is well-trodden ground in contemporary fiction. What distinguishes this book from most other cancer tales, however, are Mason's extraordinary sympathy for her characters and her ability to perform that Carver-like magic of investing surface detail with large doses of emotion and significance. Take this wonderful example: Spence and his dog Oscar are out in the barn feeding the five small Holsteins he is raising for beef. Alone because his wife is in the hospital, he has just been thinking of how one must puncture the yolk of an egg with a fork before putting it into the microwave:

Oscar wags his tail. The calves flick flies with their tails. They amble forward, rubbing each other and gazing at Spence with liquid eyes the texture and size of fried eggs. A horrifying image flashes through his mind—jabbing their eyes with a fork.

What makes this image resonate so deeply is not only the echo of what Spence has just been thinking about microwaving eggs, but also the way in which the image embodies Spence's growing anxiety about the mastectomy his wife is to undergo. This anxiety, like most emotions in minimalist fiction, is never completely articulated, in large part because the character himself is incapable of articulating his own emotions. But it is firmly present in the surface details. This is high art, it seems to me, but art that covers its tracks beautifully.

Having said that, however, I must admit that this book is not entirely satisfying. Mason's painstaking narrative style, while utterly convincing, remains so doggedly at the surface of things that I began to long for a single character—just one—with a full-grown, self-aware consciousness to come along and dive below the hamburger wrappers and tuna casseroles and plastic bowls of Jell-O and come up with something like an insight. Mason, like many talented minimalists, is constantly in danger of biting off less than she can chew. We can only hope that next time she'll take a few more chances and startle us. As it is, she's written a little gem of a novel, but the emphasis is perhaps too heavily on the “little.”

Devon Jersild (review date summer 1989)

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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 teachers. The details of their lives are perfect, as they should be—this is where Bobbie Ann Mason grew up. Indeed, in some of the stories I felt I could see the shadow of a little girl playing in the corner; one imagines, anyway, that such rightness of dialogue and precision of imagery could have come only from an insider.

Yet Mason maintains a rather distanced authorial stance; she, with the reader, looks into her characters' living rooms and watches them as they reveal themselves. It's a pretty funny show, most of the time, as Mason zeros in on the foibles and eccentricities of ordinary folks. She knows about how widows arrive at card parties “in separate cars, not trusting each other's driving,” and she knows that at least one widow would refuse to sit at a table set on a bulldozer sprocket, “for fear she will catch her foot in one of the holes at the base” (19). Humor and pleasure inhere in the simple feeling that the language is just right, that one of these widows would say, “Stephanie comes from a kind of disturbed family. Her mother's had a bunch of nervous breakdowns and her daddy's a vegetarian” (30).

To me, one of the more poignant features of these stories is how amiably the characters go along with the changing times which leave them so bewildered. They rarely argue with or protest against change, and they waste precious little time on nostalgia. Rather, they seem eager to demonstrate that they are keeping up. They, too, have microwaves and know about newfangled diseases. It is a truth self-evident that the new and the young are better than the used and the old, the storebought better than the homegrown. A carpenter who makes a table for his wife to commemorate their twenty-first anniversary—and fashions the top out of twenty-one odd shapes of wood—feels obliged to apologize: “It's not something you would buy in a store” (18). The old people sometimes feel distressed by shifting norms, but they rarely object, partly because they feel helpless, but also because they admire “this day and time, [when] people just do what they please” (29). The young people get divorced, the even younger get abortions, and lots of them smoke dope.

Still, the puzzlement of young and old is always evident, and the fear of meaninglessness—always pervasive in cultures unsettled by change—rustles through these stories like wind in a grassy field. In “The Rookers,” a daughter home from college provides her parents with a metaphor for their anxiety from quantum mechanics:

“There's some things called photons that disappear if you look for them. Nobody can find them.”

“How do they know they're there, then?” asks Mack skeptically.

“Where do they go?” Mary Lou asks.

… “If you try to separate them, they disappear. They don't even exist except in a group. Bob says this is one of the most important discoveries in the history of the world. He says it just explodes all the old ideas about physics.”


Later, the mother thinks about how her family has scattered, and she muses, “If you break up a group, the individuals could disappear out of existence” (29).

In the face of this anxiety, Mason's characters rely on physical facts—the sound of a drill, the pictures on a table—to prove to themselves that they are still alive. The load of sensory detail by which the author locates us in time and place also suggests the means by which her characters attempt to define themselves, to anchor themselves to their lives. Here, I think, is where Hemingway most strongly makes himself felt in contemporary fiction. In his story “Big Two-Hearted River,” for instance, a shell-shocked soldier goes on a camping trip and tries to steady himself by taking in one detail at a time, registering it with his senses, and using each successful transaction with reality to pull himself along a little further. In Bobbie Ann Mason's stories, characters also feel reassured by the physical world, only now they rely not on grasshoppers under stones but on factory-waxed congoleum floors to measure how real they are—that is to say, how closely their lives approximate the image of modern life they carry around in their heads. When Mason's characters watch TV—and they do a lot of that—they watch shows like Real People, and the irony is not to be missed. Advertising and television become a major frame of reference; their own lives become important to the extent that they identify with movie stars and sit-com characters.

Mason's men can be especially detached from their emotional centers. In the title story of Shiloh, Leroy, a thirty-four-year-old truck driver home after an accident, suspects that his wife is falling away from him. After avoiding the topic of their baby's death for sixteen years, he recalls the incident. He and Norma Jean had gone to a drive-in movie, and the infant died while sleeping in the back seat:

“It just happens sometimes,” said the doctor, in what Leroy always recalls as a nonchalant tone. Leroy can hardly remember the child anymore, but he still sees vividly a scene from Dr. Strangelove in which the President of the United States was talking in a folksy voice on the hot line to the Soviet premier about the bomber accidentally headed toward Russia. He was in the War Room, and the world map was lit up. Leroy remembers Norma Jean standing catatonically beside him in the hospital and himself thinking: Who is this strange girl? He had forgotten who she was. Now scientists are saying that crib death is caused by a virus. Nobody knows anything, Leroy thinks. The answers are always changing.


Leroy makes a connection between the doctor's “nonchalant tone” and the “folksy voice” of the president in the movie as he informs the Russians that they are about to be blown up—an association the more touching because it is unconscious. The movie provokes a bizarre sense of unreality. (What does a “War Room” have to do with a war? Or a lit-up “world map” with exploding cities? What does any of it have to do with political actualities?) Indeed, its very incongruousness expresses Leroy's sense of disconnection: he remembers the movie but not the child. In the hospital, he forgets his relation to his wife. His reflex is to move quickly from the painful recollection of this moment to a generalization which might help him make sense of the experience: “Now scientists are saying that crib death is caused by a virus,” but “Nobody knows anything.” Hidden in this passage is Leroy's anger at these strange, removed authorities: these careless doctors, folksy presidents, and fickle scientists who seem to have power over Leroy. Yet Leroy is as much removed from his anger as from his sense of loss. Life is out of his control. He is helpless. So it's best to go along as best he can.

Some critics have charged that Mason condescends to her characters, that she portrays them as confused, uneducated, lower-middle-class types who are trapped in their pain because they don't have the tools to understand their dilemmas, while she and the reader look on with superior understanding. Certainly Mason often writes about the confused and uneducated, but I do not believe that she implies a causal relation between emotional clumsiness and social class. It seems to me that respect for other people—including fictional characters—has something to do with letting go of one's own standards and bias long enough to understand them in their own context, with their particular conflicts and specific ways of seeing the world. Mason tends to refrain from comment, extrapolations, conclusions. She rarely appears to identify with her characters or to invite identification. She simply lets them be.

This cool surface can make it hard to engage with her stories. Still, one of their common features is a movement toward a character's moment of realization, when the self is, however briefly, acknowledged and confirmed in its suffering. These moments, always beautifully accomplished, create a sense of kinship with the characters and render them suddenly more complex. The revelations at the end of each story often throw certain preceding details into a context that reveals the intrinsic shape of the whole.

Published in 1985, In Country explores much the same world encountered in Shiloh, this time from the point of view of a seventeen-year-old girl named Sam. With its jaunty high spirits, the novel entertains from the beginning. Here is Sam taking her grandmother to the bathroom at a gas station:

The restroom is locked, and Sam has to go back and ask the boy for the key. The key is on a ring with a clumsy plastic Sunoco sign. The restroom is pink and filthy, with sticky floors. In her stall, Sam reads several phone numbers written in lipstick. A message says, “The mass of the ass plus the angle of the dangle equals the scream of the cream.” She wishes she had known that one when she took algebra. She would have written it on an assignment.

Mamaw lets loose a stream as loud as a cow's. This trip is crazy. It reminds Sam of that Chevy Chase movie about a family on vacation, with an old woman tagging along. She died on the trip and they had to roll her inside a blanket on the roof of the station wagon because the children refused to sit beside a dead body. This trip is just as weird.


Like other Mason characters, Sam's first points of reference are TV and movies. A baby when her father was killed in Vietnam, she feels no sense of bereavement until, years later, she watches an episode of M*A*S*H in which Colonel Blake gets killed. She lives with her Uncle Emmett, who, unlike her father, returned from the war alive. Her mother has moved to Lexington with a new husband and baby; Sam refuses to go because “Somebody had to watch out for Emmett” (24), and she doesn't want to switch schools her senior year. More to the point, Sam feels the burden of being cut off from her past, and tries, through her uncle, to reestablish a sense of connection. Together they listen to sixties music and watch M*A*S*H reruns—media versions of history—and Sam spends much of the novel obsessing over whether the acne on Emmett's face is a sign of exposure to Agent Orange.

What Sam wants is a context in which to define herself. She is caught between her desire to make sense of herself in terms of the past and the impulse to make herself new—to cut loose, drive off somewhere, get a job and find “all new friends” (190). While less compelling than the short stories, In Country is more hopeful; in the end, Sam achieves an exhilarating, fresh idea of herself while visiting the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., a self taking shape in spite of the dissolution—cultural, familial—in evidence everywhere she looks.

Spence and Lila is something altogether different. About a farm couple married for over forty years, the novel is in many ways an idyll, a look at the mythic past from which Mason's contemporary characters have fallen. The landscape is still one of change—marijuana plants grow up amid the cornfields, the children have scattered with problems of their own, and Spence and Lila face their own mortality when they discover that Lila has breast cancer. Yet Spence and Lila as a couple represent that time when life seemed to hold together, when husband and wife moved from love to work and back again with the ease that comes from knowing both are always there, and that they are needed.

The novel celebrates, indirectly, a time when families transcended the animosities that divide many of them today. In the hospital, between operations, Lila remembers being a young wife and mother living with Spence's parents while he was in the navy. When her child caught pneumonia, Lila wanted to take her to the doctor, but her in-laws protested, “Why, he would charge! We can doctor her” (26). Lila wrapped the baby's chest in greased rags and “prayed so hard she was almost screaming.” The baby survived, and gradually, the “shared silent worry about Spence” drew Lila and her in-laws together until she loved them “as though they were her own” (27).

Perhaps this is less than convincing. Indeed, authentic as moments in Spence and Lila may be, they disappoint if read too literally—that is, as realistic drama. But this would be a mistake. I read the novel as a modern pastoral, a rendition of the bucolic past written by someone who belongs to a newer world—like Virgil dreaming his idyll from the heights of Roman sophistication or Robert Frost, with his college education, inventing a region of the mind that supposedly exists somewhere north of Boston. Mason's idealizations, likewise, say less about the past itself than about the modern longing for a life in harmony with nature, a time and place where one's work provided satisfying metaphors of self in relation to the world.

Lila, for instance, is a gardener; she tends her garden with love and devotion, and it, in turn, nurtures her in body and spirit. The novel ends with Spence and Lila standing amid the vegetables. “I've got a cucumber that needs pickling,” Spence teases her. He goes on:

The way she laughs is the moment he has been waiting for. She rares her head back and laughs steadily, her throat working and her eyes flashing. Her cough catches her finally and slows her down, but her face is dancing like pond water in the rain, all unsettled and stirring with aroused possibility.


Similarly, some of the most beautiful passages in the novel describe Spence on his farm; he is a gentle caretaker, an uneducated but wise old man who understands his place in the world. Here he is as he “follows the creek line down toward the back fields”:

In the center of one of the middle fields is a rise with a large, brooding old oak tree surrounded by a thicket of blackberry briers. From the rise, he looks out over his place. This is it. This is all there is in the world—it contains everything there is to know or possess, yet everywhere people are knocking their brains out trying to find something different, something better. His kids all scattered, looking for it. Everyone always wants a way out of something like this, but what he has here is the main thing there is—just the way things grow and die, the way the sun comes up and goes down every day. These are the facts of life. They are so simple they are almost impossible to grasp.


It's a great risk to write a novel like Spence and Lila, to put into words facts “so simple they are almost impossible to grasp.” Mason pulls it off by the sheer lyricism of her prose, the earthy humor of her characters, and the uncanny way she has of tracking surprising turns of thought. I was especially moved by Spence's vivid flashbacks to World War II and the way they haunt him throughout the novel. The impossibility of making sense of that time—of figuring out how “his destroyer fit in the larger picture, a whole world at war” (78)—accentuates the beauty of the life he makes for himself with Lila on the farm.

Many of the stories in Love Life are familiar as extensions of themes discovered in Shiloh. The characters exhibit the same difficulty with the process of translating feeling and thought into purposeful action. Desire becomes a vague and unsettling impulse, but desire for what? More money? More sex? More love? A new dress? Mostly, the characters don't know what they want, and so what the businessman says in the story “Sorghum” sounds ruefully true: “Everybody's always dissatisfied” (209).

They have different ways of distancing themselves from the pain of their longing. The old lady of the title story drinks peppermint schnapps and watches TV to forget the risks she never took—like driving off to Idaho in a shiny Imperial with a man whose beard was too “demanding” (12). In “Midnight Magic,” a young man's dislocation from himself approaches schizophrenia. The story begins:

Steve leaves the supermarket and hits the sunlight. Blinking, he stands there a moment, then glances at his feet. He has on running shoes, but he was sure he had put on boots. He touches his face. He hasn't shaved.


Steve's metaphor of self becomes a car, “deep blue and wicked. … The car's rear end is hiked up like a female cat in heat. Prowling in his car at night, he could be Dracula” (19). There's a rapist on the loose in “Midnight Magic,” and by the end of the story, through some wonderfully eerie turns, we begin to wonder if Steve is forgetting far more than we had realized.

There are stories of healing here, too. In “Bumblebees,” a story with rich and beautiful images, two women, Barbara and Ruth, buy a farmhouse intending to restore it together, one to get over a divorce, the other to recover from the death of her husband and child. Their attempts to mother each other, to nurture their gardens and Barbara's daughter seem doomed from the start. On the other hand, the rot and decay of the old place suggest in themselves the potential for renewal, and Barbara, at least, determines not to shrink from the painful process of making changes. The story ends with her daughter touching a match to a bundle of disintegrating stockings that she finds in the attic:

In the damp air, the flame burns slowly, and then the rags suddenly catch. The smell of burning dust is very precise. It is like the essence of the old house. It is concentrated filth, and Allison is burning it up for them.


The more I read Mason's stories, the more I am impressed by her natural sense of metaphor, the organic shape of her stories, and the richness of her language. The more, also, I feel the depressive effect of much of her work. Why should this be? Artful stories about grueling circumstances can, of course, leave one elated—that's one of the great paradoxes of art. The feeling one is left with depends largely, I think, on authorial stance; the artist's genius (in the sense of the word as spirit) determines the final effect. It seems to me that Bobbie Ann Mason's authorial restraint mirrors her characters' distance from emotion and produces a certain numbing effect. A huge burden of feeling stays often at arm's length, as if it would be too difficult to take it on entirely, as if Mason herself prefers to keep it at a distance. Thus the sense of helplessness and defeat that occasionally threatens the reader as well as Mason's characters.

Not all of her characters are quite so cut off from feeling, of course. “Coyotes” is a beautiful story about a young man, Cobb, who has become acutely sensitive to other people's pain—noticing, for instance, “how people always seemed to be explaining themselves. If his stepfather was eating a hamburger, he'd immediately get defensive about cholesterol, even though no one had commented on it” (166). He falls in love with a girl named Lynette “who made him feel there were different ways to look at the world. She brought out something fresh and unexpected in him. She made him see that anything conventional … was funny and absurd” (164).

But Lynette has her fears. She is afraid that she will commit suicide because her mother did, the past inexorably gathering her in its tragic web. She asks Cobb, rather daringly, “Do you have any idea how complicated it's going to be?” He reassures her, “Down here, we just call that taking care of business” (179). Both characters recognize the potential for pain ahead of them, and they know that one day they may regret how close they have become. “But he couldn't know that now,” Mason writes of Cobb. Here, as in “Bumblebees,” she admires the simple braveries of characters who, with a rich sense of ambiguity, still direct themselves toward the future. These stories give Love Life some momentum and make the reader care, too, about where Bobbie Ann Mason might go from here.

Further Reading

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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 empiricism in Mason's “Shiloh.”

Lupack, Barbara Tepa. “History as Her-Story: Adapting Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country to Film.” In Vision/Re-Vision: Adapting Contemporary American Fiction by Women to Film, edited by Barbara Tepa Lupack, pp. 159–92. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1996.

Lupack offers a detailed critical look at the film adaptation of the novel In Country.

Montrose, David. “Signs and Wonders.” Times Literary Supplement (15 October 1993): 20.

Montrose criticizes the pacing, content, and length of Feather Crowns.

Rhett, Kathryn. “Country Folks.” Chicago Tribune (30 May 1999): sec. 14, p. 5.

Rhett offers a positive assessment of Mason's memoir Clear Springs.

Ryan, Barbara T. “Decentered Authority in Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country.Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 31, no. 3 (spring 1990): 199–212.

Ryan analyzes the lack of an authority figure in the life of the heroine in the novel In Country and the character's quest for identity.

Ryan, Maureen. “Stopping Places: Bobbie Ann Mason's Short Stories.” In Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, pp. 283–94. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984.

Ryan discusses the characters in Mason's Shiloh, and Other Stories and their sense of being overwhelmed by rapid changes taking place in their lives.

Smith, Wendy. “Bobbie Ann Mason.” Publishers Weekly 228, no. 9 (30 August 1985): 424–25.

Mason discusses her career and the point of view of the publishing industry.

White, Leslie. “The Function of Popular Culture in Bobbie Ann Mason's Shiloh, and Other Stories and In Country.Southern Quarterly 26, no. 4 (summer 1988): 69–79.

White examines popular culture and its impact on Mason's characters in Shiloh, and Other Stories and In Country.

Additional coverage of Mason's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 5, 42; Beachum's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Yearbook; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53–56; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 11, 31, 58, 83; Contemporary Novelists; Contemporary Southern Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 173; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1987; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Short Stories; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 4; Reference Guide to American Literature; Reference Guide to Short Fiction; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 3, 8; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 4.

Karen Underwood (essay date spring 1990)

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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 ransom.

Iris's husband Ray is as Gaspar, who brought myrrh to the stable, foretelling the death of Christ. Iris and Ray have recently separated, and the family will soon be mourning the “death” of a second marriage in their ranks. The severe ramifications of their impending divorce are obvious to Iris when she secretly tells Carolyn about her plans and asks her not to tell their parents because, “It'll kill them. Don't let on, will you?”

Laura Jean's lover Jim is most like Balthazar, who brought frankincense, a token of the divinity of the Christ Child. He is the only person at the gathering who is “unexpectedly kind, genuine” toward Carolyn, as it becomes painfully apparent to her that Kent will not make it to the celebration. He alone has divined that it must be a very difficult day for her. Perhaps Carolyn is subconsciously aware of his supremely good nature when she laughs nervously and tells Jim, “We're hard on you. God, you're brave to come down here like this.”

Kent never does arrive for the holiday gathering. He is like Artaban, Van Dyke's fourth Wise Man. Both choose lifestyle over event, process over product, journey over destination. Both men begin a journey, but neither finishes it in the conventional manner.

Artaban and Kent share like encounters on their journeys. Like Artaban, who cherished his horse and companion Vasda, Kent has a close relationship with his favorite means of transportation, his boat Joyce. On his way to the stable in Bethlehem, Artaban stops to minister to the dying Hebrew. Kent, too, stops along his way to the farm, to take his sister to his mother's home for the holiday.

Artaban hurries to meet the other three Wise Men but, upon reaching the desert, realizes that he cannot hope to cross it with a spent horse. He returns to Babylon to “refuel.” Kent reaches the lake and realizes that, due to his own forgetfulness, he does not have enough gas in his car to make it to the farm.

On their parallel journeys, both men encounter the Child. Artaban saves the life of an infant boy in Bethlehem by bribing one of Herod's soldiers. The child's mother blesses Artaban on his journey to find the Christ Child, and he continues his search. Kent's encounter is even more intimate. As a child, he raced to “see Santy,” and as the red-suited Santa was climbing onto a fire engine, Kent, age five, “reached up and pulled at his old red pants leg.” The Santa looked down and told the little Kent to “piss off, kid.” Kent's, “Maybe I'll go paint the boat. That's what I'll do! I'll go paint the boat right this minute” is more a benediction than blessing.

Finally, in their journey toward epiphany, both men discover the Cross. Artaban, as an old man, comes to Jerusalem as Christ is being crucified and stops to buy the freedom of a slave girl. As Van Dyke relates, Artaban and the freed slave girl hear these words faintly after Christ dies: “Verily I say unto thee, Inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me.” Artaban sighs gently at this point, knowing that not only is his journey ended, but also that his gifts, those of the soul, have been accepted and he has found the King.

Kent, on the other hand, has known Carolyn's family, albeit subconsciously, through his relationship with her and opts not to join them at Christmas. Both his and Artaban's journeys take an interesting turn: both men miss the Christmas celebration, but both participate in the Resurrection. Artaban has discovered the Spirit that dwells within, and Kent will see Carolyn again: their relationship lives. As Carolyn muses about being out on the boat with Kent on the winter lake, she acknowledges that her relationship with Kent is not over yet, lifting her cup of boiled custard and saying, “Cheer!”

By comparing her four male characters to the four Wise Men, Bobbie Ann Mason reminds us that it is the nature of the gifts we bring to our celebration of Christmas, and indeed to life, that is important. The nature of the gifts we bring is indicative of the lives we lead.

Thomas J. Morrissey (essay date fall 1991)

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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 symbolizes Emmett's difficulty in reconciling the horror of the war with the peace and beauty that elude him. He calls his former girlfriend a “flamingo” (99, 101, 109) and a “Kentucky red bird” (114), but he is unable to sustain a relationship with her. He loves flying things, even the “wonderful aircraft” (51) of Vietnam, and he mourns when they fall, as in the cases of flocks of birds killed in Florida (120) and of his hero, Colonel Henry Blake of M*A*S*H, who fell “out of the sky” (84). It is important that Emmett is searching for egrets and not eagles (90). Believing that the war was a waste and that the Veterans Administration treats veterans with contempt, he has had enough of national patriotic symbols and looks for his own personal symbol of fulfillment.

Birds are Emmett's link with a larger reality, for, as he explains to Sam, “‘If you can think about something like birds, you can get outside of yourself, and it doesn't hurt as much’” (226). That his goal is escape from the weight of memories is suggested by Sam's vision of him as he walks in front of her, having for the first time unburdened himself of a frightening combat experience: “He seemed to float away, above the poison ivy, like a pond skimmer, beautiful in his flight” (226).

Likewise, Sam knows that understanding the Vietnam experience is somehow related to Emmett's bird. She says to a vet, “‘I want to know about that bird Emmett's looking for. And I want to know all this stuff about Agent Orange. It's so frustrating’” (95). In fact, following Emmett's example, she sometimes sees the world in terms of avian images. Her new stepsister looks like “a baby bird waiting for the mother bird to vomit food into its gullet” (156), and the child's hand is “like a naked little bird” (162). These images of dependency and vulnerability are especially important because Sam is haunted by visions of Vietnamese women carrying their dead babies until they rot.

The visit by Emmett, Sam, and Mamaw Hughes, mother of Sam's dead father, to the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington is the emotional and imagistic highlight of the novel. The trio sets off in Sam's VW, “‘a good little bird’” (6), in which Sam “could glide … all the way across America” (3). The monument is both the real gathering place of the psychologically wounded and the figurative culmination of the images of birds and flight. Sam faces the monument, “the black wing embedded in the soil” (239). It is as though all the war dead are united in one colossal air crash. The narrator tells us that “The memorial cuts a V in the ground like the wings of an abstract bird, huge and headless. Overhead, a jet plane angles upward, taking off” (239). The 58,000 Americans killed lost their potential futures; unlike those in the rising aircraft, flight has been denied them. Mamaw Hughes finds the name of her dead son and, buoyed by the sight of a white carnation, “loosens her bird-like grip” (245) on Sam's arm. The loss of her young has now been acknowledged by her nation. Finally, staring at the wall in the lotus position, Emmett faces his friends' deaths. With a simile suggesting the phoenix, the narrator tells us that “his face bursts into a smile like flames” (245). Mamaw Hughes's release from isolated sorrow, Emmett's figurative cathartic immolation, and Sam's touching her father's name, or coincidentally finding her own name—Sam A. Hughes—on the wall, are all liberating reconciliations. If the memorial is a fallen bird, it has nevertheless unburdened the survivors so that they can rise from the ashes of war and sorrow to meet their own destinies.

Katherine Kinney (essay date 1991)

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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).

For women writing about the Vietnam War, [including Bobbie Ann Mason with her novel, In Country,] this sexualizing of the experience of war has offered an apparent entrée into the male domain of combat. Sex offers itself as a potential common ground of experience for women writers and their female characters seeking an imaginative identification with soldiers. But the use of sex as a metaphor for war, especially to encode its “full appropriate obscenity,” most often demands the objectification of women, as the female becomes the subjective battlefield on which the “ritual of military memory” is enacted. This subjective battlefield may become literalized through the violence of rape or it can construct the female in more nostalgic, although still oppositional, terms.

Michael Herr's Dispatches has been especially influential in establishing the language of Vietnam War literature, a language suffused with sexual entendre. Herr invokes sexual metaphors directly to express to the reader the inexpressible feeling of what it's like to be in battle. “Under fire … the space you'd seen a second ago between subject and object wasn't there anymore, it banged shut in a fast wash of adrenalin” (66). Sex is an obvious and powerful metaphor for this overwhelming feeling of subjectivity. After a firefight, Herr writes:

… you couldn't recall any of it, except to know that it was like something you had felt once before. It remained obscure for a long time, but after enough times the memory took shape and substance and finally revealed itself one afternoon during the breaking off of a firefight. It was the feeling you'd had when you were much, much younger and undressing a girl for the first time.


It is worth noting that the objective distance between self and other which Herr claims collapses under fire is reconstituted in memory. The objectification of the emotional experience of combat is absolute in the second passage. It is unquestionably the awe-inspiring experience of a male self (Herr and the reader collapsed in the use of the second person—“you”) witnessing the unveiling of the mysterious female other. The female and war, sex and death are linked as objects of the desire to get as close as one can to the unknown and unknowable. In “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Hélène Cixous writes, “Men say there are two unrepresentable things, death and the feminine sex” (255).

Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country is a novel explicitly about a woman trying to comprehend an experience which “men say” she by definition of her gender cannot understand. Her Uncle Emmett, a Vietnam veteran, tells her “women weren't over there. … So they can't really understand” (107), hermetically sealing the war from her interrogation. Sam Hughes is a war baby, conceived during the one month of marriage before her father, Dwayne, was sent to Vietnam and born a month after he returned in a body bag. The Vietnam War is her literal inheritance, and at the age of eighteen she comes forth to claim it. At her high school graduation the commencement speaker turns Sam's mind to the war with his talk of “keeping the country strong.” But Sam's attempts to learn about the war are continually frustrated by people who won't talk and history books that can't tell her what she wants to know—what it was like to be there. The Vietnam War is like the blank piece of paper she actually receives in lieu of a diploma—until she can fill in the imaginative space occupied by her father and the war, her education will remain incomplete.

Because Sam cannot actually experience the Vietnam War directly, her investigation is by necessity at the level of metaphor and simile. As Judith Stiehm has noted, “For many Americans, especially women, combat is not so much an abstract idea as it is fiction” (Huston, “Tales of War” 274). Fiction tells us what combat is like—and the first thing Vietnam fiction usually tells us is that it's not like books or, more often, the movies. The power and pervasiveness of sexual metaphors lie not only in their invocation of emotional intensity, of experience beyond words, but in their oppositional quality. The status of sexual discourse as controlled, suppressed, censored, and obscene expresses both the horror and desire of an experience (whether sex or combat) which overturns romantic preconceptions (whether of moonlit summer evenings or John Wayne landing at Iwo Jima).

But the quest of Sam Hughes to learn what Vietnam was like challenges the universality assumed by both Herr and Fussell of fictions constructed through sexual metaphor. Suppose Sam Hughes turned, as many do, to Michael Herr to find out what combat was like and discovered it was the feeling she had “undressing a girl for the first time.” War literature becomes a male plot which reconstitutes war as the domain of male activity enacted upon female passivity. As Nancy Huston has stated, “War imitates narrative imitates war” (“Tales of War” 273). Again and again, when Sam asks about the war she is told, “Don't think about it,” “It doesn't concern you,” “Hush”—enforcing upon her the passive female role of war narrative.

At one point Sam attempts to enact the most traditional female role in the fiction of war as sex—sleeping with a soldier. The mutual sexual attraction between Sam and the veteran Tom seems to offer Sam an intimacy which could break down the barriers to understanding that others insist stand in her way. Leaving the veterans' dance with Tom, “she felt she was doing something intensely daring, like following the soldier on point” (124). Her imagination keeps invoking comparisons with Vietnam—orange lights are like napalm, the patchwork quilt on Tom's bed stands in contrast to a soldier's poncho. Sam's imagination is continually able to animate her surroundings with likenesses of Vietnam, but she has no basis for judging their appropriateness. A relationship with Tom might be able to give her that standard of judgment. This is not to say that Sam's interest in Tom is intellectual; her desire is fueled by her developing sense of her own sexuality as well.

But when Tom proves to be impotent, a psychological wound secretly carried from Vietnam, sex becomes yet another symbol of the way in which the experience of war seems to irrevocably divide men and women. Impotence, like the war, is something Sam can't talk about; Tom's embarrassment tongue-ties her, in the same way the veterans' silence seems to her to reflect their feeling that Vietnam was “something personal and embarrassing” (67). But as is typical of Mason's treatment of the relationship between women and war, and of gender difference in general, the hardening of this division becomes further motivation to seek unity. Whereas Sam was originally drawn to Tom in her desire to understand the war, she now feels an even greater need to achieve such understanding in the hope that it will allow her to get closer, through sex or language, to Tom.

The most obvious source for Mason's Tom is Hemingway's Jake Barnes. As Sandra Gilbert has argued, the modernist literature that emerged from World War I describes again and again the wounded, symbolically if not literally emasculated man who returns from the war to confront women empowered, set free by the social dislocations wrought by the Great War. Male rage against the war turns against the female who apparently reaps its benefits. Hemingway's Brett Ashley becomes in Gilbert's words “a kind of monstrous anti-fertility goddess to whose powers the impotent bodies of men had ceaselessly been offered up” (444). While many feminist critics have challenged Gilbert's contention that women actually did feel empowered by the destruction of men and masculinity in the war, her reading of The Sun Also Rises is a useful counterpoint to understanding Mason's purposes in rewriting this plot (see Marcus 295–296).

Although Sam feels frustrated to the point of tears when confronted with Tom's impotence and especially his silence, it is true that the Vietnam War is in one sense a source of empowerment for her. It is the death of her father that gives her life the qualities she prizes most highly. Sam's grandmother says to her,

“I keep thinking about Dwayne and how everybody's life is different without him. If he had lived, he'd have a house down the road with Irene, and you would have grown up there, Sam, and I'd have knowed you a lot better, sugar. And you'd have some brothers and sisters.”

Sam shudders at the idea of growing up on a farm, doing chores, never getting to go to town.


Sam clutches at the idea that her father might have resisted such a traditional role, as her Uncle Emmett has done, but at her grandparents' farm she pictures her father there, “discussing blue mold and whether to take risks on wheat prices” just like her grandfather. The legacy demands in turn that her mother “wouldn't have gone to Lexington” and that Sam herself would by now be “jiggling a baby on her knee” (195). It is probably only her father's death that allows her to break with traditions she sees as stultifying.

But if Sam's life was affected by her father's death, apparently for the good, that does not make her responsible or vampiric. Mason avoids the extreme logic of the oppositions Gilbert describes between men and women, combat and home, impotence and power, which inevitably define the female as the enemy. In The Sun Also Rises, Jake's impotence is the ground zero of the novel's construction, an irreducible, unavoidable, biological fact that structures all of the novel's events and relationships. Manhood for Hemingway has a singular, apparently biological and thus “natural” definition. In In Country, Tom's impotence is not presented as a problem absolutely beyond solution. Tom describes for Sam the little salt-water pump that could be implanted allowing him to simulate an erection. And while cost and fear seem likely to stand in the way of such a move, the possibility of healing his wound remains. For Jake Barnes, Brett Ashley's desire is salt rubbed into his wound. For Tom, Sam's desire, while it cannot heal him directly (“I thought” he tells her, “it would be different with you. …”), might just motivate him to seek new possibilities (128).

While rejecting the possibility that women may learn about war through a simple enactment of its sexual metaphor, Mason further interrogates the connection between sex, combat, and the female by digging at the roots of gender constructions—the apparently irreducible, even biological point of difference: men fight wars and women have babies. When Sam's friend Dawn becomes pregnant, questions of gender and sexuality are thrown into crisis for Sam. Sex with her boyfriend becomes an image of invasion: “A billion wiggle-tailed creatures with Lonnie Malone's name on them shot through her” (104). Tom's impotency seems for a moment positive in comparison: “Maybe it was just as well that Tom couldn't make it with Sam. Sex ruined people's lives” (158). But out of this very female fear of unwanted or uncontrollable pregnancy, Sam moves a step closer toward feeling the emotional truth of a soldier in the jungle: “Since Dawn got pregnant, Sam had been feeling that if she didn't watch her step, her whole life could be ruined by some mischance, some stupid surprise, like sniper fire” (184). In Dispatches, Herr says that what he really needed in Vietnam was “some generous spontaneous gift for accepting surprises” (12).

In her treatment of the metaphorical relationship between child-bearing and going to war, Mason demonstrates the ambiguities and ambivalence of gender difference as a series of collapsing and reforming social constructions. When Dawn becomes pregnant, she is faced with a choice not unlike that which sent Sam's father off to war eighteen years before. Girls don't go to war and boys don't get pregnant, but each event constitutes a rite of passage in which children become adults by conforming to culturally prescribed roles, be it as soldier or wife and mother. At this level, however, while childbearing and combat are both liminal experiences which involve the crossing of boundaries, these boundaries are still mutually exclusive, enforcing the basic gender distinction that women nurture and men kill (see Elshtain 222–223). When Sam urges Dawn to have an abortion, this difference too collapses. Out in the swamp Sam thinks, “Soldiers murdered babies. But women did too. They ripped their unborn babies out of themselves and flushed them away, squirming and bloody” (215). The more conventional Dawn won't consider abortion; her own mother died soon after Dawn was born, a pregnancy that destroyed her health. Dawn feels compelled to bear this child even at personal sacrifice. Dawn's reaction to the word abortion, “I'll pretend I didn't hear that” (141), parallels Sam's grandmother's reaction when Sam asks her if she could go back in time, would she tell her son not to go to Vietnam. Mamaw exclaims, “Oh, Sam. … People don't have choices like that” (197). For Dawn and Mamaw personal pain does not become the grounds for challenging the social order; having babies and going to war remain natural facts beyond question.

Dawn and Sam call themselves the “baddest girls in Hopewell,” each growing up wild in one-parent households. The deaths of Dawn's mother from childbirth and Sam's father in war are culturally parallel—in ancient Greece these were the only deaths that earned the inscription of one's name on a tombstone. Sam, unlike Dawn, uses her socially marginal position as a “bad girl” to rebel against the cultural constructions of childbirth and war, female and male. Mason makes it abundantly clear that childbearing is as much a cultural as a biological process. Sam's mother, Irene, has two babies seventeen years apart. She was proud of Sam, a “bottle baby,” and of Heather because she is “naturally” breast fed. Fashions change even in mothering. Sam doubly rejects this heritage of gender roles by advocating abortion, and thus rejecting compulsory motherhood, and by her insistent desire to learn what war was like, further rejecting the limits placed on female experience and understanding.

Sam's rebellious sexuality and desire for knowledge of the war merge in the novel's most profoundly ambiguous and troubling image: dead babies. After her first mild flirtation with Tom and learning of Dawn's pregnancy,

… Sam dreamed she and Tom Hudson had a baby. In the evening, the baby had to be pureed in a food processor and kept in the freezer. It was the color of candied sweet potatoes. In the morning, when it thawed out, it was a baby again. In the dream, this was a happy arrangement, and no questions were asked. But then the dream woke her up, its horror rushing through her.


Here the relationship between war and childbirth takes on the mythic dimension William Broyles describes in “Why Men Love War”:

The love of war stems from the union, deep in the core of our being, between sex and destruction, beauty and horror, love and death. War may be the only way in which most men touch the mythic domains of our soul. It is, for men, at some terrible level the closest thing to what childbirth is for women: the initiation into the power of life and death.


Sam's dream also unites the oppositions Broyles names: “sex and destruction, beauty and horror, love and death.” The common ground between childbearing and war becomes the terrible mutability of the human body, which can be destroyed and reconstituted in endless cycles of birth and death. Sam herself is the miracle baby who replaced Dwayne, although not a perfect likeness—“Everybody expected a boy, of course, but we loved you just the same,” her grandfather tells her (199). But the idea of literally taking his place, living on the farm, jiggling yet another baby on her knee, repulses her. Her father's combat diary reveals his purpose in war: “Unreal thought. A baby. My own flesh and blood” (204). “It's all for [Irene] and the baby, or else why are we here?” (202). Sam's gestation becomes the social and cultural justification of historical cycles of violence and death.

Sam's peevish jealousy of her mother's new baby further feeds her morbid imagination:

The baby was like a growth that had come loose, Sam thought—like a scab or a wart—and Irene carried it around with her in fascination, unable to part with it. Monkeys carried dead babies around like that. A friend of Emmett's knew a lot of dead-baby jokes, but Sam couldn't remember any she had heard. In Vietnam, mothers had carried their dead babies around with them until they began to rot.


Here Sam's initial horror at the mutations of the female body in pregnancy gives way to a more profound appreciation of motherhood's truly ambivalent nature. Nancy Chodorow has theorized what most people know from experience—in a society in which mothers are the primary care givers, they will be the child's first source of disappointment as well as nurturance (83–86). And as the extreme case of war makes vivid, mothers have no supernatural power to sustain the lives of their children—a truth Sam's own mother actively denies, snatching the Newsweek cover shot of the morbid Vietnamese madonna from Sam's hands and burning it. Such monstrous truths are further suppressed by the cheap catharsis of dead-baby jokes which are told on the local college radio station along with quadriplegic jokes. Here the horrors of war are diffused and distanced, given expression without ever having to confront their origin or meaning. One wonders if Vietnam did in fact give rise to the popularity of dead-baby jokes.

By going to Cawood's Pond, Sam seeks to confront as directly as she can her relationship to her father's experience. Her trip to the swamp is both a running away from and a running toward her knowledge of her father, of war, and of herself. In Dwayne's notebook, which her grandmother hands her like a diploma, she finds the uncomfortable truth: her father at his most horrible is also the most like herself. The apparently dehumanized soldier who can so casually and dispassionately describe his interest in the rotting corpse of a “dead gook,” its special smell, a friend taking a tooth for luck, is for the first time really her father, an individual who has bequeathed to Sam his own morbid curiosity. By reenacting a soldier's experience, she paradoxically hopes that by trespassing directly on the male domain of combat she will discover that she is different from her father and by extension all men.

Her attempt to “hump the boonies” is doomed to failure as an effort to transcend gender difference, as the sexual suggestion of the term itself implies. Once again, however, the result is paradoxical. Although she is forced to acknowledge that “this nature preserve in a protected corner of Kentucky wasn't like Vietnam at all” (214), when morning comes and she hears footsteps approaching, she is filled with the very real fear of a woman alone in an isolated place—the threat of rape. Even in her fear, Sam recognizes the irony, “What an idiotic thing to happen, she thought—to face the terror of the jungle and then meet a rapist” (217). But although the threat of rape reinforces once again that she is a woman, and therefore not a soldier, these moments of waiting in fear are the closest she will get to knowing what it was like to stand watch against an unknown and unseen enemy. In her comic efforts to fashion a weapon out of a can of smoked oysters, she again proves to be her father's daughter, displaying the same ingenuity Dwayne shows in his comments about how he could use a cigarette as a weapon if surprised by the enemy.

The intruder is not, of course, a rapist but Emmett. The fear, anger, and relief Emmett feels finding Sam all right lead him to tell her one war story, in which only Emmett survives a mine blast and hides from an NVA patrol under the dead bodies of his friends. Sam watches in awe as Emmett breaks down: “Emmett's sorrow was full blown, as though it had grown over the years into something monstrous and fantastic” (224). At the pond, Emmett gives birth to his sorrow; as they leave, “from the back he looked like an old peasant woman hugging a baby” (226). Mason's use of combat and childbirth as reciprocal metaphors reveals the equally ambivalent qualities of both states. If motherhood is not wholly nurturant, combat is not simply destructive. The experience of combat is largely felt as defensive, motivated by the practically maternal feeling of what J. Glenn Gray called in The Warriors “preservative love”—the soldier's desire to protect those immediately around him (83). Emmett's pain defines not only the horror of smelling and tasting death and being too afraid to move, but the guilt of having failed to protect those who continued to protect him even in death.

In the novel's closing scene, the simultaneous existence of difference and sameness is revealed when Sam finds her own name engraved on the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial. This reconciliation is earned not by denying the differences of age and gender which separate Sam from the Sam Hughes who died in Vietnam, but by Mason's insistent illustration that self and other, male and female are not static, absolute terms but multiple, interactive constructions which can aid as well as hinder imaginative identification. What Sam finally learns about Vietnam is that “she is just beginning to understand. And she will never really know what happened to all these men in the war” (240). Knowledge becomes a process, not a prize, and when she acknowledges this her emotions are so powerful that “it feels like giving birth to this wall” (240). In this revisionary image the daughter gives birth to the father, the future to the past, the living to the dead—but the relationship between destruction and regeneration is no longer horrific because the fictional spell of its “naturalness”—the assumption that “men will fight wars as long as women have babies”—is broken (Huston, “The Matrix of War” 119).

Works Cited

Broyles, William, Jr. “Why Men Love War.” Esquire, Nov. 1984, 55–65.

Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” New French Feminisms. Ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. New York: Schocken, 1981.

Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Women and War. New York: Basic, 1987.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Gilbert, Sandra M. “Soldier's Heart: Literary Men, Literary Women, and the Great War.” Signs 8 (1983): 422–450.

Gray, J. Glenn. The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle. New York: Harper, 1970.

Herr, Michael. Dispatches. 1977. New York: Avon, 1978.

Huston, Nancy. “Tales of War and Tears of Women.” Women's Studies International Forum 5 (1982): 271–282.

———. “The Matrix of War: Mothers and Heroes.” The Female Body in Western Culture. Ed. Susan Rubin Suleiman. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Marcus, Jane. “Corpus/Corps/Corpse: Writing the Body in/at War.” Afterword. Not So Quiet … Stepdaughter of War. Helen Zenna Smith. New York: Feminist Press, 1989.

Mason, Bobbie Ann. In Country. New York: Harper, 1985.

Matthew C. Stewart (essay date 1991)

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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 with worries for her troubled uncle, whose health problems and difficulties integrating into the ordinary stream of Hopewell life Sam rightly attributes to his time as a soldier in Vietnam.

Since the subject of In Country is the aftereffects of Vietnam on individuals and communities, Emmett's story becomes inseparable from Sam's and is coequal in importance. He and his circle of friends form a microcosm of Vietnam veterans' feelings, complaints, and problems regarding reintegration into civilian society, and the symptoms and behavioral signs typical of these problems pervade the text. The novel is so complete in this regard that it seems as if Mason availed herself of the many psychological and sociological studies of Vietnam veterans and then managed to embody all that she learned in this one small group of fictional Kentucky veterans. This thorough depiction of the aftereffects of the Vietnam War on one family in particular and on one small Kentucky town resonates for all Americans who, like Sam, struggle to reckon the price and the lessons of U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia. As a social document In Country is worthy of attention because of its comprehensive representation of troubled Vietnam veterans; as a novel it is praiseworthy for its unforced, suggestively condensed manner of depiction and its authenticity, although its ending sadly runs counter to these qualities. Indeed in part 3, the novel's final part, Mason seems to capitulate to wish-fulfillment and abandons the scrupulous verisimilitude which has marked her treatment of veterans until then.

Narrated in a terse, affectless manner, In Country is highly dependent upon the reader's powers of inference. Mason's narrator, while grammatically clear and simple, shows frequently and tells seldom. Because the narrative is tightly bound to Sam's point of view, her problems and puzzlements are occasionally given direct narratorial exploration. On the other hand, veterans' problems are always depicted, never analyzed or treated in narratorial discourse. In other respects, the novel's aesthetics are those of traditional realism with its concentration on surface details and mundane events. In Country presents everyday life as it is lived by a readily recognizable segment of the population, in this case a version of 1984 small-town America, complete with Pepsi, Bruce Springsteen, M*A*S*H reruns, and the general milieu of shopping-mall culture. In Country shuns the formalistic pyrotechnics of much modernist and postmodernist fiction, preferring to concentrate on old-fashioned storytelling, which Mason does in a style marked by allusiveness and a minimalistic spareness. Except for the obvious and uncomplicated framing device of the first and third parts, the plot is entirely chronological and is at all times easy to follow. The relationship between events is apparent and overt. In sum, to borrow Keith Opdahl's description of realism, the reader meets “with very little resistance, [and feels] the familiar patterns of actual experience” (4).

No doubt our society could well benefit from a literary work that enables it to come to terms with the Vietnam War, and presumably this is the project of In Country. For her title Mason has chosen a term used by soldiers to refer to time spent in active service in Southeast Asia. As the story develops we see the multiple levels of meaning and reference which this term accrues, and we come to realize that it is not only the fictitious characters of Hopewell who are still in country but to a greater or lesser extent each one of us. In content and effect, then, as well as in style the bulk of In Country fits Charles Newman's description of contemporary realism:

The … energizing notion of this Neo-Realism is that there is new information which is not made redundant by other media, information which does not have to be “made up,” but rather is shaped or aimed, because such substantive experience has been repressed, neglected or distorted. More importantly, this notion of literature often presupposes a receptive audience which has a special need for this information, a collective unconscious which in fact awaits collection.


The existence of an audience in need of this novel is unquestionable, and for this reason the book's eventual lapses in verisimilitude and its culminating shift in style are lamentable on both an artistic and a social level, as we shall see.

Despite Emmett's status as a major character and despite the fact that veterans' problems are pervasive and should be apparent, his problems are never discussed at any length by the book's reviewers. And despite the fact that the novel's basic raison d'être is to examine the Vietnam War's legacy, they have scarcely mentioned the other troubled veterans who inhabit the novel. This inattention may be partially accounted for by the tendency to identify with a narrative point of view, critically to make this Sam's story because most of it is seen through her eyes. It is also possible that a lack of knowledge about troubled Vietnam veterans has prevented even well-informed, highly literate readers from giving this central topic its due attention.1 Any such ignorance, to whatever extent it exists, is all the more troublesome precisely because Mason's allusive, show-don't-tell method depends upon a readership able to recognize her portraits of troubled veterans.2

Although it would be wrong to pretend that we can analyze fictional characters psychologically or sociologically as if they were real people, critical interpretation based on specialized knowledge of Vietnam veterans is particularly useful for In Country. This type of critical examination will help shed light on previously underexamined aspects of the novel and is called for by Mason's method, which in its reliance on uncommented-upon depiction entrusts much to the reader's powers of inference. By informing ourselves we may more thoroughly understand Emmett's odd behavior and better recognize the problems exhibited by various of Hopewell's Vietnam veterans. Most important, we are consequently able to judge the novel's level of verisimilitude and its relative success or failure as a piece of serious realism. Knowledge gained from sociological and psychological studies of Vietnam veterans is, then, not only a valid hermeneutic tool but also an indispensable one for the exegesis and evaluation of In Country. As Ernest Bramstedt has put the matter, “Only a person who has a knowledge of … a society from other sources than purely literary ones is able to find out if, and how far, certain social types and their behavior are reproduced in the novel in an adequate or inadequate manner. What is pure literary fancy, what realistic observation, and what only an expression of the desires of the author must be separated in each case in a subtle manner” (4). The differentiation of literary fancy and authorial desires from realistic observation is of primary importance in the present critique of In Country.

Any discussion of troubled veterans in In Country should begin with a consideration of post-traumatic stress disorder, the primary operative term governing the identification, diagnosis, and treatment of Vietnam veterans suffering from the psychic repercussions of their war experiences in southeast Asia. We can recognize a remarkable number of common manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder in Emmett and his friends.3 Indeed, the number is large enough to make a full discussion of each maladaptive behavior prohibitive here, but a fairly inclusive list can be made. Emmett has difficulty sleeping and has recurrent troubling dreams; he also clearly suffers from severe psychic numbing. Emmett's reluctance to attend the local veterans' commemorative party or to join in rap groups illustrates his deliberate avoidance of activities that dredge up specific memories of Vietnam, while his initial incident with Lonnie and Sam in Cawood's Pond demonstrates his susceptibility to flashbacks when confronted with a situation too strongly reminiscent of Vietnam. In Earl's childish fight with Pete and in Pete's own propensity for aimlessly firing his gun we see the sort of sporadic and unprovoked belligerence that sometimes marks those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Besides these defining symptoms, other behaviors commonly found in troubled Vietnam veterans should be noted: Emmett's searing headaches and nervous tics, Tom's impotence, the overwhelming despair and distrust clearly evident in Emmett's refusal to acknowledge that any worthy jobs exist, Pete's irrational longing to return to Vietnam, Emmett's feeling old beyond his years, feelings that the war was an absurdity or meaningless joke, feelings of betrayal by elected officials and the citizenry of the United States. Sam even recognizes in Tom the by now famous thousand-yard stare. One cannot read any comprehensive account of troubled Vietnam veterans without encountering the prevalence of these traits, some of which are held even by those who are well-adjusted. As for Mason's novel, this is a remarkably inclusive list, a list woven into the text without seeming strain, yet (perhaps partly because of this effortlessness) a list which has so far received insufficient critical attention despite the magnitude of the issues it suggests.

Emmett's inability to cope with deep feelings typifies those troubled veterans who demonstrate a marked problem handling emotions associated with intimacy, tenderness, and sexuality. Emmett, whose appearance, habits, and personal history hardly qualify him as the most sought after of local bachelors, is nevertheless in a position to pursue a relationship with Anita Stevens, a local nurse who is pretty, shapely, kind, bright, and funny. Although we may find it difficult to credit Anita's interest in Emmett because it is insufficiently motivated in the novel, it is important to note that despite her efforts to interest Emmett and her obvious genuine fondness for him, his pattern of behavior with her, though it includes efforts toward friendship, is always marked by a series of eventual retreats. Emmett is fond of Anita, but he denies himself the opportunity of establishing anything lasting between them. Instead he pretends or has managed to convince himself that Anita has no interest in him. “Anita doesn't want a birdwatcher in a skirt,” he says, alluding to his recent practice of wrapping himself in a skirt while working around the house (37). So incomprehensible to Sam is Emmett's seeming lack of interest in Anita that she wonders whether Emmett suffered some physical injury rendering him incapable of intimacies with women or uninterested in them. Eventually she brings up this subject with Emmett's mother, Grandma Smith, who has her own theory about mumps “falling” on Emmett in his youth, a theory decidedly more comic than Sam's but equally demonstrative of the lengths to which characters go in search of explanations for Emmett's oddities.

Emmett tries to justify his retreat from Anita by coupling it with an idea frequently voiced by Vietnam veterans, that unless someone experienced Vietnam for himself or herself, he or she cannot possibly understand what the veteran feels or thinks: “‘Women weren't over there,’ Emmett snapped. ‘So they can't really understand’” (107). Of course the consequence of repeating and believing this phrase, besides frustrating those who wish to understand and help, is to keep the veterans' problems bottled-up indefinitely. Hence the daily “closed meetings” of Hopewell's veterans over breakfast at McDonald's both reflect and reinforce the belief that none but another veteran can understand veterans. The inclusion of “herself” is very important here for frequently it is the wife, girlfriend, or mother of the man who makes the initial and most dogged attempts to understand him.4In Country follows this pattern. The major female characters attempt to take care of men, to restore or rejuvenate them. Irene took care of Emmett; Anita wants to take care of Emmett; Sam is preoccupied with the problems of Emmett and Tom. When the men remain wounded and distant, this nurturing role can become wearing, entrapping, even embittering for the women, as we see with Irene, who has come to share her father's belief that “it's not too late [for Emmett] to pull himself up and be proud” (149).

Distressingly, it often seems that Sam is simply preparing to take her mother's place as Emmett's caretaker, as Irene herself fears: “The trouble is, I carried Emmett around on a pillow all those years when I should have made him take more responsibility, and now you're trying to do the same thing I did” (166–67). Sam's relationship to Emmett is really one of child-as-parent. She has taken on responsibilities that ought not be hers, and she frequently acts as parent and Emmett as child. Sam gives far more attention to solving Emmett's problems and giving him guidance than she does to her own future. She seeks no advice from him and he offers none, even though they are both aware that she is not involved in any meaningful activities for the summer and has no worthy plans for the coming fall.

Far from living the life of the average adult, Emmett spends much of his time in seemingly adolescent behavior as if to recover the typical late adolescence that he was never allowed to experience. He will not look for a job; he watches a lot of television; he plays video games; he spends much of his time with his teenage niece and her teenage boyfriend; he “runs away from home” with Jim; he even passes out in front of the high school after drinking to excess. In and of themselves these activities are not all intrinsically adolescent, but neither the amount of time Emmett spends at them nor the degree of interest he shows in them is normal, especially when put in relief by the scant hours he spends pursuing strictly or typically adult activities. Sam observes that Emmett and his veteran friends were “not allowed to grow up. That was it—they didn't get to grow up and become regular people. They had to stand outside, playing games, fooling around, acting like kids who couldn't get girlfriends. It was absurd” (140).5

Along with Emmett's conspicuously unadult life, we notice his unwillingness to communicate. The more important it is for Emmett to discuss something, the more Sam wants him to open up; the more pressure he feels to divulge something about Vietnam, the more evasive and uncommunicative he becomes. Emmett is not the only veteran who exhibits reticence about discussing Vietnam, as we see in various veterans' sometimes condescending refusals to talk to Sam about Vietnam. Even Tom, usually the veteran most forthcoming with Sam, puts her off: “Look, Sam. It's hard to talk about, and some people want to protect you, you know. They don't want to dump all this stuff on you. … You shouldn't think about this stuff too much” (95). Not only is this reticence about Vietnam a part of the previously discussed pattern of men distancing themselves from women and from unpleasant memories, it is a frequent source of exasperation for Sam, who not only wishes to help but also wishes to learn about Vietnam for her own sake.

Though Hopewell's Vietnam veterans are largely unwilling to talk at any length with Sam about Vietnam, she can still observe their behavior and puzzle over it. What may not be apparent to Sam but eventually become so to the reader are the destructive—usually self-destructive—urges that seem to underlie the veterans' oddities and aberrations. Pete may be taken as representative of veterans who have longings to return to combat in general or to Vietnam in particular, who have returned home with behaviors that were adaptive in a war zone but are maladaptive in ordinary civilian life. Emmett tells Sam about Pete shooting his gun at nothing in particular and conjectures that Pete would “rather be back in Nam” (50). Later Tom expresses a similar opinion, and eventually Pete himself tells Sam in the half-articulate fashion typical of Hopewell's veterans, “Hell yeah, I admit it. I enjoyed it. I felt good over there. I knew what I was doing. I knew certain things. There was a dividing line. Life and death” (134). To Sam, whose predisposition is antiwar and whose uncle decries his own Vietnam experiences, such a sentiment begs for further explanation. For despite Pete's assertions that his life is now as good as he could expect, we are privy to an accumulation of details which reveal that Pete's marriage is unstable and that many of its problems can be traced to his unresolved feelings about Vietnam.

The degree of self-punishment involved in the behavior of many troubled Vietnam veterans has been well discussed in professional literature. Emmett's behavior is often inexplicable and aggravating for those who have to deal with it, including at times the reader, and yet the extreme measure of self-destructiveness involved in the strange things he does (or, what is often the case, fails to do) seems to go unnoticed by all except Sam. Perhaps understandably, most of the other characters, Emmett's family included, have become fed up with him to the point that they see his problems primarily insofar as they affect their own lives, as we have seen with Irene. The problem is clearly that lives are more difficult to reconstruct than the dirt bikes which Tom likes so well because he can “put one together and wreck it and then … just put … another one together” again (80).

The denial and self-destructiveness under discussion here are very frequently bound up with guilt, and we eventually learn that such is the case with In Country. In the climactic scene at Cawood's Pond, for the first time Emmett openly articulates his sense of guilt to Sam. “You can't do what we did and then be happy about it,” he says (222). It would seem, however, that Emmett's guilt involves something even more insidious than the pangs of regret he feels for his own actions. Robert Jay Lifton has shown that surviving as well as killing can cause guilt, and his concept of survivor's guilt is a valuable model for understanding Emmett, who eventually reveals that his own survival was made possible by the deaths of others. Indeed, in his case survival is not only a matter of symbolism or the product of a psychic construct, as is the case with many veterans, but it is also a literal truth. When Emmett finally opens up to Sam, we learn that he would very likely have been killed if it had not been for the corpses of his friends under which he hid after his unit was overrun in battle. He survived by lying hidden “for hours … until the next day” under the corpses of his fellow GIs, smelling their “warm blood in the jungle heat” while the enemy remained dangerously close by (223). Emmett's manner of telling this story coupled with his long history of post-traumatic stress disorder and his problems relating his experiences in Vietnam suggest

the soldier-survivor's sense of having betrayed his buddies by letting them die while he stayed alive. … [He cannot] feel that it was logical or right for him and not others to survive. Rather, he becomes bound to an unconscious perception of organic social balance which makes him feel that his survival was made possible by others' deaths: if they had not died, he would have had to; if he had not survived, someone else would have. His transgression, then, lies in having purchased his own life at the cost of another's. In a very real psychological sense he feels that he has killed that buddy.

(Lifton 105–106)

It would seem that years after his harrowing experience Emmett remains tormented by his own survival, as he finally says to Sam: “I'm damaged. It's like something in the center of my heart is gone and I can't get it back” (225).

In this climactic memory, Emmett's literal position underneath his fellow soldiers' corpses suggests the figurative position of the people of the United States: the personal and the societal coalesce in one image. Burdened with yet sheltered by the corpses of young men sent to fight battles which many thought it wrong to fight, American society has seemingly called upon its veterans for what has been termed a “double sacrifice.” First, veterans made many sacrifices in Vietnam, usually believing that they were serving their country; then they came home to a government and citizenry only too ready to sacrifice them again, this time “on the altar of shame and guilt in order to appease the national ‘conscience’” (Brende and Parson 48).

Epitomizing images such as that of Emmett hiding under the corpses are often the most memorable aspects of a piece of fiction because they crystallize the efforts of long stretches of story to embody a central truth. This particular image is telling because of its vivid, affective quality; it is appropriate because it is consistent with and consummate of what has heretofore been narrated both in its verisimilar content and in its unadorned style.

We must read to the novel's conclusion before we encounter an equally memorable image. In the novel's final paragraph Emmett is reading names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.; he is “sitting there cross-legged in front of the wall, and slowly his face bursts into a smile like flames” (245). But whereas the image of Emmett hiding under his dead buddies is true to the novel this image is not, for the astonishing simile Mason has chosen is jarring in its departure from the simple language that has heretofore been inseparable from In Country's style and its goals as a realistic work. At best one might try to make the case that this is an ambiguous image which appears abruptly in a novel that has not used unanchored symbols or highly abstracted metaphors.6 In actuality the novel presses for an even more misleading and inappropriate reading since the bent of part 3 obliges us to conclude that this image is not merely ambiguous but optimistic to the point of sanguinity.

Put simply, the novel does nothing to suggest how Emmett has come to the point where he can sit in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the state of enlightened inner peace and harmony which this Buddha-like closing image invokes. It is clear that not very much time has passed between Emmett's dramatic breakdown at Cawood's Pond which ends part 2 and the trip to Washington, D.C., which begins part 3—probably only a few days. The novel would have us believe that some change has come over Emmett sufficient to make him suddenly ready to come to terms with his past and at once willing, able, and sufficiently insightful to do so.

After three initial paragraphs devoted to describing the confused and aimless inertia that has overwhelmed Sam, Mason continues part 3 by quickly completing Sam and Emmett's role reversal. The next paragraph begins thus: “Then Emmett announced a plan.” And if this tersely stated turnabout in character is not enough to shock us, more follows immediately: “They were going to see the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. He was so definite about it. … He even insisted on bringing Mamaw along. … Emmett was so certain about everything that Sam felt powerless. Sam had never seen him swing into action like that” (230). In the space of one paragraph Emmett takes a job, plans to pay off an old debt to the federal government, and tells Sam that she will attend the University of Kentucky that fall.7

It is wrong even to suggest that any such sudden profound change could come over Emmett. As Robert Lifton has said in speaking of his experience helping troubled veterans to recover, “A veteran could never isolate all guilt around one or two particular actions and then be done with it—guilt is simply not manageable that way” (107). In Country's strength and virtue are to be found in its realism, a realism which I have attempted to show is grounded in authentic depictions of the Vietnam War's damaging effects upon many of those who returned from fighting it and, by extension, upon a society which should deal with these returnees. But although Mason has succeeded in portraying a microcosm of veterans' problems and troubled behaviors in part 2, she has failed to finish the story properly. She simply wills it to end, apparently succumbing to “literary fancy” or to an “expression of her desires” rather than imaginatively fighting through to formulate a verisimilar ending based on “realistic observation,” to return to Bramstedt's words.

This final failure of In Country should be seen in light of its three-part structure. The work gives the distinct appearance of having a long, novellike middle (part 2) sandwiched between two halves of a short story. The tone and events of parts 1 and 3, the parts which comprise the “short story,” suggest an encouraging account of a healing family, of the reintegration of a troubled veteran into a once careless society, and of reconciliation on both a personal and a societal level. Taken on their own, parts 1 and 3 would comprise a gently comic, hopeful story. The trouble is that they do not meld with the material in the truly novelistic second part wherein we see the depth of Emmett's psychic wounds and the breadth of havoc which the war has played upon so many veterans' lives. The stuff of relatively hard-edged realism cannot be instantly and carelessly yoked to the sort of pat ending typical of a television movie.8

To retain the meticulous verisimilitude it has achieved in part 2, In Country needs at least to suggest that Emmett has only begun to solve his problems, that as difficult as his moment at Cawood's Pond was for him, he can expect to face more such moments, and that while keeping things bottled-up eventually creates a horrible numbness toward life, letting things out has its own set of difficulties to overcome and its own anguish to endure. Granted that Mason is by no means obligated to make the detailed depiction of Emmett's next stage of recovery a part of this novel, still she should not reverse her course by implying that instantaneous harmonious integration of self and society is somehow possible for a man like Emmett. The difficulties that Emmett is likely to face if he is truly to recover could be subtly suggested and left for the reader to explore; that is to say, there is no reason why part 3 cannot successfully retain the technique and style that made part 2 so effective. But in the end, alas, Hopewell becomes Fantasyland.


  1. Except for ignorance, it is difficult to explain, for example, why the reviewer for one highly regarded periodical chose to characterize Emmett as “amiably weird,” as if he were simply a little dotty (Boston). These are the only words used to describe Emmett, and hence they must stand as the predominant impression of him that the critic wishes to convey. Considered on its own, this inaccuracy simply bespeaks a particularly uninsightful reading, but considered in the context of the critical inadvertence I have described, it seems to suggest that even some of the most literate readers are oblivious to the problems of troubled veterans or at least to the seriousness of these problems.

  2. I would like to draw deliberate attention here to my use of the adjective “troubled” to modify veterans. Nothing in this essay is meant to imply that all, or even most, veterans suffer debilitating psychosocial problems. The facts are quite otherwise. The depiction of those veterans who are troubled is the subject of discussion here.

  3. For detailed studies of troubled Vietnam veterans, the reader should refer to the work of Brende and Parson, Figley and Leventman, Hendin and Haas, and Lifton. In 1980 the American Psychiatric Association for the first time delineated the term “post-traumatic stress disorder” in a detailed clinical definition and description in their revised Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III). This definition is excerpted by Brende and Parson (77–78) and paraphrased by Hendin and Haas (30–31). See also Laufer et al.

  4. The central role of women in Vietnam veteran recovery is especially well discussed in Brende and Parson's sixth chapter.

  5. In his article, “Conflict, Stress, and Growth: The Effects of War on Psychosocial Development among Vietnam Veterans,” John P. Wilson uses an Eriksonian model of psychosocial growth to discuss the fact that nearly all combat GIs were deprived of the opportunity to develop along normal lines during the critical period of late adolescence, a stage of especially difficult psychosocial tasks even under normal circumstances. He writes: “Where the stress overpowers the individual's ability to meet the demands confronting him, a retrogression to earlier modes of conflict resolution may occur” (137). Although Wilson does not specifically discuss turning toward typically adolescent behavior at inappropriate times, he does discuss the immaturity and inability to resolve problems in an adult fashion characteristic of many troubled Vietnam veterans.

  6. The important exception to this lack of highly allusive symbolism is the egret that Emmett periodically hopes to see.

  7. It might be objected here that Emmett's newfound energy and purposefulness are simply a product of the narration being filtered through Sam's dazed point of view, that it is she alone who regards Emmett as “definite” and “certain.” This argument does not bear out, however. Regardless of Sam's condition and of the narrative focus, Emmett is unquestionably presented as undertaking these various activities all at once. A man who hasn't worked, traveled, or taken responsibility for years is presented as suddenly, “confidently” venturing to do all three.

  8. It is sadly ironic that a novel which has frequently pointed out the gross inadequacies of television as a model of the world and as a helpful shaper of psyches should itself succumb to the sort of facile, Pollyanna ending characteristic of television. Sam frequently refers to television in order to judge her own behavior and make sense of her situations. She herself thinks at one point that Emmett's problems cannot be resolved in the manner that problems are so quickly resolved on her own favorite show, M*A*S*H.

Works Cited

Boston, Anne. “With the Vets in Hopewell.” Times Literary Supplement, April 18, 1986, 416.

Bramstedt, Ernest K. Aristocracy and the Middle Classes in Germany: Social Types in German Literature. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Brende, Joel Osler, and Erwin Randolph Parson. Vietnam Veterans: The Road to Recovery. New York: Plenum, 1985.

Figley, Charles R., and Seymour Leventman, eds. Strangers at Home: Vietnam Veterans since the War. New York: Praeger, 1980.

Hendin, Herbert, and Ann Pollinger Haas. Wounds of War: The Psychological Aftermath of Combat in Vietnam. New York: Basic, 1984.

Laufer, Robert S., Ellen Frey-Wouters, and Mark S. Gallops. “Traumatic Stressors in the Vietnam War and Post-traumatic Stress Disorders.” Trauma and Its Wake: The Study and Treatment of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Ed. Charles R. Figley. New York: Brunner, Mazel, 1985.

Lifton, Robert Jay. Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans, neither Victims nor Executioners. New York: Simon, 1973.

Mason, Bobbie Ann. In Country. New York: Harper, 1985.

Newman, Charles. The Post-Modern Aura: The Act of Fiction in an Age of Inflation. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1985.

Opdahl, Keith. “The Nine Lives of Literary Realism.” Contemporary American Fiction. Ed. Malcolm Bradbury and Sigmund Ro. London: Edward Arnold, 1987.

Wilson, John P. “Conflict, Stress, and Growth: The Effect of War on Psychosocial Development among Vietnam Veterans.” In Strangers at Home.

Darlene Reimers Hill (essay date winter–spring 1992)

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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 smoked ham, southern-fried chicken, black-eyed peas, okra and cornbread. They have observed the rituals of southern hospitality, the distinctions in race and class drawn by the kinds of food eaten and the ways it was prepared, the traditions of holiday dinners, elaborate, ritualistic celebrations of birthdays and weddings with the whole family gathered around a big table and the laying in of many dishes when there was a death in the family. Above all else, the woman did the cooking, and the man presided at the head of the table. If space was limited on special occasions, the men were served first. Gender roles were clearly defined: women were to be domestic “ladies” and men the “kings” of the home, according to the Cavalier myth of the Old South. The aristocratic expression of these traditions is seen in rich detail in Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding, where the Fairchilds revel in such gastronomic delights as Aunt Mashula's coconut cake and banana ice cream while they observe the traditions within traditions called for by proper Delta weddings. A more mundane version of the extended-family ritualistic meal is found in Rebecca Hill's Blue Rise:

Family gatherings in rural Mississippi are sober to a fault … no exceptions arise. It is a certainty that iced tea will be drunk, just as it is a certainty that the men of the family will gather before the TV while the women cook and set the table and feed the children and call the men to come on and are themselves the last to sit down.

Groves women see to the men and the children and then proceed to take what is left of the fried chicken, fish the brown field peas from beneath the net of ham fat already beginning to congeal on the pot liquor, dig into the eroded mass of ambrosia salad … and eat, their plates wedged between serving bowls. And then they clean the table, leaving half-empty bowls of food where they are in case some of the men or children get hungry or want something else, and they wash the dishes … and trade vows of things they wouldn't do for love of children and Lord Jesus and family.


In the traditional, agrarian-based South, people “knew their places”: their food preferences, customs and roles were fixed. But as outsiders came to the South, old ways had to compete with new, more urban, eating habits and social customs, giving rise to the confusion a myriad of choices can effect. Just as southerners learned to eat blintzes and drink cappuccino, so too rituals and roles changed, sometimes with dizzying results. No recent writer takes these social upheavals more often for her theme than does Bobbie Ann Mason. She constantly uses references to food and food rituals to show how some characters are no longer at home in the bewildering multitude of choices offered to them as to rituals, roles and lifestyles while others relish the diversity conferred by the current milieu's “cafeteria of modern mores.”

Mason's stories are full of the ironies produced by changes in food and food rituals in her native Kentucky and the outside world. One of Kentuckians' favorite traditional foods is fried catfish. When Waldeen in “Graveyard Day” discovers the restaurant catfish she is eating is frozen “ocean cat,” she is perplexed about the modern propensity to import food that could be had fresh. She asks, “Why would they want to do that … when they've got all the fresh channel cat in the world right here at Kentucky Lake?” (166–67). Turning to In Country, we see these catfish have been reduced to ultramodern “shiny metal sculptures” that only “vaguely resemble fish” outside a V.A. medical clinic (70). A food once a source of local pride and identity has been turned into a rather empty status symbol. These stylized catfish may even represent an exploitation of regional chauvinism to make the clinic seem trustworthy in spite of the fact that it is a facility where the government's denial of the ill effects of Agent Orange is practiced with little regard for the real tragedy of the country boys who come there. Other traditional foods have become motifs for theme restaurants such as the Cracker Barrel and Country Kitchen, which have replaced the dining-room table as a location of family sharing. Here, people eat barbecued ribs and chocolate-pecan pie (“like Grandma used to make”), drink beer from fruit jars once used for canning (160–61) and select dishes from “pictures on [a] wall,” which faces another wall where “antiques” are arranged to carry out the old-timey decor: “farm tools … saw handles, scythes, pulleys” are “mounted on wood like fish trophies” to attract people who like to romanticize their parents' past now that they do not have to live it (“Residents and Transients” 129). This “artistic” use of domestic and agrarian objects sometimes carries even more ludicrous—if pathetic—overtones. A man trying to be modernly “sensitive” for his “progressive,” artsy girlfriend takes up photography; but when she sees his black-and-white snapshots of “fried eggs on cracked plates, an oilclothed kitchen table, a bottle of tomato ketchup, a fence post, a rusted tractor seat sitting on a stump, a corn crib, a sagging door, a toilet bowl, a cow, and finally, a horse's rear end,” all she says is, “I can't look. … These are disgusting” (“A New-Wave Format” 230).

In In Country, we find even more unsettling innovations when it comes to food and food rituals. Birthday parties are now held at McDonald's (48); cocoa-mix cans conceal little dabs of “sweetening” (marijuana) (34); Granny Cakes are not made by Granny but are moon pies mass produced at a factory by men—a factory whose sewer lines disrupt a local farmer's pasture (137, 148); a mockery is made of southern hospitality in a litigious society where Howard Johnson's waitresses serve tough fried chicken and then ask, “Is everything all right?” “just … so you can't sue them if it turns out there's glass in the food or something” (13–14); courtship rituals include going to “Shrimp Night at the Holiday Inn” and giving cheese baskets from the “Party Mart” instead of bringing one's beau home to Mama (36); people build up their glassware by collecting give-aways from the fast-food chains (41); women's jello wrestling is all the rage (108); the Baptists congregate at McDonald's between Sunday school and church instead of enjoying sober “fellowship” (144); and people put on theme weddings, such as the “jeep wedding” Sam Hughes is expected to attend, where the fare is “finger-food” (84–85) rather than a feast such as the Fairchilds of Delta Wedding prepare for their guests.

But these changes from tradition—important though they are in contributing to the overall sense of dislocation—seem trivial compared to more monstrous corruptions of old and new traditions. One realizes just how crazy the world is when s/he reads that the Vietnamese used one of America's most cherished symbols of its identity, the Coke can, to rig up a bomb capable of turning human bodies into hamburger just as efficiently as the Bouncing Betty mines, which were geared to bounce chest high before exploding (209, 102). In the Vietnam War, a southern favorite, ham and beans, came to be called “ham and mother-fuckers,” a singular symbol of alienation and displacement felt by the many country boys who were cannon fodder in a “conflict” which made them feel they could never again “go near ham and beans—of any kind” (112–13).

As we see, Mason's characters live in a protean world of rapid, dizzying change. Faced with finding their identities—the roles they will play—in the midst of constant flux, they seek to discover something to hold on to in this modern emotional environment where one must deal with new rituals and new family patterns. In “Memphis,” the protagonist, Beverly, realizes the old rituals of her life have been forsaken for new ones. She reviews the “mess” her life as a divorced woman with children is in and thinks of her parents' lives. She elevates her father's “routines”—or rituals—to the status of “beliefs” as she compares them to the routines that informed life with her ex-husband:

She remembered [her father's] unvarying routines. He got up at sunup, ate breakfast day in and day out, never went anywhere. In the spring, he set out tobacco plants. … She used to think his life was dull, but now she had started thinking about those routines as beliefs. She compared them to the routines in her life with Joe: her CNN news fix, telephoning customers at work and entering orders on the computer, the couple of six-packs she and Joe used to drink every night, Shayla's tap lessons, Joe's basketball night, family night at the sports club. Then she remembered her father running the combine over his wheat fields, wheeling that giant machine around expertly, much the same way Joe handled a motorcycle.


In Beverly's contemplations, Mason compares elemental, seasonal cycles to social, man-made routines. Beverly cannot be sure her rituals are worthy of the word beliefs. And Mason's subtext suggests the “activities” families engage in these days may not fulfill them the way past generations' “dull” routines did. She underscores this idea by showing that even the current small-town rituals which try to replicate old agrarian customs cannot always nourish or hold families together. Beverly reflects on the “good old days” of young married life, when she and Joe drank beer and ate grilled steak on the patio, listening to music and playing horseshoes. On weekends, they and their friends had cookouts at the lake and went fishing. Now Beverly's marriage is typical of the general breakdown and confusion that have fragmented families into separate households with children moving back and forth like little particles of the original atom: “Most of the couples they knew then drank a lot and argued and had fights, but they had a good time. Now marriages were splitting up. Beverly could name five divorces or separations in her crowd. It seemed no one knew why this was happening” (38).

Mason's stories suggest that the reasons for the fragmentation of families are complicated. But one agent in this nuclear fission is the lack of “beliefs” such as Beverly's father relied upon. Without them, the family becomes like a physics formula. Mary Lou in “The Rookers” explains that the smallest “things in the world,” photons, disappear “if you try to separate them. … They don't even exist except in a group,” and she compares this phenomenon to the scattering of her family, worrying that what happens to photons is happening to her father: as his children have left the nest, he has begun to “disappear like that, disconnected from everybody” (27, 29). Many characters in Mason's fiction experience this fear of disappearing outside of a group, disconnected from tradition. Some do something about it: they reconnect with old traditions or make new ones by embracing new rituals, new roles, new family patterns. Others flounder in nostalgia, dissatisfaction and bewilderment. In three of Mason's best stories—“Nancy Culpepper,” “Drawing Names” and “Residents and Transients”—we find various responses characters make to culture shock in attempting to establish their identities and “beliefs.”

“Nancy Culpepper” presents a Kentucky girl who is college educated, married to a Yankee and living “up North.” A companion story, “Lying Doggo,” tells us that Nancy's Yankee has been instrumental in changing her and that she has worked on becoming a new self beyond his “honest” criticisms: she no longer “plays games with people,” “hiding her feelings behind her coy Southern smile”; she is too “sophisticated now to eat fried foods and rich pies and cakes, indulging in them only when she goes to Kentucky”; and her “cool reserve, her shyness, has changed to cool assurance” (200). But when “Nancy Culpepper” begins, Nancy is not happy with her “Yankeefied” identity and wants to move back to Kentucky—to return to her roots. She reverts to her maiden name and now wants to rescue some family pictures from her grandmother's house. Her grandmother is going to a nursing home, and Nancy feels that “nobody cares about [the pictures] but [her]”; she thinks they will be thrown away (180). One picture is of a distant relative on her wedding day, a young woman whose tombstone in the local cemetery is inscribed: “NANCY CULPEPPER, 1833–1905” (194, 186). “Going home again” causes Nancy more profoundly to reflect on how far away from home she has come and to assess who she really is.

An important section of this story (180–82, 189, 192–93) is made up of Nancy's memories of her own wedding, which is in marked contrast to traditional southern weddings such as Dabney Fairchild's in Delta Wedding. Nancy, married in 1967 in Massachusetts, discouraged her parents from coming; only “strangers” from graduate school filled the house. They danced to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, smoked joints and popped balloons in their state of stoned vagueness. The gifts were nontraditional on the whole, products of the sixties counterculture or status symbols of the pseudosophisticated: hand-dipped candles, a silver roach clip, Joy of Cooking and “signed pottery in nonfunctional shapes.” The minister chain-smoked, Grover the dog was a witness and the decorations included a Beatles poster. The only refreshments were “dope” and wine-and-7Up punch. The bride and groom did not go away because they had “exams on Monday.” A honeymoon was not needed anyway since they had already been living together. Nor did Nancy cook her husband a special “wedding breakfast” as her Granny thought she might. Jack felt Granny was “really out of the nineteenth century,” in spite of Nancy's explaining that in “her time, [a wedding breakfast] meant something really big.” Nancy had to settle for twentieth-century “smallness” and off-handedness: the wedding guests who spent the night brought doughnuts and wine back with the Sunday papers.

In the end, Nancy embraces her heritage and is proud to be related to the Nancy Culpepper in the picture, for her likeness reveals that she was a woman ahead of her time, with sparkling eyes “fixed on something so far away.” This woman would have been “glad to dance to ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ on her wedding day” (195). Thus, the contemporary Nancy has integrated her past with her present to form a new identity with which to face the changes she cannot escape.

In “Drawing Names,” Mason shows how a number of characters, equally unsettled in this new era, cannot quite achieve the resolution Nancy Culpepper creates for herself. In this gem of a story, Mason uses the ritual celebration of Christmas to objectify and comment on the diverse responses they make to the changes in their lives. Since the family's farm has not been “profitable in years,” they have decided to draw names for the giving of gifts (94–95). This departure from tradition disturbs the matriarch of the family: “It don't seem like Christmas with drawed names.” And her feelings of anxiety about other changes in this traditional family celebration are given form in the various fretting comments she makes throughout the day. Ever mindful that “the Mother” has always been responsible for the “success” of such occasions in southern society, she castigates herself for not “keeping up the standard” of past Christmases. Her meal, properly big enough for Coxey's Army, is still a source of worry: “I think my Oriental casserole was a failure. I used the wrong kind of mushroom soup. It called for cream of mushroom and I used golden mushroom” (105). Mother cannot quite accept other changes which are beyond her control. She is “bumfuzzled” by the drink offered to her by one daughter's “significant other”; she throws up her hands at the sight of a bottle of Rebel Yell bourbon brought as a Christmas courtesy gift: “Oh, no, I'm afraid I'll be an alky-holic.” And when she finally accepts a sip to be polite, she cries, “Law, don't let the preacher in. … Boy, that sends my blood pressure up” (98). A good-natured soul wanting this Christmas to be as “happy” as all other Christmases, Mother cannot take in that her daughter is “stacking up” with her boyfriend, who brought this “alky-hol,” and so she drops the potato masher on the floor when the subject is broached by another daughter in the kitchen (96). Mother is overly concerned that this Yankee's coming has gotten Dad “fit to be tied” with disapproval (100).

The old patriarch, Pappy, makes known his complaints about deviations from tradition when he says, “Use to, the menfolks would eat first, and the children separate. The women would eat last, in the kitchen” (103). Pappy remembers when the man was the “king” of the family and the woman knew her place—and wishes it had stayed that way. He gets his usual buttermilk and his ham cut up for him by Mom. But no one asks him to “turn thanks” anymore at holiday dinners though he waits for them to do so. Now one of the daughters cuts the ham with an electric knife, and they all sit at the same table, women or not (101). Pappy is reminded that “times are different now” by his granddaughter, who tells him proudly, “We're just as good as the men.” Her husband apologizes for this unseemly disrespect: “She gets that from television” (104).

This assertion of male dominance is undercut by the knowledge that these two are getting a divorce and have shown up simply for form's sake one more time, hating to hurt Mother and Dad with news they know will “kill them” (100). In fact, only one daughter in the family has done the “right thing.” Peggy had “a real wedding”; her husband, Cecil, owns a Gulf franchise which has allowed them to buy the requisite status symbols of middle-class success: “a motor cruiser, a pickup truck, a camper, a station wagon, and a new brick colonial home” (97). Peggy never stops telling her sister Carolyn, the protagonist of the story, that she needs a man like Cecil. Cecil plays the role of dutiful, respectful son-in-law, but he is put in the shade by Laura Jean's Yankee, who makes a point of being sensitive and polite to everyone. Jim's outgoingness and empathy threaten Dad, however, for Dad is “awkward” with his daughters (95) and cannot be the open-minded, caring hero to women that Jim is.

For Dad, the changes in society are just too overwhelming and frightening. He likes and needs tradition in all its forms. When Carolyn's date is late, he says, “When's this Kent feller coming? … It's time to eat. … When the plate rattles, we eat” (99–100). Dad likes to eat at a set time with a “normal family.” He cannot understand why Carolyn's marriage failed, why she wants to get mixed up with a new guy who is not “dependable” and why Laura Jean wants to live with a textiles salesman “up North” and study art. His anxieties are manifested in a number of ways throughout the day. Though Dad tries to be modern by calling the traditional chocolate-covered creams in Mom's candy dish “toes” instead of “nigger toes” as he has always done (95), he cannot maintain his equilibrium enough to sustain this liberalism. First, he refuses Jim's bourbon and boiled custard (99); then at the table, he tells a patronizing joke about Trappist Monks. Eager to take part, Jim, the earnest, educated outsider, innocently and unwittingly embarrasses and annoys Dad by responding to the joke with “interesting information”: “The Trappist Monks are really an outstanding group … they make excellent bread. No preservatives.” Dad just does not want to be instructed by some upstart “feller” about men who bake bread—with no preservatives! He stops eating. But a revelation of an even more disturbing trend in society comes on the heels of Jim's remarks about the monks. “Dottie Barlow got a Barbie doll for Christmas and it's black,” a granddaughter announces. When it is ascertained that Dottie Barlow is not black and that she got a black doll just because she wanted it, this is too much for Dad. He abruptly leaves the table to sit in his recliner in front of the TV. He wants to watch the Blue-Gray game (102–03). In this new world, comfort is not found at the table with the family for Dad, but in front of the television, where battles are clear-cut, where one can at least tell who is “us” and who is “them.” On television, it is still possible for the South to win the Civil War, if only in a football game.

Carolyn observes these manifestations of conflict and unease and experiences her own feelings of dislocation and yearning. Kent never shows up, and Carolyn decides that, for all his artistic sensitivity—he likes to look at sunsets—he has never grown up. The boat he claimed needed attention on this holiday is really just a “toy” which means more to him than “family obligations” (106). Carolyn gazes at the old-fashioned winter scene depicted on the Rebel Yell box, wishing she, Laura Jean and Jim could enter it and float away in Kent's boat. She would like to accompany them to St. Louis just to experience their conversations, for she has realized that Jim is the kind of man she wants. He has taken time to comfort Carolyn, telling her he knows she has had a “difficult day” and saying she is better off without Kent when he learns that Kent purposely did not show up. Moreover, in spite of the rebuffs and awkwardness he has experienced in visiting this family, who seem to have forgotten their southern hospitality, Jim still declares, “I think your family's great” (107–08). Mason implies that Carolyn may have to “light out for the territories” to find what she needs. She may have to do what Laura Jean has done: become a “transient” rather than a “resident.” This is the choice facing Carolyn at the end of a disquieting family holiday.

The narrator of “Residents and Transients,” Mary, also must decide if she is a resident or a transient. Having been away from the South “pursuing higher learning,” Mary is typical of Mason's modern expatriates. She too has married a Yankee—one of those following jobs into the Sun Belt (121). Stephen travels around demonstrating word-processors and believes in consulting “investment counselors” (122). Mary is not happy with him, and she takes a local lover after moving back to her parents' farm amidst Kentucky cornfields while Stephen looks for a “suitable” house in Louisville. Mary has played several nontraditional roles in her thirty years: a commune dweller in Aspen, a backpacker in the Rockies and one of the first female porters on the National Limited (124). But now she wants to settle back into her old home. She tells Stephen, “I can't imagine living on a street again. … I need cornfields” (122). Mary loves the farmhouse and dreads leaving after the corn is harvested and the farm is sold.

Mary's parents, like many older southerners, have retired to Florida. Upset that they have embraced a new lifestyle and left her to dispose of the homeplace, Mary falls into “cockeyed” routines and eats “strange foods” when she is on her own. “Supper” is pork and beans, cottage cheese and dill pickles at 3:00 p.m. (124). Her lover, Larry, a modern man who is not afraid to play the roles of cook and nurturer, brings her grilled-cheese sandwiches and choc-o-mint ice cream; they drink Bloody Marys made from her mother's canned tomato juice on the old canning porch; they go out to a restaurant in Paducah, decorated with farm implements (123, 127, 129). Mary feels confusion and unease about what she is doing in her mother's house and swallows her food “as if it were guilt” (125). But she cannot seem to lift herself out of a languid fog until she has to make a decision when Stephen calls to say he has found a perfect house: “a three-bedroom brick with a two-car garage, finished basement, dining alcove, [and] patio.” When Mary asks if it has a “canning kitchen,” he says, “No, but it has a rec room” (125).

This house in town lacks two things Mary needs, a canning porch and a place to keep the many cats which have become her constant companions. For Mary, the canning porch is an emblem of her mother's laudable domesticity, forsaken now in a new age of store-bought food: “The canning porch was my mother's pride. There she processed her green beans twenty minutes in a pressure canner, and her tomato juice in fifteen minutes in a water bath. Now my mother lives in a mobile home. In her letters she tells me all the prices of the food she buys” (123). The canning porch has become a place to feed the cats, and Mary's life has become a floating suspension of time in which she identifies herself in a rather eccentric way: “I am nearly thirty years old. I have two men, eight cats, no cavities. One day I was counting the cats and I absent-mindedly counted myself” (127). Eccentric though she may be, Mary is a feeder. She nurses sick kittens with her father's old “teat extenders” once used on absent cows that haunt the place like ghosts now (128). But Mary does not cook or can, for all her nostalgia in regard to the old ways; she leaves the cooking to her lover. Still, she “quakes” at the thought of a “rec room” as compensation for the lost canning porch and tells Stephen that they must get a kennel to keep the cats out of the city traffic (125).

Though the cats are very important to Mary, Stephen is not crazy about bringing them along. He thinks Mary is “carrying this [cat obsession] too far” (125). In contrast, Larry likes cats and, while he and Mary play Monopoly, shows interest in her explanation of the two kinds of cat populations—residents and transients (128–29). Mary has read that some cats live on “fixed home ranges” while others are on the move. She points out the irony that while the “residents” were once thought to be the better-adapted group, scientists now think the transients may be superior, possessing the most intelligence and curiosity. But, like Mary with her options as to lifestyles, the scientists cannot be sure: “They can't decide.”

“Residents and Transients” presents Mary's perplexing choice: should she be a transient with Stephen, moving from “investment property” to “investment property”—in a real-life game of Monopoly—or should she be a resident and stay down on the farm with Larry and the cats? The choices do not fall into neat categories. If she goes with Stephen, she ostensibly plays the traditional role of wife—but with no cornfields or canning porch from which to feed her “family.” If she stays with Larry, she can continue her idiosyncratic nurturing while he does the cooking. At the end of the story, Mary's posture is an emblem of the modern woman's dilemma. She sees her “odd-eyed” cat coming down the road. It has one eye which shines red and one eye which shines green, “like a traffic light.” Mary stands poised on the street corner of a decision, looking at the cat's eyes, and tells us, “I realize that I am waiting for the light to change” (131).

Mary would like to have an absolute sign to show her the best direction so she will not have to lament the “road not taken.” But Mason, in her artistic wisdom, will not give Mary—or us—that clear signal. In the New South, there are no clear signals, only a buffet table of choices. Southerners can still dine on sweet-potato pie, collards and chicken-fried steak; they can eat at McDonald's or savor nouvelle cuisine. The women can serve the men and children first and then fish through the leftovers, or they can take turns with their men at cooking or carrying home take-out meals. With all the relish and gusto that southerners bring to any table, Bobbie Ann Mason's fiction explores the dilemmas—and the challenges—that change and choice have brought. Mason finds as much delight and significance in the new rituals of Saturday night before the television with Doritos and Pepsis as she does in old-fashioned family meals of ham, field peas, fried okra and banana pudding. She knows southerners can never return to the well-defined world of Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding with its fixed rituals and roles; so she celebrates the freedom of menu selection gained when many southerners no longer enjoy the delicious taste of Grandma's down-home cooking at every meal.

Works Cited

Hill, Rebecca. Blue Rise. New York: Penguin, 1983.

Mason, Bobbie Ann. “Drawing Names.” Shiloh 94–108.

———. “Graveyard Day.” Shiloh 165–78.

———. In Country. New York: Harper, 1985.

———. “Lying Doggo.” Shiloh 196–212.

———. “Memphis.” New Yorker 22 Feb. 1988. 34–42.

———. “Nancy Culpepper.” Shiloh 179–95.

———. “A New-Wave Format.” Shiloh 213–31.

———. “Residents and Transients.” Shiloh 121–31.

———. “The Rookers.” Shiloh 17–33.

———. Shiloh, and Other Stories. New York: Harper, 1983.

Welty, Eudora. Delta Wedding. New York: Harcourt, 1979.

June Dwyer (essay date spring 1992)

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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 In Country, in its concern with the aftermath of the Vietnam War in a small town in Kentucky, addresses all of these issues. Because Vietnam generated neither heroes nor victories, it readily resists old historical interpretations (at least from an American perspective). Instead, it lends itself to the foregrounding of those soldiers whose individual presence made little difference in Vietnam (but who were nevertheless radically changed by having been there). The soldiers' marginality to the war effort and then in the American society to which they returned is complicated in the novel by the inquisitive presence of a member of another marginal group, a young woman, Sam Hughes, the daughter of a Vietnam veteran killed in action before she was born.

Sam's quest in the novel is to enter into the Vietnam era so that she may better understand its effect on her family—not only on her dead father, but also on her mother and her uncle, Emmett, who is also a veteran of Vietnam. Although Sam recognizes her own place on the sidelines of the history of the Vietnam era (she is both of the wrong generation and the wrong sex), she still suffers some “battle envy.”3 She wants to have had the experiences that have so marked the vets whom she knows. Faulting that, she is willing to understand them at one remove and so, unconsciously, she plays the historian, reading letters and diaries and conducting what amount to be informal interviews of Emmett and his war buddies. What Sam does not understand is that she has armed herself with old historical expectations. She is looking for heroes and villains, strong leaders, clear causes. What she finds is new history—not a chain of command but a web of connections, not a patriarchy, but an extended family without a father figure at its head.

In fact, the central metaphor of In Country is the family—the Hughes family and the American family. By the novel's end, both are reconstituted so that their center of power has shifted to accommodate their least “important” members. In Country begins as a story about unwanted children. They are of three generations, ranging from Sam's friend Dawn's unexpected baby, to Sam (whose mother has moved away and started another family), to the members of Sam's uncle and father's generation—the country's unwelcome Vietnam veterans.

Sam lives in the small town of Hopewell, Kentucky. She is eighteen years old, just about the age her father was when he married her mother and went off to fight and die in Vietnam. She shares a ramshackle house with her mother's brother Emmett, who (like his surviving buddies) has never really fit back into American society. Emmett suffers a variety of physical ills, including acne apparently caused by exposure to agent orange. Sam worries about him and wonders about her own place in this painful chapter of American history. She feels orphaned since her mother Irene, a former hippie and fellow traveller with Emmett, has abandoned the countercultural life for a “normal” middle-class existence.

Sam loves her mother but will not join her in Lexington, accusing her of pretending the painful Vietnam War era never existed. She opts instead to stay with Emmett, who cannot free himself from his memories of Vietnam. If he has had too many intense experiences, Sam thinks that she has had too few. She resents the older generation's attempts to protect her from the unpleasantness of the past. Unwilling to accept her mother's dictum that “It had nothing to do with you” (57), Sam considers the Vietnam experience a part of her history.4 She wants to make it real to herself, even as Tom, another one of the vets, warns her: “You don't want to know how real it was” (95).

Sam's attempt to understand her heritage is a search for her parents as well as her country. She feels the need to redefine her relationship with her mother, her dead father, and her uncle Emmett as well as with her mother country/fatherland/Uncle Sam. Mason's decision to make the protagonist of In Country a young woman named Sam is in itself a bid to redefine the idea of the American patriot. Sam's youth and her sex would seem to bar her from a major role in and a clear understanding of the American patriotic drama. But Mason demonstrates that from the sidelines Sam can both understand and clarify for others the experience of the Vietnam era. As she recovers her dead father from cliche and two-dimensional memory, Sam also reorders her relationship with her mother and her uncle and develops a more positive vision of America. As well as being a new historian, she becomes the new incarnation of American patriotism—an alternative to the avuncular, but authoritarian old man dressed in red, white and blue. No longer Uncle Sam, the new spirit of America is transformed into a young woman called Sam, who is irreverent, independent, earnest and questioning.

At one point in the story, Sam jogs past the post office where a recruitment poster of Uncle Sam points a finger at her, and she answers with an exasperated finger gesture of her own. But Sam is not simply irreverent, nor is her journey a jogging exercise. She actually makes the imaginative equivalent of a journey to Vietnam, a voyage “in country,” looking for what most of the people in the United States would like to forget. She intuitively understands that there is more than one way to enter into the experience of Vietnam.5

Sam begins her journey by reading histories of the Vietnam War and by talking to Emmett and his friends. But both are very guarded, affording her only glimpses of the horror and the pain. Discovery that Emmett's friend Tom, whom she goes home with after a dance, is impotent because of the war takes her closer. What finally brings the war to the core of Sam's being is her father's field diary. Far from the heroic Sunday School ideal that her grandparents carry in their hearts, Sam's father Dwayne Hughes emerges from his diary unlettered, immature, and scared. His “good boy” image melts away as Sam finds that he smokes, swears, calls his enemies “gooks” and is perfectly willing to kill them:

Aug. 14. Big surprise. Face to face with a V.C. and I won. Easier than I thought. But there wasn't time to think. It was so simple. At last.


Sam's attempts to get close to the Vietnam experience succeed almost too well. Confused and angry, she decides to “face the wild” and find out what soldiers actually go through by camping out in the very dangerous swamp area of Cawood's Pond not far from her home. She wonders “if the U.S.A. sent her to a foreign country with a rifle and a heavy backpack, could she root around in the jungle, sleep in the mud, and shoot at strangers?” (208). She discovers that she could.

Upon hearing strange footsteps after a night in the swamp, Sam imagines she is being stalked by a rapist. Not only is she willing to defend herself, she feels “a curious pleasure” (217) steal over her. This reaction of fear and aggression, she soon discovers, is not unlike that of a soldier on patrol in enemy territory. The intruder turns out to be Emmett rather than a rapist, but a revealing conversation ensues. Sam allows that she hates her father and the attitudes he has expressed in his field diary; Emmett counters with the painful truth that down deep, everyone in Vietnam felt the same as her father had about the enemy:

“Look here, little girl. [Dwayne] could have been me. All of us, it was the same.”

“He loved it, like Pete. He went over there to get some notches in his machete” [Sam responds].

“Yeah, and if he hadn't got killed, then he'd have had to live with that.”

“It wouldn't have bothered him. He's like Pete.”

“It was the same for all of us. Tom and Pete and Jim and Buddy and all of us. You can't do what we did and then be happy about it.”


Emmett goes on to speak of his horrible fear and sense of abandonment when he once had to hide beneath the bodies of his dead buddies for nine hours while the enemy prowled the area. “Oh, shit-fire, Sam!” he says. “We were out there trying to survive. It felt good when you got even” (223). He fully understands Sam's “curious pleasure” at the thought of defending herself from a suspected rapist in the swamp: “Now didn't it feel good?” he asks her (223).

Just as important as Sam's acknowledgement that she shares humanity's darker impulses, is Emmett's emergence from his isolation. At Cawood's Pond, Sam steps closer to the heart of darkness while Emmett, in going to find her, begins to separate from it. He is able to find her because he realizes that he and Sam have similar reactions: “When I read the diary,” he says, “I tried to imagine what I would have done, and this is what I would have done” (221). His love for Sam has lifted him out of himself and caused him to realize that what he felt in Vietnam has an equivalent in the civilian world. He blurts out: “I thought you'd get hurt. It was like being left by myself and all my buddies dead. I had to find you” (225).

Being able to share each other's experiences gives Sam and Emmett the ability to find a direction for their lives. Sam's desire to venture out of her hometown had previously had no focus, and Emmett was afraid even to think about moving, for fear he would fall apart. But after acknowledging his closeness to someone who had not actually been in Vietnam with him, Emmett knows where he and Sam (and for that matter, everyone who has been touched by Vietnam) need to go: the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. His sense of interconnection with Sam and her life experiences has set Emmett on his way. Now he may go to his country's home town and commune with the members of his larger family, his American family.

The memorial acts as a catalyst for reconciliation in both of Emmett's families. In building it, America has finally acknowledged its love for those children it had turned its back on. Emmett's rescue of Sam in the swamp has enabled him to put himself in America's place and accept the monument as an analogous rescue attempt for all Vietnam veterans. In going to Washington and bringing along members of two other generations—Dwayne's mother and Sam—Emmett acknowledges not only his own, but also their membership in the American family and in the war experience.

The trip validates Sam's quest to understand what soldiers went through in Vietnam. Although she prides herself on never crying, after seeing her father's name on the memorial, Sam finds herself in tears. Like Emmett crying in the swamp for the dead buddies who sheltered him from the Viet Cong, Sam cries for her father, who—however misguidedly—fought in Vietnam “for [Irene] and the baby, or else why are we here?” (202). She then goes to the alphabetical directory list to see her father's name again and notices that among all the Hugheses who died in Vietnam there is a Sam Hughes—someone with her own name. As she returns to the memorial and touches the name, Sam thinks, “How odd it feels, as though all the names in America have been used to decorate this wall” (245). This observation means to suggest that Sam's experience is not unique, but that every American citizen is connected to the Vietnam experience and has the ability to understand it.

Sam's initiation into the family of American patriots, her participation in the positive as well as the negative aspects of the Vietnam experience comes to her through her mother as well as through her father and uncle. Like America itself, Irene Hughes first supported the war, then opposed it, then tried to forget it by returning to a “normal” life of material comfort. Although she initially seems trendy and uncaring—again like America—Irene turns out to be considerably more complicated and appealing than she first appears. Like her country, Irene is both avoiding old mistakes and striking out in new directions. She has married her present husband not to escape, but because she was pregnant. Rather than turn her back on this child (through abortion or an irregular family life), she has accepted her and loved her. She has also gone back to school and become something of a feminist, urging Sam to do the same. Exulting over Geraldine Ferraro's nomination as Democratic vice-presidential candidate, she explains, “Women can do anything now, Sam, … If they go to college” (167). Ferraro's entry into the male-dominated sphere of high-level politics shows Sam another avenue women may now travel to become patriots. And, indeed, as the story draws to a close, Sam agrees to live with her mother and go to the University of Kentucky. She will go to college so that she can “be anything.”

If Irene has brought her daughter to an appreciation of women's options in America in the 1980s and made her feel less “orphaned” by her country, Sam, as historian, has reciprocated, reconnecting her mother to the war years. In an exchange that recalls Sam's conversation with Emmett in the swamp, Irene talks about the Sixties:

You don't understand how it was back then. Everything's confusing now, looking back, but in a way everything seemed clear back then. Dwayne thought he was doing the right thing, and then Emmett went over there and thought he was doing the right thing, but then Emmett got soured on it and got in the anti-war movement and thought that was right and got involved with those hippies. Most of those guys escaped the draft somehow.

Without blaming her hippie friends who “escaped the draft,” Irene is moved to think of those who did not escape:

It was country boys. When you get to that memorial, you look at the names. You'll see all those country boy names. I bet you anything. Bobby Gene and Freddy Ray and Jimmy Bob Calhoun. I knew a boy named Jimmy Bob Calhoun that got killed over there. You look at those names and tell me if they're not mostly country boy names. Boys who didn't know their ass from their elbow. Oh, God, what a time it was. … It wasn't a happy time, Sam. Don't go making out like it was.


Sam completes her mother's evocation of the hippie days with the gift of a red porcelain cat that she has decorated with sequins and love beads. She buys the present the morning after her night with Tom, whose impotence made the war so real to her. Her thinking of her mother at this point and then getting high on marijuana and decorating the cat is Sam's other foray into the Sixties—her anti-war experience. She gets her mother to open up and talk about the counterculture and presents her with her own “kooky and personal” memorial to those times:

Her mother looked at the cat bank as though it were a tiny UFO that had just zoomed in her door. Her expression turned to recognition, then to joy.

“I love it!” she cried. “Oh, Sam, this is the sweetest thing anybody ever gave me.”

Then she burst into tears, and the punk maharajah cat just smiled, staring. She stared, too, in amazement.


Neither Irene nor Emmett would have been able to put the past in perspective were it not for Sam's desire to participate in it with them. As a new historian and patriotic figure, this Sam (unlike Uncle Sam) shares the American experience rather than directing it. She is a member of the American family without being the head of it.

In Country evokes a fabric of history that is a web of interconnections; it is viewed as a communal experience rather than a drama with major players, climactic structures, and a massive audience of non-participants. This history may be understood through direct experience, indirect experience, and acts of imagination. These last-mentioned imaginative acts—TV programs like MASH, songs like Bruce Springsteen's “Born in the U.S.A.,” pieces of sculpture like Sam's hippie cat, and the Vietnam memorial—enable the characters to enter and re-enter American history.

At the beginning of In Country, Sam and Emmett are each on a solitary search for a special token that they mistakenly think will help them out of the doldrums. For Emmett it is an egret, a bird he saw in Vietnam that represents the beauty of that country separated from the war. “If you can think about something like birds, you can get outside of yourself, and it doesn't hurt as much,” he explains (226). Sam's quest is for a previously unreleased Beatles song, “Leave my Kitten Alone,” which she understands to be “a fresh message from the past, something to go on” (125). But she and Emmett find that a search for an elusive bird and a song about being left alone are escapist and isolationist—not what they need at all. A bird finally does liberate Emmett, but it is the Vietnam Memorial itself, whose sides stretch “like the wings of an abstract bird, huge and headless” (239) in the ground. The memorial is not the painless escape Emmett was seeking but rather the communal sharing of a pain that can never completely disappear. Its headlessness further underlines it as a symbol of community rather than hierarchy.

Sam's quest alters on the trip to Washington, too. Unable to find the Beatles song in a record store near the capital, she impulsively buys Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. album instead. She takes it to the memorial and is holding it in one hand as she touches her father's name with the other. The album with Springsteen on the cover “facing the flag, as though studying it, trying to find out its meaning” (236) reflects Sam's informal study of America. She, like the singer, participates imaginatively in the Vietnam experience.

Lines from the title song of Born in the U.S.A., a song about a Vietnam vet, provide the epigraph for In Country: “I'm ten years burning down the road / Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go.” By the end of the novel, the three main characters have come together and found somewhere to go. Not only have they become a closer individual family, Sam, Irene, and Emmett have also become a more integral part of the large family of citizens born in the U.S.A. The Vietnam War experience has been enlarged to include non-combatants and in the process has become better understood by all Americans.


  1. See, for example, Philip Caputo's chronicle of his Vietnam experience, A Rumor of War (New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1977); Wallace Terry's Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans (New York: Random House, 1984); and Al Santoli's To Bear Any Burden: The Vietnam War and Its Aftermath in the Words of Americans and Southeast Asians (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1985).

  2. Carol J. Adams writes in the chapter on “Feminism, the Great War, and Modern Vegetarianism” in The Sexual Politics of Meat (New York: Continuum, 1990), p. 129 that “During the Great War the chasm between the soldier at war and the woman spectator was intentionally widened by soldier-writers who condescendingly dismissed—for lack of experience at the front—any writings by non-combatants. This legacy of condescension and dismissal carried into the Second World War as well.”

  3. For one exploration of this phenomenon, see Sharon O'Brien's “Combat Envy and Survivor Guilt”: Willa Cather's “Manly Battle Yarn” in Arms and the Woman ed. Helen M. Cooper et. al. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).

  4. All quotations are cited from In Country (New York: Harper & Row, 1986).

  5. Adams also explores this avenue, what she has dubbed “the expanded front,” in The Sexual Politics of Meat, p. 126 ff.

Pinckney Benedict (review date 5 September 1993)

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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 life of the farm is irretrievably changed. For the worse? “Don't ever think we lived in the good old days,” Christianna Wheeler, the novel's protagonist, warns her grandchild in the book's closing pages. “It was good in some ways, but it was a misery in the heart so much of the time for so many.” All times are an impenetrable mix of good and ill, and woe betide anyone foolish enough to try to sort them out one from the other. The book's very title presents the reader with a paradoxical image: feather crowns, nestlike structures of woven plumage that sometimes form in down pillows, can be taken to symbolize either the impending death of the pillow's owner, or the certainty of his accession into Heaven.

The novel opens with a long series of chapters describing the supremely uncomfortable pregnancy of Christianna Wheeler and her subsequent delivery of quintuplets, the first known to have been carried to full term in North America. Mason draws the particulars of life on the farm with impressive, almost uncanny, authority. She knows the Wheelers with the intimacy of a family member, from the fern design of their butter molds to the fact that James Wheeler whistles while plowing to keep his mule team entertained. It is a transcendant act of imagining the past. Strangely, Feather Crowns is at its weakest in these introductory sections, as though the accurate details have overpowered the other considerations of the novel, most noticeably plot. The book doesn't really begin to move until a hundred or more pages in.

Once it gets rolling, the novel's narrative unfolds along pleasing and unconventional lines. Christianna's quints bring her instant fame. Notoriety draws with it crowds of persistent gawkers, who pester the family night and day, threatening the security of their relationships while promising ever-elusive prosperity. Confrontations with these pilgrims from the nearby town of Hopewell, and later from large cities, provide opportunity for the expression of one of the book's strongest and most cogent conflicts: that between the urban and the rural. Christianna chafes under the patronizing attentions of her doctor and a woman to whom she owes money, both from town. It irks her that a St. Louis newspaper describes James and herself as “a simple country woman and her yeoman farmer husband.” Christianna is in truth far from simple. She is smart and inquisitive and, as far as the tenor of the times will admit, sexually adventurous, though even she fears that her enthusiasm for intercourse has shown up in her outlandish fecundity.

The book careens from absurdity to tragedy and back again, through adventures too numerous and too astonishing to diminish by brief description, without ever losing sight of the frailty and appealing humanity of its characters. No one, least of all the highly likeable Christianna, is spared the discerning and critical narrator's eye. Though she follows the dictates of her own relentless conscience, her judgment is far from flawless, and she takes an active part in the horrors that plague her once she has left the sheltering, suffocating borders of the Wheeler homeplace.

The book's final chapter serves as an epilogue. In 1963, on her ninetieth birthday, Christianna describes the independence and even happiness that she has found despite the catastrophes of her early days; or rather through them. Her life has become no easier, but ease is not the point, no matter what modernity tells us. She musters the grit to refuse the organizers of a Hopewell gala planned in her honor, saying that she is “just an old country woman and wouldn't know how to act in town,” not with her former humility or embarrassment, but with a gratifying and wholly unfashionable pride.

Lisa Alther (review date 24 October 1993)

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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 pursuit of sophistication, such as the notion that eating a pie point first is bad luck. (But what if it is, I found myself wondering.) And she used some similes I hadn't heard since childhood, such as, “He didn't know any more about loving than a dead horse does about Sunday.” And, “This room ain't big enough to cuss a cat in!” And, there was “more noise at the depot than 99 cows and a bob-tailed bull.”

So I read on helplessly, marveling over the power of the language I had taken for granted as a child, feeling I was trapped with my Cumberland cousins at a Sunday dinner that would never end. The five babies finally got themselves born. The family was struggling to care for and feed them. And I was beginning to dread the prospect of several hundred pages of feed-sack diapers scrubbed on a tin washboard in cold spring water, and teething soothed by pennyroyal poultices—even while secretly mourning this lost world in which an infant had been welcomed by a family as a future farmhand, rather than budgeted for as a quarter-million dollar expenditure.

But suddenly the story shifted, and I abruptly found myself in the middle of a brilliantly sustained and grimly humorous parable about fame in 20th-Century America. The five babies are “discovered” by the media. Reporters appear. Trainloads of sightseers arrive. The family itself collaborates, selling tickets and refreshments, allowing the crowds to handle the babies. The visitors trample the fields and strew the yard with trash.

Eventually the weakest baby dies, and the local mortician contrives to preserve her in a glass case, introducing a series of events as lugubrious as any Flannery O'Connor or Carson McCullers ever dreamed of. Appalled that I was going to have to watch the four other babies sicken and die one by one, “Ten Little Indians” style, I was almost relieved to have them speedily join their sister in her hermetically sealed glass case. When a seedy impresario persuades the parents to take their dead quints on the road for the edification of the public, they wind up in a carnival side show in a town that is hosting a raucous hanging.

This plot may sound far-fetched, but Mason's stunning morality tale about the process by which such degradation can overtake innocent people who simply need cash or long for some excitement is extremely illuminating—and especially for anyone alive today who has ever pondered the ravages of our modern publicity juggernaut. Mason illustrates how a creation conceived in love, passion and integrity can be transformed into a grotesque parody, one which kills off the vital impulse that generated the phenomenon in the first place. And how an audience—bored, overworked and upset in their private lives—can seize any promised diversion with such desperation that they destroy the source—killing the goose that has laid the golden eggs, to extend the barnyard metaphor.

The only bone I would pick with this magnificent novel is that it goes on too long, spelling out the parallels to latter-day victims of this process like Elvis Presley. Also, the mother of the quints insists on appearing in first person at the end of the book, a wise old woman by that point, draped like the Ancient Mariner with her down-home albatross—a need to explain the overall sociological and personal significance of her grisly experience with the quintuplets. But these important elements are already implicit in the wonderfully told story and would, to my mind, have been more evocative left that way. However, getting an Appalachian farm wife to stop talking once she's gotten going is, as in one of Mason's marvelous similes, as hopeless as shooing a skunk out of a churn.

Andrew Levy (essay date 1993)

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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 from being perceived as a “refreshing” or “improbable” change from what usually appeared in commercial magazines and literary journals, to being the exemplar of one of the two kinds of fiction found in those venues. “If,” in the words of Lila Havens, “Ann Beattie is giving us ‘bulletins from the front’”—portrayals of middle- and upper-class angst—Mason is “telling us what it's like back home.”4

Back home, of course, is a place the American short story has spent a great deal of time. From the 1830s and 1840s, when Eastern magazines and newspapers published anecdotes of frontier life gathered from papers and readers in the South and Southwest, the short story has always been a site of discourse in which a comparatively well-educated, middle-class audience could read about the fictionalized lives of the more marginal participants in the American political project. The major trends in short fiction during the nineteenth century—realism, local color, dialect—all told stories about rural residents, the poor, and ethnic minorities, in magazines distributed to audiences that either had no link with those socially disenfranchised groups, or had left them “back home.”5

In the twentieth century, these trends continued, in new transformations. As described in Chapter 2, regional, ideological, and ethnic literary movements were spearheaded by the evolution of a system of “little” magazines that, with their shoestring budgets, provided for the distribution of editorial power among economically marginal groups.6 At the same time, numerous authors and critics argued that the short story, for structural reasons, was the art form best suited for the description of a heterogeneous culture of “submerged population groups”—the American melting pot.7 This vision of the short story was then realized in published form within the modern anthology, with its all-but-invisible editor and seemingly unranked inclusion of a multitude of individual voices, which appeared like an ideal metaphor for a diverse and democratic culture. Institutionally, historically, and structurally, everything about the short story implied heterogeneity—everything, perhaps, except the audience, which at its apex consisted of perhaps the upper one-fifth of the social pyramid, and which now rarely extends beyond the comparatively small and homogeneous readership represented by the circulation lists of the New Yorker and the university presses.8

Mason's work is infused by many of these same tensions and ambitions. She writes stories of blue-collar Kentuckians for the decidedly nonblue-collar readers of the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Paris Review. Having earned a Ph.D. in literature and composed (and published) a dissertation on Vladimir Nabokov's difficult Ada, she nevertheless has crafted an antiliterary narrative style, and authorial persona to match: Laughing at an interviewer's insistence that she “must know some big words,” for instance, Mason responded that “I don't say them out loud.”9 In this context, it is worth wondering precisely how much cultural distance separates the Atlantic publishing one of Mason's blue-collar tales in the name of “dirty realism” in 1983, and publishing a story composed entirely in a Newfoundland patois and lauding its “realism” in 1862.10 Although Mason's writing is often represented as somehow radical, it is difficult to resist the observation that her populism, and the populism of other “dirty realists,” is almost entirely consistent with the ideological composition of one hundred and fifty years of American short story telling.

In this event, the nature of Mason's innovation might not be her much-lauded populist edge, which is neither particularly populist nor innovative. Rather, Mason represents a significant chapter in the history of the short story because of the extent to which she combines many of the century-old narrative strategies of the American short story with a peculiarly postmodern (and postliterate) self-consciousness. Susan Sontag, in the epigraph that prefaced this chapter, observes that one way an American writer copes with life in an anti-intellectual culture is by playing dumb. If America is anti-intellectual because intellectualism constitutes an ostentatious show of superiority that is anathema to democratic culture, however, then the American writer has a second option: He or she can create fiction that undermines the myth structure from which intellectualism (and authorship) has drawn its power. That writer can attempt to ‘democratize’ literature by using models of authorship, narrative, and protagonism that suggest authors and heroes work within a community, rather than rise gloriously and rebelliously above it.

In doing so, of course, the author risks undermining his or her own authority. The short story “Shiloh” illustrates how Mason has developed a narrative strategy that combines radically democratic visions of creative activity with a residual faith in what she calls the “alienated, superior sensibility.”11 It is a highly seductive strategy, one in which the author balances the conflict between the desire to celebrate oneself and to celebrate one's community by consciously and conscientiously playing dumb, as though playing dumb was, in itself, another American art form. It is also a strategy in which the traditional energies of the short story have provided an institutional and intellectual framework within which Mason and other “dirty realists” could operate, and thus add another chapter to the long and thriving history of one class of Americans writing about another.


I didn't understand the conflict between the type of mind I had and the type of mind I was trying to be.

Bobbie Ann Mason, “Conversation” 133–4.

In published interviews, Mason has been straightforward about the tension inherent in her fiction between home and away-from-home. When asked in 1984 how the people in her hometown—the kind of “everyday people” that populate her stories—have reacted to her success, she responded that “since I hardly know anybody there, I don't really know.” She similarly observed that “lower-middle class people”—again, the residents of her stories—“don't have much access to fiction,” and would probably “rather be reading Princess Daisy” than her work. Despite these limitations, Mason clearly perceives her fiction as having populist ramifications. Her stated ambition is to include in high-culture discourse the kind of characters and models for narrative that would normally be excluded:

Throughout American literature, the hero was the alienated superior sensibility, the artist, the sensitive young man. I read so much of that in school that by the time I was ready to write, I was sick of reading about that guy, and I thought, “At least he could be a woman,” or maybe someone who was not sensitive and not superior. I think that's how I finally arrived at knowing who I was going to write about …

For Mason, the issue is not who reads literature, but what kinds of lives are considered worthy of being literature. She perceives herself as part of a larger populist “cultural shift” where the spread of education and wealth allows the “masses” to get access to the “good life”; and just as the masses get access to the good life, Mason gets them (and herself, the daughter of dairy farmers from western Kentucky) access to the ‘good’ magazines. The result is that, in theory at least, high-culture discourse is transformed and democratized by this infusion of “popular culture,” and that “suddenly,” in Mason's phrase, “we're discovering that store clerks and cowboys also have valid lives.”12

Initially, the critical response to Mason's fiction focused on this aspect of her work, on how she seemed to be crossing demographic barriers by presenting her “farmers, store clerks, and truck drivers” in the elegant typescript of the Atlantic or Harper and Row publications.13 The New York Times wrote that “the gap to be bridged empathically between her readership and her characters was formidable.” The Chicago Tribune wrote that “the details of her characters' lives must seem as remote as Timbuktu to the readers of the New Yorker or the Atlantic.” The temptation to consider her fictions valuable simply because they contained factual data about an “exotic culture” was so strong that the Village Voice critic reminded his readers that Shiloh, and Other Stories “was not anthropology.” These critical reactions indicate that what made Mason's work exciting in 1982 was not just what she said, but where she said it. She was genuinely perceived as having infused high- and middle-culture sites of publication and readership with a realistic, uncondescending dose of low culture—and, more important, as having somehow bridged an empathetic gap that divided Americans into those separate classes.14

These are, of course, high-culture voices who are deciding what constitutes a realistic, uncondescending portrait of low culture. Mason has said that she has heard “rumors” that some residents of her hometown who have read her fiction dislike it because it makes them seem “too much like country people.”15 It is, in fact, almost too easy to deconstruct Mason's populism (and the cheerful response it has received), given that the entire project is virtually invisible to the classes of people it is supposedly empowering. Her literary politics are founded upon the troubling and decidedly unpopulist assumption that “store clerks' lives” are valid only to the extent that they are discussed in the New Yorker and taken seriously by an upper-middle-class audience. Similarly, her critics (if not necessarily her readers) do not question the possibility that her work might not be a “realistic” vision of lower-class life at all, but an imaginative reconstruction that appeals to an upper-middle-class audience for many reasons, some of them potentially antagonistic. Given her own tension regarding her Kentucky roots—she has spoken of feeling “threatened” by home, but recently relocated there from Pennsylvania—the possibility that her fiction contains ambivalent impulses toward home is rarely considered.16

Just as the praise for Mason fails to account for the possibility that her success might have more to do with the empathy she shares with her readership than with her characters, however, these criticisms ignore the possibility that Mason herself is both conscious of, and fascinated with, these very issues. Thus, although Mason has congratulated herself for ‘validating’ lower-class lives, she more often observes that the “strength of my fiction has been the tension between being from there and not from there.”17 She has similarly suggested the popularity of her fiction can be attributed to the large number of people who, like her, have left behind blue-collar upbringings and joined a rising middle class. For that audience, reading her stories, like writing them, constitutes an act of reconciliation with the home that is left behind:

My work seems to have struck a chord with a number of readers who have left home and maybe who have rejected it, and I think it startles them because they thought they were rid of it …18

For Mason, her work appeals to a broader audience because she brings to a high-culture site of discourse the sort of popular culture references and concerns that she believes have been repressed from high-culture discourse. The “home” that is left behind is not just rural Kentucky, but the “popular culture” that is repudiated (or diluted) by a rising middle class, or an entrenched upper class. As Mason recognizes, however, the repression of that popular culture is rarely complete: The appearance of her K-Mart brand names and rock music references on the pages of the New Yorker represents something like the bubbling up of a political subconscious, intruding itself on high-culture lives in a manageable form.

In many ways, Mason's consciousness of class difference is the key to her fiction. She has said that “it's the most extraordinary thing to move out of your class,” and the quote resonates across virtually every aspect of her narrative project.19 Not only does it describe her own rise from the daughter of dairy farmers to respected writer, but it also seems to describe her stories themselves, which appear like representatives of an entrenched underclass in sites of discourse in which that underclass theoretically rarely finds a voice. As she herself suggests, most of her audience is also displaced out if its class of origin, and finds her stories appealing for the reconciliation they offer. And, unsurprisingly, class and cultural displacement are also the major thematic matter of her stories: The New York Times, for instance, wrote that “ominous forces of disorientation are loose in Masonland,” and observed that Mason's stories invariably deal with the personal and emotional consequences of sweeping social change.20

In this context, whether or not Mason is a working-class heroine is not a relevant issue. If the most significant aspect of her fiction is the manner in which it seems to jump across demographic barriers (while dealing thematically with the consequences of social dislocation), then we should value that jump (and her exploration of the consequences) as the central element of her work, not a tangential one. Caught between her sympathy for the underclass and her desire to run away from it, Mason has constructed a body of fiction and a narratology for the rising middle class, a way of telling stories that tries to balance the dictates of a radical populist program with an affection for the individual that rises above populism. “Shiloh” provides the first, and best, example of that narratology.


The two protagonists of “Shiloh,” Leroy and Norma Jean Moffett, are not in control of their lives. Rather, they appear to be moved by larger external forces which they only dimly recognize and certainly do not understand. The most active force in “Shiloh,” for instance, appears to be the feminist movement, which makes its way to the Kentucky couple through a television set broadcasting Donahue.21 The story presents Norma Jean's evolution toward what Donahue himself might call “self-actualization” (she takes college courses, begins working out, gets a job, and eventually tells Leroy that she wants a divorce), and Leroy's lapses toward a childlike confusion. Her movement toward fulfilling some ideal of individuality, however, is mitigated throughout by her confusion over the reasons for her actions. When Leroy asks Norma Jean if her request for a divorce is a “women's lib thing,” for instance, she answers, “don't be funny”; later, she adds “I don't know what I'm saying. Forget it.”22

Similarly, Leroy, who has come to realize that “he never took time to examine anything,” nevertheless “forgets where he hears things anymore,” and seems lost in nostalgic fantasies of starting over, exemplified by his desire to build a log cabin as their ‘new’ homestead. Neither he nor Norma Jean seems to recognize the stress that losing their baby several years earlier has had on their marriage, even though Leroy recalls having heard “that for most people losing a child destroys the marriage.”23 Fittingly, Norma Jean's announcement that she wants a divorce takes place in a cemetery, where Leroy seems to sense the link between his failing marriage and death in general, but cannot quite make the more personal connection between his imminent divorce and the loss of their son: “Leroy is trying to comprehend that his marriage is breaking up, but for some reason he is wondering about white slabs in a graveyard.”24

That final scene is set, appropriately, at a National Historical Site, the Civil War battleground at Shiloh, Tennessee. Leroy, attempting to explain the failure of his marriage, widens his perspective and seeks to locate his and Norma Jean's place within a larger scope of historical change:

General Grant, drunk and furious, shoved the Southerners back to Corinth, where Mabel and Jet Beasley were married years later, when Mabel was still thin and good looking. The next day, Mabel and Jet visited the battleground, and then Norma Jean was born, and then she married Leroy and had a baby, which they lost, and now Leroy and Norma Jean are here at the same battleground …

Leroy's epiphany, however, comes not when he successfully locates his place in history, but when he recognizes his inability to understand the forces of social change that have affected his life, an inability reflected in his rote listing of battleground names and family milestones. In a central line, Mason poetically describes these forces as “the insides of history”:

Leroy knows he is leaving out a lot. He is leaving out the insides of history. And the real inner workings of a marriage, like most of history, have escaped him …

At this point, Leroy recognizes his desire to build a log cabin as a refusal to adjust to social change, and dedicates himself to “get moving again.” This optimistic moment is undermined by the very conclusion, however: Leroy, with one bad leg and one leg asleep, barely capable of “moving” in any sense, nevertheless strides hopefully toward Norma Jean, who is gesturing in what is either a welcoming wave or a muscle exercise designed to increase her own strength. The story ends at that ambiguous moment: It is as if Leroy's recognition that he has not understood the “inner workings” of past events is no guarantee that he will understand them in the future.25

The third-person narrator, interestingly, seems to be in a similar position. The story is told in an artfully awkward prose, on a level of vocabulary equivalent to that of Leroy and Norma Jean (Mason has said, probably exaggerating, that she limits herself to a six-hundred-word lexicon).26 Just as Norma Jean and Leroy seem confused over the reasons for their own behavior, the narrator seems unwilling or unable to locate, and emphasize, the ‘meaningful moments’ within the story. “Shiloh,” like most of Mason's stories, has a flat texture, seems unplotted, and ends with an ambiguous and elliptical image (“The sky is unusually pale—the color of the dust ruffle Mabel made for their bed”) that provides no sense of closure.27 Superficially at least, Mason refuses to appear any more in control of the narrative than her characters are in control of their lives.

In doing so, she creates an authorial persona that is bound empathetically to the lives of the people she believes to be trapped inside history. She is unafraid of analyzing herself from the same historicist perspective, even though that perspective often undercuts her own authority by implying that she is not in control of the process of composition:

I can't analyze it in detail and I'm not sure I can say why I choose to write that way, or even if I choose. I think things like that must be determined by larger social forces …28

Much of what Mason says about her own work is informed by this same self-deprecating, and antiliterary, perspective. Responding to a student's complicated interpretation of the dust-ruffle image that closes “Shiloh,” for instance, she denies knowledge of the implications the student found, and instead observes that she writes “innocently.”29 Similarly, she has described her decisions about plot and closure in terms that suggest she dislikes making conscious choices about composition, and prefers instead to do anything she can to “get at that subconscious”: “When you're writing a story, there comes a moment when it feels right to quit. Sometimes that just happens … It comes out of a feeling … It's—I'm not used to being analytical about it.”30 In describing her own work process as a sequence of unplanned choices dictated by subconscious or external forces over which she has little control, Mason creates a vision of her own creative activity that is identical to her vision of the lives of her characters, and that is modeled on a distinctly historicist perspective on behavior. Just as she says that her stories are composed “innocently,” and conclude at a moment she has neither planned nor analyzed afterward, her characters “don't think of their lives as a story with coherence: They're just in it, they don't know what's going to happen next or why anything's happening.”31

This is, as Sontag notes, an old game; but Mason practices it with unusually intricate self-consciousness. Unlike her characters, who appear both trapped within history and unable to recognize its influence on their lives, Mason's knowing “innocence” is coordinated with a deliberate effort on her part to control the effect of external conditions on her creative output. Her acceptance of these effects, in turn, places her in a position of both superiority over and sympathy with her characters: sympathy, because she accepts her own helplessness as well as theirs; superiority, because she recognizes and identifies them, and makes them major elements in her empowerment as a writer. In an interview with Lila Havens, for instance, Mason echoes Norma Jean's comments on the feminist movement, but with a telling difference: Where Norma Jean denies that feminism is a factor in her behavior, Mason notes that she “internalized” feminism, and then “moved on”—that is, she consciously accepted an external social movement into her subconscious, so that it would become an element in her “innocent,” socially unaware poetic.32 It is the precise difference enacted in her demographic relationship to her characters: Norma Jean and Leroy Moffett and Mason were all born and raised in lower-middle-class rural Kentucky, but while the Moffetts labor at rising above or repudiating the conditions of their lives, Mason has “moved on,” acquired a Ph.D., and gained control of those same conditions (and the Moffetts themselves) as the resources of her fiction.

In a like manner, she denies being explicitly “political,” but her thoughts on the purpose of her writing are laced with phrases such as “class struggle,” suggesting that she has also, to some extent, internalized Marxism, and then moved on. This internalization of Marxist ideology is perhaps the most crucial aspect of her fiction. Throughout interviews, she has used the term “superior sensibility” (or variants thereof) to describe the model for fiction she believes has been unnecessarily dominant in the past.33 In its place, Mason substitutes a model for the behavior of characters in fiction in which they move in coordination with communal values, or are moved (hesitatingly or not) by the force of those communal values. Similarly, her model of authorship appears to disdain the notion that the serious writer is a superior sensibility by presenting narrators and implied authors that seem neither more alienated nor more sensitive than their characters: “I don't feel superior to these people,” Mason notes of her subjects, “I feel I'm luckier.”34


As mentioned earlier, “Shiloh” has been one of the most anthologized stories of the 1980s; along with selections from Jayne Anne Phillips, Louise Erdrich, Raymond Carver, Anne Beattie, and a handful of other authors, Mason's story has been consistently selected by textbook and commercial anthology editors as a representative of the best the 1980s short story had to offer.35 In a significant sense, the popularity of “Shiloh” provides a further illustration of the most radical implications of Mason's narratology, and the kinds of publishing patterns that would be produced by the institutionalization of that narratology. The inference of Mason's poetic is that worthy fiction is not produced by individuals who control the resources of their fiction and the circumstances of its reception, but by individuals who respond “innocently” to a mixture of external and subconscious forces. In the past, it has been a commonplace of literature that special individuals might possess this special innocence—they might, for instance, be the Aeolian Harps through which God chose to communicate to Man. But the peculiar nature of Mason's repudiation of the alien, superior sensibility is that it widens the franchise of “innocence” to people who lack any special spiritual insights or charismatic gifts of artistic ability, as well as to those who have no knowledge of tradition or craft. She widens the franchise of potential artists to those who are truly “innocent,” and respond “innocently” to external social forces—which is to say, virtually everybody. This model of creative activity, carried to its institutional fulfillment, would justify a system of publication and canonization where multivocal sites of discourse such as anthologies or magazines dominate, and where conservative assumptions about the consistent quality of an author's oeuvre are replaced by greater accessibility to the processes of publication and canonization.

Mason's own descriptions of the composition of “Shiloh” and her other early stories vividly illustrate the degree of her commitment to this model. Rather than describing the act of writing (about which she is almost consistently unforthcoming), Mason focuses on the correspondence between herself and Roger Angell of the New Yorker, who rejected nineteen of her stories before accepting one:

We developed a correspondence and he really encouraged me a great deal, and I got very excited about what I was doing and worked very hard. Usually what he told me were not bits of advice on revising but just sort of subjective responses about the central reasons he didn't think they could publish the story, and he would offer a general criticism … it was fairly general, but usually he would make one or two comments that would hit right at the problem with the story, and it would give me something to think about. …36

As Mason describes it, “Shiloh” and her personal writing style were the product of a lengthy, impressionistic dialogue between herself and Angell who, as fiction editor of the New Yorker, might reasonably be called a living metonymy for the short-story publishing establishment. That her personal style could be perceived as the product of an engagement between herself and an external representative of the publishing community, rather than the product of some isolated, alien poesis, is a possibility that Mason characteristically does not seem to mind.

In fact, “Shiloh” itself, with its reliance on historicizable forces and the present tense, seems to invite the interpretation that it was generated by a moment of interaction between editor, author, genre, and culture, rather than by a isolated author. Mason relentlessly uses brand names, and references to songs that are popular at a given point in time, to historicize her stories to points in history (responding to a question about why she refers to songs and cultural figures by name in In Country, for instance, Mason says that “In Country was in the summer of '84. There are only a few years in which that story could take place”).37 In effect, this use of popular culture references creates a special language that not only dates the story to a specific moment in time but also makes it less readable as the years pass after its publication. These are all factors that justify “Shiloh”'s presence in current anthologies as a representative of the kind of short stories contemporary culture has to offer to the tradition. These factors also moderate the criticism Mason so often receives for writing “New Yorker-type stories”—a contemporary subgenre (to be distinguished from the “New Yorker” stories of previous generations) that she, in fact, did much to help create. As a study of her poetic clearly indicates, composing a story that contained within itself the unconscious traces that define a community was the entire point of her creative efforts, not an awkward after-effect.

These factors also suggest that “Shiloh” will not be so heavily anthologized in the future, unless contemporary culture remains static enough so the special language of popular culture references means as much in 2002 as it did in 1982. To a certain extent, Bobbie Ann Mason is writing a kind of disposable literature: serious fiction that addresses specific moments in time, which could be written only in specific moments in time, and that is initially published in sites of discourse (magazines) that are themselves more disposable than the bound volumes within which serious writing is usually enveloped. Friction occurs when this ideology clashes against more conservative assumptions about authorship: When, for instance, Mason herself keeps writing and publishing, she is implying that she can continue deliberately to produce those extraordinary moments when a community interacts with an individual (or an individual interacts with her subconscious) to produce a memorable story, a notion that contains within itself the main elements of the alien, superior sensibility with a uniquely Marxist twist.

Of course, Mason has continued writing and publishing her stories in bound volumes. The irony of Mason's philosophical flexibility concerning external social forces is that it accommodates the kind of self-deprecation that might be expected from a beginning, but not an established, author. That flexibility is part of a narratology for a rising class of people with divided sympathies; but not for an entrenched one. And a survey of the interviews Mason has granted in the seven years since her initial success suggests that as she has grown more confident with her own authorship, she has also repudiated the self-deprecating models of behavior that formed the philosophical underpinning for her rejection of the alien, superior sensibility, and—to some extent—for her preference for the short story.

In an early interview, for instance, she dwells on her relationship with Roger Angell and the New Yorker, and speaks in modest terms about her own critical success: “I'm still really quite surprised that my work has made the impression it has.”38 More recently, however, she dwells on the fact that she now composes alone, and shows her work to no one prior to sending it to her publishers. In a similar manner, her stance toward the alien, superior sensibility has altered considerably. In an interview conducted in 1989, Mason describes her evolution as an artist, and describes her repudiation of that sensibility using the same anecdote found in earlier interviews, but with a crucial twist at the conclusion:

I thought, “Well, I'll write a kind of Huckleberry Finn novel about a girl. I won't write about the sensitive young man, won't write about the artist, the sensitive youth coming of age. I'll write about somebody who is insensitive, and who doesn't wear glasses.” And I found out that you couldn't do that! There's no story there …39

Interestingly, though, there is no conspicuous way to tell from Mason's fiction exactly when she made this discovery; her subject matter and her major themes have remained comparatively unchanged, and it could be easily argued that her most recent novel, In Country, is very much a kind of Huckleberry Finn about a girl. All Mason seems to have discovered, rather, is the point where her life has finally diverged completely from those of her characters—where her private story cannot be told without a sensitive artist figure performing at the center, and possibly wearing glasses.


Mason's ethos of fiction represents a forceful embodiment of the major ideological concerns that have surrounded the development of short fiction in this country. It is impossible to miss the resemblance between William Carlos Williams's paradigmatic claim that the brevity of the short story matched the “heterogeneity” and “brokenness” of lower-class lives, for instance, and Mason's own belief that the lives of the underclass do not follow structured plot lines, and require a new kind of ‘story’ (or, for that matter, Raymond Carver's observation that writing a novel was impossible while he had to think about paying the rent).40 It is equally difficult to ignore the echoes of Poe's affinity for disposable literature in Mason's celebration of the present tense. Bret Harte's conscious regionalism, James Farrell's Marxist exasperation with traditional short story forms, and Edward O'Brien's over-the-top exclamations about ethnic inclusion all resonate in Mason's faith in the populist possibilities of her fiction. In general, the two most widely circulated canons of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries regarding short fiction are that the genre is easy to read and to write, and that it therefore represents a significant alternative to older modes of determining literary value; Mason's self-deprecating efforts to restructure the form somehow capture both the abnegating and ambitious aspects of these two canons, and with the kind of attentiveness to communal voices that seems entirely typical of Mason's work.41

In particular, however, one aspect of Mason's fiction—what she calls the tension between “from there” and “not from there”—is especially central to attempts to understand the historical development of the American short story, as well as its current state. To the extent that the short story had radically democratic implications, those implications have been played out within high- and middle-culture spheres. For this reason, it is significant that the short story was accepted, however tentatively, as a genre of high literature, as opposed to being identified as a genre of popular culture. Within the field of popular culture, the short story would be considered the least democratic of art forms; but among a play of literary genres consisting of novels, poetry, and drama, the short story as it developed in the late nineteenth century clearly represented the most accessible, most easily written, and most widely dispersed form of high literature. This distinction, in turn, illustrates how the short story was never a democratizing project in the purest sense, but part of an attempt to infiltrate high-culture discourse with middle- and low-culture influences—while leaving the aristocratic underpinning of high literature intact. Throughout its existence, the short story project has been an attempt to wrest “literature” from genres (i.e., the novel, lyric poetry) and sites of publication (i.e., bound volumes) that were associated with a European (and upper-class American) form of cultural capital that even a newly moneyed bourgeois aristocracy could not buy itself into. It was the literary icon of the rising middle class.

All of these factors clearly resonate within Mason's fiction. Just as her creative activity mediates between genuinely populist impulses and faith in the ideology of individualism, the development of the short story in America has been marked by the tension between these two conflicting beliefs. Specifically, because the short story project never completely questioned the aristocratic underpinning of literature—the faith that certain texts and certain individuals were intrinsically better than others—it was placed at a natural disadvantage within a purely literary discourse among genres that did not have to bear the burden of being associated with attempts to level definitions of excellence. The consequence is that even contemporary critics and students of the short story often perceive it as a site of discourse where the community, in the form of mercantile considerations or academic guidelines, exercises a restrictive amount of control over the individual artist. For many, this belief is corroborated by the brevity of the short story itself, which seems somehow to restrain the writer, in contrast to the freedom he or she might practice within the wide open spaces of the novel. Mason, for instance, has described the short story as a “constrained” form, and has spoken of the things that an author cannot do within those limitations.42

This was, however, a natural consequence of the manner in which the American short story had been sold to the American reading and writing public. The immense, almost universal popularity of Edgar Allan Poe and his review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales (1842) within discussions of the American short story illustrates the extent to which future short story practitioners and proponents had accepted that their genre would be associated with Poe's hyperconscious (and possibly hoaxing) insistence that the composition of high literature was a quantifiable process within which intuition played no part whatsoever.43 This insistence that the short story could be defined scientifically by someone other than the author dovetailed smoothly with ideological arguments that claimed that the short story was America's art form, and could therefore be defined not according to practice, but according to what the individual observer believed America's art form should represent.44 It similarly addressed the desires of both the magazine and academic establishments, which could profit substantially by claiming that the individual short story had to respond to a set of predetermined rules. The result of this conflation of institutional desires and ideological arguments was that by 1930, the short story had been subjected to a veritable avalanche of definitions, theoretical treatises, and best-selling how-to handbooks.

And even after the death of the short story as a commercial genre, this definitional energy remained a fact of the genre. The entire system of graduate programs and creative writing courses that has developed in the last forty years would have been an impossibility without a founding ideology that claimed that the composition of high literature was a craft that could be quantified and taught.45 This same ideology, with a slight twist, also empowered the New Critics, who made the short story a staple in high school and college English courses by recognizing that the relative length of a short story implied that it had been better crafted than a novel, and would better reward close reading (and would also make it more easily taught, a nontrivial pragmatic issue).46 If, in other words, the short story has been consistently attacked as a site of formulaic writing, it has been for reasons that are grounded in the most forceful celebrations of the genre—that it is a site of discourse where the community has a say in the composition process.

And so, despite the fact that the short story was the literary icon of a rising and entrepreneurial middle class, rhetoric about the short story could subvert in remarkable ways the ideology of individualism upon which that rise was based. Walter Pitkin, for instance, one of the leading writers of how-to short story handbooks during the period of their great popularity, dispensed advice that derided even the most innocuous defense of individualism:

What you should do is to get interested in the same subject matter and in the same problems of modern life which the successful writers are dealing with. And then form your own impressions and opinions about these and write what pleases you in the popular language of the day. One of the most pernicious pieces of advice ever given to young writers was that famous utterance of O. Henry: “There is only one rule to success in literature. Write what pleases you.”47

Pitkin's advice is especially striking because it was directed toward a generation of young middle-class Americans who saw the short story as an opportunity to make money and be artists at the same time—an idyllic conflation of bourgeois and aristocratic ideals founded specifically on the desire to do exactly what “pleased you.” But what is also striking about Pitkin's advice is that, with his recommendations to internalize external social movements and write in “the popular language of the day,” it greatly resembles Bobbie Ann Mason's own approach to writing fiction.

This statement is not made even remotely to suggest that Mason was influenced in any way by Pitkin, any other short story handbook writer, or any explicit knowledge of the development of the short story in this country. The resemblance between her approach and Pitkin's is cited here because it illustrates how the decision to write short stories, then as well as now, constitutes an archetypal response to the conditions of American culture. Just as Pitkin wrote explicitly for an audience of would-be artists that chose the short story over other genres because it conferred a degree of bourgeois respectability, Mason developed a literary politics that balanced an immense sympathy toward popular culture (she has joked in interviews that she is a writer because she is too shy to be a rock star) with an almost equal empathy for those who repudiated popular culture for something presumably better.48 In this respect, it is significant that Bobbie Ann Mason jokes about wanting to be a rock star; but it is equally significant that she persistently tried to publish in the New Yorker, rather than publishing in the smaller literary magazines in which beginning short story writers often find their first audience. To publish in the little magazines would constitute an act of wholehearted sympathy (which she clearly doesn't feel) with high culture literariness, just as the desire to be a rock star is an acknowledgment of the continuing pull of popular culture in her ambitions. Only the New Yorker—the short story writer's Mecca—could offer a reconciliation of these mixed desires, by giving Mason critical vogue with the upper class, enough readers to be considered popular, and the kind of middle-class respectability that can come only to the writer who is well paid for her efforts.

Mason's success, and her influence, also illustrate the degree to which modern trends in the short story have a historical precedent. The state of the contemporary American short story, with its populist orientation (“experiment is out, concern is in,” Elizabeth Spencer wrote in 1983)49 and its academic institutions, represents a rebirth of the strong nationalist expectations and the emphasis on technique that have been its major tenets since the nineteenth century. A school of fiction such as “minimalism,” which promotes literary values such as economy and sparseness and encourages the individual writer to concentrate on each individual sentence, is certainly a logical development in an academic climate where there are currently two hundred graduate writing programs yearly conferring close to a thousand degrees on would-be short story writers—many of whom will become writing teachers and find that it is both easy and profitable to insist on teachable values such as economy of composition. This academic climate, however, was predated by the interest of the New Critics in the short story in the 1940s, which evolved from the explosion of short story handbooks and courses in the 1920s, which in turn was authorized by the immense influence of Brander Matthews's “Philosophy of the Short Story” (1885)—a treatise that, borrowing from Poe, insisted the short story was a superior art form precisely because it abided by the kind of rules that could be taught in school.50

These pedagogical developments, in turn, would have been unlikely without the existence of a demand somewhere within the American political unconscious for an art form that acted like a mercantile object, and that somehow combined the best elements of being an aristocrat with being a good populist. It was this idyllic unification of classes that Poe promised American artists in “The Philosophy of Composition,” when he claimed that he would show how it was possible deliberately to compose a piece of writing that would “suit at once the popular and critical taste.”51 Bobbie Ann Mason is Poe turned inside out: Playing dumb where Poe played smart, shrinking her vocabulary and pointing her pen down the social ladder instead of up, she has nevertheless founded her project upon the same uneasy but radical rejection of the romance of the artist, and has weaved similarly slippery constructions of class and democracy into an ambitious, partially hoaxing, and easily imitable literary politics. Her work suggests that the distance between Poe's imperial pedagogical pose, and the deliberately self-deprecating and rustic Americana of one hundred years of local color, dialect, regionalism, and minimalism, is slim when measured in terms of class, writerly aspiration, or audience.


  1. Bobbie Ann Mason, “Shiloh,” New Yorker (20 Oct. 1980): 50–7. Mason's “Offerings” was published in the New Yorker earlier that year.

  2. Best American Short Stories 1981, eds. Hortense Calisher and Shannon Ravenel (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981) 171–84. Bobbie Ann Mason, “Residents and Transients: An Interview with Bobbie Ann Mason,” Crazy Horse (Feb. 1984): 87. Bobbie Ann Mason, Shiloh, and Other Stories (New York: Harper and Row, 1982).

  3. Mason, “Residents” 95. See, for instance, Nancy Pate, “The Real Small-Town South,” review of Me and My Baby View the Eclipse, by Lee Smith, Philadelphia Inquirer 12 Mar. 1990: 2–E. Kim Herzinger, “Introduction: On the New Fiction,” Mississippi Review 40/41 (Winter 1985): 8. Joe David Bellamy, “A Downpour of Literary Republicanism,” Mississippi Review 40/41 (Winter 1985): 31–9.

  4. Mason, “Residents” 87.

  5. See Chapter 2. For a discussion of the development of the short story of the 1830s, see Eugene Current-Garcia, The American Short Story before 1850: A Critical History (Boston: Twayne, 1985) 91–9.

  6. Frederick J. Hoffman, Charles Allen, and Carolyn Ulrich, The Little Magazine: A History and a Bibliography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946) v–vi, 1–6.

  7. Frank O'Connor, The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story (New York: World, 1963) 20, 40–1.

  8. See Chapter 2. James Hart, The Popular Book: A History of America's Literary Taste (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950) 286. Theodore Peterson, Magazines in the Twentieth Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1964), and F. L. Mott, A History of American Magazines, 1865–1905 (1938; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967), both discuss magazine circulation rolls in detail.

    For a discussion of anthology selection processes, see Chapter 2. See also Peter S. Prescott, introduction, The Norton Book of American Short Stories (New York: W. W. Norton, 1988) 14. “I decided to resist the temptation to define to any strict degree what a short story is. To define is to exclude, and there's something in the American character that resists exclusion; for a collection of American stories I needed a vulgar comprehensiveness.”

  9. Bobbie Ann Mason, “A Conversation with Bobbie Ann Mason,” ed. David Y. Todd, Boulevard 4–5.3–1 (Spring 1990): 135.

  10. F. L. Pattee, The Development of the American Short Story (1925; New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1975) 170.

  11. Mason, “Residents” 95. In Bobbie Ann Mason, “An Interview with Bobbie Ann Mason,” ed. Enid Shomer, Black Warrior Review 12.2 (1986): 98, she refers to the “alienated hero,” and the “superior sensibility.” In Mason, “Conversation” 134, she speaks of the “sensitive young man,” in the same context.

  12. Mason, “Residents” 89, 90, 95, 96.

  13. Suzanne Freeman, “Where the Old South Meets the New,” review of Shiloh, and Other Stories, by Bobbie Ann Mason, Chicago Tribune Book World, 31 Oct. 1982: 3.

  14. David Quammen, “Plain Folk and Puzzling Changes,” review of Shiloh, and Other Stories, by Bobbie Ann Mason, New York Times Book Review, 21 Nov. 1982: 7. Freeman 8. Geoffrey Stokes, review of Shiloh, and Other Stories, by Bobbie Ann Mason, Village Voice Literary Supplement, 9 Nov. 1982: 7.

  15. Mason, “Residents” 90.

  16. Mason, “Conversation” 135.

  17. Mason, “Conversation” 135.

  18. Mason, “Residents” 88.

  19. Mason, “Residents” 102.

  20. Quammen 7.

  21. Mason, “Shiloh” 50.

  22. Mason, “Shiloh” 57.

  23. Mason, “Shiloh” 50.

  24. Mason, “Shiloh” 57.

  25. Mason, “Shiloh” 57.

  26. Mason, Shomer “Interview” 96.

  27. Mason, “Shiloh” 57.

  28. Mason, “Residents” 101.

  29. Mason, “Residents” 97.

  30. Mason, “Conversation” 138–9.

  31. Mason, “Residents” 101.

  32. Mason, “Residents” 94.

  33. Mason, “Residents” 95.

  34. Mason, “Residents” 88.

  35. Eugene Current-Garcia and Bert Hitchcock, eds., American Short Stories (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman/Little, Brown, 1990), for instance, includes Ursula LeGuin, Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Alice Walker, Joy Williams, Tobias Wolff, Tim O'Brien, David Michael Kaplan, Jayne Anne Phillips, Louise Erdrich, and Michael Martone in the “Contemporary Flowering” section. Ann Charters, ed., The Story and its Writer (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987) includes Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Alice Adams, Louise Erdrich, Mark Helprin, Jamaica Kincaid, David Leavitt, Ursula LeGuin, Bobbie Ann Mason, Alice Munro, Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Alice Walker. Michael Meyer, Bedford Introduction to Literature (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987) uses Carver, Erdrich, Mason, Phillips, and Mark Strand for the “Album of Contemporary Stories.” Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell, eds., Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing (Fort Worth, TX: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1991) includes Amy Tan, Anne Tyler, Alice Walker, Alice Munro, Mason, Madison Smartt Bell, Lorrie Moore, Charles Baxter, and Louise Erdrich.

  36. Mason, “Residents” 98.

  37. Mason, “Conversation” 141.

  38. Mason, “Residents” 104.

  39. Mason, “Conversation” 134.

  40. William Carlos Williams, “A Beginning on the Short Story” (Yonkers, NY: Alicat Press, 1950) 11. Raymond Carver, “Fires,” in Fires (Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press, 1983) 26.

  41. For discussions of O'Brien, Farrell, Harte, et al., see Chapter 2. For bibliographical information, See Chapter 2, notes 10, 48, 52.

    An interesting distinction can be made between “insider” local colorists, and “outsider” local colorists. “Insiders” would include authors such as Charles Chesnutt, who wrote about black American characters for an Atlantic readership, or even Mark Twain, who began life as a Western mechanical worker. “Outsiders” would include any author who did not belong to the ethnic or geographic community that offered the “color” within that particular fiction. The implication, of course, is that the former group would be more “ideologically sensitive” in its depictions of local life, although the audience's perception of the ethnicity of the author would also create other less polite possibilities. It is unclear whether Mason would belong to the former group, or the latter group, which further complicates the “tension between being from there and not from there” that she describes as central to her fiction.

    Mason's own ethos of disposability also deserves further analysis. As an earlier part of this chapter suggests, Mason's conscious efforts to use potentially obsolescent popular culture references “date” her fictions, and create the possibility that they too will become obsolete. In addition, however, her use of those references also circumscribes her audience to individuals who are sufficiently highbrow to understand her postmodern formal gestures, and lowbrow enough to be familiar with Donahue and Bruce Springsteen. If Mason's individual fictions are disposable, her career is not: She simply recruits readers who follow popular culture at approximately the same distance as she does.

  42. Mason, “Conversation” 143. The difference between the constraints of the short story and those in other genres is that the constraints placed on the short story writer are considered to discourage individual achievement, while the constraints in other genres are designed to display such achievements more clearly. Although a lyric poem such as a villanelle places enormous structural restrictions on the poet, for instance, poetry is nevertheless considered such a luxury good among literary forms that those restrictions become only hurdles over which an educated poet can display the sort of alienated, superior sensibility that has both the leisure time and the intelligence to triumph over voluntarily selected intellectual challenges.

  43. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition,” Graham's Magazine April 1846: 163–7. Reprinted in Edgar Allan Poe, Essays and Reviews, ed. G. R. Thompson (New York: Library of America, 1984) 13–25, see especially 14–15. Poe, “Twice-Told Tales,” review of Twice-Told Tales, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Graham's Magazine May 1842: 298–300. Reprinted in Edgar Allan Poe, Essays and Reviews: 569–77.

  44. See Chapter 2. Prescott 14: “The point I think is worth considering is that alone among literary forms, the short story is the one at whose creation Americans were present … to be sure, foreigners tried to invent the short story and may even have thought that they had … the thing itself is ours, invented by us a century and a half ago and dominated by Americans ever since.”

  45. See Chapter 2. This canon persists, especially with the use of the short story as a teaching tool in contemporary creative writing workshops. John Knowles, in the introduction to New Generation: Fiction for Our Time from America's Writing Programs, ed. Alan Kaufman (New York: Anchor Press, 1987) writes that “it is unfortunate that the short story is the vehicle for the apprenticeship of these neophyte writers … and yet this difficult form, the short story, must be used in writing courses because in a relatively short period of time the students need to produce something which can be discussed, analysed, dissected” (xv–xvi).

  46. See, for instance, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, eds., Understanding Fiction (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1943). Susan Lohafer, introduction, Short Story Theory at a Crossroads, eds. Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), writes that the “litany of New Criticism … proved to be the charter of professional short story criticism. … More accessible than poetry, more manageable than novels, it was just the right size for a demonstration” (4–5).

  47. Walter Pitkin, How to Write Short Stories (New York: 1923) 46.

  48. Mason, “Residents” 103.

  49. Elizabeth Spencer, “Experiment is Out, Concern is In,” review of Best American Short Stories 1982, eds. John Gardner and Shannon Ravenel, New York Times Book Review, 21 Nov. 1982: 7.

  50. Brander Matthews, The Philosophy of the Short Story (New York: Longmans, Green and Company, 1901; New York: Peter Smith, 1931). Charles E. May, “The Unique Effect of the Short Story,” Studies in Short Fiction 13 (Summer 1976): 289.

  51. Poe, “Philosophy” 15.

Michele Clark (review date March 1994)

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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 capacity to ask questions and her ability to experience each moment of daily life to its fullest. And this long, satisfying novel offers readers who are willing to slow down the same chance to see ordinary life anew.

This is not a sentimental look at country living, by any means. Bobbie Ann Mason, who grew up in western Kentucky and now lives in rural Pennsylvania, clearly understands both the satisfactions and the claustrophobia of agricultural self-sufficiency. Farming within a tight-knit extended family is equal parts blessing and curse, just as Christie finds that being special is also a blessing and a curse.

At first, the pressure from preachers, doctors and venal relatives pulls Christie far from what she herself knows is right. She allows those who converge around her to tell her what to do with the babies and what to think. The preacher says it's her duty to show the babies to the public; the doctor decides they should be fed sweetened cow's milk, even though it makes them colicky; and everyone assures Christie that all the public attention and handling the babies receive is good for them. Eventually, Christie realizes that these directives are either self-serving or ignorance masking as expertise. If there is a meaning to this unusual occurrence, she has to find that meaning herself:

She knew what to blame at last. She saw the central flaw in her desire to understand why such an extraordinary thing had happened to her. It wasn't why it happened—that couldn't be known; it was what the world made of it that was at issue.

(p. 417)

Much of Christie's transformation takes place during a two-month tour of the South with huckster-cum-educator W. Greenberry McCain, who offers her and her husband, James, a chance to tell their story. The tour exploits them, of course, but it's also the only opportunity they'll ever get to engage with the wider world. By the time they make their escape from McCain, Christie has made decisions about her own fate and that of her babies. When she returns home, she no longer believes preachers can know God's will: “You could torment yourself into knots trying to figure out where you stood with God.” And she defies the color bar by visiting with the colored woman, Mittens Dowdy, who helped her nurse the quintuplets.

Those who have read Mason's short stories and previous novels will recognize a familiar theme in Feather Crowns: how ordinary people create meaning through the simplified and caricatured self-reflections the public world offers them. In her well-known first novel In Country, the protagonists think through their own experiences with Vietnam by referring to episodes of MASH. In “The Ocean,” which is one of Mason's award-winning collection of short stories Shiloh, when a retiree remembers one of his naval battles in World War Two, he thinks, “The explosion was like a silent movie that played in his head endlessly, like reruns of McHale's Navy.

Like other Mason characters, particularly the long-married couple in her short novel Spence + Lila, Christie Wheeler suffers from an “excess of loving” that both delights and bewilders in its intensity. This love is released in passionate, committed, marital sex, an unusual combination in modern fiction. It is a combination Mason has evoked vividly in the past, and she does so again in Feather Crowns:

He pulled out her hairpins one by one, and her hair fell down, the tresses swinging almost to her waist. Her clothes loosened, and as the garments slipped away she could feel her hair hot against her back. The room was dark. … She kept seeing mental pictures of her father's forge: the squeeze of his bellows, the fire of his furnace. She was warming herself near James's fire, close enough to scorch.

(pp. 49–50)

Most important, this great capacity for love also infuses ordinary moments. For Christie and other characters from Mason's stories, gardening, milking cows, or just being alive and observant in the outdoors offer pleasures as transcendent as a loving sexual union.

Sometimes a small event would soar through her heart on angel wings: the train going by, the frost flowers forming on the window. … For a moment, then, she thought she was the black-bird or that she had painted the frost flowers herself. … She had always felt like that.

(p. 12)

Tragedy or pain brings this world-embracing eroticism into closer awareness. Loss reveals the powerful outlines of love, but love does not fix anybody or improve anything. It can only appear and, in the midst of great pain, engender a deep, abiding gratitude that renewal and birth are still available to all of us.

In the end, Feather Crowns is crowded with life and the dailiness of events—a family picnic, an engagement, the details of cooking, making doll clothes, curing tobacco—another hallmark of Mason's fiction. For example, “A trio of women known as the Wiggins Sisters performed. The tallest of the three played a guitar and all three sang—skillfully and fervently, as if their lives depended on what they were doing at that moment.” In another brief but vivid encounter with the many people who crowd this novel: “The stringy-haired children trudged away from the fat-lady's tent. They moved so slowly, as if they had on weighted shoes. But they were barefooted.”

Unlike the apocalyptic talk of preachers, the crescendos in Feather Crowns are small and develop slowly. The title refers to two nest-shaped clusters of feathers in the quintuplets' mattress. In one pivotal scene, Christie's epileptic niece, Little Bunch, tears into their bolster, revealing the feather crowns for all to see. Horrified aunts and cousins point out that these crowns are a sign of death, though Christie's beloved aunt Amanda says they are also portents of eternal life. In any case, Christie isn't satisfied with these explanations; she broods on what the birth of her children really signifies:

“Then why would God even write out a sign if He doesn't want us to know?” she asked. “Why would He even bother?”

“It's a test,” said James. “He wants us to trust in Him and stop trying to figure everything out.”

“It plagues my mind,” Christie said. “Everything is a question.”

(p. 269)

During her travels with James and Greenberry McCain, Christie finds a medical encyclopedia in which she learns about single-celled animals and the germ theory of disease. Alone among her friends and relatives, Christie discovers science, and in discovering this, she deduces that the feather crowns are actually made by a tiny parasite. There is a logic to the odd clusters, but the logic is of this world, not the next. Understanding this alternative way of making meaning frees her, finally, to trust her own ideas and desires.

In fact, Christie Wheeler finds that a scientific explanation can provide a precise and optimistic opening to wonder—a pathway out of passivity and toward true mystery. As she says near the end of the novel, “There's so much in the world that nobody understands, or even notices.” Feather Crowns insists that modern life has not robbed us of the fundamental capacity to revere and rejoice, if only we pay attention to the design in the details.

Yonka Krasteva (essay date spring 1994)

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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 Southern writers have become actively engaged in the contemporary discourse on power, domination and the crisis of representation, introducing a fresh, unmistakably Southern perspective.

Bobbie Ann Mason's fictional world has been described by Maureen Ryan as “paradigmatic of the contemporary South” (294), and Robert Brinkmeyer has argued that the author “is charting a new direction for Southern fiction by adapting patterns from the past to enrich and comprehend the disorder of contemporary experience” (20). In Country is even more important in yet another way, for in creating a feminine postmodern character who strives to transcend the culturally inscribed “mental geographies” by critically examining, subverting, or redefining basic concepts such as home, manifest destiny, history and knowledge, Bobbie Ann Mason proclaims both the end of Southern cultural isolation and a radical break from dominant paradigms and role models. The novel bears witness to the changing conditions in the South, which seems to be losing its distinctiveness with industrialization and urbanization. Most of the protagonists of contemporary Southern fiction are steeped less in Southern culture than in television, rock video, and cinema, as is the case with Mason's heroine, Samantha Hughes, whose personal growth through the challenge of history is effected through her strong reliance on and adherence to the values of the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Yet this new orientation does not mean a denunciation of the basic values of the past, for the characters have preserved their strong sense of place and are still defined by a deep attachment to home and community, though these concepts have been re-defined and historicized. In Beyond the Frontier, Harold Simonson argues that the tension between the promise of the open frontier and the tragic awareness of the finality of the closed frontier can be resolved in a “synthesis that is grounded in a more concrete sense of actual place” (3). In this way the sense of tragedy, experienced with the loss of the open frontier, can be confronted and sublimated through a realization of the significance of the values associated with the archetypal metaphor of home. Ultimately, In Country is a book about the construction of a female identity through a rigorous process of deciphering the meaning of widely held national beliefs, mythic concepts and symbolic images that construct both reality and the self.

While the dominant cultural myth of the questing white male celebrates the heroic conquering of space and the flight from the demands of society, the metaphor of home (the closed frontier) insists upon commitment, suffering, selflessness and caring. I will argue that the paradigm of home and reading is especially useful for the interpretation of In Country with its implications of growth and maturity, and the celebration of human bonds and love. Instead of pursuit of individual freedom and flight from social responsibility, the famous Southern example of which is Huckleberry Finn, Bobbie Ann Mason's eighteen-year-old heroine tries to imaginatively bridge the gap between the past and present, between the Old South and the New South, between the West as a mythic idea and an actual place. She undertakes an anguished intellectual and emotional journey, very different from the one on which the western hero embarks.

Samantha Hughes has to discover the meaning of the fabled “in country” landscape with which Vietnam has been identified and understand how it combines with her Southern heritage to build her, in a way, unique personality. While most of the adolescent questers before Sam placed their hopes on the “world beyond,” on the open frontier, striving to achieve the kind of fulfillment the cultural myth promises the male, she learns to search for meaning within recognizable and accepted limits. The result is a move away from the never-ending quest for new frontiers and from the strategy of evasion, to the establishment of human bonds and community, to an effort to confront the implications of the legacy of conquests.

Significantly, the heroine's initiatory journey does not take her to the mythic West, or to other unchartered territories identified as new American frontiers. It takes her to the end of the route of the westering experience, into the heart of the nation—the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, D.C. Acting upon an idea, a myth, Columbus went west to find the fabled riches of the Orient and discovered America. Samantha's journey in the second half of the twentieth century takes an ironic reversal: her discovery of America and self demands a journey from Vietnam (the Orient), where her father had been killed, to the heart of the New continent. This reversal represents one of the several strategies Bobbie Ann Mason employs in order to parody the centrality of the frontier myth and its exclusion of women, ethnic minorities and subcultures. The direction of the heroine's journey is significant in yet another way, for she leaves the South in order to ponder the implications of history, which is not typical for Southern identity building. This act opens new horizons for exploration and brings a new awareness for self-fashioning. In Country, then, is also a story about the beneficial encounter of a Southerner with “otherness,” which makes her whole, confident and competent, aware of the complex ironies of modern life.

The paradigm on which the heroine's quest is patterned is not the celebrated one of discovery and conquest but of gendered reading, as defined by Annette Kolodny, and one that Langdon Elsbree calls “the archetypal action of establishing, consecrating a home” (32). Reading here is perceived as a continuous process of historical contextualization and decoding of the meaning of cultural phenomena for the purposes of arriving at a semblance of order amidst the discontinuous systems of signification modern life has come to represent. Reading “reality” in postmodern texts is like reading the scriptures. One has to be initiated into the act of semiotic interpretation in order to apprehend the meaning of what he/she sees or hears. The ideal is interpretive competence and not physical exploits or cunning. Significantly, it is spiritual space that is boundless, while man always tends to draw physical boundaries to mark off his “conquered” territory.

Samantha Hughes's search for the meaning of history and knowledge of self is also a search for family and home and for all they stand for. She ends up with a curious kind of regenerated family, involving three generations—herself, her uncle Emmett (a Vietnam veteran), and her grandmother. The absence of the father and mother is seen as a part of the legacy of conquest. The heroine successfully confronts her drama of bereavement by establishing new family bonds which promise reconciliation with the past through the redeeming power of insight, love and repentance. Bobbie Ann Mason revises the disintegrated traditional family by bringing into its center previously removed or marginal figures. They are bound together not so much by their blood kinship as by their spiritual kinship. A new kind of genealogy is being established, defined not by the patriarchal Law-of-the-name-of-the-father but by the existence of the “other.” It is the shared perception of the significance of “otherness” for identity formation and for understanding history that is the basis for resurrection of the family and the absolution of ancestral sin. It is clear that the vision of a spiritual home, transcending genealogical and regional boundaries, is inspired by the idea of the Christian community that does not discriminate between peoples, genders and race.

Simonson's metaphor of the closed frontier is useful to my analysis chiefly due to its implications of maturity and responsibility. As far as his idea of the importance of place and region are concerned, the novel offers a much more complex, postmodern perception of space. The notion of “site” and “locale” is no longer the one we associate with such books as The Leatherstocking Novels,Moby Dick or Huckleberry Finn, where the landscape satisfies both the hero's longing for freedom and adventure, and the celebration of pure male bonding. “Place” and “location” (in a Foucauldian sense) here signify an environment that itself can be read like a text. Subject to reading are national monuments and flags, symbolic gestures and dress, landscape and TV images. Through the book the image of the wall remains all important (with accompanying images of pictures, diaries, emblems, suggestive of hidden meaning), and culminates in its most commanding realization—the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, the most compelling national symbol of the closed frontier.

In the opening chapter Sam, Emmett and Sam's grandmother are traveling on I-64 on their way to Washington. The final chapter describes their encounter with the monument. For a while the three travelers are stranded with a transmission problem, and before they resume their journey we learn what happened during “the summer of Michael Jackson tour and Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. tour” (31). The contents of the novel are “walled in” by the image of the memorial wall, thus structurally implying a closure. The framed structure of the novel and Sam's mental and spiritual search for selfhood also imply a closed, familiar natural and internal landscape, inverting the open-ended male quest narrative with its vision of boundless space and limitless opportunities.

The heroine is launched on her quest by the oration of the Methodist minister at her graduation, who “preached about keeping the country strong, stressing sacrifice. He made Sam nervous. She started thinking about the war and it stayed in her mind all summer” (31). Sam's uneasiness stems from the realization of the deplorable confusion in the preacher's oration of sacred, spiritual ends with what Renato Rosaldo calls “imperialistic nostalgia, generated in antebellum discourse by the myth of simple brute force” (70). The figure of the preacher, so important for Southern culture, alludes to the distinctly Baptist, Methodist and fundamentalist religious background of the South. In the context of the novel, though, it becomes clear that the vision of Christian sacrifice is not easily accommodated by contemporary history.

Sam's growing distrust of institutionalized discourse (history books and religious preaching) prompts her to challenge official historical accounts, mass media interpretation, role models, and basic national concepts such as innocence and Manifest Destiny. She realizes that her access to the kind of knowledge that would give her understanding of the past and help her define herself is blocked either by the denial of the people around her to talk about the war or by the obfuscating effects of the “dull history books” that explain nothing but only “got her bogged down in manifestoes and State Department documents” (77).

Facing the impenetrable wall of silence and amnesia, Samantha casts herself in the role of the detective to reconstruct the family history and to find out who she is, to write her own story. She gradually becomes aware of the fact that the stories we tell about history, the form in which we get history and its impact, are more revealing about human nature than the actual historical events. Samantha's search for the source of her name becomes literally a search for her father. She is keenly aware of the backwardness of her environment, especially when viewed against the background of the countercultural revolt of the '60s. Her mother calls their town Hopewell “Dopewell” because of its ignorant smugness, hostility toward change and otherness. The Vietnam veteran Tom, with whom Sam falls in love, complains, “Here everybody is looking backward—to old time days. Antiques and Civil War stuff” (113). Emmett “always says things never happen here until ten years later.” Yet they all persist in living there because, as Sam's friend Anita says, “it is home.”

The heroine's attitude to her Southern background is ambivalent; she is both repelled and attracted by it. “She shuddered at the idea of growing up on a farm, doing chores, never getting to go to town” (18), but at one moment realizes that “she didn't really know where she was, or who she would be if all those people left town and walked into the sunset to live happily ever after” (225). It is quite clear that here “the sunset,” with its promise of happiness, is an allusion to the myth of the West, to the heroic wilderness experience, which is critically examined and rejected throughout the book in favor of a collective search for identity and community. Like most Southern writers, Bobbie Ann Mason examines the past within the family, with a strong attention to locale and community, dramatizing the painful transition of the South from the monolithic and traditional to the pluralistic and modern society.

Sam instinctively knows that only by opening herself to other people, whom she recognizes as revealingly different from her, only by trying to understand otherness, could she hope to gain knowledge about her own self. In the process of discovering and defining her own femininity, she stumbles upon the cultural construction of femininity and masculinity. Her grandparents, she understands, did not question Emmett's going to war, because they believed in gender roles and behavior. In the altercations with her grandfather, her grandmother bitterly remonstrates: “We were all for him going … You said the army would make a man out of him” (213). In an argument with her boyfriend, Lonnie, disclaiming his assertion that the war has nothing to do with her, Sam argues:

The way I look at it, it had everything to do with me. My daddy went over there to fight for Mom's sake, and Emmett went over there for Mom's sake and for my sake, to get revenge. If you went off to war, I'd bet you'd say it was for me. But if you are planning on joining the army, you might ask my opinion first.


Sam is voicing her bitter rejection of the persistent Southern tradition of seeing the Southern Lady as a symbol of a lost cause. Such an attitude drastically limits the prospects of Southern women by reducing them either into assets or commodities in men's lives. Apparently this was the role Sam's mother was expected to play, for she urges her daughter to go to university, because “Women can do anything they want now, just about” (240). Sam realizes that the claim that men go to war for the sake of their women and children is meant not only to justify violence but also to relegate women to the position of helpless dependents, thus perpetuating their infantilization and reducing them to mere objects in men's accounts of their heroic exploits and achievements.

Ironically, it is Sam's father who displays the traditional “womanish” characteristics and not his daughter. Paradoxically, when Sam “meets” her father, they are the same age, for he died when he was nineteen, arrested in his adolescence. “The soldier boy in the picture never changed,” reflects the heroine. “In a way that made him dependable. But he seemed so innocent” (94). It is the father who is “pure and innocent,” while the daughter is knowledgeable and experienced. She is shocked by the way in which he talks about the war in his letters. “He sounded like a preacher. He wrote about mission, God and his blessing. … They sounded strangely frivolous, as if they were on vacation, writing home wish-you-were here postcards. … In his letters Dwayne was just a kid” (259–61, 274).

It is clear to Sam that her father's interpretation of the world and American involvement in Vietnam is encoded in the “Manifest Destiny” rhetoric, intoning the pronouncements of the Methodist preacher at her graduation ceremony. From this perspective the war is seen as just another holy crusade in the name of democracy. In her search the heroine gradually develops a historic consciousness that enables her to see clearly the mythic entrapments into which her father fell. She interprets the conflicts as another war for power and domination when, as she puts it, “America's got to put on its cowboy boots and stomp around and show somebody a thing or two” (318), asserting its aggressive masculine image.

Sam is disappointed that her father never describes what Vietnam is like, which to her is the most important clue to the secret. She knows that the spirit of the place affects and defines people, but she is also aware of the fact that it is language that endows a specific place with value, thus influencing the way in which people relate to it. How did Vietnam affect her father? What made it easy for him to kill the Vietnamese? Since she does not find the answers to these haunting questions in his letters, she decides to pay a visit to her grandparents, to see what her father's world looked like before he went to war.

By reading the landscape she hopes to be able to read her father's mind: “She looked around the farm, trying to see in a new way what her father had known, the world he knew before he went to Vietnam. … She thought she could comprehend him. Everything he knew was small and predictable: Jesus bugs, hound dogs, fence pots” (286). It is the image of the Old South she sees, preindustrial, isolated, clinging to tradition. The peaceful, pastoral image of the Southern farm bespeaks a landscape of maternal ambiance, where, as Annette Kolodny argues, “Life was experienced as a regression from adult life and a return to the primal warmth of womb or breast” (6). This passivity and resignation facilitates the imposition of ideologically charged role models in a culture that stimulates hero-worship rather than personality building.

The serenity of the pastoral farm seems to disclaim the knowledge of violence and wrongdoing, and Sam feels inclined to excuse the childish and cheerful tone of her father's letters, that is, to excuse his ignorance. But the revelation the diary brings about his response to his first killing of an enemy soldier shatters all her hopes of his presumed innocence:

Big surprise. Face to face with a VC and I won. Easier than I thought. But there wasn't time to think. It was so simple. … Sam felt sick. … Her father hadn't said how he felt about killing the VC. He just reported it, as though it were something he had to do sooner or later, like a test in school.”


Sam rejects the traditional assumption of war as the ultimate test for manhood and its interpretation as national game. Paradoxically, she feels guilty about her father's and uncle's deeds. At first she is tempted to ignore the past, to “just forget about her father and dismiss the whole Hughes clan along with him. They were ignorant and country anyway” (295), she reasons, “but it has always been something like a horror movie. Now everything seemed suddenly so real, it enveloped her, like something rotten she had fallen into, like a skunk smell, but she felt she had to live with it for a long time before she could take a bath” (296). The bath here quite clearly symbolizes the idea of rebirth and catharsis.

Since her cultural heritage has provided her with only one model for regeneration, the frontier myth, Sam decides to explore its relevance to her experience. “If men went to war for women and unborn generations,” she ponders, “then she was going to find out what they went through,” and she decides to spend a night “in country,” at the snake-infested Cawood's Pond, “because it was the last place in Western Kentucky where a person could really face the wild” (299). In order to come as close as possible to the experience in the jungle, Sam appropriates the language of the GIs in Vietnam. She imagines she is “walking points,” “the first watch,” or “humping the boonies,” which, in Emmett's words, “means going out to some godforsaken wilderness and doing what you have to do to survive” (194).

With her experiment the heroine also challenges the ultimate value of physical survival associated with the cultural rite of initiation. In the morning Sam reasons: “She had survived. But she did not know what to do. She wished the bird would come. If the bird would come, then she would leave” (310). She is looking for the same bird, the egret, for which Emmett has been looking for years. The first two sentences of the quote mock the blindness of the mythic hero as to the real significance of his physical survival. The bird clearly symbolizes the hankerings of the soul and insists upon the needs of the spirit. The bird symbol can easily be traced to the New Testament, where birds symbolize Christian souls. Sam's and Emmett's search for the bird affirms the higher value of spiritual over physical survival, for as Christ teaches, according to St. John's Gospel, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer” (John 7: 11).

The protagonist's excursion into the wilderness is both a gendered intervention and subversion of a typically male paradigm, and an attempt at a construction of a female rite of initiation. Patriarchal authority is ultimately destroyed, and the narrative subverts the phallocentric logos defined by the father, preacher, boyfriend, etc. It asserts the importance of the spiritual continuation between mother and daughter for the redefinition of family bonds and the reestablishment of a state of normalcy, based on the code of reciprocity. The relationship between mother and daughter furnishes a new model of the mentor figure, flexible and stimulating by its insistence on openness and on a permanent state of awareness. Irene never imposes her opinions on her daughter. Her authority is far from obtrusive. By her physical absence, leaving Sam in isolation, so that she could understand the full import of her “identity crisis,” the mother enhances her mentor's power to stimulate the female rite of passage. Given her mother's example—her association with the counterculture and her power to regenerate her family—Sam formulates a new concept of courage. Midway in her search, she speculates: “Something had to change. There was so much she had to find out before she took off like her mother. Her mother had got rid of the memories. She found someone else to love” (94). The heroine's language is markedly sentimental with her constant insistence on caring and love. As Jane Tompkins has convincingly demonstrated in Sensational Designs, sentimental language is intertextually related to religious language and affirms the basic values of the Christian register. At the same time at which she rejects the frontier rite of “regeneration through violence,” Sam is being initiated into the code of reciprocity and affirms its ritual of caretaking. It is also indicative that she indulges in reflexivity rather than introspection, thus escaping the dangerous absorption of the self at the expense of the other.

Sam's harrowing of hell at Cawood's Pond does not involve an encounter with the monster but affords the more unsettling encounter with otherness through an intense contestation of codes of signification and deciphering of the meaning of symbolic actions. Looking at a “million tiny black ants,” she is reminded of Emmett's horror of fleas. Suddenly it dawns upon her that

… the fleas are the Vietnamese. How often had she heard the enemy soldiers compared to ants, or to other creatures too numerous to count … Emmett had helped kill those Vietnamese, in the same way he killed fleas, the same way people kill ants. It was easy, her father wrote … In his sleep, Emmett was out to kill, in spite of himself.


The heroine gets an insight into the ways in which cultural discourse constructs both the self and the other. Vocabulary choices reveal to her traditional attitudes of aggression and conquest embedded in institutionalized discourse, which encodes otherness to the demands of culture. Since naming is knowing, such asymmetrical representations of otherness bespeak a general attitude of the human psyche to ban, or efface, or refashion, that which is strange, unknown, different and hence disturbing. Knowledge, as Foucault has convincingly argued, brings power. By naming the other, we also control him/her, control the unknown and dangerous aspects which we cannot afford to confront. Given the fact that the discourse of the other is also the discourse of our own unconscious, the urge to ignore, distort, or represent otherness in a way that makes it possible to accommodate it within the boundaries of received knowledge bespeaks also the desire to ignore the unsettling demands of the unconscious, for which there is no logical explanation. Everything that cannot be accounted for by logic—and the discourse of the unconscious does not yield itself to logical explanations—has been branded as chaotic, irrational, destructive. Still, it is an aspect of ourselves. Samantha's exercise in intersubjectivity reveals exactly this secret, for in reading her father's unconscious (his diary), she is shocked into a disturbing recognition. Her father's absorption with the rotting corpse of an enemy soldier reminds her of “the dead cat she dug up once in Grandma's garden, and she realized her own intense curiosity was just like her father's. She felt humiliated and disgusted. The diary made her wonder what she would do in his situation. Would she call them gooks?” (294). Sam's perception of otherness evokes Gabriel Marcel's concept of intersubjectivity, and its relevance to the solving of the puzzle of self. As Mary D. Howland observes, “only by opening ourselves to other people of whom we conceive as ‘thous’ can we participate in … the mystery of being” (10). The gift of the Other is the ability to spell out important revelations about ourselves, about the human condition in general. Discovering otherness involves questioning the essence and relevance of received knowledge, examination of the tenuous relationship between language and “reality,” and awareness of the “conservatism” of dominant discourse, exhibited in its reluctance to coin new words to describe strange environment or landscape, but persists in applying familiar old codes to map out unknown, strange terrain. The landscape of Vietnam has also to be rewritten in order to fit cherished notions about the “eternal return” of the “sacred past.” Vietnam is transformed into “in country,” a new frontier, devised by history for the glorious repetition of the wars with the Indians. Gradually, Sam becomes aware of the fact that attitudes towards war and otherness are also cultural constructs and it matters a lot who has control over their representation and institutionalization.

The heroine's “wilderness experience” does not bring regeneration but rather a heightened state of awareness about the essence of the relationship between language and “reality,” and the experience brings her closer to Emmett. The nature of the relationship between them inverts the implications of the mythic male pairs in American culture. Emmett can in no way be interpreted as a descendant of the heroic frontiersman, for he has consciously discarded all attributes of manhood and nobility associated with the frontier myth and the Southern gentleman and has appropriated the attributes of the marginalized other. For the smug inhabitants of Hopewell he is the very embodiment of radical, dangerous difference. He wears an Indian skirt and long hair and scandalizes the small town by flying a Viet Cong flag on its courthouse.

It is later, during her “in country” experience, that Sam divines the full import of this heavily textured situation and also understands why her mother has refused to honor the flag and the dead, “for it means honoring the cause.” The flying of the Viet Cong flag on an American courthouse implies the rejection of the values inscribed in the official discourse and legitimized by the institutions, and questions the American concept of justice. On the other hand, the pony tail, the headband and the Indian skirt that Emmett and the hippies wear signify their identification with the victims of American history, the acceptance of the ethnic other, and, by implication, of one's own unconscious, as a substantial part of the definition of the self. At the same time it acknowledges the humanity of the other, this implication mounts an impassioned attack on the cultural politics of marginalization and exclusion. Emmett and Sam are involved in a beneficial exercise of intersubjectivity where the ego and the other, female and male consciousness, meet, through the perception of each other's perception of the same object. Thus they help each other in their mutual quest for authentic spirituality and psychic liberation. In the process of experiencing transpersonal togetherness, they are initiated into the code of reciprocity. And again, in this process it is interpretative competence and the ritual of caretaking that are the ideal and not hero worship and imitation.

As a result of her intensive training in reading signs and signifiers, Sam becomes fully aware of the postmodern crisis of representation. Her newly acquired competence in interpreting textured environment and her awareness of the textuality of history are convincingly revealed in the way in which she interprets the meaning of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial:

The memorial cuts a V in the ground like the wings of an abstract bird, huge and headless. … At the bottom of the wall is a granite trough, and on the edge of it the sunlight reflects the names just above, in mirror writing, upside down. … The shiny surface of the wall reflects the Lincoln memorial and the Washington monument at opposite angles. If she moves slightly to her left, she sees the monument, and if she moves the other way she sees the reflection of the flag opposite. Both the monument and the flag seem like arrogant gestures, like the country giving the finger to the dead boys, flung in the hole in the ground.


The key words in this passage are “wall” and “hole,” creating an entirely funereal atmosphere, doing away with all notions of glory and victory, subverting the official interpretation of American history as a glorious crusade for democracy. It is on this funerary, man-made frontier and not in the wilderness that Sam experiences ritualistic death and rebirth, for it is here that she finally solves the riddle of her name. After locating her father's name on the wall, she is shocked to read her own name on it: “SAM ALAN HUGHES. … She touches her own name. How odd it feels, as though all the names in America have been used to decorate this monument” (351). Both Sam and Emmett display a ritualistic response to death and rebirth, for “Emmett faces the wall as though he were watching birds” (348). He too, had come through his harrowing of hell to reclaim his lost self. Commenting on “the poverty of ritual” in Bobbie Ann Mason's world, Albert Wilhelm draws on Mircea Eliade's definition of ritualistic death which “provides the clean slate on which will be written the successive revelations whose end is the formation of a new person” (278). The end of the novel marks the closure of the liminal stage in Sam and Emmett's rite of initiation. Wilhelm sees them as “characters valiantly trying to cope by means of their own impoverished rite of passage” (287). In fact, they have created their own rite of passage and affirmed its code of reciprocity.

Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country participates in the general postmodernist decentralization of dominant cultural paradigms and testifies to the emergence of a new mentality in Southern writing, freed of the haunting images of the past, of the absorption with guilt and defeat. The liberating effect of this transformation affirms the importance of the sense of place and belonging to the need to reexamine the validity of the relationship between language and place in the effort to establish the authentic meaning of a place. In the novel, the self emerges as historic and not a mythic identity, a self defined by both the past and the present.

Samantha Hughes is an impressive alternative to the passive Southern heroine, the “belle” and the “lady,” the traditional stereotypes of feminine behavior. By creating a narrative about the emergence of a modern feminine identity, Bobbie Ann Mason not only decenters the dominant narrative paradigm of discovery and conquest by substituting for it the paradigm of reading and home, she also constructs a female rite of passage. Samantha Hughes succeeds where her predecessors have failed—in coming of age. Coming of age now requires a redefinition of the concept of knowledge, history and self, insists upon the recognition of life's limitations and upon the acceptance of moral responsibility. At the end of the book Sam and Emmett are smiling; happiness is possible within the frontier, the dream is the land itself. “America the beautiful”—this phrase keeps popping up in the heroine's mind as she contemplates the vast stretches of scenic landscape on her ride from the small Southern town to Washington. The mythic journey of the heroic Westerner and the Southerner's guilty absorption with the past seem to have come full circle. A new age is dawning—the final consecration of America as home.

Works Cited

Brinkmeyer, Robert A. “Finding One's History: Bobbie Ann Mason and Contemporary Southern Literature.” Southern Literary Journal 19.2 (Spring 1987): 20–33.

Elsbree, Langdon. “Our Pursuit of Loneliness: An Alternative to this Paradigm.” The Frontier Experience and the American Dream. Ed. David Mogen, Mark Busby, and Paul Bryant. Texas A & M UP, 1989.

Howland, Mary D. The Gift of the Other: Gabriel Marcel's Idea of Intersubjectivity in Walker Percy's Novels. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1990.

Kolodny, Annette. The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984.

Mason, Bobbie Ann. In Country. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

Rosaldo, Renato. “Imperialist Nostalgia.” Culture and Truth: The Making of Social Analysis. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.

Ryan, Maureen. Stopping Places: Bobbie Ann Mason's Short Stories. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1984.

Simonson, Harold. Beyond the Frontier: Writers, Western Regionalism and a Sense of Place. Austin: U of Texas P, 1989.

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

Wilhelm, Albert E. “Private Rituals: Coping with Change in the Fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason.” The Midwest Quarterly 28 (1987): 271–82.

Jeffrey J. Folks (review date summer 1994)

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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 between female and male experience at the time. During her marriage, surrounded by James's family on Wheeler land where she and James have relocated, Christie learns to resist the “smothering” of family, and she develops a need for friends “who are not kin.”

Another determinant of American rural life was the folk culture of tale-telling, social custom, beliefs and sayings through which individuals interpreted their experience. The birth of the Wheeler quintuplets is surrounded by woman's lore about pregnancy and birthing: “Her mother always said if a woman couldn't nurse her babies, they would never grow up to mind her.” The most important example of folklore is the belief that the discovery of “feather crowns”—two or more feathers intertwined to form “crowns” at the end—may forebode death in the household or “heaven” for the deceased. Although Christie questions this and other superstitions, she cannot fully isolate herself from the communal thinking. After her quintuplets die within weeks of their birth, Christie searches for answers beyond the conventional wisdom of church and community. The mystery of their unique birth, her own celebrity, her exploitation at the hands of others who profit from her fame, her survival of the quintuplets and of her husband James, who dies in a farm accident—the astonishing fact of her very being, of life and death at a particular time in history—for these facts no ready-made “answers” are provided.

Feather Crowns is a superbly written and richly peopled novel. Mason evokes the economic and physical problems of rural existence not far removed from the American frontier. The harshness of this life is implied in the birthday party given for Alma's son Arch: “For a child to live to his tenth year was always a cause of celebration.” Through the remarkable character of Christianna Wheeler, Mason suggests that, against such confining and dehumanizing circumstances, individual lives continue to struggle toward fulfillment. During her ninetieth year Christie begins to tell her story to an unnamed younger woman: despite all the disillusionment of her long life, Christie's intellectual curiosity and enjoyment of friendship are undiminished.

Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet (essay date spring 1995)

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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' situation as a contemporary version of what Jessie Weston, author of the definitive study of the Grail myth, From Ritual to Romance, calls the “Waste Land.” Weston claims this desolate condition is “in some manner, not clearly explained, connected with the death of a knight whose name and identity are never disclosed” (12–13). As Mason's title suggests, Shiloh, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War where many identity-less Southern and Northern knights fell, looms in the story's background. Death and desolation permeate the Moffitts' existence. Early on, Leroy “notices how much the town has changed. Subdivisions are spreading across western Kentucky like an oil slick” (3). Mason reinforces this lethal image later in the story by connecting the proliferation of subdivisions with the bloody battleground. When the Moffitts visit Shiloh, they stand appropriately in a graveyard: “The cemetery, a green slope dotted with white markers, looks like a subdivision site” (15). When Leroy meets his marijuana connection, Mason again stresses death, noting the drug-dealing kid “lives in one of those expensive subdivisions in a new white-columned brick house that looks like a funeral parlor” (4). Mason more intimately relates the Moffitts to this deadly landscape by noting that 15 years earlier, at the beginning of their marriage, their son, Randy, died of sudden infant death syndrome. Also in the past, Norma Jean's father died of a perforated ulcer (after a honeymoon trip to the pervasive Shiloh). Out the window sits Leroy's truck, unmoving, a mechanical tombstone marking the death of the Moffitt marriage.

Weston also believes that the Waste Land is often tied to the condition of the land's ruler, a figure she calls the “Fisher King”: “the personality of the King, the nature of the disability under which he is suffering, and the reflex effect exercised upon his folk and his land, correspond” (114). Weston elaborates upon this disability, describing the king as “suffering from infirmity caused by wounds, sickness, or old age” (20). Mason clearly indicates that Leroy Moffitt is her contemporary version of the Fisher King. Reading a book about another century, Norma Jean explains to Leroy, “Your name means ‘the King’” (13). Leroy (French le roi: king) certainly suffers from a wound. A truckdriver, Leroy has recently been in an accident: “his tractor-trailer jackknifed in Missouri, badly twisting his left leg in its socket. He has a steel pin in his hip” (1). Now when he walks, Leroy must hobble. Weston also notes that the Fisher King often suffers “the loss of virility” (23). Not only did his first son die, but Leroy and Norma Jean have not been able to produce another child.

The most important aspect of Leroy's debilitated condition is the deteriorating status of his marriage. Since his accident, his relationship with Norma Jean has reached an unsettling stasis. He sits around home making Popsicle stick log cabins, snapping together model kits, puffing joints, and doing needlepoint instead of searching for a new job. Meanwhile, Norma Jean tries to better herself by lifting weights, taking an English course at a local community college, cooking exotic foods, and learning to play the electric organ. In short, Norma Jean seems disappointed that her truckdriver is home, Leroy is unhappy, “they sometimes feel awkward around each other” (2), and they never speak about their dead child. However, when Mabel relates the story of a child killed by a dachshund, they both exhibit guilt. Mason's objective correlative for their marriage is the Body Buddies Norma Jean leaves in her cereal bowl; Leroy and Norma Jean are like “the soggy tan balls floating in a milk puddle” (7).

Like traditional Grail heroes, Leroy eventually decides to set off on a perilous quest. As Weston explains, sometimes “the hero sets out on his journey with no clear idea of the task before him” (12). Appropriately, Leroy knows he “must create a new marriage, start afresh” (3), but he “is not sure what to do next” (1). He first plans to build a full-scale log house for them, but Norma Jean resists his scheme. As a result, “He knows he is going to lose her” (11).

At this moment of despair, Leroy is aided by the traditional helper whom Weston and Carl Jung call the wise old man—aka the savior, redeemer, guru. This figure usually appears, according to Jung, when the hero is in “a hopeless desperate situation … the knowledge needed to compensate the deficiency comes in the form of a personified thought, i.e., in the shape of the sagacious and helpful old man” (217). Or, in this story, a woman. Mabel Beasley, Leroy's mother-in-law and an elderly widow, is a spinner-creator (she makes them a dust ruffle), a moral censor (she criticizes the couple for Norma Jean's getting pregnant before marriage and Norma Jean herself for smoking and cursing), and an advisor. From the beginning this woman of “worn face that has the texture of crinkled cotton” (12) understands Leroy's problem: “You don't know what to do with yourself—that's the whole trouble” (6). In her very first appearance she advises the couple to journey to Shiloh, a hallowed ground both for the South and Mabel (she honeymooned there). In her second visit she reiterates to Leroy that Shiloh is “so full of history … You do what I said. A little change is what she needs” (13).

Fittingly this journey begins on a sacred day, Sunday. Mabel, having prodded them into departure, refuses to go along because the Moffitts must make the journey alone. Weston explains that another key figure on this journey is female: “it is invariably a maiden who directs the hero on his road to the Grail castle, or reproaches him for his failure there” (169). Norma Jean drives the injured Leroy to and through Shiloh. When Leroy finds the battleground not what he expected (he thought it would look like a golf course), Norma Jean points out his problems, starting with his ridiculous scheme to build a log house. Mainly she emphasizes the failure of their marriage, explaining that she wants to leave him. When he counters that they could start over, she rebuts him with “We have started all over again” (15). Appropriately, this reproach, the nadir of the Moffitts' marriage, takes place in a cemetery. Weston elaborates that the quest often reached a crucial moment at either the Perilous Chapel or the Perilous Cemetery, the latter of which “is surrounded by the ghosts of knights slain in the forest, and buried in unconsecrated ground” (178). Having passed through “the thick clusters of trees” (13), the Moffitts stand among “the white slabs in a graveyard” (15), where Leroy tries to focus on the fact that some 3,500 blue and gray knights died.

According to Weston, one task of the Grail hero is to inquire into the nature of the Grail. In Mason's vision the modern-day Grail is, as has been suggested, marriage. At the same cemetery Leroy begins to ask the right questions about his and Norma Jean's relationship:

—“Didn't I promise to be home from now on?” (15)

—“What did I do wrong?” (15)

—“Is this one of those women's lib things?” (15)

—“What are you talking about?” (15)

With the proper questions comes the hero's epiphany. Leroy finally realizes that “the real inner workings of a marriage, like most of history, have escaped him” (16). This insight is a progression consistent with his earlier revelation that “he never took time to examine anything” (2). He becomes aware at the graveyard that his scheme to build a log house has been merely a plan to construct the shell of a marriage: “building a house out of logs is similarly empty” (16), for his marriage is dead.

In Weston's Grail myth the hero is a success or failure, worthy or unworthy. This ending is often mirrored in nature; the sky, the river, and trees are often symbols of regeneration. Mason uses these elements, but not definitively, for in the twentieth century the answers are not always clear-cut. At the moment of Leroy's epiphany, Norma Jean literally leaves him, walking away so as to add physical distance to the psychic distance already between them. His eyes open, Leroy follows her through the cemetery along the archetypal “serpentine brick path” (16); since the garden of Eden, the snake has suggested forbidden yet necessary knowledge. However, his leg, in no better shape than his marriage, “still hurts him” (16)—i.e., the maimed king has not been healed. At the end of Mason's story, the hero and the lady are not united. Norma Jean stands “far away” (16) on a bluff overlooking the Tennessee River. The rebirth of their marriage verges on possibility, but is not a fait accompli. The story's last ambiguity is Norma Jean's final gesture: is it a wave good-bye or is Norma Jean beckoning to Leroy? Mason's Grail symbols don't tell us. The river is flowing, but in the distance. The couple is neither immersed in it nor travelling upon it; they stand on the precipice of possibility. The sky is not blue with the purity of a new day for the land, but “unusually pale” (16), the color (off-white) of the dust ruffle Mabel made for their bed.

Mason, then, makes Leroy Moffitt trace the traditional path of the Grail quest. From the maimed king to the Perilous Cemetery, many of the Grail trappings are present. Thus, “Shiloh” transcends its minimalist labeling by using the universality of the Grail myth to suggest the lack of certainty in modern-day relationships.

Works Cited

Henning, Barbara. “Minimalism and the American Dream: ‘Shiloh’ by Bobbie Ann Mason and ‘Preservation’ by Raymond Carver.” Modern Fiction Studies 35 (1989): 689–98.

Jung, C. G. The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1968.

Mason, Bobbie Ann. Shiloh, and Other Stories. New York: Harper, 1983.

Weston, Jessie. From Ritual to Romance. New York: Doubleday, 1957.

Bobbie Ann Mason and Albert E. Wilhelm (interview date October 1995)

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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 such a beautiful language. In college I took a course in etymology, and I wrote columns for the school newspaper in which I got to indulge my fondness for word play. My friends and I would read Shakespeare and go around saying “Hark!” and “Prithee!” because we thought they were funny things to say. From Cyrano de Bergerac, I think, we got “magnolious” and “magnelephant,” words we dearly loved and used continually. In graduate school my first course was Old English which had wonderful words like “upgang” and “langung.” My husband and I named our first dog “Beowulf.”

What writers influenced you?

As a child, I loved Louisa May Alcott. But I didn't turn on to any other writers until I was in college. When I was a freshman, I was passionate about Thomas Wolfe. After that, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald, and then Salinger.

In graduate school I discovered James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov. I would say they are the principal writers who influenced me, even though I don't write at all like them (and I certainly don't claim to be in their league). But it was the sense of what could be done with language that dazzled me. The possibilities were endless. A writer could arrange words to suggest the most complicated feelings and visions. I admired stylists, the ones who found the most interesting and pleasing ways of getting at the deepest matters. In the best ones, form and content were inseparable.

I had not read widely and I was not very sophisticated about anything. As a student, I had been for the most part looking for answers and intellectual systems and ideas and didn't have much of a sense of aesthetics. So the academic discipline of graduate school didn't inhibit my creative spirit, as so many writers complain. Just the opposite. I had been trained all my life to memorize lessons and not ask questions. So the discovery of what creative minds had done was an awakening—probably something that happens to most writers long before they encounter graduate school. Somehow I didn't catch on to the competitive career goals of graduate school or to critical methodology. I was more caught up in the literature itself. It was thrilling, because it was so complicated and detailed, like a million-piece puzzle with an elusive design—but much, much more. Through the music of language in Joyce and Nabokov, I discovered how literature could both embody and also transcend ideas. Literature is principally about textures and feelings, not themes and symbols, which are sort of like lead weights on the bottom of a shower curtain. They hold it in place and give it shape, but they aren't the curtain itself.

How did you get from that point to your own concerns about place—your persistent focus on small towns in western Kentucky?

My artistic interests and influences had nowhere to go for a while, until I could get clear in my mind what I valued most and what my passions were. The artistry is what you bring to bear on the raw material that's foremost in your mind and heart. The art is what you use to work this into shape.

Eventually, after graduate school, I had enough distance from the place I had come from to realize that the language of my family and region was a rich resource, rather than something I took for granted and even wanted to get away from for a time. So that language led me into discovering the place and its people as real materials for fiction. And by then I began to realize that the place of my origins—my little literary turf of western Kentucky—called to me because that's where my heart and soul are, what I love most. So it's natural for me to want to tell the story of that place and not the story of, say, Boise, Idaho (although ultimately what's true in one small place is true everywhere). Write what you know—the old bromide is true.

The journey I've been on is a common enough one. First, you go out into the world in quest of understanding. Then you return to your origins and finally comprehend them. It wasn't until I had pursued my education that I was able to know where the subject of my fiction was. Education has a way of being abstract until you can link it up with experience. I loved the abstractions, but then at some point, I planted a garden, and everything started to come together. Life, art, cats, family, fiction, words, weeds.

When I finally did “come home” in this sense, I realized how haunted I've always been by the lives of the people I grew up among. The history of western Kentucky is rich and in many ways literally central to American history. It resonates for me—not as something abstract, but as something very concrete and real, in the lives of the people of the area. Their experiences are what I try to capture in my characters. I feel very close to them. My forebears came to this area several generations ago, so my roots here run deep, and I think I know the people here. What I write about essentially is culture shock—the bewildering experience of moving from the land into modern urban life. Culture shock has been my experience, in moving from the South to the North, and I see versions of it in everybody at home as they deal with change. My characters live in a place where generations ago the American dream was actually accomplished, through hardship and sacrifice and adventure—as well as the familiar crimes of the frontier. It was the dream of land and freedom. But in this century, the shift from the independence of rural life is a profound upheaval. Now many people are likely to punch time clocks, while their grandparents would have told time by the sun. People are being redefined as working class, which is a reduction in status, for the yeoman farmer was his own boss. It was a whole different way of life, and the transformation is emotionally complicated.

You described the language of your region and family as a rich resource. Can you say more about how language functions in your writing?

Early on, I discovered the significance of tone—how language sounds, what attitude comes through. The sound of words is related to music, and although I really don't know very much about music, I have an ear for the way characters talk. I find music and poetry in the plainest of language. I think sometimes the qualities are too slight for some readers to notice or care about, especially if they are not familiar with Southern dialects. But I hear these nuances and work on whether a phrase should end in two syllables or three syllables, for example. My early short-story period was so exciting for me—I was busting out of school and finding out what I could do on my own. I was claiming my imagination and enjoying being playful and bold. My best stories of that period came out of sudden bursts of creative energy that I would then work on endlessly to refine and shape. So basically, in school I discovered literature and then I went out to see if I could do it. It was a shock. Even though I'd read Moby Dick and Ulysses and many other great works, I found out that in writing you have to start from scratch.

In an introduction to one of the many reprintings of “Shiloh” [in American Voices], you describe the creative process as “the not knowing that leads you to the knowing.” Can you elaborate?

I don't know in advance what I'm going to write, so the process of writing is a way of finding out what's on my mind. I experience writing as a process of digging through writer's block, or the inhibitions that prevent me from getting access to my resources. You can't get at these things through intellectual procedure. And I find that I am guided first by the subject matter, not by artistic method or intention. Form follows function? Sometimes you don't even realize what you've dredged out of the unconscious. It's delightful later to discover patterns and parallels that you didn't consciously realize were in the work. Sometimes they have to be pointed out for me by readers.

Can you comment further on your affinity with Nabokov, the subject of your doctoral dissertation?

The reasons I felt drawn to Nabokov go beyond his style. It was the way he used words to tone down and contain and hold at a distance emotions so strong that they would otherwise blubber all over the page. The artistry of that containment, and those diversionary tactics he used, created a powerful tension between the conscious mind and the world. Also, I was interested in how he refused to reduce everything to two levels—a symbolic level and an underlying significance. He saw that everything was on the surface level, but that it is so infinitely complex that it radiates and shimmers into some kind of transcendence. Reality is like a kaleidoscope. Each facet has its own reality, and how you see it depends on where you are standing. So there are infinite ways of looking. For Nabokov, the scientist and the artist have the best chances of escaping this subjective prison. Nabokov wasn't satisfied with the appearance/reality division of Western thought. As a Southerner, I know that appearances are reality. So I found Nabokov's vision very appealing, especially his imagery of sun and shade, light and shadow. He would play with the mingling of those images endlessly, it seems. There is not simply light and dark, good and evil. But they are mingled, flickering, casting shadows and flashes. “Dappling” was his favorite word for the play of light against dark. It seems to me that chaos theory, which has come along recently, is perfectly suited to Nabokov's grasp of the universe. Chaos is a misnomer, because within the seeming chaos there are extraordinary patterns—paisleys mostly, it seems, to judge by the computer models. Nabokov's way of seeing the world is like a dynamic, reflecting patchwork quilt, and I find that view very exciting. I love the notion of chaos, with the uncertainties it implies, because it holds the challenge of discovering something new, some pieces that fit together in startling ways.

So the image patterns in your stories could be analogous to the patterns of shape and color in a complicated quilt?

I guess so. I never consciously thought of this quilt business when I was writing the early stories. In retrospect, this is one of the metaphors I have discovered for articulating my original sources. I'm most attracted to the crazy quilts, which seem closer to chaos theory. But most of my early training was regimented—coloring books, neat little quilt blocks, following the rules at school, and so forth. So it has been important for me to get beyond those limits. I'm not especially interested in quilts, actually, and it has been a long time since I tackled a coloring book.

Did living away from your native region enable you to write about it more perceptively? How has your recent move back to Kentucky altered your perception of your fictional materials?

During my years in the Northeast, I was able to develop a perspective I would not have had if I had stayed home. That's a common enough experience. Being an exile seemed to give the place more importance as an inspiration and an impetus for writing.

Now that I'm back in Kentucky, it's no longer that place I come home to. It's where I live, and so I may risk losing some of the perspective I've had. But, on the other hand, I needed a closer familiarity with what is going on in Kentucky now, since I had found it necessary to write about the place. After I moved back, I became preoccupied with the historical forces that shaped the world I'm from. Those interests culminated in the novel Feather Crowns, and even though I finished that some time ago I'm still preoccupied with the history of the people and the place. Since I began writing contemporary short stories set in this place, it has changed so rapidly that I may have to turn a sharp corner into the unknown in future stories.

Is delving further back into local history a way of reestablishing roots?

Only a strongly rooted person would celebrate chaos! There was never any question about my roots or where they were. It's not that I felt dislocated. It's a matter of curiosity, of going deeper into those roots, digging them up, so to speak. Growing up in the country on a farm, which was on the edge of town, I was rooted but heading out in all directions. I felt confident in leaving because I was pretty sure of where home was. It had been there for generations, and there was no chance of it disappearing. Actually, my motive for delving into the past is an overwhelming curiosity to find out what-all went into the stew we live in. In moving back to Kentucky, I had to take this route, to get my bearings. Maybe that's what you asked.

And a short story doesn't allow enough scope for all that? Is that why you have concentrated lately on novels?

That might be the case. I don't categorize my interests quite that way. The boundaries blur. Fiction and nonfiction blend. Stories and novels. Sun and shade. The early stories were surprises. I enjoy thinking and remembering the excitement of discovery, the workings of the imagination, how those stories seemed to come out of nowhere and to be delightful and puzzling at the same time. To write them one after the other and not ask why, just let them come alive and work on them until they seemed right. It was a joyous experience, but writing a few stories is less rewarding in the long run than writing a novel.

In contrast to many early stories with very contemporary settings, your writing now involves more research into historical materials?

I'm not sure what that has to do with my writing. It's an infusion, a way of figuring out things about the world. I'm compelled to ask questions and to expand my understanding about how the world works and to bring everything I can to bear upon the fundamental concerns about our place in the universe. The raw material is the language and landscape of a particular place, but by using those personal and particular terms I hope to create a new place—a simpler one in a way but one that has carefully chosen furnishings and a lively, unexpected center of action. Writing is a way of delving into your buried resources—the turbulence of experience—and coming up with shapes, patterns, stories. All those dazzling pieces waiting to fall into place.

Harriet Pollack (essay date spring 1996)

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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 even overlooked the “historical” battles in which they themselves have engaged. And while those perhaps postmodern characters experience history as unknowable, Mason is as interested in history as that other, more obviously “historical” author who has used the title Shiloh, Shelby Foote. The conception of history with which each works, however, is entirely different. Foote writes about official history in his Shiloh, although he writes from an unofficial point of view and hopes by doing so to reveal the insides of that history. One of his characters observes that most official histories are omniscient “books about war … written to be read by God Almighty, because no one but God ever saw it that way.” This squadsman, Robert Winter, reasonably proposes that history should be another sort of project, the sort in which Foote himself engages. “A book about war, to be read by men, ought to tell what each of the twelve of us saw in our own little corner. Then it would be the way it was—not to God but to us” (164). Foote's project, marked by the twentieth-century emphasis on point of view in history as well as narrative, is nonetheless about official history, and so it is easily placed in Southern literary tradition. By contrast, Mason's fit in that tradition is less obvious. This indistinct fit is not peculiar to Mason: she is not the only Southern woman writer who might seem to be ahistorical, but who, on second glance, has another conception of what constitutes an interest in “history,” seen from a different “little corner.” Mason could be taken as representative of Southern women writers who, largely without anyone noticing, have been transforming Southern literature's characteristic attention to official history. But studies of Southern literature have repeatedly found women writers inattentive to “History” and, in the all-too-recent past, even placed women writers apart, omitting them from the construction of “Southern literature” in defense of a categorizing notion applied with a too-limited sense of what history is. (Barbara Ladd helps me make this point with her recent protest against the persisting tendency to read Eudora Welty as an “ahistorical” writer, a misreading that Ladd suggests has its premises in “gender in general and William Faulkner in particular,” before suggesting that Welty strategically obstructs Faulkner's very male notion of history when she displaces the assumptions of Go Down Moses with those of The Golden Apples.)

Mason, like other Southern women writers, attends history not as Foote and Faulkner have but as women's historians of recent decades have, re-centering it. For them, history is not the chronicle of great deeds and greater battles, borders, treaties, and territories, but an account of lives lived on the margins of official history and culture—of lives silent in history because, by race, class, or gender, they lacked access to official power and event. This new history, like Mason's novel Feather Crowns, contextualizes the prescriptions and taboos of gender behaviors as well as of class and race relationships, locating and examining among other things, sexual mores by focusing on such previously “ahistorical” subject matter as the conventions of childbirth.

A few of Mason's stories obviously look back—for example, “Detroit Skyline, 1949,” “Nancy Culpepper,” and most importantly, In Country. But until her recent novel Feather Crowns, her deep interest in the historical has been partly, perhaps mostly, obscured by her use of the contemporary. Her abiding interest, however, has been and is in periods of cultural/historical change. She writes about transitional periods not only in the lives of her characters, but in the landscape and values of twentieth-century America. R. Z. Sheppard describes her 1980s landscape as “the no longer rural, but not yet suburban, South,” peopled with working class and farm folks, principally of Western Kentucky, south of Paducah, where farms have been replaced by subdivided housing developments, and fields by K-Marts and Krogers. Albert E. Wilhelm describes it as very specifically a culture in flux where old values are all being challenged but, as he demonstrates, alternative identities are not yet clearly in place. Old traditions—and in particular “proper” behaviors and sexual roles—are still present, yet clearly eroded. And so Mason's characters wander out of conventional sexual roles, and they face the bewilderment of moving beyond them. They find it necessary to redefine what it means to be a woman, a daughter, a wife, a mother. Her women have moved beyond the clear gender conceptions with which they were raised and now face the dilemma of saying what should stand in place of those conceptions. Her men and women both confront a very contemporary bewilderment about going forward. “The Retreat” is a title that—in addition to its local meaning, that is, a religious retreat that coincides with a withdrawal from a marriage—has something to do with official history's war strategies as well as the metaphysical problem of how we go forward in a period of bewildering transition. In that story, Georgeann's husband, Shelby Picket (a name that for me now carries amusing evocations of Shelby Foote and General Pickett of the Gettysburg charge—and retreat), finds that his increasingly unpredictable wife has left a retreat workshop on Christian marriage to actively retreat into a video game. Recognizing a threat and danger in her dissatisfaction with their less-than-skillfully played daily life, he asks his wife: “What can I do to make you happy?” Georgeann, “still blasting aliens off a screen in her mind,” doesn't answer at first. When she does, she can only say, “I'll tell you when I get it figured out. … Just let me work on it” (146). This is where Mason's women stand—on the verge of being able to say what will make them happy. What they want is not what they thought. The old certainties and sexual roles they were led to believe they wanted have vanished, and the alternative that will satisfy is not easy to name. As in the line from Shiloh, “something is happening” to them. Dreams and expectations are being revised between generations, but what they should now dream for is not yet settled. Around them, parents or family members—people whom they love from an earlier generation—live with more certainty. They are just as confused, although they are not yet at all perplexed. For example, in “Third Monday,” Ruby's mother insists that her daughter's breast cancer has been caused by “lifting heavy boxes in her job.” “Women,” she continues with disconcerting conviction, “just weren't built to do men's work.” And Ruby despairingly replies with a clarity that brings confusion into focus, “Let's not get into why I never married.” The gap that looms between mother and daughter here measures a historical change.

“Third Monday” is paradigmatic of Mason's early creation of images: not of the perhaps predictable sexual antagonisms of contemporary women's fiction but of awkward sexual transitions occurring during a cultural shift, something slightly different. At a baby shower given by a bowling team for a single mother, ribbons from gifts threaded onto a paper plate make a “traditional” comic bridal bouquet, but discomfortingly “the ends of the ribbons dangle like tentacles on a jellyfish” (233). A member of the team later reveals what the others have suspected: that “she shaves … every morning with a Lady Sunbeam” since “her birth control pills [have] stimulated facial hair” (243). These unsettling images accompany the story of one woman's “third-Monday” intimacy, coming unexpectedly after she has chosen something other than traditional marriage. Ruby has found genuine satisfaction in a mid-life involvement with Buddy Landon, who comes to town each third Monday to sell dogs—creatures that he is fond of but quite able to part with—at a flea market where others sell bric-a-brac, the loosened artifacts of traditional family homes, now dismantled. Between two of Buddy's visits, Ruby has had a mastectomy. She faces the prospect of sharing the news of her cancer with him. She wonders whether he will feel as if his property has been violated but thinks that “Buddy is not that kind of man, and she is not his property” (233). The question that builds throughout the story is: will this improvised relationship withstand the pressure of the personal crisis of breast cancer? As in so many Mason stories set at the end of this century, the characteristics of sexual relationships are in flux, and they are more unknowable and unpredictable than ever while participants live and explore historical change.

Mason's women (and most of her men), while living in historical change, live outside of official history and move, as Diana Fuss has put it, “across and against his story” (95). In Country makes explicit both its young female character's position outside history and her need and desire to imagine her way into understanding the intersections between “herstory” and “history.” In Mason's 1986 interview with Albert Wilhelm, she spoke of her character Sam Hughes' “quest for the experience of the male.” Sam searches to find her dead father in the place where he eludes her while affecting her: that is, official history—the experience of the Vietnam War. Mason connects Sam's search to the quest structure and mystery patterns of the Nancy Drew books that Mason herself loved as a girl:

There's something about that resourcefulness in the female characters in the girl sleuth books that became a quest for the experience of the male—what men and boys experience in our society. That is a great mystery and something we females are not allowed to know about as children or teenagers. There seems to be a great motivation among a lot of women writers to write about this quest for what men experience. In In Country, for example, I have written in terms of Sam wondering what it was like to go to war, that's something that women by and large don't have to do … Why do they do it and not us? What can they tell us about it and what does it mean to us? It's just a source of great mystery.

(Wilhelm, “Interview” 30)

In Mason's 1984 Hopewell, Kentucky, Sam wonders why vets do not have girlfriends. She discovers that neither Agent Orange nor impotence keeps them away from women so profoundly as the fact that women have not shared the male experience of Vietnam (official history). “Women weren't over there … so they can't really understand” (107), Emmett explains. Imagining the vets' daily conversations at McDonald's, she realizes that, indeed, she “doesn't know what men talk about when together. Men were a total mystery” (184). Asking her mother Irene to explain the war and to tell about her father, and then accusing her of protectively refusing, Sam discovers the actual situation. Irene doesn't have more to tell: “I've told you about all there is to tell … I was married to him for one month before he left, and I never saw him again … I hardly even remember him” (167). Irene is not the participant-informant that Sam seeks. But Sam does not believe her mother when Irene attempts to reassure her by saying: “You shouldn't feel bad about any of it. [This Vietnam thing] had nothing to do with you” (57). Sam is certain it “had everything to do with [her]” (71), obliquely realizing that history and herstory intersect. She speculates over the meaning of saved mementos of combat—teeth and ears saved as nostalgic trophies, angrily speculating, “… men wanted to kill. That's what men did, she thought. It was their basic profession. … Women didn't kill. That was why her mother wouldn't honor the flag, or honor the dead. Honoring the dead meant honoring the cause” (209–10). But separateness is not the whole of the story that Sam is constructing. History, she discovers, has partly been motivated by the desire to protect herstory. Emmett “went to Vietnam for [Irene's] sake” although “it wasn't what Irene wanted. Then she got stuck with [him] because of what [he] did for her” (225).

History and herstory are entwined, and Sam—whose name is uncertainly gendered—intertwines her own coming of age with what must have been her father's, structuring a parallel between the unknown dangers he faced in war with those she faces in approaching her own female maturity. Needing to decide if she will join her mother in Lexington and enter a world where her mother hopes “women can do anything they want now, just about” (167), or stay in Hopewell with Emmett, Lonnie, or Tom—men who might define and limit her future—she unpredictably feels that the “stress of the Vietnam War … was her inheritance” (89). Provocatively, her search for the experience of Vietnam is punctuated with counterpoint female dangers that repeatedly surface and submerge: Dawn's unexpected pregnancy and too-easy desire for a teen-aged marriage, her mother's experience as a young single mother (“I was nineteen, not much older than you. Imagine yourself with this little baby. How would you handle it?” 168), thoughts about her mother's new baby—a salvation for Irene but a disturbingly displacing addition for Sam—and not least, Mamaw's limited experience in the world. The female dangers of herstory unconsciously counterpoint those of history. “Dawn was going to have a baby … it was as though Dawn had been captured by body snatchers” (155) as in that movie in which “nobody got saved.” And her mother's baby—“like a growth that had come loose … like a scab or wart” that Irene “carried … around … in fascination, unable to part with it”—reminds her that “in Vietnam, mothers carried their dead babies around until they began to rot” (164). And even while she accuses men of killing in a way that women do not, she admits, “Soldiers murdered babies. But women did too. They ripped their own unborn babies out of themselves and flushed them away, squirming and bloody” (215). At Cawood Pond the frightening Viet Cong soldier she imagines and fears turns out to be a mother raccoon with babies. In the summer of Bruce Springsteen's “Born to Run,” Sam's mind is running between two sets of terrors and making peace with both. She is exploring the conscious and unconscious sources of her stress.

Sam feels strongly that history has been endured by men in part to protect the mothers and children of herstory. But she also discovers history as that which paradoxically alters—and is altering—herstory. When Sam visits her father's parents and feels the distance between their lives and hers, she realizes that “if her father hadn't gone to war, he'd be discussing blue mold … [and she] would be jiggling a baby on her knee” (195). While trying to protect his world for his daughter, Dwayne Hughes has paradoxically changed it, created circumstances that catalyzed change, and so put history as well as death between them.

In Country, then, is about the search for history and about its unknowability as much as Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! is. Arguably it is about the look of history in a postmodern, post-representational era where the impossibility of constructing authoritative history is strongly felt. Sam struggles to picture the past: “I can't really see it,” Sam said. “All I can see in my mind is picture postcards. It doesn't seem real. I can't believe it was really real.” Her reply comes from Tom, who like this novel's other historical informants testifies to history's intense reality while remaining inarticulate about and overwhelmed by that experience. “It was real, all right. You don't want to know how real it was” (95). History is inarticulate and the historian has access to narrative only, recourse not to the past but to texts about the past. In this novel, the self-reproducing narratives that reveal and obscure the past are not the too-fixed variations of official historical narrative that might shape and limit its production and reproduction. Instead they are popular culture's historical narratives—the fictional files of MASH and the images of TV documentaries. These television narratives seem reliable in therapeutic and releasing ways. They make horror over into manageable entertainment, shared and consumed with interest by a nation in need of narrative's power to release and then contain shock, and even transform it into comedy. But they are unreliable in other ways. At Cawood's Pond, imagining “in country,” Sam tries to picture Vietnamese bending over work in rows of rice while the sky is in flames but realizes she can't imagine the landscape accurately. “Did rice grow in rows? Was it bushy, like soybeans?” (212). Soon after, even while rejecting the possibility of adequately responding to Sam's entreaty to “tell about it” (“No point.” Emmett explains. “You can't tell it all …” [222]), Sam's Uncle Emmett reaches into his memory “to tell” to satisfy her need. But his words all sound to Sam like the bits of recognizable old stories, echoing familiar narratives in familiar phrases. “That sounds familiar.” Sam responds. “I saw something like that in a movie on TV. … I heard somebody in that documentary we saw say that” (223). The particularity of Emmett's experience is lost in too-familiar narrative images, in worn phases like “the smell of warm blood in the jungle heat, like soup coming to a boil,” in “the smell of death … like you were eating death.” The words of familiar narratives are not adequate to Emmett's task of self-expression. Her father's letters from the war are not any more satisfying. Mamaw considers them more “personal” (200) than the diary in which he recorded thoughts and actions, but in fact they are formulaic letters from the front, following a paradigm inherited from the genre of love-and-war letters familiar in old Hollywood movies. “They didn't say much, did they?” Emmett agrees. Later, tellingly, Sam remembers her high school graduation ceremony where she received not a diploma but a blank sheet of paper tied with ribbon (200). All the authoritative texts have too much blankness to them.

In the climax of this novel, Emmett tells Sam, “You can't learn from the past. The main thing you learn from history is that you can't learn from history. That's what history is” (226). This line has stimulated readers' discussions and has left Fred Hobson and Robert Brinkmeyer, among others, disturbed by Emmett's lack of “a compelling sense of history” (Brinkmeyer 22). My own reading, however, does not stress Emmett's unreliability here, but his reliability. Emmett accurately expresses the individual's experience of history—that is, the experience of being caught in circumstances you did not count on and couldn't shape, of being caught in circumstances larger than any person's ability to shape them. “I thought I was getting revenge” (221), Emmett tells Sam. History, Emmett now knows, is larger than individual intentions, and it is the thing which cannot be managed with personal choices. In it, individuals' personal choices take them unexpected places and, as often as not, lead to bewilderment rather than self-direction. “Everything's confusing now, looking back,” Sam realizes, “but in a way everything seemed clear back then. Dwayne thought he was doing the right thing, and then Emmett went over there and thought he was doing the right thing … Everybody always thinks they're doing the right thing, you know” (235). History is a current too forceful to permit lives self-direction. “You learn from history … that you can't learn from history. That's what history is”: bumbling through.

Feather Crowns, Mason's recent historical novel, primarily set in the year 1900, is about another moment of cultural transition: the preceding century's turn, the transition into the modern period that has put us where we now are at this long end of the 1900s, caught in another rotation. It perhaps shows us history repeating itself—showing us the shifts that bewildered the century before us. As in her stories set in the late twentieth century, the novel charts historical change by looking at gender and sexual prescriptions and taboos in flux. Those particular arenas of change intersect with all the others that mark and make this century, and the novel form allows Mason to explore cultural change in more complexity than her short fictions. As in the work of Sarah Orne Jewett at the end of the nineteenth century, the quartet of medicine, science, money, and male authority are pictured intersecting women's separate sphere of authority and relationship. As in more recent twentieth-century women's literature, Mason's plot involves living beyond silence and finding a voice. And as in Mason's own earlier work, there is a feeling of being caught in the unsettled confusion of historical as well as personal transition. Christianna Wheeler's narrative pictures the historical changes occurring between 1890 and 1965—religious, scientific, and sexual. The historical changes documented by her story produce a characteristically twentieth-century loss-of-faith as well as a cultural and personal education. This brings me to my central focus—Mason's Feather Crowns and its interests in women's history and historical transition.

We begin on a Kentucky farm outside of Hopewell, with “Christianna Wheeler, big as a bathtub and confined to bed all winter with the heaviness of her pregnancy” (3). Christianna, bewildered by her unexpected size, guiltily fears she is giving birth to devils as a retribution for the degree of sexual pleasure she enjoys in her marriage, or worse, for the ashamed lust awakened in her by a dark-haired preacher of turn-of-the-age apocalyptic prophecy. When we meet her, she is in the process of surprising herself by bearing, not monsters, but five small, perfect, and full-term babies—a wonder of the world—in the farm front room. The narrative of her delivery, of the life and death of those infants, and of the commotion they cause in Christie's world and in the town and nation sidelights historical change and the sort of transitional period we have met before in Mason's work.

With the modern period, an age of spectacle is surfacing. We come to know it through the grotesque crowds that come to see the babies—both living and dead—as eagerly as they assemble to view the gender ambiguity of the breasts and penis on the sideshow hermaphrodite, Charley Lou Pickles. On the tenth day of the Wheeler babies' lives, Christie glances through the window and cries out as she sees “hurrying across the field … an enormous throng of people. Women, holding on to their hats and skirts and stepping high through the muddy pasture. Children, running. Men, striding behind and alongside, like dogs herding a flock” (165). From then on, the impulse of the age is revealed daily—once in the comic but emblematic figure who, having found the door blocked to ensure privacy, steps through the window “just like it was the regular way to get in.” This is a frenzy to see, a twentieth-century hunger that relishes others' lives as entertainment—better entertainment when powerful enough to catalyze genuine reflection on human possibility, tragedy, and nearly inexplicable survival, but nonetheless entertainment easily, and grotesquely, put aside for the savor of next spectacle. This appetite has grown throughout the century as technology improves our capacity to see other lives (the train which brings Christie's crowd is of course only one instrument that has made the world smaller). The craving is now identifiable in television talk shows which pay people to present themselves as characters, to bring forward their family dilemmas, sexual habits, personal obsessions, shameful secrets, and authentic pain for the quick consumption of viewing masses addicted to using other's stories as relief from their own. Then and now, the interest in other's stories is genuine and is as human and as creative as any. But perhaps as access grows, the capacity to hear stories is limited. There is a disturbing disjunction between the satisfaction of the viewers—between the good mood of the entertained spectators—and, as Christie formulates it, “what the amazing snake lady, who was scaly as a perch fish and shed her skin in the spring … thought about her condition” (213).

While this modern age develops, certain companion powers are rising: medicine, science, industry, technology. The traditional woman-craft, the “strong hands and … gentle, reassuring voice” (5) of mid-wife Hattie Hurt are being replaced by the imperfect authority of Dr. Foote. Mason's use of the name Foote for this doctor—in a novel confronting the imperfect authority of official History—teases me as Mason delivers not the limited vision of official History but the revelation of gynecological history presented from a woman's most unofficial angle. The “historical” details of a prenatal exam in 1900 are as memorable as any battle record: the “thin towel put over her face … her dress raised and fastened … with clothes-pins onto some poles [to make] a barrier that kept [doctor and patient] from seeing each other's faces” (19). This barrier does not obscure the uneasy medical violation of a culturally normative sexual separation—a separation strong enough to prevent Christie from telling James about even the babies' kicking. This “historical” examination of Christie's over-sized pregnancy produces the misdiagnosis of “fibroids,” a prescription for a preparation to shrink them, and an unsatisfying answer to Christie's sense that her pregnancy is not normal. Equally “historical” are the doctor's birthing techniques. Arriving when Christie has already delivered the first of the quints, but is still “big as a barn” (26) with a belly “still a punkin under there” (24), he adjusts her into an awkward, painful position from which one of the women proclaims “she can't get nothing out” (28). The attending women recommend he “better get her up and bend her over.” His memorable medical reply is “I can work better with her in this position.”

In Sarah Orne Jewett's 1899 short story, “The White Heron,” the nineteenth-century female world of Sylvia and of nature itself encounters a threat in the form of a modern boy pursuing the science of ornithology. He carries a ten dollar bill to entice Sylvia to reveal the heron's secret dwelling. He carries a gun to shoot the bird he wants to study, wanting to know it differently than Sylvia knows it as she lives with it in the natural world. He carries, too, his own male appeal to a young girl. As in Jewett's story, science, money, and technology combine with a male authority to introduce a threatening confusion and the twentieth century itself. These same components of the modern intersect with Christie's efforts to keep her infants alive as best she can. The babies do best before the scientific Dr. Foote recommends both cow milk and opium-based soothing syrup to keep the babies from using “up their strength with too much crying” (178–79). They do best before the Friendship, the 3:03 train from Memphis, “stopped daily disgorging a fresh lot of sightseers into the cornfield” (207)—among them, those who have just been to the Memphis exposition of twentieth-century technology and now are adding a different sort of wonder to their trip. The babies do best before James' Uncle Wad transforms Christie's “miracle” into financial salvation by charging admission, a scheme that, he argues, will also provide the benefit of slowing “the crowd at the door so they won't bust in all at oncet” (171). “These people's going to come anyhow,” and it “ain't neighborly” to tell them “they can't come in your house. … If you got five babies instead of one, you make them work for you. That's the principle of thrift. …” (171–72). Those babies do better before James persuades Christie that collecting admission money is “an unavoidable necessity” (203) to ease their family debt to Wad for the land to grow the tobacco called Dark Fire. The babies do better before the authoritative town-fathers—like the authoritative boy who comes to tempt Jewett's Sylvia—come to tempt Christie, full of flattering courtesy. They are grateful for the national attention she brings to Hopewell—a place name that evokes Flannery O'Connor's Mrs. Hopewell with her mouth full of clichés and platitudes. No one is at all at fault for the babies not surviving. Christie's Mama describes the exposure that the babies do not survive by saying: “They were handled too much—just loved to death” (267). No one is at fault and yet science, money, technology, and authority each day contribute to the sequence.

Wad Wheeler with his avatar Greenberry McCain are perhaps the only near-villains in the piece, and mercenary as they are, they are pitiable rather than fearsome. Wad regularly darkens the scene, once spitting the juice of his tobacco wad “onto the hollyhock [Amanda] had trained to grow up … near the back door” (55). Later he counts his wad of collection money on Christie's birth-bed. When the train passes by after Minnie's death, Amanda thinks “Wad would charge a dime to let people see Minnie if Christie'd let him” (231). That is just what he does encourage once he grasps the possibilities offered by Sam Mullins' work.

Mullins' developing commerce and technology of death is another signpost of the modern. Expert skills in sympathy and condolence are a new twentieth-century commodity, and Mullins is introducing his industry to Hopewell. His skillful technology of preservation promises the previously unthinkable: loved ones, crowds, and science itself might “see the precious babies preserved, for always … preserved from decay till the end of time, or till the air hits them” (226). Older family members feel the jolt of change. Christie's Mama's complaint that “they took those babies away from us” (259) records family reaction to altering the mourning ritual—to not making the casket, to not tending, dressing, or watching the family's dead. Now, the ritual of separation is purchased rather than made. It comes with memorabilia, a fan combining a picture of Jesus with an ad for Mullins' establishment. It offers a technology both superb and grotesque. Behind glass in a large front parlor called the “Slumber Room,” the babies are no longer flesh and blood, but objects on display “tight and contorted, their … little features frozen like knots on fence posts, … petrified” (260). Mullins arranges them to show off his skills, bonnets removed, sleeves pulled up. To Mama, they “don't look right.” Worse, Mullins does not group them in the “right” order, the order in which Christie daily arranged them, and so Christie finds it “unbearable to see Minnie at the far right instead of the middle” (360), a violation she cannot correct.

Part of the stage arranged for this “modernized” and ornate spectacle of death is a curtained room where family are expected to retreat from visitors. Christie's grief is judged suspect when she does not cry there, but peers out, wanting to see the babies through others' curious eyes, finding that the spectators are, for her, the spectacle itself. This looking is what Christie has been doing since the age of spectacle first caught her in its gaze; that is, she reverses the glance and glimpses into other lives as they crowd rudely into hers. It was “as though she had been granted the opportunity to travel widely, to see strange faces from distant lands. She wasn't the show—she was watching the show” (180). The world comes to her with its rudeness, rapscallions, wonders, and provocations. It provides Christie with an education that puts her identity in flux, into the area of transition we met in Shiloh, and moves her character unexpectedly closer to the “New Woman” of the modern age.

Christie starts this transition from her first overwhelming and self-blaming feeling that she has been inadequate as a mother. She first accuses herself of failed biology, judgment, and selflessness (295). Her “milk wasn't good” (237). She “should have nursed [only] the largest and healthiest one and saved him.” If she had separated the babies, they wouldn't have brought crowds. She “should have given one to the woman who lost her baby” (266). She “didn't take care of them good enough” and “maybe … deserved to lose them.” From those guilty feelings, she passes to a more encouraging, and by degree, transforming, questioning about the babies and their deaths. More than once the novel recalls Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, not only in its historicity and its playful combination of a preacher with the topic of sexual guilt, but in its conscious puzzling over the meanings of signs. Christie comes from the religious tradition of those preachers she meets at Reelfoot who read life as a series of Divine, but masked, communications, who expect to find spiritual meaning in natural symbols. The task of interpretation is brought close to her when the same tradition reads her multiple births as a sign coming with the turn of the century. And it is brought unavoidably close when Amanda's daughter Little Bunch (who has a few oracular touches to her) without warning rips into the babies' bed bolster to reveal the feather crowns of the novel's title, those two “wads” of feathers, woven like nests (248). What did they mean? What does their presence, and the presence of so many other mysterious “signs” in life mean? What about the “egg with a perfect cross etched on it” (269) found by mama's neighbor? Christie's husband, James, gives her advice: “People are all the time finding signs. … But I don't think we know what signs mean. … It's a test … [God] wants us to trust in Him and stop trying to figure everything out.” James wants Christie “to stop asking questions. He wanted to trust blindly, to close his eyes to the past, go forward without reference to the babies. She wanted to know how they fit in …” (272). Resembling Leroy in “Shiloh,” James' desire not to interpret signs or speculate about “the insides of history” is not a good match for his wife's desire to know. “Why would God write out a sign if He doesn't want us to know?” Christie asks. “It plagues my mind. … Everything is a question” (269).

One area of new questioning for Christie concerns race, class, and the South. Old certainties are challenged by her contact with Mittens Dowdy, the “colored woman” sent to act as a wet nurse. Christie remembers only one other Negro she has known “up close”: Uncle Obie, who loved snakes—a sign, people said, that he had “the Devil in him.” Obie, she remembers, was “found dead along a rutted road one chilly morning. People said a whip snake had come along and thrashed him to death” (118). Never having explored her thoughts about racial antagonism, Christie meets Mittens with anxiety and even with some fear of her milk, for while the upper classes might commonly use “help,” in her own class prejudice is not complicated by a tradition of close contact in service. At first, Christie is fascinated with Mittens. She is excited by their “similar notions about bad luck and signs” (119). She is captivated by Mittens' expressiveness. Mittens talks to the babies under her breath while nursing them, mesmerizing them by inventing “scary stories full of surprise” (120), what Alma antagonistically calls “breathing hoodoo on those chillern,” but which is more nearly a kind of eloquence. The similarly expressive “lyrical, low tune” that Mittens hums deep in her throat also enters Christie, charms and bothers her, too. Christie moves beyond mere fascination as she shares the effort to nurture the infants with Mittens. When Mullins refuses to admit Mittens to the funeral viewing, judging “it won't do to bring her in” (263)—“a nigger that said she worked for you”—Christie goes out to receive her friend and impulsively leads her through the artificial decorum of the funeral home to the glass case, and to the intimate group of mourning family women. “What does she think she's doing?” she hears Mullins ask (264). Later when she travels throughout the nation, she generalizes from this particular incident in her education and repeatedly observes and assesses the postbellum South. “The Southern scene was burned into her brain by now: the bunches of dusty Negro children (‘ash cats’ she heard someone call them) watching the train go by; old women lugging buckets; brown and white dogs slinking through refuse, dusty mules loafing or pulling loads; shacks by the train tracks, the bare, hard dirt of the roads” (398). Christie is receptive to an education in racial hierarchy in part because she already has felt class hierarchy, a point made clear in her thoughts about Mrs. Blankenship, this “woman so different from herself … who never had to slop hogs or sucker tobacco,” whose decorative hats and gloves, silk and lawn bother Christie as she makes comparisons. Mrs. Blankenship calls Christie “darling” and presumes familiarity with the rising Mrs. Wheeler of the sudden “First Family of [the] city” (149), bringing an ornate powder box and puff to the farm as a baby gift. Yet the attention of the upper class does nothing to keep Christie from fearing that the crowds look down on her as merely working class, or “think we're hicks and live like animals, dropping a litter at a time” (320).

Christie's emerging friendship with Mittens is part of another structure of the novel—one presenting friendships between women. The Wiggins sisters fit this pattern, too. Big, Little, and Evelyn, like Mittens, are expressive women. They sing songs they “always knowed” (355) and probably learned from their mother (unlike Mittens whose mother never had “time for no songs” [175], and whose story is as different as the women's stories of different races are.) The sisters satisfy a need that Christie pinpoints when she tells James: “I miss their singing. I need them” (368). Like the sisters and Mittens, Christie's other female friends contribute to her education. As in so many American women's novels, friends model varied ways to be a woman. Christie is paired in particular with two—Amanda and Alma—who model opposing but equally unsatisfying alternatives. Alma embodies a practical, but too focused, efficiency. She is a paradigm of authority and “furious strength” (255), and Christie moves from conflict with, to respect for, her. Alma, however, gives Christie and other members of her family physical care without attentiveness to feeling (425). The feeling side of Alma has been sacrificed to the manager, the protector, the caregiver. She helps set the tone in a family where folks are “too busy putting food on the table to take care of each other … [and] nobody took time to look down deep at what was bothering a person.” Only once does Alma unexpectedly reveal her own history of feeling—her long disorientation and recovery following her loss of a baby. Only once does Christie observe Alma unexpectedly permitting herself affectionate play—in “a swinging game” with Thomas Hunt, with whom she “had never seemed like husband and wife.” Alma shows no loss when Thomas Hunt, a materialistic version of Eudora Welty's wandering King MacLain, roams far from home, until one day he disappears, perhaps murdered or perhaps settled somewhere with a new wife. Possibly another woman suits his self-indulgence differently by sharing it rather than serving it. On the opposite side of the spectrum of female possibility, Amanda embodies a strained, unsatisfied longing. She is all feeling and unsated seeking. Christie is repeatedly moved by “the warmth of Amanda's desire, the longing that seemed to shoot out of her in all directions” (429). And in moments of frustration with the family, Christie takes comfort in glances exchanged, “like old friends meeting in a crowd.” But Christie fears the strain in Amanda's personality, “something a little dangerous … as if she might consider doing the unthinkable—as though she had, in fact” (106). She suspects that Thomas Hunt, Alma's husband, might be that unthinkable thing. The secret in the smokehouse, however, is not simply sex. It is Amanda's suicide, perpetrated there after Amanda has lost her daughter Little Bunch and blamed her own self-preoccupation. Amanda can neither fit nor successfully break with the social prescription for gendered selflessness. She is an ancestor of those Mason women who will escape “proper” gender behaviors, but she lives before their time. Throughout, Amanda's self-centered desire is presented complexly as both a weakness and a strength. She takes greedy pleasure in “all the fuss [Christie's celebrity] stirred up” (371), as if she is thoughtlessly desperate for spectacle, needing it to distract her from her incompleteness. But on the other hand, Christie rightly wishes she could share her travel with Amanda who “would appreciate [it] so much more than James could, who would enjoy the privilege” (373). Amanda's ambiguity is emblematized in the fashionable gift she painstakingly makes Christie—the wreath of human hair that conveys a feeling of creativity gone awry. Woven from the dead babies' hair, the painstaking flowers of her wreath “were lifeless and brittle but intricate as feathers” (424), full of labor and even love, but without the capacity to transform—without the quality expressed in the recurrent songs that punctuate Christie's education. “The overall effect was of a carefully preserved bouquet of garden posies—sun-faded and drenched of their color. Dead” (423). Moved and disturbed, Christie puts the wreath “where she won't have to look at it everyday” and “at the time, she thought Amanda understood.”

In Christie, growing awareness results in a movement toward finding a voice, toward self-expression. Christie is a woman who has been hearing people say that “the cat had her tongue … since she was [her daughter's] size.” Suddenly “elevated onto a stage of importance” (182) and feeling “a new sense of power because the Sunday visitors had come to see her, needing her” (301), she begins to speak. And although she still speaks so softly that mostly no one hears (partly the result of no one listening), she begins to know what she wants to say. She starts by telling Wad “you ain't' got no heart” (182)—a remark spoken lightly but meant. Then, told by her niece that she should “write back and say thank you” to the multitudes writing her letters, Christie challenges the prescriptions of decorum: “‘Is that what I oughter say? … People like that come in my house and just wooled my babies to death,’ Christie said, in a voice so small no one even noticed” (297). Although asked by the men in her community to take her dead babies on National Tour, she wants “to do it for her own sake—to declare her independence.” When Wad congratulates her on her choice, he is plainly put aside:

“I reckoned you'd see it my way,” Wad said. …

“But I'm not seeing it your way.” Christie said with a clatter of plates. …

“I don't know what she means by that,” Wad said to James.

“Think on it.” said Christie, slapping a dishrag angrily at the table.


Christie goes into the world hoping to give its inhabitants “a piece of [her mind]” and to show them “what they done” (304). “What stirred inside her nowadays felt like ripe peaches splitting their skins” (309). She intends to “be master of the scene” (312). When the Wheelers are first exploitatively displayed in the Nashville Opera House by the showman Greenberry McCain, later identified by James' sarcasm as Gooseberry McPain, it is daunting to Christie to find herself on stage and afraid to look at her long dead babies' condition. Nevertheless, as anger rises, she manages to mutter her accusation: “Get your eyes full … My babies was wooled to death—pure and simple. … By people just like you” (328). She next speaks publicly in writing a promised traveler's letter for the Hopewell Chronicle—attempting the voice of small-town journalistic decorum and “trying for high tone,” while balancing formula with her own genuine need to express her discovery of concerns larger than Hopewell's, her socio-historical observation of a postbellum “Southland.” Looking her letter over, Christie feels “it is too simple, but she couldn't set down what was really in her heart” (336). As in Dwayne Hughes' letters home, a generic formula overtakes the writer's powers of self-expression. Gradually Christie also discovers and admits the futility of expressing herself on stage with the babies. She is unable to diminish “all the spite she had brought with her on the trip,” nor is she able to fulfill her “resolution to get even with the public” (345) when the audience is not listening to her story.

But, in the effort, she gains something. She gropes towards defining it for her granddaughter in the novel's final section, a frame where the now-elderly “country woman” briefly interprets her life for her female generations. She is speaking to a tape recorder at her granddaughter's request; it is a private communication sent in a public utterance—an explanation to be preserved. This is the audience who may receive what her earlier one could not hear. “I hated it,” she explains, “but I loved it too, in a way. It made me feel like somebody. It gave me something to look forward to. Women didn't get to do things back then like they can now. But I didn't realize what I was feeling half the time, I was so hurt. … But I did love the recognition, I know now, and we went traipsing around that fall because I wanted more of it. I wanted to get away from the farm and see what was out here in the wide blue world” (447). Speaking to this granddaughter is a reclaiming of generations as much as a presentation of self, because when Christie returned home from “doing what women didn't get to do back then,” her young daughter Nannie would not know her or James. Having left home to tell of the loss of her babies, she inadvertently loses another child. When she returns, the extended Wheeler family starts in on the new Christie, “so changed [she] fit in even less than [she] did before,” now even less than before a service-oriented caretaker resembling Alma, and they put it “to Nannie that [Christie] wasn't fit to be her mama” (448). One senses that the breach that circumstances created between mother and daughter may have narrowed over time, but that it is an unforgotten history, now reapproached. Christie speaks in a country voice less fully revealing than the one we have known in her head, but it is an informing historian's voice, interpreting the past so that generations might read its signs and connect them to the future.

In that taped message Christie speaks about “loss of faith.” Twentieth-century loss of faith has been a topic throughout. Before Christie leaves Hopewell, Amanda encourages and admonishes her with the phrase “just don't lose your faith” (307). But when Christie sums up her life, she admits: “I don't believe there's a heaven and I haven't believed it in many years … I lost my faith. I didn't know it at the time, and I never told anybody, not even James. But I believe he lost his faith too” (451). This conclusion of course is not news to the reader who has seen Christie move from guilt over her dream about a minister, to the firm and comic trespass of brazenly sewing on the Lord's day (“her mother would be horrified …” [398]), to her cynical speculation that Heaven's pearly gate might not by now be “those garage doors that open straight up” (446). “Loss of faith” covers a complexity of change. It is loss of faith in formal religion, especially clear the moment when side-show hawkers remind her of Reelfoot: “The preachers were medicine men, hawking their concoctions for saving the soul from damnation” (368). It is also a loss of faith in men. When the hanging of Fats Fortenberry—who did “his mama dirty before he shot her”—becomes another pleasure for crowds delighting, too familiarly, in spectacle, Christie surprises two execution revelers by shouting, “I hope when it's your turn you burn in Hell!” Unexpectedly attacked by this inexplicably passionate woman, “the men's mouths dropped. ‘Why, ma'am—’ they protest, unable to finish before Christie pronounces on them again: ‘Fats Fortenberry's a better man than either one of you!’” (390). It is, too, a loss of her own innocence, the innocence she and James eventually weep over. The oak chest frame to her dead babies' glass case is carved with “lambs, birds, vines, fruit, and berries—the Garden of Eden” (326). It is innocence from which she and James fall, a fall expressed in a photo capturing their frightened eyes. It is finally loss of faith in “God's mysterious ways” and in God Himself:

She kept wondering why God allowed such injustice. Why did the colored folks have to be slaves? … Why would a loving God punish anybody so harshly? Or why would He make a person like Charley Lou Pickles? She had been thinking hard thoughts about God lately. … Why would he punish her for having lustful thoughts … All she did was dream. There was a lot God hadn't punished, and a lot He hadn't punished enough. It was as though He punished randomly, for fun, or as though He couldn't keep up with all the misdeeds of the human race. Maybe after He created people, they multiplied so fast, they were out of control—like germs. Like the germs that killed her babies.


That image of germs, rather than sin, yielding tragedy brings us to a central shift in twentieth-century cultural history—the movement from religious to scientific authority and faith.

And here the novel is more complex than it at first seems with its pastoral distrust of science and technology. For Christie's questioning leads her to science. In her search for answers to why all this happened, new questions open. She accidentally discovers the Encyclopedia of Animal Life and reads “about strange creatures she hadn't known existed … creatures made of a single cell, and transparent, with eyes and mouths and innards, and even feet. They weren't germs, and they weren't the tiny beginnings of a larger life. They were complete in themselves” (381–82). This discovery of the paramecium and slipper animalcule opens both another world of signs to be read and another way of reading. “Where were these tiny things? … How would you know they were there if you couldn't see them? What was their purpose?” Science seeks answers to the sort of questions Christie has begun to ask, and in her time of greatest need Christie turns to science in the form of Dr. Graham Johnson, Institute of Man, Washington, DC. Johnson, from his place in the crowd, had offered his card and the polite suggestion of “help,” an offer Christie recalls when she eventually seeks a sanctuary to shield her infants' remains from the public's stare and from family greed. The Institute, which “studies scientific curiosities … and [is] devoted to the advancement of science, not to public entertainment,” would be happy to add the babies to its collection. Johnson is seemingly a genuine improvement over McPain; Johnson is capable of gestures of compassion, honesty, and thoughtfulness. But although Mason's portrait of science is not as dark as Willa Cather's in The Professor's House and “Tom Outland's Story,” where science is the disinterested lackey of government bureaucracy, Mason's portrait is deeply ambiguous, nonetheless. For while Johnson's promises—that “the infants would be in good hands if [she] were to deposit them” and would be “kept safe from the curious eyes of the public” (332)—are genuine, his inability to hear Christie's story is troubling. Taking notes on her case, he stops writing as she reaches what is for her the heart of the story, effectively silencing the interpretation she eventually leaves for her granddaughter. The scene is not given emphasis, but its implications linger. Johnson's sense of priority is not surprising; the Institute, he had told Christie earlier, is “only concerned with the natural phenomenon itself … We're not after the social history” (409). While science is respectful, tactful, refined, articulate, and gracious, in other ways it vaguely resembles McPain's sideshows; only the audience is more select. The Institute has preserved the brains “of a white man … an Indian and … a Negro, for comparative study,” organs from those who have died of dread disease, murder victims' tissue, Lincoln's bloodstains, brain tissue of most and least intelligent who ever lived, several pairs of Siamese twins, the brain of a dwarf. The collection is noble: “We just want to study why these differences occur, so we can understand them for the good of mankind. … There are so many things we don't understand about mankind—about our strange diversity” (411). But the self-description also recalls McPain's “Fair Day Exhibition Series, an educational series of lectures and diversions, for the purpose of educating the generally curious and concerned public” (303). Science asks only about phenomena and does not ask the question at which Christie eventually arrives: “She saw the central flaw in her desire to understand why such an extraordinary thing had happened to her. It wasn't why it happened—that couldn't be known; it was what people made of it” (417). History (and historical fiction), rather than science, can ask about this. Years later, Christie, faith lost, wonders if “me and James done the right thing, leaving our babies up there in Washington to be studied for science” (446). As in Cather's novel, Washington—seat of official history—is a presence looming in complementarity with the authority of science. The splendid monument of national government, scientific authority, and perhaps official history, too, is neatly summed up—and swiftly diminished—by James as “three domes in two days.”

As in twentieth-century American literature and culture generally, the search for spiritual fulfillment, having left the nineteenth-century sphere of the religious, goes elsewhere, but not into science. Instead it becomes synonymous with the search for sexual fulfillment. Christie's sexual story is one of being in jeopardy but of finding a way. After the babies' deaths, she grows increasingly distant from James. He blames Mittens' milk and the bottles given. He wants to forget. She welcomes McPain's tour. That travel diminishes James, separating him from his work and sense of purpose. He grows impatient with her feelings, with their exploitation, and in idleness, develops a creative sarcasm. She is full of contempt for his tendency to curse rather than explore; going to see the snake woman without him, she snaps, “Look at the world, James. … You might learn something.” His voice, as we hear it against others introduced, sounds increasingly “country.” Unworldly, he is weak against McPain's shenanigans because he believes he does not know how to travel in these “foreign” cities, and so is dependent on the show master. She, living in cramped spaces with this altered and irritated James, finds herself increasingly repulsed by the physical presence in which she once took an excess of delight.

But it is with James that Christie shapes the cure for what ails them. In a moment of intimate banter, rubbing liniment onto her ache in a scene that turns to foreplay and releases grief, confusion, desire, comfort, and decision, they literally achieve the “miracle cure” of side-show medicine. Their play mocks all posturing and imposturing authority:

“What is this stuff?” he asked. “Can you drink it?”

“I think you can do anything with it,” she said with sudden abandon. “You can shine brass or clean buggy rigging. It cures piles.”

“Reckon it'll unstop the gug? Or clean sores?”

“It polishes furniture. Anything you're a mind to do with it.” She laughed, and she could see he was grinning.

“Well, it must be a miracle.”

He rubbed her back and the liniment soaked in, but it was the warmth of his hands that soothed the ache. …


In the breath-catching moments that follow, the couple focus their dilemma. Weeping “for their innocence,” they shortly afterwards pull down the shade, placing Christie's shift over their children in the glass case. Then “their passion [was] like something free they had forgotten to claim” (396). Able to acknowledge “what a hurtful thing they had done by denying each other an intimate touch throughout that terrible time” (429), Christie is relocating what she earlier felt rising with spring changes in the natural world. That is, the capacity for seeing spring even as your infants die, for pleasure in the midst of grief, for responding to “coming irises and the blackberry lilies … little brown jugs, jack-in-the-pulpits, lady's slippers … five different kinds of violets … a slant of sun through the cracks in the barn planks … [and] the old bull in the pasture coming in [her] direction, his baggage swinging—aiming at her, as though he were about to devour her with love” (252). She is relocating what she found in a bluesy “holler” rising out “of the trees the way a bird's song would,” performed by an anonymous man, a song about a “woman large and soft and dark as the river at night” (374), overheard in the woods. In her final words to her granddaughter, the novel's last, she again relocates desire: “I want to see a flock of blackbirds whirl over the field, making music. Things like that are absolutely new every time they happen” (454). In this resolution, Mason is uniting Southern and female pastoral traditions which celebrate nature and its expressions over the powers that seek to control or study it. These traditions are themselves aspects of the transition into the modern, portrayed in a historical vision that acknowledges history as what happens to us as we live in a changing culture, not necessarily as we live close to historical event.

Works Cited

Brinkmeyer, Robert. “Finding One's History: Bobbie Ann Mason and Contemporary Southern Literature.” Southern Literary Journal 19.2 (1987): 22–33

Foote, Shelby. Shiloh. New York: Random, 1952

Fuss, Diana. “Getting Into History.” Arizona Quarterly 45.4 (1989): 95–108

Hobson, Fred. The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1991

Ladd, Barbara. “‘Too positive a shape not to be hurt’: Go Down Moses. History and The Woman Artist in Eudora Welty's The Golden Apples.Having Our Way: Women Rewriting Tradition in Twentieth-Century America. Ed. Harriet Pollack. Bucknell Review, 39.1(1995):

Mason, Bobbie Ann. Feather Crowns. New York: Harper, 1993

———. In Country. New York: Harper, 1986

———. Shiloh, and Other Stories. New York: Harper, 1982

Sheppard, R. Z. “Neighbors” [a review of Shiloh, and Other Stories]. Time 3 Jan. 1983

Towers, Robert. “American Graffiti.” [a review of Shiloh, and Other Stories]. The New York Review of Books 16 Dec. 1982

Wilhelm, Albert E. “Making Over or Making Off: The Problem of Identity in Mason's Short Fiction.” Southern Literary Journal 18.2 (1986): 76–82

———. “An Interview with Bobbie Ann Mason” Southern Quarterly 26.3 (1988): 27–38

Albert E. Wilhelm (essay date 1997)

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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 environment and lifestyle. She grew up on a small dairy farm in rural Kentucky, but immediately after college she migrated to New York City, where she wrote features for Movie Life magazine on teen stars such as Fabian, Annette Funicello, and Ann-Margret. As a child she sat under the apple tree reading Nancy Drew and other girl detective stories, but as a young woman she earned a Ph.D. in literature and published a scholarly study of Nabokov's Ada. In the early 1970s, Mason taught at a small college in Pennsylvania; now her own stories appear prominently in anthologies used by thousands of college students.

In several interviews, Mason has commented on her own sense of cultural dislocation and its importance as a theme in her fiction. In 1985 she said to Lila Havens: “I'm constantly preoccupied with … exploring various kinds of culture shock—people moving from one class to another … people being threatened by other people's ways and values” (Mason, “Residents and Transients,” 95). In another interview, this one with Yu Yuh-chao, Mason contrasted her fiction with that of earlier Southern writers. “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.” She then went on to emphasize the difficulty of “retaining identity and integrity in the face of [such] change” (quoted in Wilhelm, “Private Rituals,” 272).

Observations similar to these are now prominent in much of the critical commentary on Mason's fiction. Darlene Reimers Hill says that “Mason's characters live in a protean world of rapid, dizzying change. Faced with finding their identities … in the midst of constant flux, they seek to discover something to hold on to in this modern emotional environment where one must deal with new rituals and new family patterns” (83). In a similar vein, Maureen Ryan observes that Mason's characters are “overwhelmed by rapid and frightening changes” and “must confront contradictory impulses, the temptation to withdraw into the security of home and the past, and the alternative prospect of taking to the road in search of something better” (294).

Although Mason is an acknowledged master at documenting the fluidity of contemporary culture, she has also been criticized for a degree of sameness in her stories. One reviewer of Shiloh, and Other Stories balked at the frequent reappearance in different stories of young women who had recently been divorced or abandoned by their husbands (Johnson 197). Reviews of Love Life were typically quite positive but commented in passing that “characters often seem too much alike” (Freeman 1) or that “Mason dips her pen in the same ink, over and over” (Moore 7).

Insofar as these criticisms are valid, they may contain the seeds of their own refutations. In Mason's repetition we sense a sure knowledge of the characters and situations that she portrays. From apparent sameness we can derive depth and profundity of insight. Furthermore, amid those multiple accounts (almost always skillfully wrought) of separation, divorce, and adult children moving back home with their parents, Mason does offer other, strikingly different, tales of social dislocation.

In two of her best pieces of fiction, the short story entitled “Big Bertha Stories” and the novel In Country, Mason examines one of the most intense cultural shocks of the twentieth century—the broad effect of American involvement in the Vietnam War.1 In focusing on the domestic consequences of this cataclysmic event, Mason portrays not just culture shock but the seismic upheaval of an entire culture. She depicts threats to individual identity and, by implication, to the larger national identity. None of Mason's stories are trivial, but these particular tales of soldiers' attempts to return home expand the theme of social dislocation to mythic proportions. In searching for the way back home, Mason's Vietnam veterans pursue an odyssey that is less extensive but even more daunting than that of Ulysses.

In “Big Bertha Stories,” Mason's main character is himself a storyteller, but his narratives have many loose ends. The metafictional frame story focuses on the alienation of a Vietnam veteran named Donald. As a prominent display of this condition, the stories he tells within the frame are disturbingly disjointed. Donald actually came home from the war several years earlier and promptly acquired a good job in a lumber yard as well as a wife and a son. During the past two years, however, the war has returned to him with a vengeance, and horrible memories of destruction disrupt his family and his work. After deliberately letting a stack of lumber fall, Donald abandons his job and reverts to a symbolic war zone. In his new work, far from home in the strip mines of Muhlenburg County, we see a striking parallel between the destruction of Vietnam and his company's despoliation of the land. Mason never actually shows Donald at work, but she does portray his increasingly turbulent returns home. Since Donald never made it all the way home from Vietnam, he is caught in a relentless cycle of unsatisfactory returns from his distant job operating a giant earth-moving machine.

Donald comes home sporadically, like “an absentee landlord” (Love Life 116) who doesn't really belong. His sudden reappearances invariably inspire terror in his young son, Rodney, and send him off to hide in the closet. In misguided attempts to coax Rodney out of hiding, Donald loudly narrates stories about a little boy who used to live there but who has since fallen into a septic tank or been stolen by gypsies. Donald repeatedly inflicts his own pain on his family, and in these simple tales of tragic loss he is projecting his own sense of loss of identity after having been immersed in the quagmire of Vietnam. Like the fictional boy, Donald “used to live there” but can no longer find his true home.

During one of his visits, Donald shops with his family at the mall and calmly plays video games with his son. Just when his wife, Jeannette, thinks they are about to become “a normal family” (117), they encounter a reptile show in the mall parking lot. This sudden appearance of a snake in the galleria immediately produces dissension and tears. On a small scale, this episode reenacts the same mythic pattern Donald experienced in Vietnam. He remembers Vietnam as “the most beautiful place in the world”—so lush “you'd have thought you were in paradise.” With his childlike Vietnamese girlfriend, Donald found a temporary Eden until the war “blew it sky-high” (130). He mentions the Bell Huey Cobra as one very efficient instrument in the destruction of paradise, and by evoking this specific reptilian name he echoes again the story of Eden's fall.

On every trip home, Donald is plagued with strange dreams that seem trivial but probably convey coded messages that he can never articulate. His dream of “hijacking a plane to Cuba” suggests extreme alienation from his homeland. Another dream about “stringing up barbed wire around the house” reflects his paranoid feelings of vulnerability. The lost doll of still another dream may symbolize the innocence of his youth lost in the jungles of Vietnam. When, after many such dreams, he rams his car “into a Civil War statue in front of the courthouse,” he may be expressing his contempt for earlier war memorials because the veterans of his own war have been so nearly forgotten.

If Donald's dreams are the haunting narratives created by his active subconscious, the bizarre Big Bertha stories he tells his son are even more disturbing. Big Bertha is Donald's name for a “huge strip-mining machine in Muhlenburg County” (117), but her symbolic significance in Donald's tortured fictions is even more immense than her physical size. In various manifestations she becomes “a big fat woman who can sing the blues” (120), a trainer of racing snakes, and “a female version of Paul Bunyan” (117). Like the hero of a frontier tall tale, she creates a tornado when she belches. Like a modern superhero, she is the size of a tall building and big enough to “straddle a four-lane highway” (120). The unfathomable complexity of this fictional characters is an index of her creator's inner confusion and tenuous hold on reality. The continuing inflation of her powers is a measure of his desperation.

In the most elaborate of Donald's stories, “Big Bertha and the Neutron Bomb,” Big Bertha travels to California to go surfing. At first this trip seems idyllic: “On the beach, corn dogs and snow cones are free and the surfboards turn into dolphins.” The story takes an ominous turn, however, when “the neutron bomb comes” and everyone except Big Bertha “keels over dead” (119). Donald claims that Big Bertha is “immune to the neutron bomb” (120), but his narrative simply stops without developing this assertion. In a later story about Big Bertha and a rock-and-roll band, the band “gives a concert in a place that turns out to be a toxic-waste dump and the contamination is spread all over the country.” This story is long but confusing, and “Big Bertha's solution to the problem is not at all clear” (126).

These parables of Donald's experience in Vietnam begin with playful innocence but are soon seared with horrors. Donald desperately tries to depict Big Bertha as a potential savior, a deus ex machina from the coal fields, but she repeatedly fails him. As his stories become more fragmentary and disjointed, she becomes decidedly less benevolent and more menacing. In fact, as Rodney hears more of these stories, he begins to have dreams about Big Bertha that echo Donald's memories of the war.

Donald's imaginative creations merge the idyllic with the horrible because his experiences in Vietnam did the same. There he saw the hellish infuse and overwhelm the Edenic. Now his narratives sputter and falter because he has difficulty extricating any good from the apparently pervasive evil.

Lost in his obsession with Big Bertha's huge breasts and thighs, Donald is unable to accept the very real nurturing care of the woman to whom he is married. (In fact, Jeannette accuses him of being “in love with Big Bertha.”) Just as a woman's breasts suggest sustenance and maternal care, Jeannette throughout the story is closely connected with food and food giving. She first met Donald while she was working at her parents' pit-barbecue restaurant, and on his visits home she conscientiously prepares pancakes and tries “to think of something original to do with instant potatoes.” In this home, however, any sacramental healing value of food has been sadly lost. When they sit at the kitchen table, Donald talks about C-5As and uses a food processor blade to illustrate the destructive power of a helicopter rotor. Feeling helpless and rejected at home, Jeannette takes a job as a waitress at a steak house. Even here her accomplishments are limited because the restaurant burns down one night after a grease fire breaks out in the kitchen.

When Donald finally decides to enter a veterans' hospital, he goes “with the resignation of an old man being taken to a rest home” (130). Robbed of his youth in Vietnam and subsequently unable to assume the expected adult roles of husband and father, he becomes prematurely old. As he rides calmly to the hospital, he offers one last Big Bertha story, but now her stature is much diminished. He instructs Jeannette to tell Rodney that Big Bertha is taking him “on a sea cruise, to the South Seas” (130). In evoking a vision of a Gauguin-like paradise, Donald may still be immersed in his fictions, but they have become decidedly less flamboyant. In demanding much less of Big Bertha, he is perhaps ready to recount more healing narratives as all the veterans in his therapy group “trade memories” (131).

Left alone with Rodney, Jeannette once again becomes a professional food provider. This time “she waits on families” at Fred's Family Restaurant. In doing so, however, her performance is perfunctory, and she is just waiting “for Donald to come home so they can come here and eat together like a family” (131).

Just as the war made it impossible for Donald to be a husband and father, Jeannette's vicarious experience with Vietnam has diminished her role as wife and mother. Repulsed as a provider of comfort and sustenance, she assimilates some of Donald's debilitating obsessions. She seeks psychological counseling, but lurking within the innocuous word “therapist”—presumably an agent of comfort and health—she perceives the ominous phrase “the rapist.” With Donald gone, the only man in Jeannette's life is “Mr. Bouncer,” a miniature trampoline she purchases for Rodney. When she takes a turn jumping on it, she briefly experiences an exhilarating sensation of flight. But just as the war in Vietnam has robbed her of spontaneous joy, a neighbor brings her harshly back to earth by warning, “You'll tear your insides loose” (132). This dire prediction ends her play, and the same night she has a nightmare in which bouncing on a trampoline becomes “jumping on soft moss” and finally jumping on “a springy pile of dead bodies” (132).

Even if Donald never made it all the way home from Vietnam, he got close enough to spread the contagion. His nightmares have infected his son and eventually afflict his wife. The war swept away his youthful innocence and is dangerously eroding that of Rodney and Jeannette.

In “Big Bertha Stories,” Mason focuses on the uncompleted odyssey of a single Vietnam veteran, but her novel In Country examines several returning soldiers. Throughout Donald's story the journey home is painfully repetitive and never progressive. In contrast to his aimless cyclical travel, the pilgrimage in In Country is linear and boldly purposeful. In traveling to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, one veteran symbolically completes his journey home. Since all of the novel's action takes place in the United States but the phrase “in country” actually refers to the war zones of Vietnam, Mason's title is ironic. The battlefields of another country did follow Donald and many other Vietnam veterans back to America and made them displaced persons in their own neighborhoods. Even back inside their own country and presumably far from combat, they found themselves still “in country.”2 Unlike Donald, though, the protagonist of Mason's novel ultimately rediscovers and reclaims his homeland by traveling to the center of the nation's capital.

The two main characters in the novel In Country are Sam Hughes, a seventeen-year-old girl hovering on the brink of maturity, and her uncle, Emmett Smith, a confused veteran of the Vietnam War. Sam's father, Dwayne, was killed in Vietnam before she was born, and Emmett has never completely recovered from the psychic wounds he suffered there. Linked by blood and by some common problems, Sam and Emmett form a strange family unit.

Much of the commentary on this novel has focused on Sam and her coming of age. Joel Conarroe, for example, has called the book “a timely variation” of “the traditionally male-centered Bildungsroman” that “delineates Sam's quest for a father” (7). Concentrating also on Sam, Barbara Ryan's poststructuralist reading of the novel describes this search for a father as “a symbolic representation of modern man's desire for the Logos—origin of meaning and authoritative discourse” (199). While Conarroe's and Ryan's emphasis on Sam is understandable, the character of Emmett is equally important. By portraying the intertwined lives of these two characters, Mason skillfully combines the themes of the returning soldier's alienation and the young woman's initiation. Both characters display much confusion about what is worth doing in life, but both eventually gain insight. As the abandoned and mistrusted war veteran, Emmett begins the novel as an outcast—the primary embodiment of the alienation theme. In the tangled course of events during the summer of 1984, he emerges as a guide who can lead Sam and others toward maturity and wholeness. Thus, he plays a key role in the initiation theme by bringing this rite of passage to a fitting conclusion.3

Mason introduces the alienation theme by quoting lines from Bruce Springsteen's popular song “Born in the U.S.A” as the epigraph for her book. In an interview Mason commented that she incorporated this and many other references to Springsteen into her novel because his lyrics “reflected the themes of the book,” almost “like a soundtrack” (Wilhelm, “Interview,” 32). To be sure, Emmett's circumstances are not as dire as those of the speaker in Springsteen's song, but the residents of Hopewell, Kentucky, do sometimes stereotype him and other Vietnam veterans as “psychos and killers” (In Country 113)—“volatile specters emitting bands of alienation and derangement” (Myers 412). Hopewell is a typical small Southern town, and its name is probably an allegorical reference to the prevailing mood of shallow optimism. Like many other Americans, most of the residents of Hopewell would prefer to ignore the veterans and thus avoid the painful heritage of the Vietnam War.

When Emmett first returned to Hopewell after his tour in Vietnam, he was indeed a pariah. He and his hippie friends once tried to fly the Vietcong flag from the courthouse tower, and they were later suspected of burglarizing a local business. There are still rumors that Emmett is a dope dealer, that he sleeps with his niece, that he “killed babies in Vietnam,” but gradually he has come to be regarded more as an eccentric misfit than a criminal. Although many people in Hopewell find Emmett an interesting topic for idle gossip, they remain oblivious to his suffering. We see the real Emmett in an emotional scene at Cawood's Pond when he confesses to Sam: “I'm damaged. It's like something in the center of my heart is gone and I can't get it back. … I work on staying together, one day at a time. There's no room for anything else. It takes all my energy” (225).

While Emmett is the primary example of the Vietnam veteran as outcast, the book contains several more veterans who display other facets of the Vietnam legacy. According to Matthew Stewart, Emmett and his friends constitute “a microcosm of veterans' problems and troubled behaviors” (176). For Tom Hudson, the primary symptom of war trauma is impotence, and his job serves as a bitterly ironic commentary on his condition. He considers himself a wreck of a man, and he works in a run-down garage—a “yawning cave-like hole”—trying to restore wrecked automobiles (76). In one car a frozen transmission defies his efforts to repair it, and this mechanical problem parallels his psychological problems of isolation and sexual dysfunction. For Buddy Mangrum, the war has left serious physical illness as well as emotional trauma. Apparently a victim of Agent Orange, Buddy “has every symptom in the book, and the V.A. just laughs in his face” (111). Furthermore, Buddy's problems have been passed on to his daughter. Defective at birth, her tangled intestines suggest the tangled consequences of American involvement in Vietnam. The knots inside her impede the flow of life-giving nutrients just as the problems of the war have debilitated many veterans.

Pete Simms is another veteran who lives in Hopewell, but in a real sense he has never returned from the war. While in Vietnam, he had tattooed on his chest a map of the Jackson Purchase area of Western Kentucky. The map was so detailed that it indicated his street in Hopewell and even contained a tiny red dot to mark the spot where his Corvette was parked. Even though Pete has this indelible map with him always, it provides no real guidance. From the time it was created in the confusion of Vietnam, he has had to “look at it upside down,” or when he tries to read it “in the mirror it's backwards.” What was to be a reminder of home for a homesick soldier has become instead a tragicomic symbol of the veteran's lost condition.4

To make us feel the pain of these outcast veterans, Mason includes in her book several other young men who serve as foils. One notable example is Sam's stepfather, Larry Joiner. Unlike her real father, who suffered the agonies of battle, Joiner holds a cushy job at IBM and seems oblivious even to the possibility of battle trauma. His last name suggests that he is the generic organization man who fits easily into the fabric of society. Sam refers to him contemptuously as Lorenzo Jones because he is, to her, as remote and unreal as this character on an old radio soap opera. Similarly, Sam's boyfriend, Lonnie Malone, is a mindless adolescent whose greatest achievement in life was “sinking ten out of twelve jump shots” in a high school basketball game (33). Unable to get an athletic scholarship to attend college, he does little more than cruise Hopewell in his van and drink beer. Gilman describes him as “totally a creature of the present” who sets his sights “on the exigencies of the moment” (53). Like so many in Hopewell and throughout the country, he is unwilling to face the history of the Vietnam era and unable to understand how this painful past may limit the future.

If Larry and Lonnie are the local exemplars of health and normalcy, perhaps the suffering of the Vietnam veterans should be seen in a new light. Mason shows that the pain that made Emmett an outcast can also provide insight and enable him to guide others back to health. Although Emmett has no regular job, his work throughout the book displays important symbolic values. He will not sell microwaves or run a video game arcade and tells Sam that he can find no “job worth doing” in the community around him, but he does earn small amounts of money by repairing toasters and hair dryers, and he senses that, in the aftermath of war, the country as a whole stands in need of some major repairs.

Emmett's work on his own ramshackle house is emblematic of this larger task. Fearing that his house suffers from a hidden structural problem, he spends his days digging deep trenches to expose the foundations and reveal possible cracks. When his neighbor sees him at this task, she asks facetiously, “Are you digging to China?” This offhand remark suggests an ironic truth. If Emmett only could dig through to the other side of the earth, he might uncover in the swamps of Indochina the foundation of his own problems and the ominous structural flaws that threaten the larger society. Even if he can never accomplish this, his work remains therapeutic. He is engaged in what anthropologist Arnold van Gennep has termed the rituals of sympathetic magic—ceremonies “based on belief in the reciprocal action of like on like,” of “the container” on “the contained,” of image on “real object or real being” (4). Like Nick Adams in Hemingway's “Big Two-Hearted River,” the fictional veteran of an earlier war, Emmett performs simple tasks with painstaking deliberation in an effort to set both his house and his psyche back in order.

Emmett's role as guide becomes more pronounced when he initiates the trip to the Vietnam Memorial for Sam and Dwayne's mother, Mamaw Hughes. To understand the full significance of what Emmett has accomplished by bringing Sam and Mamaw to Washington, we must examine in some detail what happens to them at the wall. For Sam, of course, this completed pilgrimage marks the conclusion of her rite of passage into adulthood. As she travels toward Washington, she notes that she has entered a “different time zone” (11). She is progressing not just from Central to Eastern Standard Time but also from adolescence to maturity. Along the road Sam listens to the radio, but the station that plays the “oldies” begins to fade away. As she puts childish things behind her, Sam can no longer hear the songs of performers with juvenile names—“Junior Walker … and somebody else named Junior whose name Sam doesn't catch” (8).

The dominant motif in Sam's initiation is her quest for the father she never knew. She tries to forge some link with him by reading books about Vietnam, searching for old letters, dating a Vietnam veteran much older than she is, and pretending that she is a soldier walking point at Cawood's Pond. Early in the book, she scrutinizes the only picture she has of her father and then the image of her own face in a mirror. At this point, she fails to “see any resemblance” and can therefore gain no real sense of her own identity. When Sam finally discovers her father's name inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial, she understands more profoundly who he was and what he did. Since the stone wall of the memorial is so highly polished, it becomes not merely a tablet listing names but also a mirror reflecting the images of those who stand before it. In a symbolic sense, then, at the moment Sam finds her father, she also finds herself. Later, when Sam flips through the printed directory to locate her father's name in the alphabetical listings, she literally discovers her own name there, too. Coincidentally, a young army private named Sam Hughes from Houston, Texas, was one of the casualties of the war. When Sam locates and “touches her own name” on the wall, her quest is complete.5

For Sam, Emmett is the guide in a ceremony of initiation, and he leads her to the conclusion of this rite of passage at the memorial. In addition, Emmett helps Mamaw Hughes to complete another important ritualistic pattern. Dwayne's funeral, the ritual of letting a dead son go, was for Mrs. Hughes tragically incomplete, and her grief has been repressed and suspended for more than seventeen years. When Dwayne was killed, the family had to wait for days to receive his body, and even then they were not permitted to open the coffin and see it. Mrs. Hughes's memory of those painful circumstances is still vivid, and she says to Sam: “It was so hard without the body. … When somebody dies, you're supposed to prepare the body and watch over it. It's something that brings you all together, but he wasn't here. … We just run around like a chicken with its head cut off” (197). With her tortured grammar and simple rural imagery, Mrs. Hughes conveys a poignant picture of the pain and confusion created by this incomplete funeral.

Although the funeral itself provided Mrs. Hughes with no tangible proof of her son's death, that ritualistic need is satisfied by her actions at the Vietnam Memorial. From deep down in this dark pit, she slowly ascends the steps of a ladder so she can place her hands on the letters of her son's name engraved in the wall. In this indirect way, she is able to feel his mortal wounds and her own emotional wounds can begin to heal. In describing the symbolic values of the Vietnam Memorial, its designer, Maya Lin, has commented that the chronological listing of the war dead should “read like an epic … poem. … Locating specific names with the aid of a directory would be like finding bodies on a battlefield” (quoted in Scruggs and Swerdlow 78). Lin says that her design was influenced by the memorial to World War I soldiers at Thiepval, France. She describes this earlier monument as a “journey from violence to serenity” (quoted in Scruggs and Swerdlow 77) and says that her own design attempts “to bring out in people the realization of loss and a cathartic healing process” (quoted in Scruggs 147). For Mrs. Hughes, such a purpose is surely accomplished, and Emmett's guiding role in the healing ritual is crucial. He not only steadies the ladder while Mrs. Hughes climbs; he is also the one who sensed her need and persuaded her to go to the Vietnam Memorial in the first place. Emmett's family relationship to Mrs. Hughes is that of a very remote in-law. He is, in fact, the brother of her former daughter-in-law. Nevertheless, this outcast from society becomes, for Mrs. Hughes, an agent of renewal and wholeness.

The scene at the Vietnam Memorial contains much imagery of wounds and healing, of death and rebirth, and this imagery relates to all who are there. As Sam and the others approach the memorial, she thinks of the V-shaped monument as “a black boomerang, whizzing toward her head” (239). For Sam and countless war veterans, the memory of Vietnam has been for many years just that—the embodiment of a destructive force that returns unerringly to attack no matter how far away they fling it. Later the memorial is described as “a black gash” in the hillside, a “giant grave” with “fifty-eight thousand bodies rotting … behind those names” (239). These dark images of injury and death are soon translated into images of health and rebirth. Mircea Eliade has observed that many important ceremonies of transformation “clearly imply a ritual death followed by a resurrection or a new birth” (xii–xiii). In this case, Sam and her companions must touch the open wound, must go down into the dark grave, before they can begin the renewal process. As Sam stands “deep in the pit,” she feels an intense surge of energy inside her. It is so “massive and overpowering” that it “feels like giving birth” (240). Like Mamaw Hughes, Sam also ascends from the grave by climbing the steps of the borrowed ladder to touch her father's name. On the final page of the novel, Mrs. Hughes provides a simple but moving description of what she and the others have experienced: “Coming up on this wall of a sudden and seeing how black it was, it was so awful, but then I came down in it and saw that white carnation blooming out of that crack and it gave me hope” (245).

The last sentence of In Country describes Emmett “sitting … cross-legged in front of the wall” with the calmness and serenity of a Buddha. In this peaceful posture, “his face bursts into a smile like flames.” If Emmett's dreams have been plagued by memories of fire fights in Vietnam, he is now the embodiment of a cleansing fire that can burn away the pain and horror of war. At this point of stasis, Emmett has progressed far beyond Donald in “Big Bertha Stories” or Springsteen's anonymous veteran in the novel's epigraph. Unlike these truncated stories, In Country has become a “fully realized returned veteran parable” that offers “specific narrative healing rites” (Myers 422).

At the memorial, Emmett finally completes the heroic journey described by Joseph Campbell and others. In his journey “the mythic circle includes a voyage home, the bringing of the great boon to his society, the communal dispensation of hard-earned power and knowledge” (Myers 416). By characterizing Emmett as a wounded outcast who ultimately becomes a guide for others, Mason produces a fitting transformation of a specific classical myth. In the accounts of the Trojan War, Philoctetes was a Greek warrior whose wound would not heal. Since this wound was so foul-smelling, his companions abandoned him on the island of Lemnos. After many years, however, the Greeks realized that Philoctetes was the only person who could lead them to victory over the Trojans, and they welcomed him again into their ranks.

By emerging from his alienation and becoming a guide for Sam and Mrs. Hughes, Emmett acts out a similar pattern. Emmett does not lead military forces to victory on the battlefield, but he does guide survivors to peace. As David Booth observes, it is “precisely from among the victims of war” that “healing is to be sought” (109). Furthermore, Mason suggests that what happens to Sam and Mrs. Hughes at the Vietnam Memorial can happen also to the larger community. Emmett looks forward to the time when all his friends in Hopewell can share this experience at the memorial. Near the end of the book he says with confidence, “They're all coming one of these days” (241).


  1. Mason apparently worked on these pieces concurrently. Although “Big Bertha Stories” was not published in book form until 1989, when it was collected in Love Life, it first appeared in Mother Jones in April 1985 (the same year In Country was published).

  2. In Mason's choice of title, Owen Gilman Jr. sees “a provocative twist to the combat soldiers' terminology for actually arriving in Vietnam, turning the situation around completely” and “bringing the Vietnam aftermath fully into the open in America” (51). To emphasize the ambiguity of Mason's title, Gilman uses “In Which Country?” as the title for his own commentary on the novel. Although Mason borrowed her title from military slang of the Vietnam era, it echoes the title of another well-known war story—Hemingway's “In Another Country.” There, too, the focus is on soldiers whose wounds make it difficult for them to return to the ordinary world.

  3. In an essay emphasizing Mason's realism, Matthew Stewart acknowledges that “Emmett's story becomes inseparable from Sam's and is coequal in importance” (167). Stewart praises Mason's accuracy in portraying the psychological and sociological problems of Vietnam veterans, but he criticizes the novel's conclusion as a “facile, Pollyanna ending characteristic of television” (179). In labeling the final section of the novel “Fantasyland” (177), he obviously disavows Emmett's importance as a guide.

  4. In David Booth's reading of In Country, the actual geographic setting in rural Kentucky is incidental. He contends that “the action really occurs in a universal American geography of fast-foods, malls, television serials, HBO, MTV, and pop music radio” and in the even more inclusive setting “of a ‘waste land,’ together with the symbols, motifs, and narrative structures of the grail legend that communicate that geography” (99). Obviously, Pete's simplistic map will be of little use because it hardly begins to chart these complex domains.

  5. Mason, whose own first name could apply to either gender, had a similar experience at the wall that influenced her writing of In Country. In describing a visit to the memorial in 1983, she says: “Quite by accident, my eyes fell upon my own name on the wall, a version of my name—Bobby G. Mason. I found out later that Bobby G. Mason was from Florida. I learned also that there were four guys named Robert Mason whose names were on the wall. … I knew then that Vietnam was my story too, and it was every American's story. Finally, I felt I had a right to tell a small part of that story” (quoted in Brussat and Brussat 2).

Kathryn McKee (review date July 1999)

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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 life, but only sporadically and not always in chronological order. Although it is clear that her husband is an important presence in her life, he is scarcely mentioned in the book, and Mason carefully avoids providing any details about her current residence, not even saying specifically where in Kentucky she lives. In fact, we learn only in passing that she has become a writer, and In Country is the only piece of her fiction to receive any sustained attention in the book.

Clear Springs is not, then, so much about Bobbie Ann Mason the writer as about the forces that made Bobbie Ann Mason a writer—a childhood in rural Kentucky, an abiding esteem for her mother and a persistent sense of difference that both led her away from home and compelled her to return.

Clear Springs tells the story in full that Mason tells elsewhere in pieces. Several of her characters' experiences, we learn, were first Mason's: Nancy Culpepper's search for a walled-up portrait of an ancestor in Shiloh, and Other Stories, and Sam Hughes' trip to the Vietnam Memorial in In Country. Christy Wheeler, the principal figure in Feather Crowns, turns out to be rooted in the characteristics of Mason's own mother, Christy. Readers have already encountered one of the central images of Clear Springs—the chicken tower—in Mason's New Yorker article of the same name. Set, like so much of her fiction, in rural western Kentucky, Clear Springs introduces a population remarkably similar to that of Mason's fictional Hopewell—rooted in a way of life that is sometimes mind-numbing in its regularity and at other times stunningly extraordinary. Mason's ancestors and her community are country people, tied to a place and a way of living, in part because they know nothing else.

One of Mason's most engaging narratives is the story of these people and of the family farms where they take root. Too far north to be part of the cotton economy, Kentucky is the upper South, the land of burley tobacco and independent farmers who work relatively small tracts of land when compared with the sprawling cotton operations of the Mississippi Delta or the large-scale agribusinesses of the Midwest. This makes the relationship between the farmer and his or her land an intimate one, and Mason expertly captures the rhythms of such a life. She recalls bountiful vegetable gardens, sumptuous meals and long days spent outside in both work and play: “I look back at bursts of joy over daisy chains and bird feathers and butterflies and cats. These were the textures of bliss.” Her catalogues of natural wonders become a Whitmanesque celebration of the possibilities of farm life, and establish Mason as an observer of nature who rivals Henry David Thoreau or, more recently, Annie Dillard, for attention to detail. She recalls, for example, idly breaking off an icy twig one morning and then rehashing her culpability in the “pointless destructiveness” she did not know herself capable of perpetrating.

But if she idealizes childhood, Mason is always careful to depict farm life in realistic terms. Family pets are constantly meeting untimely deaths beneath the wheels of farm machinery. A mother cat eats her dead kittens. “Food was the center of our lives,” she recalls. “We planted it, grew it, harvested it, peeled it, cooked it, served it, consumed it—endlessly, day after day, season after season. This was life on a farm—as it had been time out of mind.” Behind all of this rote industry looms the power of nature that unpredictably sends rain or withholds it, batters down fields of corn or leaves them to suffocate in stifling and merciless heat. “I hated the constant sense of helplessness before vast forces, the continuous threat of failure,” Mason recalls.

The “violent necessities of the soil and the seasons” set the pace that she and her family keep. Her vivid account of a life so lived lends Clear Springs its authenticity, both as a story of farm life and as a story of the writer's quiet but calculated rebellion against “this dependence on nature.” She determines to set her own course.

In charting her movement away from the soil that had held her ancestors firmly in place, Mason reflects a different sort of awareness of her heritage than readers find in classic Southern autobiography. She never studies her hands, for instance, for the stain of slavery. Both of Mason's grandfathers were named “Robert Lee”—“How much more quintessentially Southern could a heritage be?” she wonders. But the consequences of being a Southerner are tied more to her rural upbringing than to the sins her ancestors did not commit. “I hated the Southern-belle wasp-waisted view of the world so much that I couldn't sympathize with Scarlett O'Hara's loss or celebrate her courage” she confesses: “Her whole world smelled strongly of the kind of small-town aristocratic pretensions that had made me feel like an outcast in high school.”

When she talks about feeling “ashamed of being from the South” and describes herself as “a Southern girl trying to get over my culture,” she speaks of a different past than the aristocratic one that William Alexander Percy delightedly recalls or the brutal and unflinching bias that Richard Wright rages against. Mason describes the bias of the city toward the country, the affected superiority of the sidewalk toward the fence row. In that sense Clear Springs might take place in rural Minnesota. Being from the South only intensifies Mason's sense of difference in the world beyond the horizons she has known: “Yankee culture sat on me like the rocks Mama set on the lid of a pickle crock to hold the pickles down in the brine.”

Yet Clear Springs also reflects concerns that have been the quintessential preoccupations of Southern writers, particularly the undeniable interconnection of past and present. Mason sounds again the spiderweb theory that Robert Penn Warren advances in All the King's Men: “The ripple effect of the exhaust fan of an air conditioner in Paducah, say, may eventually affect a storm in Padua. I like to imagine how generations of the attitudes and behaviors of country people—a legacy of paucity and small shadings of pride and resistance and shame—intertwined and radiated down through time in increasingly complicated shapes.” To trace those shapes, Mason turns to the lives of her mother and grandmothers. “As I look back,” she notes, “the men recede into the furrows, into the waves of the ocean, and the women stand erect, churning and frying.” Clear Springs is their evocative story, told by a descendant who now embraces their legacy.

The narrative structure of Clear Springs contributes as much to the telling of Mason's tale as does the content. Organic in nature, it reflects the shifts in her maturing perspective until it jolts near the end into the clear-sightedness that belongs to the veteran of an arduous journey through time. At the book's beginning, people appear only as they immediately influence her life, as a child typically sees the world. The extended section about her involvement with the musical group the Hilltoppers reflects a teenager's self-absorption, her graduate school and early writing days the muddle of a youthful mind. The reader is more than 200 pages into the book before she comes to what may form the most lasting impression, the experiences of Mason's mother, Christy. “All my life I've known the bare outline of her story,” Mason concedes. “It was like a tree that had lost its leaves.”

Exhibiting the adult child's sudden awareness that her parent has a past, Mason begins asking questions, and she finds it impossible to tell one woman's story without telling another woman's story. Christy has been shaped, not only by her own mother's absence, but by the stories about her that have claimed legitimacy through repetition. Marrying when a teenager and then living with her husband's family, Christy has also been shaped by the silent tyranny of her mother-in-law, Ethel Mason, and by her iron grasp on the men around her, including Bobbie Ann Mason's father. “Granny,” whom Mason clearly loves, carries in the recesses of her past secrets that Mason unearths—not extraordinary mysteries, but the mistakes that ordinary people make and then pay for, often for generations. Mason's maternal ancestry has embedded within it shards of surprise that wound her and her mother, yet free them to use their imaginations in understanding their family's past.

Perhaps most remarkable and most memorable is the obvious regard for her mother's power of endurance and broad streak of country that Mason now sees and accepts in herself. “She is my center,” Mason writes. “I want her to tell me now all the things I wouldn't let her teach me in the past. She is the source of my being. How can I be, without her?” The relationship of Bobbie Ann and Christy Mason to one another and to the past they share is the most captivating story Mason has told yet. The book's closing vignette, focused on Christy and left for the reader to puzzle over, is as tightly-crafted as any of her fiction.

Describing her family's reaction to the on-location filming of her novel In Country, Mason relays what she perceives as her father's concern that she “had somehow moved into some other realm. … it wasn't corruption Daddy feared so much as falseness.” There is no falseness here; Clear Springs is Bobbie Ann Mason as the reader has never before met her.

Laura Fine (essay date fall 1999)

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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 “religion, a preoccupation with death and loss, remembrance, and a love for the land” (qtd in Humphries and Lowe, 14). Virginia A. Smith sees the “issues of an economically and psychologically bruising military defeat and a defense of and guilt over an elaborately institutionalized system of chattel slavery” as well as “a tradition of story-telling, oral history and a veneration of the genteel act of writing” (4) as forming the standards of southern literature. Perhaps Jack Butler's definition of the canon of southern literature is most salient: “We think of a place; we think of the darkness and splendor of families; we think of a way of talking; we think of the Bible; and we think of black and white locked into a mutual if inharmonious fate” (35).

While Mason references her characters' southern locale and speech, and even their largely dysfunctional families, in Mason's fictional world southern history and all it represents seems irrelevant to her characters' lives. In his review of Mason's Midnight Magic, her new collection of stories selected from her first two volumes, Michael Gorra writes of Mason's characters as living “in a temporary world of Big Macs and Battlestar Galactica.” (7). Indeed, the people of Mason's stories are predominately lower-middle class white heterosexuals who could live in any subdivision or farm in the country. Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr. suggests that Mason's “focus is less on the Southern experience than on the American, and so for her a Southerner's quest for self-definition means coming to terms with America and not the South” (32), while Fred Hobson sees in Bobbie Ann Mason “a relative lack of southern self-consciousness” (“Canons” 84). Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the characters in her stories display a lack of self-consciousness, period, and that Mason's subdivided South stands as a representation of the United States in general.

In Civilization and its Discontents Freud analyzes humanity's need to erect institutions and rules in order to protect people from others: “Hence … the use of methods … to incite people into … aim-inhibited relationships of love … the restriction upon sexual life … and the ideal's commandment to love one's neighbour as oneself—a commandment which is really justified by the fact that nothing else runs so strongly counter to the original nature of man” (66). No matter their failings, splendid and amazing in their scope, the institutions and traditions of southern culture, though justly maligned, established a framework for behavior and attitudes. In Mason's stories, the traditions of religion, the conventions of white heterosexual family life, of masculine and feminine roles, are no longer in any way sustaining. Unlike in O'Connor, no higher power orders the South Mason depicts, and no clear rules or mores remain for governing human social behavior. The only shaping force on characters' lives is popular culture. And though many of her characters are vaguely aware of their unhappiness, the cure-alls offered by popular culture are illusory and ineffective. Representative stories from her two collections, Shiloh, and Other Stories and Love Life, demonstrate Mason's decidedly and, because of her mild-mannered prose and deadpan narrative voice, surprisingly bleak vision of contemporary American society.

Although O'Connor peoples her fictional world with an abundance of religious hypocrites, her vision is distinctly spiritual, and most of her characters assume that a God orders their world. Not so in Mason's fiction. In “The Retreat” the main character, Georgeann, is married to a pastor, but her husband's view of the world is a nearly obsolete one. Not only must he work as a licensed electrician to be able to afford to preach, but his faith in the value of spirituality is one not even his wife can share. As Mason critic G. O. Morphew writes, “religion is not a dominating presence in Georgeann's inner life nor does it play much of a role in the lives of any of Mason's central female characters. For them, religion is just in the landscape, like the corn fields that surround the Kentucky farm houses” (43).

Although Shelby labors at his sermons, he is not able to communicate effectively with his parishioners. When Georgeann types out a sermon he writes on sex education in the schools, she challenges a word, “pucelage.” To her husband's patient explanation that it means “virginity” she retorts, “Why didn't you just say so! Nobody will know what it means” (Shiloh 138). And one snowy day, after he has heard that a church member has been drinking, Shelby delivers a sermon on alcohol abuse to a congregation of three, including an elderly couple and “Miss Addie Stone, the president of the WCTU chapter” (134). The vital role the church once played in southern communities is here comically diminished.

The Love Life stories, “Airwaves” and “Midnight Magic” portray a religion further enervated. In “Airwaves” Jane hears that her brother Joe, who has been in trouble most of his life, is now preaching and even speaking in tongues at the “Foremost Evangelical Assembly” so she goes to his church one Sunday out of curiosity. In the middle of “healing” a child, Joe starts his performance, surprising his sister: “‘Shecky-beck-be-floyt-I-shecky-tibby-libby. Dab-cree-la-croo-la-crow.’ He seems to be trying hard not to say ‘abracadabra’ or any other familiar words. Jane, disappointed, doubts that these words are messages from heaven. Joe seems afraid some repressed obscenity might rush out” (189–190). Ironically, one of the few examples of a Mason character being concertedly self-conscious involves a religious fake intent on not betraying himself. The practice of religion has become one of many revolving jobs for a con man who realizes that if he is sufficiently self-aware he is bound to fool his largely unreflective followers.

Religion is again reduced to nothing more than con artists scamming needy, gullible people in “Midnight Magic” which portrays Steve's girlfriend, Karen, attending meetings held by Sardo, “a thousand-year-old American Indian inhabiting the body of a teenage girl in Paducah” (21). The girl has enough followers and supporters that she drives a Porsche. Indeed, there is an age of difference between this teenager who is self-motivated and aware enough to heed her own preachings—“the answers are in yourself” (26)—while knowing her followers will not. Again, Mason's few characters who do sincerely subscribe to a universe ordered by God are a vanishing minority, and the vast majority of religious practitioners are money-driven fakes and their naive followers. Most of her characters are not bound by any religious traditions or moral codes.

Derived in part from the collapse of defining religious institutions, confusion abounds in Mason's stories about conventional masculine and feminine roles. As Harriet Pollack writes, “Her women have moved beyond the clear gender conceptions with which they were raised and now face the dilemma of saying what should stand in place of those conceptions” (97). In “The Retreat,” Georgeann participates in a workshop on Christian marriage during which one woman intones, “God made man so that he can't resist a woman's adoration. She should treat him as a priceless treasure, for man is the highest form of creation. A man is born of God—and just think, you get to live with him” (Shiloh 143). Georgeann feels wholly unable to gain sustenance from this traditional view of marital relations and yet knows no viable alternative.

Troubled by her parents' stifling view of proper masculine and feminine behavior, Jane in “Airwaves” remembers a story her late mother told her about a woman trapped in a cage with a lion who wanted to mate with her, and how, under the trainer's instructions, the woman “had to stroke the lion until he was satisfied” (Love Life 192). Jane recalls that that “was more or less how her mother always told her she had to be with a husband, or a rapist” (192). The rough equation of husband and rapist, and the assumption that a woman's duty is to submit to men, friendly or unfriendly, does not seem to Jane appropriate for her life. When her father lectures her, “The trouble is, too many women are working and the men can't get jobs. … Women should stay at home” Jane warns him to be quiet (185). The outdated gender role messages she receives from her parents make her uncertain about what rules apply to present day romances, and of what she wants with her on-again off-again boyfriend, Coy. For example, while Coy's gentleness makes him fit the Phil Donahue audience's criteria of the perfect man, she sometimes wishes he were more aggressive (Love Life 192).

In “Midnight Magic” Steve is even more confused about proper masculine behavior. When his girlfriend becomes furious with him for impersonating the neighborhood rapist and surprising her in her apartment, Steve thinks, “But it was just a game. She should have known that” (Love Life 27). It is as if Karen angrily refuses to play the role of the submissive woman that Jane of “Airwaves” learned from her parents, that so many women of that generation internalized and so many men expected. Steve still tries to act according to the rules of the previous generation and cannot understand why Karen does not play along. Earlier, his attempt to flirt with a woman in the laundromat goes sour when she snatches her panties away before he can grab them from her basket (26). He is thoroughly puzzled about what he is doing wrong, why women respond negatively to his best enactment of a playfully aggressive male.

Mason's world is one in which people find conventional gender roles stultifying and religious institutions irrelevant; as a result her characters have no models for their emotions and actions, no clear roles to step into. Mason critic Albert Wilhelm writes: “Painful transitions have become more frequent and more intense, but the adaptive and adjustive response previously offered by ritual is frequently lacking” (273). The only thing working to fill the void of structure and certainty is popular culture, which tries to make clean, easy sense out of our confusing, painful lives; becomes the guide for making life decisions; and takes the space of knowing oneself and others. While the characters in Mason's stories are largely inarticulate, unfulfilled, and incapable of analyzing their feelings or of communicating deeply with others, the world presented through the forms of popular culture is one in which people are happy, enjoy warm relationships with friends and family, and are able to articulate their feelings.

The simple, familiar, knowable patterns of pop culture provide its consumers a feeling of security. Whether it is half-hour situation comedies like M*A*S*H and Mork and Mindy, rock music, video games, or music videos, these forms—typically with a set beginning, a problem introduced in the middle, and neat resolution at the end—provide solace to people who can cling to no understandable patterns in their own lives. In “Love Life” Opal watches a video on her favorite channel, MTV: “Now the TV is playing a song in which all the boys are long-haired cops chasing a dangerous woman in a tweed cap and a checked shirt. The woman's picture is in all their billfolds. … She hops on a motorcycle, and they set up a roadblock, but she jumps it with her motorcycle. Finally, she slips onto a train and glides away from them, waving a smiling goodbye” (1). In a three minute span Opal can vicariously experience freeing herself from repressive conventions without even having to confront the trapped feelings of her own life.

Characters throughout Mason's fictional world turn to popular culture to fill the void in their lives. In “The Retreat” Georgeann starts skipping the religious workshops to play video games in the basement of the lodge where the retreat is located. As the day passes, she improves her game: “The situation is dangerous and thrilling, but Georgeann feels in control. She isn't running away; she is chasing the aliens” (Shiloh 145). Georgeann, feeling less and less content with living the life of the conventional wife of a pastor and with her relationship with Shelby and increasingly confused about what to do about her unhappiness, finds a temporary solution in playing the video game, which lets her imagine taking control of her life.

On the drive home from the retreat, Shelby asks what he can do to make her happy, to which she responds, “I was happy when I was playing that game” (146). Indeed, the kind of happiness that amounts to a numbness, as Georgeann explains, making “you forget everything but who you are” (146), is the only kind she can imagine for herself. The story ends with Georgeann nonchalantly taking a sick hen and cutting its head off, the same hen whose illness she had earlier hidden from her husband because she knew if he saw a sick chicken he would kill it. Now, when she crashes the ax down on its head, “Georgeann feels nothing, only that she has done her duty” (147). Apparently, playing video games all day long has desensitized her to pain. And, since Georgeann herself was ill earlier in the story—infected by chicken mites,—and since she is in effect the “mother hen” of her family, the implication is she has become inured to her own pain through playing the video games.

In “Airwaves” Jane tries to recover from the pain of Coy's breaking up with her by blasting a rock station: “The sounds are numbing. Jane figures if she can listen to hard rock in her sleep, she won't care that Coy has gone” (Love Life 180). Later, as she contemplates joining the army, she imagines it as a scene on television, and likens war to rock and roll: “She pictures herself someplace remote, in a control booth, sending signals for war, like an engineer in charge of a sports special on TV. … The sounds of warfare would be like the sounds of rock and roll, hard-driving and satisfying” (196). Her notion of the world derives almost exclusively from what she has seen on television, so that she must filter any new experience through the lens of popular culture forms. Again, like Georgeann's experience playing video games, Jane imagines both a sense of control and of numbness. And Jane judges relationships, too, by how they fit into her slanted sense of the world. When her father suggests she move in with him after Coy leaves her, she responds that it would never work because “we don't like the same TV shows anymore” (185).

In “A New-Wave Format” Edwin drives a bus whose passengers are retarded, and, like his idol, Dr. Johnny Fever from WKRP in Cincinnati, he acts as disk jockey, playing tapes of carefully chosen music. The bus passengers are exaggerated representatives of the average American's anesthetized state. Freddie Johnson's ten word-vocabulary consists of “‘Hot!,” “Shorts” “Popeye on?. … Dukes on!” “Cook supper” and “Go bed’” (Shiloh 217). Similarly, most of the concerns of Edwin and his girlfriend, Sabrina, involve television and eating: “They share a love of Fudgsicles, speedboats, and WKRP in Cincinnati” (215).

When Edwin tries to adapt to the times, modernizing the music he plays for his passengers, the new-wave format creates a sensation: “Edwin believed the passengers understood what was happening. The frantic beat was a perfect expression of their aimlessness and frustration” (228). Sabrina herself likes listening to new-wave music that strikes Edwin as “violent and mindless, with a fast beat like a crazed parent abusing a child, thrashing it senseless” (227). These descriptions portray a culture of people attempting to fill the void in their lives with mindless sound, substituting numbness for self-analysis. Edwin's sense of the music's violence attests to the desperate need of these people, a need requiring extreme measures to pacify. Americans thrash themselves with the forms of popular culture in their attempt to deaden unpleasant, unacknowledged feelings; the beat of the culture's music stands in as parent, as rule-maker, but it is a crazed parent, whose only order is a frenzied thrashing. The forms of civilization that Freud saw humanity erecting in order to protect people from themselves seem here dangerously eroded.

In a world in which popular culture takes the place of formerly framing institutions and conventions, happiness comes to the few who are able to believe in popular culture's salutary power. In “Airwaves” Coy is depressed until he gets a job as a Wal-Mart floor walker. Jane visits him there and is unimpressed: “In his brown plaid pants, blue shirt, and yellow tie, he looked stylish and comfortable, as though he had finally found a place where he belonged. He seemed like a man whose ambition was to get a service award so he could have his picture in the paper, shaking hands with his boss” (Love Life 195). After she leaves, she thinks of “how proudly Coy had said, ‘We're taking inventory’ as though he were in thick with Wal-Mart executives” (195). Floorwalking at Wal-Mart, an icon of consumer-oriented popular culture, is enough for Coy to feel like he plays an important role in society. Here Mason looks at the remarkable trend of young Americans' allying themselves with corporate culture to make themselves feel accepted. Today one may go to a mall or a college campus and be hard pressed to find anyone not wearing clothing that loudly identifies a corporation. Mason suggests one way to be happy in our popular culture is truly to believe its shallow messages.

The two other happy characters in these stories are Karen from “Midnight Magic,” who enjoys feeling herself a part of the community of the religious fake Sardo, and Sabrina from “A New-Wave Format” who lands a bit part in Oklahoma!. Not surprisingly, Sabrina's favorite song begins, “Attention, all you K Mart shoppers, fill your carts” (Shiloh 220). The high she gets from delivering her two lines in Oklahoma! is only the beginning: “She is full of hope, like the Christmas season. … she has a new job at McDonald's and a good part in Life with Father” (229). Working at the most powerful popular culture icon ever, and having a part, no matter how small, in a famous musical is enough to make Sabrina feel utterly fulfilled: she believes the role she plays.

But most people cannot so believe. Georgeann in “The Retreat” becomes increasingly aware of her unhappiness but manages to find only the temporary solution of playing video games to distance herself from her pain. Early in “Airwaves” Jane numbs herself by playing rock music loudly, but as the story progresses, she admits the cure has been ineffective: “Jane is not sure the hard-rock music has hardened her to pain and distraction” (Love Life 191). She longs to be close to people but does not know how, so she becomes obsessed with the actual physics of communication, sound waves. In this way, she is able to imagine a connection with others. She thinks that the way sound travels must be similar to the way voices from heaven travel to her brother, and when she orders food from a drive-in, she hears on the employees' radio the same station she is listening to (186) and thus feels connected to them. And indeed, this is the method popular culture offers people as a means of feeling close to others. A passing car may blast a radio station as the driver's way of proclaiming, “This is me!” and those who listen to the same station feel connected to the driver. Or a person feels close to someone sporting a Nike T-shirt, because he himself has a Nike shirt at home. Hobson notes that Mason's characters find themselves “forever riding a wave of popular culture, popular music and television programs in particular, wherever it takes them, deriving their values, their mythology, even their sense of time and family and community, their identity, from shared rock stars and television programs” (Southern 12). This shallow, unfulfilling means of connection is the best Jane can find, so at the end of the story she joins the Army to pursue “Communications and Electronic Operations” (195).

In “Midnight Magic” Steve realizes he is unhappy but does not know how to better his life. He feels “empty inside, doomed” (Love Life 21), when he thinks his relationship with his girlfriend pales in comparison to the one his friend, Doran, has with a woman he marries after six weeks. At other times Steve “has sudden feelings of desperation he can't explain” (28). Again, television and movies have taught him confusing, inadequate lessons, first among them that a good model of a relationship is one in which right from the start a couple is perfect for one another and marries after six weeks. Since his relationship with Karen does not fall into this category, he feels something is wrong. Later in the story, he finds out from Doran that all may not be well with the newlyweds, but the damage from Steve's skewed perceptions is already done. When Steve, discontent, tries but fails to spice up his relationship with Karen by pretending to be the neighborhood rapist, he finds consolation by envisioning himself expertly playing the role he has no doubt seen on television many times: “If he were the neighborhood rapist scouting out her apartment, he would hide in the dark doorway of the delivery entrance of the dry cleaner's downstairs, and when she came in at night, pointing the way with her key, he'd grab her tight around the waist” (27–28). The lessons he has learned from popular culture about relationships and self-empowerment not only fail to teach him how to be happy, but are warped.

If a character does take a step toward being more introspective, this movement is usually accompanied by a consequent increased distance in his or her relationships with others, since the other members of society remain largely unself-aware and uncommitted to change. In “Airwaves,” when Jane decides she wants to become closer to the people she loves, she attempts to have a revealing conversation with her father. She asks him what he did years ago when he left his wife and children, and then proceeds to open up and tell him how she felt as a child at that time. As she recites her feelings she gets renewed courage from the way her father seems to be listening intently, patiently nodding. After she finishes he pauses so long that “Jane thinks he must be working up to a spectacular confession or apology” (Love Life 193). Instead, he simply remarks, “‘The Constitution is damaged all to hell’” (193). His comically inadequate response both points to the way popular culture teaches people to divert attention from their psyches to less personally troubling targets and suggests that the problem really is with the constitution of America, a country whose framework is truly damaged.

In “A New-Wave Format” Edwin's compassion for his passengers leads him toward introspection and to an honest attempt to look at his past and what it means. However, looking into and understanding himself means distancing himself from his girlfriend, who finds the antics of his retarded patrons alarming and disgusting. The story's end suggests their break-up is near: “The thought of her fennel toothpaste … fills him with something like nostalgia, as though she is already only a memory” (Shiloh 231).

At the end of O'Connor's “Good Country People,” Manley Pointer taunts the atheist Ph.D. Hulga Hopewell with, “You ain't so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!” (291). In Mason's world, it is not only the depraved grotesques like Pointer, roaming the boundaries of southern society, who believe in nothing, but the culture as a whole. The South as Mason depicts it has degenerated into a band of more innocuous Pointers, complacent, shallow, unguided by anything besides the ideology of popular culture. But though Mason's world is free of truly evil characters like this phony Bible salesman, hers is a potentially dangerous world without the boundaries Freud saw social structures necessarily erecting. Mason examines the danger that comes from being in between, in nowhere land after the framing institutions have lost their power, replaced only by an amoral popular culture. Hers is a world in which average young American men fantasize about themselves as rapists, where young women imagine the satisfying excitement of fighting in a war, where middle-aged women chop off chickens' heads like so many video game aliens, and where a busload of pacified retarded adults waits to explode.

Works Cited

Brinkmeyer, Robert H. “Finding One's History: Bobbie Ann Mason and Contemporary Southern Literature.” Southern Literary Journal 19.2 (1987): 20–33.

Butler, Jack. “Still Southern After All These Years.” Humphries and Lowe 33–40.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1961.

Gorra, Michael. Rev. of Midnight Magic, by Bobbie Ann Mason. The New York Times Book Review. 8 August 1998: 7.

Hobson, Fred. “Of Canons and Cultural Wars: Southern Literature and Literary Scholarship after Midcentury” Humphries and Lowe 72–86.

———. The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1991.

Humphries, Jefferson and John Lowe, eds. The Future of Southern Letters. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.

Mason, Bobbie Ann. Love Life. New York: Harper, 1989.

———. Midnight Magic. Hopewell: Ecco P, 1998.

———. Shiloh, and Other Stories. New York: Harper, 1982.

Morphew, G. O. “Downhome Feminists in Shiloh, and Other StoriesSouthern Literary Journal. 21(1989): 41–49.

O'Connor, Flannery. “Good Country People.” The Complete Stories. New York: Noonday, 1946. 271–291.

Pollack, Harriet. “From Shiloh to In Country to Feather Crowns: Bobbie Ann Mason, Women's History, and Southern Fiction.” Southern Literary Journal 28 (1996): 95–116.

Smith, Virginia A. “Between the Lines: Contemporary Southern Women Writers, Gail Godwin, Bobbie Ann Mason, Lisa Alther and Lee Smith.” Diss. Penn State U, 1989.

Wilhelm, Albert E. “Private Rituals: Coping with Change in the Fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason.” The Midwest Quarterly 28 (1987): 271–282.

Timothy D. O'Brien (essay date winter 2000)

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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 reader conspires with the author to build. That subsurface—repeated images, symbols, and motifs; playful use of characters' names—is vital to the novel's meaning. It contributes to what is almost a stereophonic effect, whereby the characters' involvement in—and attempt to work out—troublesome oppositions at the representational level can be “heard” against the authoritative, definitive formations at the symbolic level. The tension between these two levels, then, becomes an essential element of the novel's meaning, and especially of the work's problematic ending.

Another model for understanding this tension is visual: The characters in the representational foreground of the work must align their personal use of symbols with the authoritative value those symbols have in the symbolic background of the work. Acceding authority to the characters' use of these symbols can often be a mistake, as is the case especially with Emmett's egret. Morrissey, for instance, interprets the egret and other images of flight as unequivocal representations of fulfillment and “life continued” as opposed, for example, to the Vietnam Memorial, a kind of fallen bird suggesting unfulfilled lives (63). Flight is only part of what the egret embodies, however. Originally the egret is pictured as a wader. Emmett remembers seeing “it in the rice paddies, dipping its head down in the water, feeling around for things to eat” (35). It would sit beside the water buffalo, “like a little pet,” sometimes “on the water buffalo's back”; it would even pick ticks off the larger beast's head, and the water buffalo would turn up things for the egret to eat (36). Originally, then, the white egret merely contributes to a complex symbol consisting of both groundedness and elevation. The violence of war sends the egret into flight, as is clear in one of Emmett's early memories of the bird: “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” (36).

The water buffalo-egret symbol suggests a lost mutuality, an original wholeness, though not a unitary state or object such as the phallus in Lacan's system, for instance. In terms of this foundational symbol of mutuality, the novel unfolds along two different paths. One of these paths documents the cultural fragments of this lost mutuality, with the characters on the mimetic level trying to assemble or reassemble their lives out of the pieces. The other path displays symbolic markers of the mutuality as a linking of apparent opposites. The signs of fragmentation fall out into oppositions that correspond to the groundedness of the water buffalo and the transcendence of the egret in the original symbol: depression/elevation (Hopewell/Lexington and the Vietnam War Memorial/the Washington Monument); women/men; personal/public (Dwayne's diary/his letters home, for example); popular culture/official culture; unclear closure/certain closure (the Vietnam War vs. World War II); and complicity/separateness. In view of these oppositions, Emmett's longing for the singular, pristine egret is less a positive thing than some commentators make of it.1 Separated from the water buffalo, the egret resembles more the removed, disdainful, phallic Washington Monument than some healing alternative to the paralyzing oppositions in the novel.

As I have suggested, these oppositions emerge against a subtle background of wholeness built into the novel's nonmimetic fabric of connections. That nonmimetic fabric consists of symbols, patterns of imagery, and even names, of whose suggestive value the representational characters are largely unaware. The Vietnam Veteran's Memorial is the most striking and encompassing of these signs. As a pair of wings buried in the ground, it serves as a conclusive expression of the groundedness/transcendence opposition, and of others as well. Suggesting femininity, the venereal, its V-shape forms a visual and spatial pun enriching the verbal pun on “in c(o)untry.” Designed by a Vietnamese-American female, the V-shape also inscribes Vietnam/Viet Cong into the American landscape (Carton 314). At the same time, carved into it are the names of American men, “c(o)untry” boys; and at the very center line it reflects the phallic Washington Monument. While it is a medium upon which names are formally, publicly inscribed, it receives more personal, more “popular” forms of expression—names highlighted by yellow magic marker, monumentalized by cigarette packages, contextualized by handwritten notes, even decorated by a carnation blooming out of a crack (241–42).

Less obviously than the wall, other markers in the novel embrace oppositions, even while functioning for the characters as fragmented objects of pursuit. Bruce Springsteen serves as just such a marker. Sam sees Springsteen as fulfillment through escape, as flight; he will liberate her from her unpromising, enclosed world. Twice Sam imagines herself as the female groupie in Springsteen's “Dancing in the Dark” music video. Near the end of the video, Springsteen brings the girl out of the audience pit and up onto the stage to dance with him. Sam “loved” that part of the video (97). Along with escape to Disney World and the freedom of owning a car, that video constructs Sam's fantasy of what she might become. When thinking of her responsibility to Emmett and her need to find out about the mysteries of the Vietnam war that seem to lurk behind all her dealings with other characters, Sam imagines this scenario:

Sam was worn out with worrying that Emmett was going to die. Maybe it was better not to care. Sam could drive her VW to Disney World and get a job there and make all new friends. One day soon, as soon as she could think straight and get some business taken care of, she'd do that. And somewhere, out there on the road, in some big city, she would find a Bruce Springsteen concert. And he would pull her out of the front row and dance with her in the dark.


For Sam, then, Springsteen represents liberation from Hopewell, a name that in part suggests something even deeper than the audience pit in the video. Envisioning liberation that comes from above and takes her away, Sam must already see herself in the audience pit, in a depressed area, not only because of her youth and lack of means but also because of her gender.

In a sense Mason coopts Springsteen and Hopewell from their popular culture to sustain the dominance of her more formal, written document. The name Springsteen combines both sides of the work's central lines of opposition, suggesting not just the kind of fragmentation driving Sam and Emmett's dreams of escape but also the unity and mutuality imagined in the egret/water buffalo pairing and the hole/wings configuration of the Vietnam Memorial. The boundlessness of “spring” and the sense of containment in “steen” (“stone jug”) signal this possibility. “Springsteen” functions as allusion, as the name of a player in our and Sam and Emmett's cultures, but also as part of the verbal fabric of the novel, as a suggestive image connecting with others to form an authoritative background to the mimetic surface of the work. In terms of that background, Hopewell is not simply “hopeless,” as many of the characters see it, but rather a word suggesting the unity of something boundless with something limited. “Moon Pie,” with its combination of transcendence and containment, works similarly, though it also names a pet cat and serves as one of the markers for the often repeated cat imagery in the work. At the level of image rather than mere word, Emmett's skirt itself, suggesting certainly a kind of androgynous possibility, expresses a form of that opposition as potential unity: the skirt has a pattern of “elephants and peacocks on it” (26), a pairing of the same sort as the egret/water buffalo one. Even Sam's accessorizing contributes to this background vision of the linking of opposites: she fills the holes she has recently poked in her ear lobes with earrings shaped as stars (39).

The names “Sam” and “Emmett” also embrace oppositions. Sam is both “Sam” and “Samantha,” and thus stands as another androgynous possibility, though her being called Sam throughout most of the novel marks fragment. “Sam” also implies a cultural preference for male offspring and a need on Sam's part to deny her gender so that the vets will accept her and to fashion a rebellious character for herself. As Sam recognizes (167), “Sam” alludes to “Uncle Sam.” That fact provides some fascinating ironies as Sam/“Sam” exposes “Uncle Sam's” indifference to the vets, while she sympathetically interacts with them, and as she duplicates the country's/Uncle Sam's denial of the horror of their experience by rejecting the version of her father that she discovers in his war diary. Still, the other aspect of “Sam” that has gone entirely unrecognized is its expression of the Viet Cong side of the war: “Viet Cong” is a shortened form of Viet Nam Cong Sam (emphasis mine), meaning Communist Vietnam. Cong Sam (Communism) means to share (Cong) property (Sam). Apart from the intriguing notion that “Sam” is the property over which the two sides were fighting, this double meaning to “Sam” names an opposition and also implies a connection prior to the violent distinction acted out in the war. “Sam” is both Uncle Sam and the Viet Cong. As a name, “Sam” suggests an original connection of oppositions and the potential for healing; however as a character, Sam spends much of her time reaching for fragments.

In less-obvious ways, “Emmett” expresses the same two sides of the conflict. First and most simply “Emmett” derives from the female name “Emma,” thus suggesting the androgynous tendencies that Carton has discussed in connection with Emmett's skirt (Carton 313). Also, an emmet is an ant. Whimsical as that suggestion may at first seem, it makes sense in terms of the verbal patterns underlying the representational surface of the novel. First, the names in the work often have an allegorical tinge to them: Sam, Moon Pie, Hopewell, Dawn Goodwin, Donna (aka Madonna), Mrs. Castle (Sam's former English teacher), Lexington (word, law), and the war-loving Pete Simms (simian). What's more, the novel's verbal fabric is thick with animal imagery; it is a virtual animal fable world made up of cats, dogs, fleas, ants, chickens, rabbits—James Stewart's Harvey (50) and Grace Slick's “White Rabbit” (111)—and any number of birds. In this context Emmett's fondness for the natural enemies, birds and cats, again speaks to the novel's treatment of oppositions. And so does his name.

During her stay at Caywood's Pond, Sam pauses at a stump to observe millions of ants taking apart a bit of plastic and marching off with the pieces. Associating the ants with the fleas Emmett has earlier tried to exterminate from his house, Sam thinks that Emmett, during a flashback, must have thought the “fleas were the Vietnamese”: “How often had she heard the enemy soldiers compared to ants, or other creatures too numerous to count? She remembered someone saying that the GIs would fight for a position and gain it and then the next day there would be a thousand more of the enemy swarming around them” (209). The enemy, the members of the alien culture, are ants and so too is Emmett, though he is also a former GI who fought against them: “Emmett had helped kill those Vietnamese, the same way he killed the fleas, the same way people killed ants … Emmett set off the flea bomb just as casually as he would have launched a mortar into the sky, the way the soldiers did in the war, the way he pumped the firing button on the Atari” (209). Having suddenly become disgusted with war as a result of reading her father's war diary, Sam here sees Emmett only as ruthless murderer. She is unaware—as limited mimetic character—that Emmett's name makes him a victim as well, a mere ant. Emmett is what he opposed in combat.

Earlier in the novel, however, Mason first establishes this playful but evocative connection. While smoking a joint and decorating the red ceramic cat to give to her mother, Sam free associates from one observation to another. One sequence of those associations connects Emmett and ant: “Moon Pie was missing. But Moon Pie occasionally went off on little trips. Emmett was missing too. Sam watched an ant crawl into a hole in an electrical receptacle. A moment later, it crawled back out” (139). Perhaps minor and incidental by some standards, this verbal play captures the way in which the novel works behind the characters' backs. Here Emmett is an ant, entirely unconscious of the hazards around him, a victim merely of larger political and technological intentions. In fact the passage and the later one within the Caywood's Pond episode recall the well-known parable from A Farewell to Arms during which Hemingway implicitly compares the ants that Henry steams in his camp fire to soldiers dying because of the indifference of war (Hemingway 327–28). As much as Sam is both Uncle Sam and Vietnam Cong Sam, Emmett is both GI ant and Viet Cong ant. Again the verbal level of the work presents oppositions and at the same time suggests their original and potential linkage.

In terms of Sam's development, this connectedness of things amounts to something rather unglamorous: recognition and acceptance of life's complicity. From the beginning, however, Sam seeks flight. Mason marks this fact not only by making Sam an habitual runner, but by building into her personal history a seminal event. That event occurred when she was just a toddler attending a peace demonstration on the University of Kentucky campus in Lexington with her mother: “She remembered that the hippie had given her a helium balloon, and she accidentally let go of it. She remembered seeing it float away, high over the University of Kentucky campus, and she cried because the balloon had seemed important, something to hold on to that day” (66).

Sam favors Anita Stevens because she appeals to that lost sense of flight. Anita is Emmett's Kentucky red bird (114). In Sam and Emmett's “tacky house, Anita looked out of place—like a flamingo in a flock of chickens” (101). Sam emphasizes Anita's exotic, individualistic, free nature. However, the flamingo—like the egret in the rice paddy with the water buffalo—is a wading bird and not particularly individualistic in its own setting. Sam's comparison, then, actually emphasizes Anita's down-to-earth nature, her acceptance of Emmett; however, it also says much about how Sam understands Anita in terms of her own needs. Even when Sam has a chance to take in the horror of Vietnam, she avoids it, using her personal version of Anita as a pretext. In the bathroom at the veterans' dance, Pete's wife Cindy tells Sam about all the cut-off Vietnamese ears that Pete had brought home from Vietnam. However, “Sam didn't want to hear about ear collections. She didn't believe Cindy. She hurried away. Cindy wasn't somebody who loved to laugh, like Anita. In the gym, Donovan was singing “Sunshine Superman” (123). Sam's preference for what she sees as Anita's levity and the juxtaposition of that preference with the playing of Donovan's song about magical escape from, and elevation above, the details of life exposes her desire to escape from the dreary, the ordinary, the complicit.

However, the trajectory of that desire eventually puts her in as mundane, traditional a position as Cindy's: “She wished she could go to Tom's garage apartment and watch him work on a dirt bike. She wanted to see his scars” (123). As a result of her imagined rebellion and escape, she takes on the traditional role of the female witness to the male spectacles of technology and battle wounds (Jeffords, 9–17). Like Emmett's search for the egret, Sam's rebellious misreadings of others lodge her in the same traditional position from which she is trying to escape. It is not much of a leap from Lonnie, the washed-up jump shooter, to Tom the scarred veteran who tinkers with motor bikes; from Dawn, the anti-abortionist who has to get married, to Sam, the pro-abortion “rebel” who is dangerously close to dedicating her life to finding a way to help Tom achieve an erection. Even Sam's apparent distaste for her mother's new husband exposes the way in which she maintains the oppositions by which she feels limited. She calls him Lorenzo Jones. However, his name is, suggestively, Larry Joiner. She feels strange, also, when she sees him, “a grown man, playing with a baby” (232).

Sam finds herself at Caywood's Pond as a result of a similar trajectory. Dissatisfied with the letters of empty affection and unexamined, trite values that her father sent home from Vietnam to her mother, she journeys to the Hughes farm in search of some truth about Dwayne and herself. At the farm she discovers ordinariness and decay, images of her own human condition—“the smell of dirty farm clothes, soiled with cow manure,” a sodden bathroom “rug that lay rotting around the sweating commode,” a “television missing a leg,” a rusty bucket for pea picking “with a rag stopping up a hole,” a mangy dog, “her dumb aunt Donna,” and most importantly Dwayne's diary from Nam, with its images of “the rotting corpse, her father's shriveled feet, his dead buddy, those sickly-sweet banana leaves” (206). As a result of her inability to “get these sensations out of her head,” Sam feels a new reality: “Now everything seemed suddenly so real it enveloped her, like something rotten she had fallen into, like a skunk smell, but she felt she had to live with it for a long time before she could take a bath” (206, emphasis added). Sam “falls into” that reality, that sense of her own involvement in living, while seeking the clear, lost, even transcendent meaning in her life figuratively the balloon she had lost as a small child in Lexington.

This careening from one extreme to another occurs again as Sam runs off to Caywood's Pond, another sunken area, a place to fall into. Interestingly the stance she takes toward Emmett as a result of reading her father's diary—rejection of the rotten facts of war and life, of her father's honest, personal feelings, and therefore of Emmett—repeats something she has just criticized: Mrs. Hughes's more complacent denial of the details in the diary. (She chose instead to accept the banal, “loving,” more public letters he had sent to them.) Violently ripping a page from her father's diary, Sam writes a note to Emmett: “You think you can get away with everything because you're a V.N. vet, but you can't. On the table is a diary my daddy kept. Mamaw gave it to me. Is that what it was like over there? If it was, then you can just forget about me. Don't try to find me. You're on your own now. Goodbye. Sam” (207). Here Sam becomes the transcendent egret, the accusatory Uncle Sam, and the monolithic, phallic Washington monument. She transforms the private journal into a communication; she employs the power of the pen/pencil/penis/Washington monument to condemn the vets' unsavory internal experience of the war. Denial of the reality of that experience, however, perpetuates it: Sam flees the stink of her father's journal and ends up in a part of the novel's setting that corresponds to it, Caywood's Pond—the novel's equivalent of “in country.”

By experiencing the corruption all around her at the Hughes's farm and the stink of mortality in her father's diary, Sam has opened herself up to another level of understanding, though her reaction to that experience is to reject it. During the much discussed Caywood's Pond episode, she experiences the same sorts of things and once again recoils from the experience, though her recoiling suggests something of an advance in her development. She goes to the pond contradictorily to run away from this perception of life's complicity and to experience what Emmett and the other vets did in Vietnam. From Sam's first perceptions of her surroundings, to her feeling threatened by an imagined rapist that turns out to be a raccoon, and to her encounter with Emmett, who finally “spills his guts” about his Vietnam experience and his survivor's guilt, Caywood's Pond is the very image of one side of the novel's primary set of oppositions. It is the feminine and indeterminant; it is a murky place that undermines expectations. It is the unknown realm over which the engineers, like the military in Vietnam, are trying to exert control by building a boardwalk as a public approach to it and “dredging the outer reaches of its swamp” (208).

Kinney, for one, has argued that Sam discovers the limitations of her gender here, the impossibility of her ever understanding the Vietnam experience (45–46). Perhaps that is true, but indisputably the pond promotes a breakdown of the simplistic categories by which she has been operating—women do not kill, and only men murder babies, for example. What sounds like an approaching attacker is only a mother raccoon with its babies; the V.C. rapist-terrorist ends up being Emmett. Her musings, moreover, offer interesting formations of the oppositions we have seen. “The quality of dawn,” she thinks, “was different from the quality of dusk. Dusk lingered, and went through stages of dimness, but dawn was swift and pervasive. There must be some scientific principle behind that, she thought” (216). Verbally relating to her friendship with Dawn, this musing also displays the tension between a swift, clear closure and an ending that lingers, that remains so long indeterminant, as is the case with the Vietnam War in American society. Also, her own way of thinking is to make an advance on a telling metaphorical perception and then to close it off with a linear, masculine, “scientific principle.” During the rapid sunrise, Sam sees glowing rays “like the ones in Aunt Bessie's Upper Rooms. Sam didn't think there was any upper room. Life was here and now. Her father was dead, and no one cared” (216). Sam seeks absolutes and in so doing careens from the upper to the lower rooms and back again: “She had survived. But she didn't know what to do. She wished that bird would come. If the bird came, then she would leave” (216).

Characterizing her visit to Caywood's Pond as the male act of “humping the boonies,” she here positions herself as the passive female to be rescued by the transcendent bird—another version of the fantasy involved in Springsteen's “Dancing in the Dark.” In keeping with the novel's play of oppositions, however, her passivity is also that of the soldiers in Vietnam waiting for the “bird,” the chopper, to bring them cigarettes or to lift them out of their vulnerability. In other words, her experience in Caywood's Pond might emphasize the limitations of her gender but it also suggests that the experience of the soldiers in Vietnam was in some profound way a feminine one. Even an apparently random observation about her car becomes part of this flurry of new perceptions, some of which suggest advancement from her oppositional thought. Returning from the swamp to her car with Emmett, Sam notices that the VW's windows had mist on them: “The car inside seemed damp and cool. It must not be watertight, after all” (219). Sam's mechanism of flight from complicity, from corruptibility, from Hopewell is itself flawed, vulnerable—a waterbird and no more.

Those kinds of images emerging from Sam's observations reoccur as well in the emotional exchange she has with Emmett and in her response to that exchange. For Emmett the exchange marks his own involvement in life's complicity, something from which he has been trying to shelter himself. Reading Sam's angry note and thinking that perhaps she might harm herself, Emmett hurries after her to Caywood's Pond. In so doing he expresses his attachment to another; and in opening up to Sam about one of his horrifying war experiences and his postwar psychological struggles, he begins to make advances on the psychological barriers he has built. Importantly, though, the way in which he expresses his difficulties and the details Sam notices about him once again develop the play of oppositions within and behind the characters' perceptions of themselves.

Sam has already tried to figure out why Emmett always looks for the bird. The key for her is the old Beatles' lyrics: “‘I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in / And stops my mind from wandering.’ That was what Emmett was doing with his hole, trying to stop the rain. If he concentrated on something fascinating and thrilling, like birds soaring, the pain of his memories wouldn't come through. His mind would be full of birds. Just birds and no memories. Flight” (139). In Sam's formulation, Emmett tries to make his mind as watertight as Sam thought her Volkswagon would be. Obviously, Emmett's “opening up” to Sam at Caywood's Pond displays his lack of success: like the Volkswagon, his mind is not watertight after all, but is subject to the rain, to the low lying dampness of emotion and involvement in the lives of others, in spite of all its attempts at pristine flight. At Caywood's Pond, Emmett formulates his concern with the egret in this way:

If you can think about something like birds, you can get outside of yourself, and it doesn't hurt as much. That's the whole idea. That's the whole challenge for the human race. Think about that. Put your thinking cap on, Sam. Put that in your pipe and smoke it! But I can barely get to the point where I can be a self to get out of.

(226, emphasis added)

The prevailing imagery in the novel of holes, depressions, and murky areas requires us to recognize the pun on “whole,” though, of course, Emmett does not. In terms of that imagery, the problem of getting outside the self (the self in this work is container) via flight is in fact “the whole challenge for the human race.” However, the novel's proposed solution to that problem is not escape from involvement. There is no solution, in fact, beyond recognition and acceptance of the challenge. Importantly, “whole” here suggests collectivism as well as essentialism; and it also plays with the notion of “in c(o)untry,” suggesting that the challenge is a gendered one.

The following exchange supports this suggestion. Emmett tells Sam that perhaps his coming to Caywood's Pond to think that he could save her is futile; she's got to learn for herself: “You can't learn from the past. The main thing you learn from history is that you can't learn from history. That's what history is” (226). To the extent that Sam is trying to learn about herself through understanding the stories of her father, Emmett, and Tom, the feminist/new-historical view of history as “his-story” is particularly appropriate here. Moreover, that reading applies to Emmett himself—a scarred veteran who, not knowing “how to wipe his butt” (171), went off to fight in response to the great unspoken demands of “his-story.” The metaphorical nature of Emmett's observations also underscores this view: as Emmett waves “at the dark swamp,” he says, “There are some things you can never figure out” (226). That view contrasts with the one projected by the attempts at draining and containing the swamp of Caywood's Pond, the novel's version of the murky, unknowable feminine and the foreignness of “in country.”

As is particularly typical of the characters in this novel (though in the strictest terms it is true of all fictional characters), the language that Emmett speaks conveys far more than he can imagine: it connects with the entire fabric of verbal suggestions that have accumulated throughout the work. Thus the meanings that occur during this episode do so in excess of Emmett's awareness. Though he serves as a vehicle for expressing authorial values—embracing oppositions, acknowledging the impossibility of a neat closure even while seeking that closure, rethinking neat gender boundaries—he does not embrace them. As cryptic explicator of Caywood's Pond, he represents something between the extreme directions of certainty and escape on the one hand and confusion and myopic involvement on the other. He is beginning to take on the “whole challenge,” even though he remains unaware of the implications of that pun. Clearly, however, Emmett serves as a marker for Sam's negotiation between the work's oppositions. In her response to Emmett, she both accepts him as a complicit, struggling human and, through her implicit reconstruction of him, dismisses his struggle as something to transcend. As Emmett turns and walks away from Sam back to the car, he is pictured as earthbound, poison ivy curling around his shoes. Sam has two diametrically opposed perceptions of him: “From the back, he looked like an old peasant woman hugging a baby. Sam watched as he disappeared into the woods. He seemed to float away, above the poison ivy, like a pond skimmer, beautiful in his flight” (226). Her immediate view makes of him a vulnerable, nurturing, complicit figure. However, once he disappears, leaving her imagination less tethered to what her eyes see, he becomes a figure of freedom—unencumbered, uncomplicated, beautiful. The pond skimmer remains above the “poison ivy” (emphasis added) and all that is suggested by its “V”—Vietnam, vets, Venus, involvement.

Following the episode at Caywood's Pond, the trip to the nation's capital swamp, Washington D.C., and the partially embedded, V-shaped wings of the Vietnam War Memorial clearly continue this negotiation through oppositions. As I have explained earlier, the memorial symbolizes a harmonizing energy. It expresses both sides of the oppositions we have been examining, and the episode of which it is the center emphasizes collectivity, cooperation, and inclusion. For Emmett the visit represents a third productive excursion, the vets dance in Hopewell and his going after Sam to Caywood's Pond being the first two. Certainly the visit will not solve all his problems, as Stewart, in criticizing the novel's incomplete and unrealistic treatment of veterans, suggests it is intended to do (175–79). It simply displays Emmett's having been transformed for a moment. Instead of fixedly staring at some distant, unknowable image of transcendence, of uninvolved flight, he sits “cross-legged in front of the wall” (245) looking at the names engraved low on the panel. His engagement is transformative, if only for a moment: “slowly his face bursts into a smile like flames” (245). The description suggests clearly that Emmett has found the bird he has been looking for. To that extent the novel achieves at least a symbolic closure by suturing together oppositions. This bird is not the pristine, white egret in flight above the confusion of “in country.” It is rather a reflection of Emmett's own movement toward engagement in life—in his past and future—something more akin to what the image of the egret with the water buffalo implies. He has flown toward involvement. Even the imagery of explosion and burning undergoes a transformation. The image of a napalm bomb bursting on an inscrutable landscape communicates the forcefulness of Emmett's recollections. Of course, at the same time, the image inscribes upon his face the horror of which he was a part. The description of Emmett's face also picks up on and transforms the image of burning in the novel's epigram from Springsteen's “Born in the U.S.A.”: “I'm ten years burning down the road / Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go.” Here expressing the veteran's alienation from society as endless, pointless flight, the image at the end of this novel suggests a sense of completion, the urge to burn down the road having led to the memorial (placed but seeming also to extend endlessly underground) and having emerged in the form of a communicative smile like flames.2

To an audience concerned primarily with Mason's realistic depiction of the Vietnam War veterans' postwar struggles, this ending might strike them as being just as contrived as any made-for-TV ending (Stewart 177, Melling, 55), even if they know that a visit to the memorial is often a standard part of the therapy that vets undergo (Scruggs). But understanding the ending requires a recognition of how thoroughly the novel is invested in the play of the oppositional imagery. Valorizing the mimetic level of the work to the exclusion of the symbolic, in fact, leads one to turn the novel—a written, evocative document—into a movie, whether a made-for-TV one or not. Interestingly, the entire Vietnam display in Washington D.C. expresses that very conflict between the representational and symbolic; it is almost as if Mason has written the opposition into her work. On the one hand, the Vietnam War Memorial, an abstraction, though with some representational hints, spreads out across and against low-lying ground. On the other hand, the statue of the GIs, clearly a representational piece, stands on higher ground than that holding the wall.

As with Emmett, so with Sam, the closing episode expresses a final, tenable negotiation between oppositions. In doing so, it develops the images of flight/groundedness that we have seen working throughout the novel, and especially in the Caywood's Pond episode. The appearances of those images, as I have suggested throughout, activate a variety of opposing ideologies related to gender relations, reproduction, war, taste in literature and entertainment, and modes of thinking. The episode at the wall begins with Sam fixing on a sentence that pops into her head: “Nobody here but us chickens” (237). It occurs to her as she anticipates seeing all the dead names on the monument—“it's just names.” The sentence about chickens expresses two things at once: that humans are insignificant, appearing finally as a bunch of names on a wall; and that they also intimately share the same experience: “Just us and the planet Earth and the nuclear bomb. But that's O.K., she thinks now. There is something comforting about the idea of nobody here but us chickens. It's so intimate. Nobody here but us. Maybe that's the point” (237–38). Again, the novel's themes are built upon what is almost an animal fable. This time, however, Sam is slightly more aware than she was in the “ant episodes” of the implications of the language that speaks through her, as she comes close to recognizing herself as a part of others.

During her visit to the wall, the image of chickens marks a further advance on that awareness. When a group of school kids walks by the wall as noisily “as chickens,” Sam becomes upset at one of them because she asks silly questions: “Are they piled on top of each other?” and “What are all these names anyway?” (240). Initially, Sam responds as if she were superior to, and different from, the kids. She continues the attitude that caused her to take up running—“it set her apart from the girls at school who did things in gabby groups, like ducks” (75): “Sam feels like punching the girl in the face for being so dumb. How could anybody that age not know?” Immediately, however, she recognizes what she shares with the kids: “But she realizes that she doesn't know either. She is just beginning to understand. And she will never know what happened to all these men in the war” (240). Again the image of the chicken modifies the sense of superiority suggested by the pristine, flying egret and by the planes that fly over the monument.3 However undignified and inglorious a creature it is, the chicken—that grounded bird—symbolizes the kind of mediation of oppositions that Mason advocates throughout the work.

A man's response to the yellow highlighting of names on the wall continues the implications of that episode. The narrator describes the highlighting as having resulted from someone coloring the names with a yellow magic marker, “the way Sam used to mark names and dates, important facts, in her textbooks” (241). Behind Sam the man says: “Somebody must have vandalized it … Can you imagine the sicko who would do that?” A woman responds: “No, …. Somebody just wanted the names to stand out and be noticed. I can go with that” (241). That exchange amounts to a gendered confrontation over the proper way to respond to a text, especially because it is introduced by a description of what Sam used to do with her textbooks and because it occurs only two pages after a description of the Washington Monument as “a beaming pencil against the sky” and, in Sam's recollection of Tom's words, “a big white prick” (238). The male response advocates respect and minimal interaction, an impersonal text-centered approach: only “a sicko” could have wanted to annotate it. Taking more of a reader-centered approach, the woman accepts another's response, appreciating the reader's need to emphasize some element of the text in a subjective way. For the man, the wall should stand by itself as some ultimate truth; for the woman, truth lies also in the response visitors have to the wall. The man takes the distanced, superior view Sam first has of the ignorant schoolkids, “noisy as chickens.” The woman sees herself as one of the chickens, as part of a collective enterprise.4

The woman's undercutting of the man's approach to the text/memorial emphasizes the kind of inclusiveness and sense of complicity that Sam is just developing. When she waits for Emmett and Mamaw to find her father's name on the monument she “imagines the egret patrolling for ticks on a water buffalo's back, ducking and snaking its head forward, its beak like a punji stick” (242). The water buffalo-egret symbol reappears; and the definitiveness of its reappearance as a sign of Sam's more integrated character is marked by the metaphorically rich response Emmett gives to the park guide who asks them if they need help: “‘We know where we are, Emmett says. ‘Much obliged, though” (242). What's more, this final episode reconfigures Sam's “relationship” with Springsteen, whose Born in the U.S.A. album she has earlier purchased at a Maryland shopping mall. When Sam climbs the ladder to view her father's name, Springsteen goes up because of her: she climbs with “the record package in her hand” (243). She rises above the ground not because some hero has rescued her, not through flight, but through trying to connect with her past, a process of excavation almost, as is suggested by her viewing her father's name scratched on the wall as “something for future archaeologists to puzzle over” (244). The fact that she discovers her own name, Sam A. Hughes, on the wall emphasizes her growing sense of involvement in others and the collective experience that Mason builds here. Sam touches her own name and feels that “all the names in America have been used to decorate this wall” (245).5 Moreover, her name helps to decorate a structure whose form embraces oppositions: wings in, not flying away from, a (w)hole in the ground.

As exhilarating and tonally complex as this ending is, however, it remains problematic, and not because, as Stewart argues, it unsuccessfully layers a symbolic conclusion over a realistic treatment of the plight of veterans (167, 176–77). Part of the problem, I think, relates to the collection of emotions about Vietnam that the novel activates. As a regrettable and unclear endeavor, the war raises questions about beginning and ending, about opening and closing. When did it begin? When did it end? (Is the answer suggested by the trip of Sam, Emmett, and Mrs. Hughes to Washington, D.C., via Interstate 64 in a '73 beetle?) Mason captures those feelings through the veterans she constructs, men trying to carry on with their civilian lives but incapable of leaving the war behind, not just because of the powerful experience of war in general but because of the sense that the Vietnam War is still unfinished business. Mason writes that issue into her work also by repeatedly offering details suggesting problematic closure: Sam's incomplete diploma (200), her incomplete sexual encounter with Tom (127), the problem with “the post ignition shut off jet” in Lonnie's van (25, 185), and of course all the references to “delayed stress syndrome” are just several of the dozens of examples.6 Arguably the novel's principal theme is the disillusioning promise of clarity held out by all boundaries—whether high school graduation, the return home from a war, or the visit to “the wall.” Curiously, the novel establishes a boundary; it ends by valorizing a lack of clear distinction: Sam gains a sense of belonging and identity that paradoxically makes her a chicken within a flock, part of the collection of Americans whose names are engraved upon the wall; and the symbolic catalyst for the ending is the wall, which, as Mrs. Hughes says, “don't show up good.” What's more, the novel comes to a well-prepared symbolic closure, one that embraces difference, and yet it has also established a sense of lives to be continued, the lives of Sam and Emmett to be individually improved by this communal, funereal experience at the wall. Mason has in a sense prepared the reader for this experience, if not preempted criticism of it, by writing the problematics of endings—and of this novel's ending—into episode after episode and detail after detail. However, in the case of Sam, the ending does turn upon itself in a troubling way.

Emmett, Sam, and Mrs. Hughes visit Irene in Lexington on their way to Washington, D.C. At Irene and Larry's house, Sam does three important things: she gives her mother the ceramic cat she has decorated; she tells her that she has decided to attend the University of Kentucky in the fall; and she gets a glimpse of what will be her bedroom when she lives in Lexington with her mother and father-in-law. A “foray into the Sixties,” according to Dwyer, the ceramic cat that Sam decorates with a gaudy collection of sequins and beads serves as a kind of peace offering from Sam (76–77). It also anticipates Sam's development. On the one hand, the cat evokes the apparent rebellion and individuality of the sixties—beads, psychedelic design, a flower sticking out of its coin slit, and of course, a discarded roach inside it. On the other hand it is, after all, a coin bank—the capitalistic foundation actually allowing the kinds of rebellion marking the sixties, even the capitalism to which most of the sixties generation, certainly Irene, ultimately returned. In terms of the animal fable tendencies of the novel, the decoration of the cat represents independence tamed, domesticated, subjected to custom. That is what has happened to Irene and what happens to Sam. For all its suggestions of rebellion in Sam's character—her affinity for black, her desire to shock expectations, her advocating abortion for Dawn—and for its implicit criticisms of the Washington Monument/pencil/phallus/pristine egret matrix and the “natural” distinctions that matrix supports, the novel finally offers a sense of lives continued that valorizes what it has interrogated throughout. Sam will go up to Lexington, where she will live in a room “painted pink, with a white bedspread” (232).7 Even the strong sense of meaning that she has on her visit to the wall rearranges the nontraditional sense of control that she has tried to assert over her own reproductive function: “Sam doesn't understand what she is feeling, but it is something so strong, it is like a tornado moving in her, something massive and overpowering. It feels like giving birth to this wall” (240). Thus, in spite of the convincing symbolic gestures of a mediation between oppositions—Sam, for instance, recognizes herself as both birth machine and soldier in this ending—the novel's mimetic plane finally defines Sam's growth as compliance. She develops because she finally feels the reproductive imperative, which only augments the sense of compliance signaled by a pink room and a life in Lexington, a site ostensibly marking intellectual growth but actually naming allegiance to the male domain of law, reading, and official writing.


  1. Durham, Melling, and Morrissey all interpret the egret as a positive symbol, something at which Emmett should aim in order to avoid his fragmented existence.

  2. White sees the novel not so much “issuing naturally from the epigraph” as “casing it” (76).

  3. The ordinary marriage between Irene and Dwayne was accompanied by a display of chickens. Irene tells Sam, “He was a chicken farmer, and we got married on his porch. When we left, a bunch of chickens got loose and feathers were flying everywhere. They were Barred Rocks, I believe” (168).

  4. Just prior to the exchange between the man and the woman, another brief exchange similarly exposes the limitations of males' “truth talk” as it relates to “relational” speech: “A little kid says, “Look, Daddy, the flowers are dying. The man snaps, ‘Some are and some aren't” (240). The kid, of course, is attempting more than an exact description of the state of the flowers, actually expressing in his own way something of his or her feelings about death. The man misses the point by thinking the statement has to make an accurate point—all this in the shadow of the pencil-like/“prick”-like Washington Monument. The man's response to his child also anticipates Sam's intolerant reaction to the girl's unaware questions about the wall.

  5. June Dwyer analyzes this transformation from what she terms “old history” to “new history”: “What Sam does not understand is that she has armed herself with old historical expectations. She is looking for heroes and villains, strong leaders, clear causes. What she finds is new history—not a chain of command but a web of connections, not a patriarchy, but an extended family without a father figure at its head” (72).

  6. Here are some other examples of how Mason writes this problem with closure into her novel: references to movie and TV remakes and continuations; the allusion to Donovan's lyric about a “beach that never ends”; the question discussed on Emmett's reappearance in Hopewell with Irene about how The Return of the Body Snatchers ends; the allusion to the ancient mariner's having to rehearse over and over again his story; the image of the Vietnamese mother carrying her dead baby around; the Hollys' marriage as being over but not finished; Pete's proposition that the Vietnam war could have been completed, won, if only the United States had paved the Ho Chi Minh Trail all the way to Hanoi; and even Col. Blake's memorable (for Sam, anyway) deathbed warning to Radar that if he doesn't behave he will “come back and kick his butt.”

  7. Bates emphasizes the conventionality of gender roles in this “complacent work” (55). Booth, too, calls attention to the nurturing, fertility role for Sam, the female quester for the grail in the American wasteland of the novel (109). Carton, on the other hand, takes the birth metaphor at the novel's end as a signal of Sam's “part in the process of social reproduction,” not of her capitulation to the passive function of biological reproduction (316). Ryan offers a fascinating argument: Sam discovers “a postmodernist authority, finally adopts a critical position that denies the existence of Logos, the complete, male, central authority (200). Though she does approach the views Ryan ascribes to her, I am arguing that Sam finally decides to adopt Logos as her authority, just as Mason does, despite her novel's involvement in “popular culture.”

Works Cited

Bates, Milton J. “Men, Women and Vietnam.” America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War. Ed. Owen W. Gilman and Lorrie Smith. New York: Garland, 1990. 27–63.

Booth, David. “Sam's Quest, Emmett's Wound: Grail Motifs in Bobbie Ann Mason's Portrait of America after Vietnam.” Southern Literary Journal 23 (1991): 98–109.

Carton, Evan. “Vietnam and the Limits of Masculinity.” American Literary History 3 (1991): 294–318.

Durham, Sandra Bonilla. “Women and War: Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country,Southern Literary Journal 22 (1990): 45–52.

Dwyer, Jane. “New Roles, New History and New Patriotism: Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country.Modern Language Studies 22 (1992): 722–78.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. Macmillan, 1998.

Jason, Philip, ed. Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature. Iowa City: Iowa UP, 1991.

Jeffords, Susan. The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Viet Nam War. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

Kinney, Katherine. “‘Humping the Boonies: Sex, Combat, and the Female in Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country.” Jason, 38–48.

Mason, Bobbie Ann. In Country. New York: Harper, 1986.

Melling, Philip H. Vietnam in American Literature. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

Morrissey, Thomas J. “Mason's In Country.Explicator 50 (1991): 62–64.

Ryan, Barbara T. “Decentered Authority in Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country.Critique 31 (1990): 199–212.

Scruggs, Jan. Interview. Diane Rehm Show. WAMU, Washington, DC, 29 May 1995.

Stewart, Matthew C. “Realism, Verisimilitude, and the Depiction of Vietnam Veterans in In Country,” Jason, 166–79.

White, Leslie. “The Function of Popular Culture in Bobbie Ann Mason's Shiloh and In Country.Southern Quarterly 26 (1998): 69–79.

Joanna Price (essay date 2000)

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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 there”4 and has commented that “My work seems to have struck a chord with a number of readers who have left home and maybe who have rejected it, and I think it startles them because they thought they were rid of it.”5 Andrew Levy points out that in Mason's own view, the appeal of her stories to the lower-upper-class or upper-middle-class readership of such magazines as the New Yorker lies in the fact that “reading her stories, like writing them, constitutes an act of reconciliation with the home that is left behind.”6 Moreover, Levy continues, “the ‘home’ that is left behind is not just rural Kentucky, but the popular culture that is repudiated (or diluted) by a rising middle class, or an entrenched upper class.” According to Levy, Mason's stories, therefore, appeal to an audience that is largely “displaced out of its class of origin” through the “reconciliation” of class differences that they represent.7

Other reviewers argued that the stories in Shiloh epitomized the limitations of “minimalist” writing. Robert Dunn, for example, commented that the stories are an example of “private interest fiction” in that their characters, lacking a sense of history, focus their anxieties about cultural change exclusively through a diminished world of private relationships.8 Similarly, John Barth and Ben Yagoda, while recognizing that this fiction aspires to give a realistic representation of a consumer culture dominated by television, lamented its perceived failure to offer a broader, historicized interpretation of that culture.9 Yagoda concluded that writers of such fiction, including Mason, “give us random and unimaginatively chosen details and events, signifying nothing.”10

As the reviewers observed, the most initially striking quality of the short stories collected in Shiloh is Mason's evocative rendering of the details of the daily lives of her characters. The central theme of the stories is the way in which Mason's characters respond to the changes effected by contemporary culture on formerly rural life in western Kentucky. Mason generally renders the narrative perspective on these changes either through a working-class character who is trying to adjust to the cultural shifts through which he or she is living or through an educated, newly middle-class woman character who is reflecting on some of the changes in order to interpret her past and present life.

The thematic coherence of the collection as a whole is underpinned by two of the stories, “Residents and Transients” and “Shiloh.” “Residents and Transients” is the first-person narrative of Mary, who has returned to her childhood home in Kentucky after spending eight years away, “pursuing higher learning.”11 Those closest to Mary have embraced change: her parents have moved to Florida, and her husband has moved to Louisville, expecting his wife to follow. Due to the years Mary has spent away from “home,” married to a “Yankee,” she now feels like an exile even when she is there. She seeks stability in her parents' farm and particularly the remembered rituals of the canning room. As she recalls time spent with her lover, Larry, a local dentist, Mary's increasing anxiety about her own identity and her sense of paralysis before the choices confronting her become apparent. She tries to remind herself of who she is by itemizing the components of her identity: “I am nearly thirty years old. I have two men, eight cats, no cavities” (127). But her world appears to be dissolving as her husband, who is “processing words” over the telephone, makes her “think of liquidity, investment postures. I see him floppy as Raggedy Andy, loose as a goose” (131). Mary's dissociation both from her husband's words and values and from herself is reflected in her observation that “I see what I am shredding in my hand as I listen. It is Monopoly money” (131).

As Mary and her lover drive back toward the farm at night, she sees “a rabbit move. It is hopping in place, the way runners will run in place. Its forelegs are frantically working, but its rear end has been smashed and it cannot get out of the road” (130). To Mary the rabbit becomes “a tape loop that crowds out everything else,” like Stephen's words, which liquefy in her mind. To the reader the rabbit may serve as a metaphor for Mary's own immobilization. In this story, as in others, Mason weaves in images that may be used by the reader to interpret the unfolding narrative.

Here, more unusually, the metaphoric potential of the images is apparent to the story's narrator, which enables her to approach an interpretation of her situation and from this to take some control over the choices that confront her. Mary explains to Larry: “In the wild, there are two kinds of cat populations … Residents and transients. Some stay put, in their fixed home ranges, and others are on the move. They don't have real homes. Everybody always thought that the ones who establish territories are the most successful … They are the strongest, while the transients are the bums, the losers.” But, she continues, “it may be that the transients are the superior ones after all, with the greatest curiosity and most intelligence” (128–9). The image of residents and transients resonates throughout the collection as a metaphor for Mason's characters' ambivalence toward “home.” By analogy with this information about cats, Mary is able to reflect upon her own indecision about whether to stay at home or to leave. The final image of the story is typical of Mason's concluding images in its ambiguity. It evokes Mary's new receptiveness to change, but she is still watching herself waiting, rather than acting: “I see a cat's flaming eyes coming up the lane to the house. One eye is green and one is red, like a traffic light. … In a moment I realize that I am waiting for the light to change” (131).

The theme of the conflict between the desires to stay at home, to leave, or to return; to recover the past or to forget it; to “let go” or to seek safety in “hanging on” is established in the first story, “Shiloh.” The wide anthologization and extensive critical study of this story attest to Mason's consummate achievement of a style that imitates the content of the story, as her representation of her characters' responses to change offers penetrating insights into their culture. Mason's sympathetic evocation of Leroy Moffitt exemplifies her compassionate interest in men who are struggling to adapt to changes that their women relatives or partners are finding at least partially empowering. Leroy is a truck driver who is unemployed after an accident has left him with a limp. Forced to give up his life on the road, Leroy observes with a sense of bewildered helplessness and fear the changes taking place in his hometown, his wife, and his marriage. Mason succinctly evokes Leroy's perception of the destructiveness of these changes in one simile: “Subdivisions are spreading across western Kentucky like an oil slick” (3). Terry Thompson has pointed out that “a subdivision is, first of all, a ‘backwards’ community: it is built on speculation before there are people to populate it.” Thompson glosses Mason's simile accordingly: “one could argue, oil spills are eventually cleaned up, but subdivisions continue to devour valuable farmland that could grow corn or wheat instead of sprouting generic ranch houses with generic mortgages and synthetic neighbors.”12 As Leroy drives to a new shopping center, he realizes that the repopulation of the landscape has occurred through the erosion of the old economy and community as he remembered it: “The farmers who used to gather around the courthouse square on Saturday afternoons to play checkers and spit tobacco juice have gone. It has been years since Leroy has thought about the farmers, and they have disappeared without his noticing” (4). Leroy's nostalgia for the security of a simpler past is manifested in his making “things from craft kits,” beginning by “building a miniature log cabin from notched Popsicle sticks” that “reminds him of a rustic Nativity scene” (1). His hobby develops into a dream of building a log cabin as a home for himself and his wife, Norma Jean. This fantasy shows the value that the unemployed Leroy places on craftsmanship in the homogenized landscape of shopping malls and subdivisions and how he has turned to the American dream of self-reliance in a society to which he feels he has become superfluous.

The Moffitts' responses to change are differentiated along gender lines. Norma Jean has assimilated fragments of feminist discourse to forge her own American dream of progress as she seeks personal autonomy through further education, going to night school at Paducah Community College. She has also taken up bodybuilding, Leroy having introduced her to weights through the physical therapy he is doing to build up his weakened body. As, with Leroy, the reader watches Norma Jean “working on her pectorals,” she seems a testimony to consumer culture's dictum that to re-create the body is to reinvent the self. The apparent reversal of gender roles is provocatively commented upon by Norma Jean's mother, Mabel, who, observing Leroy's needlepoint, remarks: “That's what a woman would do” (6). Norma Jean's self-education is also producing signs of an emergent class difference between herself and her husband, as is suggested, for example, by Leroy's observation that “Recently Norma Jean has been cooking unusual food—tacos, lasagna, Bombay chicken” (11).

Leroy watches these changes in his wife apprehensively, realizing that “something is happening” and knowing “he is going to lose her” (11). He recognizes that in the years he spent on the road, “he was always flying past scenery” (2) and that in order to understand what is happening to him in the present, he must stop and reflect on the past. The loss of their son, Randy, by sudden infant death syndrome, several years ago is a fault line running through the Moffitts' marriage. They do not ever speak of this loss, although Leroy, deriving his knowledge from popular culture, “has read that for most people losing a child destroys the marriage—or else he heard this on Donahue” (3). Leroy, trying to recover some truth in memory, finds that he “can hardly remember the child anymore” but that he recalls vividly “a scene from Dr. Strangelove,” which the couple were watching at a drive-in when the child died in their car. The film serves as a displacement of too painful a memory. Mason evokes how images from the film became “facts” for Leroy while the emotional “truth” of the situation evaded him, such that he fantasized that the hospital was the “War Room” of Dr. Strangelove while wondering of his wife: “Who is this strange girl? He had forgotten who she was” (5). The shock of his sudden bereavement reverberates through the culture shock Leroy experiences later as he registers the cultural dislocations that are fracturing his marriage. Here, too, an involuntary forgetting protects Leroy from the painfulness of what memory may reveal: he resolves “to tell Norma Jean about himself, as if he had just met her,” but instantly “he forgets why he wants to do this” (9).

Observing his present situation, Leroy continues to look aslant rather than directly at the cause of his unhappiness, as for example in this passage: “He sees things about Norma Jean that he never realized before. When she chops onions, she stares off into a corner, as if she can't bear to look. She puts on her house slippers almost precisely at nine o'clock every evening and nudges her jogging shoes under the couch. She saves bread heels for the birds. Leroy watches the birds at the feeder. He notices the peculiar way goldfinches fly past the window. They close their wings, then fall, then spread their wings to catch and lift themselves. He wonders if they close their eyes when they fall. Norma Jean closes her eyes when they are in bed. She wants the lights turned out. Even then, he is sure she closes her eyes” (7). Norma Jean's averted gaze as she chops onions is paralleled by Leroy's: he can observe the literal details of her domestic rituals but will not pursue his observations further in order to reach an understanding of her behavior that may offer some insight into their relationship. Mason's mimetic representation of Leroy's small, self-contained observations through pared-down, clipped sentences could be read as an example of that minimalist writing that confines itself to the local detail, refusing to take any greater burden of interpretative authority for what is represented. On the other hand, it may be read as the effective exercise of the authorial control Mason had admired in Nabokov's writing, whereby “pain or grief becomes suggestively more intense because it is in the process of being toned down from raging torrents of tears and shrieks of pain. Authorial distance saves it from sentimentality and also makes it bearable for the reader.”13 It is through such authorial control that Mason is able to sustain a fine, ironic distance between her character's perception and her reader's. She creates for the reader the possibility of an interpretation that exceeds that of her characters while retaining consistency in her representation of the character's point of view. The return of Leroy's thoughts to Norma Jean after an apparently whimsical reflection on the flight of the goldfinches suggests his anguished desire to be certain that he still knows who his wife is. Leroy, who clings to facts and literal details, does not draw any conscious analogy between the falling goldfinches and his own feelings about himself and Norma Jean. For the reader, however, the goldfinches as they “close their wings, then fall, then spread their wings to catch and lift themselves” hover as a possible metaphor for either Leroy, trying to protect himself against change, or Norma Jean, who may be “falling” as she prepares to take flight. Characteristically, interpretation remains suspended as authorial resolution is withheld throughout.14

Leroy is prompted not by his own memory but by that of his mother-in-law to visit Shiloh with Norma Jean. Leroy, for whom the present has become evacuated of history, anticipates that this National Historical Site, the Civil War battleground in Tennessee, “would look like a golf course.” He tries to impress Norma Jean and to dull his own pain with disconnected facts about the battle, but “they both know that he doesn't know any history” (14). Mason describes how, as Leroy hears Norma Jean telling him she wants to leave him, his gaze takes in the Shiloh cemetery. Mason's setting of this dialogue at the scene of “that darkest place in Southern history, where 24,000 soldiers were wounded, and 3,500 of them died in battle,”15 invites the reader to reflect on the legacy of the past, and specifically on the effect on the Moffitts' marriage of their inability to mourn together their own dead. But for Leroy the unconfronted past returns to the literal details of a barely interpreted present: “The cemetery, a green slope dotted with white markers, looks like a subdivision site. Leroy is trying to comprehend that his marriage is breaking up, but for some reason he is wondering about white slabs in a graveyard” (15). However, as he tries to form a narrative that connects random facts about the battle to the marriage of his parents-in-law and to his own marriage, Leroy approaches an epiphany precisely in his recognition that “he is leaving out a lot. He is leaving out the insides of history. History was always just names and dates to him. It occurs to him that building a house out of logs is similarly empty—too simple. And the real inner workings of a marriage, like most of history, have escaped him” (16).

The outcome of Leroy's revelation is left inconclusive. The closing image sequence presents Leroy trying to “hobble toward” a distant Norma Jean. With poignant humor that hesitates between the metaphoric and the literal, the revelatory and the banal, Mason describes how Norma Jean turns toward Leroy “and waves her arms. Is she beckoning him? She seems to be doing an exercise for her chest muscles. The sky is unusually pale—the color of the dust ruffle Mabel made for their bed” (16). Through these concluding images, Mason evokes both the ambiguity of Norma Jean's gesture and the irresolution of Leroy's response to it. His observation that “the sky is unusually pale” suggests how for Leroy, in his shock, the world has become drained of color, while Mason's final, flattened image of the “dust-ruffle” evokes Leroy's desire to avert pain by returning his perception to the familiar and domestic detail. At the same time, the selection of this particular detail is also inscribed with his sense of loss. Through these images Mason sustains a delicate equilibrium between the possibility that Leroy is recognizing that loss or that he is denying it.

In the next story, “The Rookers,” Mason again explores her characters' responses to “culture shock,” sustaining her sympathetic focus on the apprehensive response to change of a male character, Mack Skaggs. Change is most acutely felt by Mary Lou and Mack Skaggs through the dispersal of their family, particularly through the departure of their youngest daughter for college. In her daughter's absence, Mary Lou enjoys a new ritualized connection through her meetings with her widowed friends to play Rook. She is also adjusting to popular culture, enjoying an “R-rated movie,” for example. She observes how her husband, however, whom “the highway … makes nervous,” is retreating into the security of his carpentry workshop. Like Leroy Moffitt, Mack Skaggs is trying to create order in a changing world through craftsmanship. Mary Lou observes how the card table that Mack has made out of pieces of scrap pine seems to express his desire to form a whole out of the fragments of his life: “It seemed that Mack was trying to put together the years of their marriage into a convincing whole and this was as far as he got” (18). Mack retreats further from the workshop in his basement to the television in his den. From the safety of his home, Mack tries to adjust to the changes that are invading it by reading the books that he believes his daughter Judy is studying. Judy's attempt to explain quantum mechanics to her parents provides the central metaphor of the story: “‘If you separate them [photons], they disappear. They don't even exist except in a group’” (27). Shortly afterward, Mary Lou reflects: “If you break up a group, the individuals could disappear out of existence.” She is afraid that her husband “is disappearing like that, disconnected from everybody” (29). This metaphor resonates throughout the collection of stories, evoking the characters' fear as they feel themselves becoming increasingly isolated as familiar social structures appear to disintegrate. Mack Skaggs tries to both forge a controlled connection with the world outside his home and to regulate the information entering it, undermining former certainties, by constantly calling the weather report on the telephone. The story concludes with Mary Lou's realization that “Mack calls the temperature number because he is afraid to talk on the telephone, and by listening to a recording, he doesn't have to reply. It's his way of pretending that he's involved. He wants it to snow so that he won't have to go outside. He is afraid of what might happen.” Mary Lou continues to reflect that what her husband “must really be afraid of is women,” which makes her feel “so sick and heavy with her power over him that she wants to cry” (33). This unexpected shift in the narrative's exploration of change aligns the story with “Shiloh” and others in the collection, implicitly identifying the recent alteration of gender roles as perhaps the most powerful cause of cultural dislocation. The final image is of Mack standing “in a frozen pose,” paralyzed by the changes that invade his household.

Mason explores the effect of contemporary cultural shifts on family life in three other stories, “Old Things,” “Drawing Names,” and “Graveyard Day.” In “Old Things” Cleo Watkins has to some extent accepted personal change, selling her farm, moving to a new house in town, and giving away reminders of her deceased husband. She is distressed, however, by her daughter's arrival with her two children after she has left her husband. While her daughter tells Cleo that “you could go to school, make a nurse,” Cleo tries to instill in her daughter traditional values with such advice as “a man takes care of a woman” (80). To Cleo her daughter's tales of her marital breakdown seem as strange as though “she has been told some wild tale about outer space, like something on a TV show” (80). The story depicts Cleo trying to reconcile what she felt to be a harmonious past rooted in traditional family values with a rapidly changing present, in order to imagine an acceptable future. Yet she does not believe that the past can be repossessed through the current fashion for commodifying former ways of life. She has no sympathy with her daughter's taste for “antiquing” the “paraphernalia” of farm life and is shocked when she sees farmers selling now unused farm objects at a local market.

At the end of the story, however, she finds at the market “a miniature Early American whatnot” that she recognizes as one she had given away. The picture on the whatnot of “a train running through a meadow” stimulates a reverie that provides the concluding images of the story. Cleo imagines the train “gliding … out West” with her remaining family aboard: “Cleo is following unafraid in the caboose, as the train passes through the golden meadow and they all wave at the future and smile perfect smiles” (93). These images are ambiguous in their evocation of a fantasy of the future based on the projection of a nostalgic longing for the past, which denies change and the disharmony that it has produced. Yet at the same time they, like Cleo's purchase of the whatnot, suggest that she can become more accepting of a recent past about which she has felt some guilt, having believed that her husband “would never forgive her for selling the farm” (90).

In “Graveyard Day,” which was included in Best American Short Stories of 1983 and Pushcart Prize VIII: Best of the Small Presses, Mason again explores the effect of cultural changes upon shifting family relationships. The story traces the increasing anxiety of Waldeen, whose ex-husband has left for Arizona. Waldeen reflects that if she were to marry her new lover, Joe McClain, her daughter would have a stepfather, “something like a sugar substitute,” but, Waldeen feels, “families shouldn't shift memberships, like clubs. But here they are, trying to be a family” (167). Waldeen is also sensitive to other changes, wrought largely through the influx of new ideas, which make themselves felt through generational differences. This is evident even in that most domestic of rituals, preparing food: while “Waldeen is tenderizing liver. … Her daughter insists that she is a vegetarian. If Holly had said Rosicrucian it would have sounded just as strange to Waldeen” (165).

In this story, however, unusually in the increasingly “Americanized” South evoked by Mason, tradition has been preserved through a particular ritual: Joe McClain tells Waldeen how each spring he maintains a family ritual by raking over his grandparents' grave and placing geraniums there. Waldeen suggests that she and her daughter accompany Joe on a picnic to the graveyard while he undertakes this ritual. As in “Shiloh,” a visit to a graveyard allows the characters to reflect on the losses borne in contemporary cultural changes. Waldeen's anxiety is manifested in her increasing morbidity throughout this scene. Approaching the graveyard, she compares Joe's geraniums to “a petrified Easter basket” and imagines “that they were in a funeral procession” (174). Thoughts of love, marriage, and death merge as Waldeen imagines that “the burial plot, not a diamond ring, symbolizes the promise of marriage” (177).

Whereas in “Shiloh,” however, Leroy and Norma Jean Moffitt lack a ritual through which to acknowledge and mourn together the loss of their son and the disintegration of their marriage, Waldeen's observation of Joe's continuance of a family ritual seems to help her to begin to cohere the fragments that she feels constitute her life. The morbid analogies she has been nurturing give way to a memory of being on a pedal boat on a lake with a former boyfriend. As they had spent the entire afternoon there, her boyfriend had “worked Saturdays … to pay for their spree.” Waldeen recalls that in a recent encounter, he had told her that “it was worth it, for it was one of the great adventures of his life, going out on a pedal boat with Waldeen, with nothing but the lake and time” (177–8). This memory leads to the concluding images of the narrative: “Waldeen has pulled her shoes off. Then she is taking a long running start, like a pole vaulter, and then with a flying leap she lands in the immense pile of leaves, up to her elbows.” Waldeen, whom Joe McClain has reproached with being “afraid to do anything new,” has been prompted by her memory of a small but “great adventure” to act recklessly. As in the concluding images of many of Mason's stories, optimism is implicit in her momentary embrace of change.

Family ritual also provides the lens through which Mason examines the effect of change in “Drawing Names.” The protagonist, Carolyn Sisson, has returned to her parents' home for Christmas Day. The title of the story draws attention to the family's need to improvise a new ritual in response to changing circumstances: members of the family must draw names to determine the recipient of their Christmas gift. Carolyn reflects that she herself “could not afford to buy fifteen presents on her salary as a clerk at J. C. Penney's, and her parents' small farm had not been profitable in years” (95). Through her representation of the social microcosm of a family Christmas, Mason subtly explores the changes that are exerting pressure on a family whose relations have been altered by dispersal, separation, and divorce. The effects of feminism are again presented as one of the major sources of change. This is exemplified by a brief exchange that is typical of Mason's finely attuned use of dialogue to offer a pithy insight into the conjunction of characters' emotions with cultural circumstance. As most of the male members of the family hurry to finish the Christmas dinner so they can watch the television, the grandfather remarks “Use to, the menfolks would eat first, and the children separate. The womenfolks would eat last, in the kitchen.” One of his granddaughters comments that “times are different now. … We're just as good as the men,” to which the husband from whom she is separating remarks, “She gets that from television” (104).16 Other social changes are lightly alluded to as the family discusses, bemused, the “black Barbie doll” that was given as a Christmas present to a friend of one of Carolyn's nieces. The introduction of change is most marked by the presence of the Northern outsider, Jim Walsh, with whom Carolyn's younger sister, Laura Jean, is “stacking up.” Other members of the family respond with circumspection to the educated Jim, as class difference is evinced by his introduction of unfamiliar knowledge into the conversation at the dinner table. This is again evoked by Mason through a poignant moment of dialogue as Jim responds to the father's labored joke about monks with the earnest observation that “The Trappist Monks are a really outstanding group. … And they make excellent bread. No preservatives” (103).

These changes are observed by Carolyn as she awaits the arrival of her own boyfriend, Kent Ballard. Carolyn's realization that he is not going to keep his appointment with her family, having gone to see his boat instead, leads to a series of recognitions that enable her to begin to accept some of the changes that she and her family have found painful. As in “Old Things,” this story ends with a fantasy that draws together the threads of the narrative in an ameliorative movement, even if it does not offer resolution. The story concludes with Carolyn looking at the box of the bottle of bourbon that Jim has brought as a gift, to be warily received by the family as a confirmation of his unwelcome disruption of their own traditions. The box “showed an old-fashioned scene, children on sleds in the snow,” which prompts “Carolyn to think of Kent's boat again. She felt she was in that snowy scene now with Laura Jean and Jim, sailing in Kent's boat into the winter breeze, into falling snow. She thought of how silent it was out on the lake, as though the whiteness of the snow were the absence of sound” (108). While the significance of the silence and whiteness in Carolyn's fantasy remains indeterminate, the presence of Laura Jean and Jim on the boat with her suggests the healing of certain rifts. Throughout the Christmas celebrations, Carolyn has regarded her sister's boyfriend with envious circumspection, until a brief exchange with him has revealed his sensitivity to her own predicament and his commitment to her sister. Prior to the concluding fantasy, Carolyn has “wondered what [Laura Jean and Jim] said to each other when they were alone in St. Louis. She knew they would not be economical with words, like the monks in the story. She longed to be with them, to hear what they would say” (107). Following upon this reflection, the concluding images suggest that Carolyn is reaching an acceptance of what has now become her past, as the fantasy incorporates Kent's boat but not Kent, while she also envisions sailing into an unknown future with people who have embraced departure and change.

In “Offerings” Mason describes Sandra Lee's search for a romanticized rural past, having moved into an isolated country home following the departure of her husband for Louisville, where he works at a K Mart. The story tells of a visit by Sandra's mother and paternal grandmother to Sandra's home. Sandra “presses Grandmother to talk about the past, to tell about the farm Sandra can barely remember,” (56) and she tells her visitors that she is collecting “duck expressions” such as “lucky duck,” “set your ducks in a row,” and “sitting duck” (55–56). Grandmother Stamper is not, however, nostalgic about farm life: after spending five years nursing her dying husband on a “dying farm,” she has remarried, has moved into a city apartment, and “has more shoes than places to go.” She observes to Sandra: “I declare … you have moved plumb out into the wilderness” (54).

Away from the close scrutiny of her grandmother and the dominating masculinity of her husband who, Sandra believes, wants her to spend weekends with him “watching go-go dancers in smoky bars” and whom she expects to return for his hunting rifle, Sandra has taken a defiant pride in neglecting herself and her house. In a flat, controlled tone, which heightens by contrast the abnegation of control that she is describing, Mason notes how “Sandra never dusts,” despite her grandmother's warning that if she didn't, “the dust bunnies would … multiply and take over,” and she “has not mowed in three weeks.” However, there are signs of the menace of the wilderness, and of Sandra's defenselessness against it: a missing cat may have been shot and a bird she tried to rescue from another cat “died in her hand” and is on a stump, “untouched since yesterday” (53). More worryingly, perhaps, although it is late summer, Sandra has not made any preparations for winter, letting her woodpile get low and failing to insulate the attic or repair a leak in the basement.

Underlying Sandra's apparent nonchalance about the encroachment of the wilderness is a fear of the invasion of the body, particularly the female body, by pain, illness, and death, when preventative action is not taken. The story opens with Sandra reflecting on the death of her maternal grandmother “of childbed fever at the age of twenty-six.” She then recalls how her mother “developed an infection but was afraid to see the doctor,” insisting “it would go away.” Years later, her mother experienced “inexplicable pains,” and she recalls her mother's gruesome account of the operation that followed: “Through blurred eyes, she could see a red expanse below her waist. It resembled the Red Sea parting …” (53). Her mother's hysterectomy becomes one of several secrets kept between the women of the family: Sandra's mother has never told her mother-in-law about it, nor, for twenty-five years, about the fact that she smokes, and she now warns Sandra to protect Grandmother Stomper from the knowledge that Sandra's husband has left. The morbidity aroused by these feminine secrets haunts Sandra as she enjoys the temporary womanly community afforded by her relatives' visit: the tomato soup she has prepared resembles “bowls of blood,” and she glimpses on the television “a star formed by women, with spread legs, lying on their backs in the water” (58–9).

Through the images of the concluding sequence of the story, Mason subtly draws its themes together and gives them an unexpected twist. As Sandra accompanies her mother outside for her to smoke a secret cigarette, she dispassionately recalls how yesterday her cats ate a mole, starting with its nose, “like a delicacy.” Her next memories of the feral nature of the wild are oddly nuanced, however. Threatening savagery is turned into choreographed beauty as Sandra recalls the “menacing yaps” of foxes at night and then how fox cubs playing in the moonlight resembled “dancers in a spotlight.” She remembers how “she heard a baby screaming in terror,” a cry that she recognized to be that of a wildcat. This sound has become “a thrill she listens for every night,” suggesting that Sandra herself is developing an increasingly feral pleasure in wildlife. These images culminate in Sandra's reflection that “she would not mind if the wildcat took her ducks. They are her offering” (59). This open-ended statement gives one pause to wonder whether Sandra desires to propitiate the wilderness without or within her, a wildness which she both fears and desires.

The concluding images extends this ambiguity: “The night is peaceful, and Sandra thinks of the thousands of large golden garden spiders hidden in the field. In the early morning the dew shines on their trampolines, and she can imagine bouncing with an excited spring from web to web, all the way up the hill to the woods” (59). The tranquil beauty evoked by the first image is disturbed by the metamorphosis of Sandra that occurs through the predatory exuberance of her identification with the spiders. Albert Wilhelm has observed that this passage has been interpreted as “beautifully” and “positively” offering “a metaphor for connections among women (especially mother and daughter) that illustrates their power to sustain each other in times of crisis.”17 Wilhelm argues, however, that this reading “overlooks the ominous overtones of this elaborate fairy-tale image. In the spiderweb conceit, Sandra sees herself moving not toward social involvement but deeper into the lonely woods. Furthermore, her means of getting there is frail and insubstantial. Instead of bouncing her to ever greater heights, the flimsy webs would surely break and cling.” Wilhelm concludes that “Sandra is more caught in a web than soaring above it.”18 This reading is a perceptive response to the ambiguities that pervade the imagery of the story. The “woods” that Sandra perceives as a welcoming retreat from the social relations that have constricted or hurt her do indeed, as in fairy-tales, also connote to the reader a wilderness where she may find herself abandoned to both exterior and interior untrammeled nature.

In “Nancy Culpepper” Mason explores her eponymous protagonist's attempts to integrate the past with the present. The story tells of Nancy's return to her parents' home as they are about to move her grandmother into a nursing home. Nancy has moved to Pennsylvania after attending graduate school and marrying Jack Cleveland, “a Yankee,” in Massachusetts. Having felt exiled throughout her years in the North, she has now become preoccupied with recovering some family photographs she believes to be hidden in a closet in her grandmother's home. Mason vividly evokes Nancy's sense of culture shock as she was initiated into Northern middle-class culture through her description of Nancy's memories of her wedding. Nancy recalls how, after persuading her parents not to attend the wedding, she felt only alienation and homesickness. This is accentuated by the icons of 1960s counter-culture that mark the occasion, such as “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band” playing “instead of organ music” and a chain-smoking minister whom the preachers of her childhood “would have called a heathen.” “Dope” and a “wine-and-7Up punch” are served for refreshments, their heady insubstantiality contrasting with what Nancy thinks her parents might be eating for supper: “Possibly fried steak, two kinds of peas, biscuits, blackberry pie” (182). The wedding photographs turn out to be “trick photography,” which underscores Nancy's sense of the inauthenticity of the ritual when separated from the traditions that would have conferred significance on it in the culture of her childhood. As Nancy dances with her husband to the Beatles record, she laments: “There aren't any stopping places. … Songs used to have stopping places in between” (182). Nancy's return to Kentucky to find her grandmother's photographs becomes a search for a place in which to pause and reflect on the changes that have transformed her life and culture.19

On an earlier return to Kentucky, Nancy finds that her acquisition of middle-class tastes has estranged her from the landscape of her childhood. She believes that, divested of the value that labor, familiarity, and memory would confer upon it, the landscape would seem merely a quaint composition. Nancy imagines that Jack “was seeing peaceful landscapes—arrangements of picturesque cows, an old red barn. She had never thought of the place this way before; it reminded her of prints in a dime store” (184). To Nancy, Jack's photographs denaturalize Nature by turning it into Art, as he composes still-life images out of “common” things such as “stumps, puffballs, tree roots, close-ups of cat feet” (186).

Nancy's return to her childhood home to find the photograph of her namesake becomes an attempt to recover her connection to the past. Her earlier discovery of the inscription NANCY CULPEPPER, 1833–1905 on a tombstone in a local cemetery seemed like “time-lapse photography. … I was standing there looking into the past and future at the same time. It was weird” (186–7). In her sense of standing on a threshold, at a point of transition between past and future, Nancy epitomizes many of Mason's women characters. At present, Nancy prefers to look to the past to secure her identity, and since discovering the existence of her great-great-aunt, she has started using her maiden name. When she finds a wedding photograph of the woman she believes to be her namesake, Nancy recognizes in her a precursor whose conflicting longings anticipate her own, but who would be able to embrace the future: “This young woman would be glad to dance to ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ on her wedding day, Nancy thinks. The man seems bewildered, as if he did not know what to expect, marrying a woman who has her eyes fixed on something so far away” (195).

Nancy Culpepper reappears in the next story of the collection, “Lying Doggo,” where the dying of her husband's dog, Grover, seems to mark “a milestone” in “a marriage that has somehow lasted almost fifteen years” (198). This story extends the themes of “Nancy Culpepper” as it traces Nancy's reflections on the tensions caused in her marriage by the initial class differences between herself and her husband, which are caricatured in Nancy's observation to Jack that “You educated me. I was so out of it when I met you. 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” (207).

In each of these stories, Mason's protagonists are adapting to the changes that occur as familiar traditions of rural life in western Kentucky are being replaced by the images and ideology introduced by consumer culture. In the stories Mason shows how the process of adaptation is a gradual one, attained through moments of recognition in which the past is brought to bear on the interpretation of the present. This process is inscribed with a sense of what is being lost and often generates anxiety and fear, but, as Mason shows, individual and cultural identities may be tentatively renewed through it. The characters' assimilation to an “Americanizing” consumer culture is imitated by Mason's style, with its naturalization of references to consumer products. In some of the stories, however, consumer culture retains its strangeness as Mason uses defamiliarizing techniques to emphasize the apparently incongruous juxtaposition of the values embedded in past traditions with the ideology imparted by the images and artifacts of consumer culture. Linda Adams Barnes has suggested that Mason's revelation of the incongruity of this juxtaposition adds an element of the grotesque to her work, which locates it in a tradition of Southern grotesque descending from Flannery O'Connor. She argues that although inherent in O'Connor's use of the grotesque is a faith that assumes “the possibility of grace,” a faith that has largely disappeared from the world evoked by Mason, Mason's stories also imply a moral vision through the “instructiveness” of her “dramatization” of the conflict between “traditional Southern life and encroaching modern life.”20 This effect of grotesqueness that unsettles the spare surface created by the precise, literal details of dirty realist writing has also been described as “a kind of surrealism of the everyday.”21

One story that emphasizes the strangeness of the everyday is “Detroit Skyline, 1949.” This story is an anomaly in the collection in that it is told by a first-person narrator (“Residents and Transients” is the only other example of this) and the events of the story take place in a Northern industrial city in 1949 rather than in Mason's usual setting of contemporary Kentucky. The narrator is recalling a journey she made as a nine-year-old girl to visit relatives in Detroit. Mason's use of a first-person narrator allows her to create an impression of interiority that contrasts with most of the stories, where she allusively infers her characters' states of mind through the evocation of their perception of external details, as recounted by a third-person narrator.22 Her use of a child's point of view also enables her to defamiliarize the “reality” to which adults become inured.23 By setting the story in the post—World War II period, Mason historicizes some of the changes that her other stories represent, particularly as much of her narrator's sense of wonder and disorientation is aroused by the commodities that she is encountering for the first time. The narrative frame of a journey from western Kentucky to Detroit (a reversal of most of the journeys undertaken in Mason's stories) focuses the conflict between rural and urban culture that is to become more complex and pervasive in the contemporary world of Mason's other stories.

Peggy Jo learns from fragments of her aunt's and uncle's conversation that the Detroit in which she has arrived with her mother is darkened by people's fear of “reds” and immobilized by a bus strike caused by “trouble with the unions.” Against this backdrop, Peggy Jo is fascinated by such “strange” manifestations of consumer culture as a “toaster, a Mixmaster,” an advertisement of “a fabulous life with Fab,” and a “Toni doll … with a Play Wave, including plastic spin curlers and Toni Creme Rinse” (44). Most fascinating and astonishing of all, she finds, is the television, which begins to permeate her imagination. The cultural collision between North and South evinced by the child's response to these commodities is immediately interpreted by her Detroit relatives as a class difference, the result of being “raised with a bunch of country hicks” (38). The child's sense of the strangeness of the everyday reality of life in Detroit is amplified by her aunt's scrapbooks of newspaper clippings, which “included household hints and cradle notes, but most of the stories were about bizarre occurrences around the world—diseases and kidnappings and disasters.” Her aunt explains: “Life is amazing. I keep these to remind me of just how strange everything is” (42). To the adult, in contrast with the child, the defamiliarization of the quotidian only occurs when extremity or anomaly reveals its “bizarreness.” Mason's adult characters generally adjust to the intrusion of the unfamiliar in their lives by assimilating it to the familiar, which involves a denial of differences. Mason's mimetic representation of this process through a preponderance of similes and metonymy over metaphor creates the “flattening” effect of her writing. The stories invented by Peggy Jo, however, exemplify a child's desire to find narratives that explain both the differences and the connections between things. These narratives necessarily become metaphoric as layers of “reality,” imagined and literal, cultural and “natural,” are interpreted through each other. For example, Peggy Jo's familiar world is further unsettled when her mother, who has been taken to hospital, explains to her that she has “lost” a baby. The child forms a narrative to try and understand what has happened: “That night, alone in the pine-and-cedar room, I saw everything clearly, like the sharpened images that floated on the television screen. My mother had said an egg didn't hatch, but I knew better. The reds had stolen the baby. They took things. They were after my aunt's copper-bottomed pans. They stole the butter. They wanted my uncle's job. They were invisible, like the guardian angel, although they might wear disguises. You didn't know who might be a red. You never knew when you might lose a baby that you didn't know you had” (50). Peggy Jo's explanatory narrative is a bricolage of fragments of overheard adults' gossip, other children's lore, and the images she has received from the television, radio, and children's books.

On her return journey to the South, the child is seized by the sense of wonder that Mason's adults have largely lost: “I felt—with a new surge of clarity—the mystery of travel, the vastness of the world, the strangeness of life” (51). Momentarily the child fears that her father and brother will not recognize her and her mother when they return, but she is reassured by seeing that “our little white house was still there” (52). To Mason's adults, however, the concept of “home” is always destabilized by departure and return.

Mason explores this theme further in “Still Life with Watermelon,” another story where “reality” is unsettled by elements of the grotesque. Louise Milsap is trying to adjust to the loss of her job and the impulsive departure of her husband to work on a ranch in Texas. Her friend, Peggy, has moved in with her, as her husband has also left “unconscionably.” Peggy seeks a pattern to the apparent randomness of contemporary life, in Harlequin romances and “dreams and coincidences,” and she persuades Louise to paint watermelons in the hope of selling them to a rich, old eccentric who has taken to collecting paintings of watermelons. Louise has tried to accommodate the events that have dramatically altered her life, but if she has managed to suppress a recognition of their untowardness, a sense of strangeness imbues her surreal paintings of watermelons: “the first one she tried looked like a dark-green basketball floating on an algae-covered pond” (60), and others “appear to be optical illusions—watermelons disappearing like black holes into vacant skies” (67). The incongruity between the watermelons and the backgrounds against which she paints them hovers as an image of her own life.

Louise has refused to accompany her husband on his adventure, preferring the safety of “home,” but upon his return she reflects that “Tom is home and she doesn't know what that means” (71). When Herman Priddle is unable to buy her paintings, she realizes that perhaps it is she “who has been off on a crazy adventure” (73). This recognition leads her to connect her own experience to larger social changes: “Something about the conflicting impulses of men and women has gotten twisted around. … She had preached the idea of staying home, but it occurs to her now that perhaps the meaning of home grows out of the fear of open spaces. In some people that fear is so intense that it is a disease …” (73).

Bill and Imogene Crittendon in “The Ocean” have embraced “open spaces,” having sold their farm and bought a camper in which to travel down to Florida. As in “Shiloh” and “Detroit Skyline, 1949,” the journey out of the insularity of their home state prompts the characters to make historical and geographical comparisons—albeit of a fragmentary nature—which are rare among Mason's characters. Bill has initiated the journey so that he may see the ocean for the first time since he was serving on a ship on the Pacific in the Second World War. As he travels down to Florida, Bill is disturbed by nightmares in which various parts of his past coexist alarmingly: “He had a nightmare in which his mother and Imogene sat in rocking chairs on either side of him, having a contest to see who could rock the longest. Bill's job was to keep the score, but they kept on rocking” (161). The “endless rocking” leaves Bill feeling “seasick” and “frightened.” Bill's nightmare is permeated by anxiety about his wife's distress at their strange translation from life on the farm to life on the road. This anxiety is reflected in his confusion about both the past and the present as, finally looking out to sea, he imagines “battleships and destroyers” there and cannot “tell if they were coming or going, or whose they were” (164).

An element of the grotesque, which draws attention to the strangeness of the intersection of contemporary culture with rural traditions, is present in three other stories through Mason's representation of women's illnesses.24 In “The Climber,” “The Retreat,” and “Third Monday” Mason depicts women whose illnesses draw attention to their confinement in their bodies. This occurs in a culture that isolates them through the “disembodiment” of its media of communication, such as the telephone, television, and information technology. Bodily confinement serves as a figure for the way in which Mason's characters are enclosed within their culture, despite the proliferation of media of communication, and feel unable to actively connect with historical changes. In these stories this confinement is gendered, as men provide images of a freedom that still seems unavailable to the women.

“The Climber” tells of Dolores, who is waiting to keep an appointment with a doctor about what she fears is breast cancer. Dolores's sense that possibilities for her are restricted by her body is contrasted with the images of masculine transcendence that open the story. Dolores is watching an interview with an astronaut on “the Christian channel”: “The former astronaut claims that walking on the moon was nothing, compared to walking with Jesus …” (109). These images of escape from bodily limitation lead to another, closer to home, as Dolores watches a tree-cutter at work in her yard. The tree-cutter takes risks, Dolores observes, “as though to fall would be incidental” (118). By contrast, Dolores feels immured in her body by her fear about her illness and spends her time talking on the telephone to her friend who has had a catalogue of illnesses. Dolores reflects that “whenever women get together, they talk about diseases. Men never do” (110). This contrast is underscored for the reader by an implied simile: while Dolores lies on the doctor's examination table, the tree “filled with plump green buds” is cut down. Although she is relieved to discover that her symptoms are benign, she, like Louise Milsap in “Still Life with Watermelon,” feels bereft of her own sense of adventure. She “somehow felt cheated. She wonders what it would take to make a person want to walk with the Lord, a feeling that would be greater than walking on the moon” (120).

A similarly grotesque conjunction of images occurs in “The Retreat,” which tells of a moment of crisis in the marriage of Georgeann and Shelby Pickett, a part-time evangelical preacher. Georgeann's increasing sense of disorientation is manifested in symptoms that could have been caused by the mites of a sick chicken. She expresses her unhappiness at a retreat that she has reluctantly attended with her husband, as she asks: “What do you do if the man you're married to … turns out to be the wrong one for you?” When her question falls on deaf ears, Georgeann retreats to the basement, where she starts playing video games. These, she discovers, enable her to project herself into a virtual space beyond the confines of her body and her marriage: “The situation is dangerous and thrilling, but Georgeann feels in control. She isn't running away; she is chasing the aliens” (145). She responds to Shelby's perplexity about her new pastime with the explanation: “You forget everything but who you are … Your mind leaves your body” (146). This experience seems purgative, enabling Georgeann to make the decision not to accompany her husband when he moves to another church. The ending is ambiguous, however, suggesting that Georgeann's beheading of the sick chicken may be either a further act of excision or a resumption of her former role of dutiful wife: “When the ax crashes blindly down on its neck, Georgeann feels nothing, only that she has done her duty” (147).

“Third Monday” opens with an image of both women's freedom from former social control of their sexuality and their continued circumscription within the body. Ruby, who has undergone a radical mastectomy, is participating in a celebration that is “an amazing baby shower because Linda is thirty-seven and unmarried” (232). Ruby herself is enjoying an unconventional relationship with Buddy Landon, whom she sees only on the third Monday of each month, as he travels “the flea-market circuit” selling dogs. While Buddy's transience allows Ruby a certain freedom, her cancer seemed to have a grotesque “presence of its own,” “interfering” with her actions and choices “like a nosy neighbor.” Ruby's adjustment to the loss of both her breast and Buddy, whom she learns is in jail, is evoked through a transfigurative pattern of images. In the concluding scene Mason describes how Ruby meets a man who is visiting the clinic for a “brain test”: “The man picks up a magazine and says, ‘this is my baby.’ He hugs the magazine and rocks it in his arms. His broad smile curves like the crescent phase of the moon” (247). Ruby's sense of both loss and optimism is evoked by this final image. At one level it is a grotesque transformation of the story's opening image of the celebration of Linda's unborn child and it also alludes to Ruby's bodily loss. However, the moon has also been associated with Ruby's sense of freedom as she looked at it with Buddy and later, recovering, albeit with a sense of loss, from her operation, noted that “Everything is round and full now, like the moon” (242).

In “A New-Wave Format” Mason again explores the possibility of transforming the present by revisiting the past. Edwin Creech, who is in his early forties, has begun a relationship with the twenty-year-old Sabrina and has started a new job, driving a bus for “mentally retarded adults.” As he becomes aware of the different values he and Sabrina hold, Edwin begins to reflect on his life. He realizes that “he still feels like the same person, unchanged, that he was twenty years ago” (215). Edwin feels that the historical events of the Sixties, the period of his youth, did not directly touch him. By contrast, he now feels a new excitement as he tries to protect the delicate equilibrium of the passengers on his bus: “Edwin has to stay alert, for anything could happen. The guys who came back from Vietnam said it was like this every moment. Edwin was in the army, but he was never sent to Vietnam, and now he feels that he has bypassed some critical stage in his life: a knowledge of terror” (217). He realizes that his immersion in the popular culture of television and radio has acted as a kind of opiate, dissociating him from the events in his life that might have produced strong emotions. He reflects that “he used to think of himself as an adventurer, but now he realizes that he has gone through his life rather blindly, without much pain or sense of loss” (216). However, as he plays Sixties music to his passengers, “music that now seems full of possibility: the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, groups with vision,” Edwin listens to it with a new understanding. For Edwin, unlike many of Mason's characters, listening again to the music of his past enables him to create “a bridge from the past to the present, spanning those empty years—his marriages, the turbulence of the times—and connecting his youth solidly with his present” (228). The healing effect of integrating the music of the past with his present circumstances is contrasted with the effect of the “new-wave format,” the contemporary music that Sabrina persuades Edwin to play to his passengers on the bus: “The frenetic beat was a perfect expression of their aimlessness and frustration” (228). The “grotesque” confinement of his passengers in the frenetic beat of the present moment is highlighted when one of them has a seizure. Edwin himself, however, feels that he has overcome a “developmental disability” by revisiting the past. Through his newly compassionate perception, it becomes not the passengers on the bus who are grotesque (as they are to Sabrina) but the dislocations between the various moments of his life and the abandonment to a disconnected present that is expressed in the “frantic beat” of the music of the “new-wave format.”25 In its exploration of a character's attempt to integrate the legacy of the 1960s with the present moment in order to reach a new understanding of himself and his culture, this story anticipates the central theme of Mason's … In Country.


  1. Robert Towers, “American Graffiti,” New York Times Book Review, 16 December 1982, 39.

  2. Anne Tyler, “Kentucky Cameos,” New Republic 187, no. 1 (1 November 1982): 38.

  3. Tyler, “Kentucky Cameos,” 38.

  4. Bobbie Ann Mason, “A Conversation with Bobbie Ann Mason,” ed. David Y. Todd, Boulevard 4–5.3–1 (Spring 1990): 135, quoted by Andrew Levy in The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story (Cambridge, England, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 112.

  5. Lila Havens, “Residents and Transients: An Interview with Bobbie Ann Mason,” Crazyhorse 29 (Fall 1985): 88.

  6. Levy, The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story, 112.

  7. Levy, The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story, 113.

  8. Robert Dunn, “Fiction that Shrinks From Life,” New York Times Book Review, 30 June 1985, 13, 24, 25.

  9. John Barth, “A Few Words About Minimalism,” New York Times Book Review, 28 Dec 1986; and Ben Yagoda, “No Tense Like the Present,” New York Times Book Review, 10 Aug 1986.

  10. Yagoda, “No Tense Like the Present,” 30.

  11. Bobbie Ann Mason, Shiloh, and Other Stories (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), 121. All parenthetical citations for Shiloh, and Other Stories are from this edition.

  12. Terry Thompson, “Mason's ‘Shiloh,’” Explicator 54, no. 1 (Fall 1995): 55.

  13. Mason, Nabokov's Garden: A Guide to Ada (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ardis, 1974), 143.

  14. See Barbara Henning's reading of this passage in “Minimalism and the American Dream: ‘Shiloh’ by Bobbie Ann Mason and ‘Preservation’ by Raymond Carver,” Modern Fiction Studies 35, no. 4 (Winter 1989): 691.

  15. Bobbie Ann Mason, Midnight Magic (Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press, 1998), xi.

  16. See Darlene Reimers Hill's discussion of the connection between food, ritual, and gender in this story in “‘Use To, the Menfolks Would Eat First’: Food and Food Rituals in the Fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason,” Southern Quarterly 30, no. 2–3 (Winter-Spring 1992): 85–87.

  17. Albert Wilhelm, Bobbie Ann Mason: A Study of the Short Fiction (New York: Twayne-Prentice Hall, 1998), 50. Wilhelm is referring to Tina Bucher, “Changing Roles and Finding Stability: Women in Bobbie Ann Mason's Shiloh, and Other Stories,Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association 8 (1991): 54.

  18. Wilhelm, Bobbie Ann Mason, 50.

  19. See Reimers Hill's interpretation of this scene in “‘Use to, the Menfolks Would Eat First,’” 85.

  20. Linda Adams Barnes, “The Freak Endures: The Southern Grotesque from Flannery O'Connor to Bobbie Ann Mason,” in Since Flannery O'Connor: Essays On The Contemporary American Short Story, ed. Loren Logsden and Charles W. Mayer (Macomb: Western Illinois University Press, 1987), 133–41.

  21. Duncan Webster, Looka Yonder! The Imaginary America of Populist Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), 116.

  22. Mason has described how she writes by starting with a surface detail or line of dialogue to trigger getting inside a character or situation in Havens, “Residents and Transients,” 97.

  23. Mason has remarked of Nabokov that “his extraordinary childhood allowed him to indulge a child's way of seeing that's up close and particular”; Lyons and Oliver, “An Interview with Bobbie Ann Mason,” Contemporary Literature 32, no. 4 (Winter 1991): 461. In her article “The Elements of E. B. White's style,” Language Arts 56, no. 6 (Sept. 1979): 693, Mason also expressed her admiration of E. B. White's Charlotte's Web, in which White “asks adults to renew their sense of wonder, and he asks children to try to understand the nature of reality.”

  24. See Barnes, “The Freak Endures,” 140.

  25. See Robert H. Brinkmeyer Jr.'s discussion of this story in “Finding One's History: Bobbie Ann Mason and Contemporary Southern Literature,” Southern Literary Journal 19, no. 2 (Spring 1987): 26–27.


Bobbie Ann Mason Short Fiction Analysis


Mason, Bobbie Ann (Vol. 28)