'Shiloh' Revealed

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I have been pleased and very surprised by the popularity of my story "Shiloh." I could not have imagined when I wrote it that it would be widely anthologized and that students would be discussing it in class. I did not think that far ahead. I couldn't, if I expected to keep my attention on what was unfolding in the story.

In trying to recall how this story came about, I can share with you something of the writing process. As students, you read a finished work, and you try to read it as fully as possible. But from the writer's point of view, during the writing itself, that finished work is far from realized. The writer can only start with a blank page and a sense of wonder. The writer can't guarantee that the story she writes will match the one in her mind. Fiction has a way of happening when you are making other plans.

When I began this story, I had been thinking about two minor characters in another story, a pair named C. W. and Betty. I wondered if I could get closer to C. W and Betty by writing a story about them. I changed their names to Leroy and Norma Jean. I did not know what to expect. I kept thinking about something I had overheard someone say to a coworker, "It's amazing that I have strong feet, coming from two parents that never had strong feet at all."

These were the two inspirations for my story. These two bits did not seem to be anything to build a story on. But I like to start with something that strikes my fancy and then see where it goes. Almost immediately, I wrote the first sentence, "Leroy Moffitt's wife, Norma Jean, is working on her pectorals." Now where was this going? I let that scene go on for a bit, to see if anything interesting would happen. Then I wondered, who are they?

It came to me: Leroy is a truck driver.

I invented this. I made it up. It felt scary, as if I were going to start driving a truck myself. What did I know about driving a truck? Nothing. I wondered what I could do with these characters if I didn't know anything about Leroy's occupation. Should I go out and do research? It occurred to me that maybe he had an accident and was homebound now. Now I was off the hook, and I had found a new direction for the story. The story is not about driving a truck, it's about what happens when Leroy comes home from the road. I started to sense that this story was about a marriage. I kept going, begging my imagination to carry me through. I wondered how Norma Jean spent her time. The Rexall drugstore came to mind, because I had worked in a Rexall at the soda fountain when I was in high school. I wondered what happened to Leroy and Norma Jean in high school. I thought of the baby. The loss of their child, years ago, had defined their marriage. This surprised me. It set the tone for what was to follow. Now that Leroy is home again, they are thrown together again, as if they were starting over. Now the changes around them will appear in sharp focus, and they will have to deal with how they have changed inside.

And so I kept on in this way, taking wrong turns at times, and meandering for long stretches that had to be cut out because they added little interest,...

(This entire section contains 1159 words.)

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direction, or depth to the story. Then a third main character, Norma Jean's mother, whose personality casts a light on the whole story, entered the scene. Mabel is a strong force in Norma Jean's life, especially with Leroy away from home so much. The characters are talking along, when all of a sudden, Mabel suggests that Leroy take Norma Jean to Shiloh. I had not planned this. I thought of it at the same moment Mabel said it. It was as though she— an imaginary character—had said it rather than that I had written it The word "Shiloh" came sailing into my mind, out of a memory long ago of class field trips to the Shiloh battleground. I never went on one of the trips, but there was so much talk of them that the word "Shiloh" had a mystique about it. And it seemed appropriate at this point.

Now the story had a focus and a direction. This trip to Shiloh was going to be the setting for determining the outcome of this marriage. I followed Leroy and Norma Jean along, through the domestic scenes, and then to the battleground. I had discovered the story by being open to the characters and being willing to see what they would do, to write down anything that came into my head just to see if I could use it.

I rewrote the story many times, throwing out what was inappropriate and developing parts that were crucial to bringing the story of this marriage to life. As I worked to deepen the story, Norma Jean and Leroy became more real to me, and I began to feel truly the sadness of their situation, their loss, and the dissolving of their marriage. I tried to take account of the changes taking place in their small town, so that I could have some context for understanding what was happening with them. It seemed to me that a great deal had been lost, and that the characters were struggling with how they were going to live their lives in the face of great social changes.

If you are studying literature for the first time, I hope you will read the story for its feelings, its details, the way the characters talk, what kind of world they live in, what things are meaningful to them, and what feelings their lives evoke in you. I don't like to reduce the story to themes and symbols, which may be useful as signposts, but cannot ultimately be separated from the story itself. In this story, Shiloh is a destination, and maybe someone will say it is a symbol of some kind, but there are many things to say about Shiloh as a destination that can't be simply taken apart from the story. I would nice for Shiloh to be so much a part of the story that you can't remove it I like to feel the images—such as the dust ruffle on the bed, the crinkled-cotton texture of Mabel's face, the crumbs on the cellophane cake wrapper—as if I could hold them between my fingers. I hope such textures make the story real enough that you can believe you are right there with Leroy and Norma Jean on their way to Shiloh.

Source: Bobbie Ann Mason, "Commentary on 'Shiloh'," fox Short Stones for Students, Gale, 1998.

Introduction to 'Shiloh'

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Bobbie Ann Mason's short story "Shiloh" appeared initially in the New Yorker and later became the title story of her first collection. Reviewers praised Mason for her spare realism and her ear for the language of the people of western Kentucky. Several critics have identified Mason's style as an example of minimalism, a literary movement characterized by spare, unornamented prose and use of specific, concrete detail. Minimalist fiction often takes as its subject the small events in the lives of characters. Such writers as the late Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and Jayne Anne Phillips, as well as Mason, have been identified with this style of writing. Sometimes, critics use the term ''K-Mart fiction" to describe the style.

Mason herself is uncomfortable with labels. In an interview with Bonnie Lyons and Bill Oliver which appeared in Contemporary Literature, Mason stated, "I'm not sure what's meant by minimalism. I'm not sure if it means something that is just so spare that there is hardly anything there, or if it describes something that is deliberately pared down with great artistic effect, or if it's just a misnomer for what happens in any good short story, economy." Regardless of the label attached to Mason's prose, style is very important to her. She reports that she tries "to approximate language that's very blunt and Anglo-Saxon.''

In a critical essay appearing in Modem Fiction Studies, Barbara Henning details the negative reception that Mason's "blunt and Anglo-Saxon" writing has received in recent years. She reports that both Mason and Raymond Carver have been accused of creating characters who lead "flat and robotic" lives. Henning argues that such stories require a special kind of reading. Rather than trying to interpret the story as we read it, we should "suspend the interpretive moment." By doing so, we can experience the accumulation of details and arrive at an understanding of the situation at the same time as the narrator. Furthermore, according to Henning, "the characters, setting, and situation are revealed in 'Shiloh' through an accumulation of synecdochic details ... the narrator and Leroy concentrate on the particular as a substitute for the general, emphasizing Leroy's inability and unwillingness to understand his environment and his wife." By "synecdochic detail" Henning means that Mason accumulates details which represent parts of the Moffitts' lives and that these parts, in turn, reveal the whole. A careful examination of the detail and the dialogue of "Shiloh" can demonstrate this argument.

Readers who encounter the fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason through Shiloh and Other Stories discover a world of ordinary, working-class Southerners. Mason's characters drive trucks, work at Wal-Mart, eat at Burger Chef, and watch "M*A*S*H" on television. Their English is not always standard, and their education is generally marginal. ''Shiloh'' is a saga of such individuals. Like Mason's other fictional characters, Leroy Moffitt and his wife Norma Jean are rural Kentuckians who are affected by the changing culture in which they live. The pastoral landscapes around them are quickly being paved into streets for subdivisions and parking lots for shopping malls. Such changes separate the characters from their traditions. They live in a world where "nobody knows anything" and where "answers are always changing."

Not only do Leroy and Norma Jean struggle with cultural change, they struggle with changes in each other. Leroy, a trucker, has been injured in an accident and can no longer drive his big rig. Consequently, he is at home all of time. Norma Jean now lifts weights, works at the Rexall cosmetics counter, and seems uncomfortable around her husband. Mabel Beasley, Norma Jean's mother, frequently visits the Moffitts' house and often criticizes Norma Jean's housekeeping. Her interference adds tension to Norma Jean's search for a new identity. Mabel, however, believes that the couple can solve their marital difficulties by simply taking a trip to the place where she spent her first honeymoon—the Shiloh battlefield.

The story opens with Leroy watching Norma Jean lift weights. Leroy thinks she looks like Wonder Woman, all pectorals and legs. From the first paragraph, as Norma Jean attempts to build herself up, Leroy attempts to build Norma Jean into the woman he thinks he married. But he fails to realize that, like the changing landscape, Norma Jean has changed over the fifteen years of their marriage.

When Norma Jean sits down to play songs from the 1960s on her electric organ, she complains, "I didn't like those old songs back then.... But I have this crazy feeling I missed something." Leroy immediately tells her, "You didn't miss a thing." In doing this, Leroy tries to build a history for Norma Jean in which there are no missing parts. As Leroy continues to watch Norma Jean play the organ, he reflects that he is "finally settling down with the woman he loves.'' But what does he love about this woman? His reflection continues:' 'She is still pretty. Her skin is flawless. Her frosted curls resemble pencil trimmings." Again, by attaching the details of Norma Jean's appearance to the thought that this is the woman he loves, Leroy continues to build his model of Norma Jean.

At the same time that Leroy is figuratively building his model of Norma Jean, he is literally building a model of a log cabin. Just as he idealizes Norma Jean, he idealizes the life-size log cabin that he wants to build for her. Although Norma Jean says repeatedly that she does not want to live in a log cabin, Leroy continues to insist that she does.

On one of her visits to her daughter's house, Mabel tells Norma Jean about a baby who has been eaten by a dachshund because the baby's mother was neglectful. Norma Jean sees this as a veiled reference to her own baby, who died in infancy of sudden infant death syndrome. Norma Jean says, "The very idea, her bringing up a subject like that! Saying it was neglect." Leroy's immediate response is: "She didn't mean it." In so doing, he undercuts Norma Jean's attempt to talk about her dead baby and her relationship with her mother. Again, Leroy attempts through the dialogue to control and build Norma Jean into his own image.

Ironically, although Leroy notices that his hometown has changed, he is unable to see, or at least acknowledge, changes in his wife. "Something is happening," the narrator reports, "Norma Jean is going to night school." What is happening are strong shifts in Norma Jean's identity and in the structure of the Moffitt marriage. However, although Leroy senses that Norma Jean is "miles away1' and although "he knows he is going to lose her," he seems unable to acknowledge to himself the changes in his wife and the changes in his marriage.

The problem, of course, is that Leroy is attempting to assemble a whole person and a whole marriage using only the flat, surface details of their daily lives. Leroy has been seeing Norma Jean as the composite of her parts rather than as a whole person. As with his sense of history, he has left out the details of his marriage and his wife. Although he tries to create Norma Jean by telling her what to think and what to do, she eludes him; although he tries to build a house that will take Norma Jean back to the beginning of their marriage, he ultimately fails.

In the climactic scene, Leroy and Norma Jean travel to Shiloh, the Civil War battlefield that Mabel has been urging them to visit. Leroy does not recognize the irony of going to a battlefield to try to make peace with his wife. They discover that the battlefield is not as they had expected it. Furthermore, the log cabin that Leroy wanted to see is full of bullet holes. "That's not the kind of log house I've got in mind," says Leroy.

In both cases, Leroy's imagined Shiloh is different than the reality of Shiloh. This discrepancy is rooted in Leroy's habit of seeing only parts of things, not then- totality. With Shiloh, for example, he is only aware of one small fact: that it is the place where Mabel and her late husband spent their honeymoon. Although he is vaguely aware that a battle was fought there, he does not realize that it is the site of a Confederate defeat.

Leroy himself is headed for defeat. As Norma Jean and Leroy share a picnic lunch on grounds overlooking the white slabs of a cemetery, Norma Jean says, "I want to leave you."

Leroy's response is that of a man whose building project has suddenly turned out wrong because he has mismeasured the pieces: "Leroy takes a bottle of Coke out of the cooler and flips off the cap. He holds the bottle poised near his mouth but cannot remember to take a drink. Finally he says, 'No, you don't'." He denies that Norma Jean could want such a thing. "I won't let you," Leroy continues. Ironically, Leroy does not see that it is this kind of response that has gotten him into his predicament. However, Norma Jean is through being told what to do by her mother and her husband, and she will no longer let the two of them define her existence with their words.

In a gesture that is symptomatic of the Moffitt marriage—a marriage in which even the death of their infant son is repressed—"Leroy takes a lungful of smoke and closes his eyes as Norma Jean's words sink in." His immediate response to radical change is to close his eyes. With his eyes still closed, he reviews events: "He tries to focus on the fact that thirty-five hundred soldiers died on the grounds around him. He can only think of that war as a board game with plastic soldiers. General Grant, drunk and furious, shoved the Southerners back to Corinth, where Mabel and Jet Beasley were married years later. The next day, Mabel and Jet visited the battleground, and then Norma Jean was born, and then she married Leroy and they had a baby, which they lost, and now Leroy and Norma Jean are here at the same battleground. Leroy knows 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."

Leroy finally seems to realize that he has been looking only at the surface details of his marriage, not at the whole, complicated relationship. When he opens his eyes, however, Norma Jean "has moved away and is walking through the cemetery, following a serpentine brick path." As the story closes, Norma Jean is too far away for him to speak to her. Nonetheless, she turns back toward Leroy "and waves her arms." Leroy is uncertain what the gesture means.

The final scene of the story, depicting what could be the final scene of the Moffitts' marriage, is permeated with the theme of death. Leroy's reference to their dead baby, the death of his dream of building a log cabin, and, of course, the realization that he is surrounded by both Union and Confederate dead serve to underscore pain, anguish, and finality. Whether or not there will be a rebirth of the Moffitts' marriage is unclear. In this moment, the past has died, and the future remains ambiguous, just like Norma Jean's wordless gesture.

Source: Diane Andrews Hennmgfeld, "Overview of 'Shiloh'," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998. Henningfeld is an assistant professor of English at Adrian College, in Adrian, Michigan.

Mason's 'Shiloh'

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Much of the critical commentary on Bobbie Ann Mason's short stones has focused on the effects of social change on her characters' sense of self Accordingly, the consensus is that Norma Jean Moffitt, the heroine of "Shiloh," is a "good example of a character who attempts to construct a new identity" (Albert E. Wilhelm, "Making Over," Southern Literary Journal, 1987, 77). Thus, [Tina] Bucher writes of ''Norma Jean's quest for independence" ("Changing Roles," Border States, 1991, 50); G. O. Morphew calls her a "downhome feminist" {Southern Literary Journal, 1986,41); [Robert H.] Brinkmeyer describes her "open-armed embrace of a world promising the potential for growth and freedom" ("Rocking," Southern Literary Journal, 1987, 12); and Wilhelm labels her a "good-old Southern girl" who "is definitely staving to be a new woman" ("Private," Midwest Quarterly, 1987,277).

In support of these contentions, one can point to the ending of the story where, having told her husband Leroy that she wants to leave him, Norma Jean walks quickly through the cemetery at Shiloh, pursued by the limping Leroy, who is both literally and symbolically unable to keep up with her:

Norma Jean is far away, walking rapidly toward the bluff by the river, and he tries to hobble after her Norma Jean has reached the bluff, and she is looking out over the Tennessee River Now she turns toward Leroy and waves her arms. Is she beckoning to 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.

The ending brings together a number of motifs that support the critics' claims as well as Mason's own assertion that Norma Jean's ''life is on the way up" (Wilhelm, "An Interview with Bobbie Ann Mason," Southern Quarterly, 1988, 35). At the center of this cluster is the image of a flying bird, represented by Norma Jean's waving arms. Both thematically and structurally, the imagery of birds permeates the story by means of a contrast between Norma Jean, who is ready to end the marriage, to spread her wings and fly, and Leroy, who has returned to the nest and is desperately hoping to start their marriage afresh.

Leroy, a long-distance trucker who has spent most of the last 15 years on the road, has come home to stay after a highway accident that has wrecked his tractor-trailer rig. The rig, emblematic of his former lifestyle, "sits in the backyard, like a gigantic bird that has flown home to roost." Leroy, himself, "finally settling down with the woman he loves" yet aware of his wife's dissatisfaction, is obsessed with the idea of building a log house, which he hopes will be "a real home." Norma Jean, on the other hand, is more concerned with ''building herself up," with creating a new self-image that will enable her to overcome her dependence on her husband and her mother. She takes a variety of classes, from weight lifting to cooking exotic foods to English composition, in an attempt to become a new woman, to find a new organizing principle for her life. At the very moment that Leroy has stopped moving, Norma Jean has begun to move forward.

It is Leroy who first associates his wife with the birds that he watches at the feeder in the back yard:

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.

Norma Jean's closing of her eyes in bed, like her staring off into a corner when she chops onions, ''as if she can't bear to look,'' is symptomatic of her ability to avoid the truth of her marriage. There is more to the analogy, however, than Leroy realizes. And among Mason's critics, only Barbara Henning [in "Minimalism," Modern Fiction Studies, 1989] asks whether' 'we [are] to make an analogy between the characters and the feeding birds.'' Although she suggests that "these details ... offer the reader a moment to hesitate and to make comparisons within the context, finding a metaphoric framework in which to understand the situation," she does not develop the notion, concluding only that "Mason's juxtaposition of these two images presents Leroy as toying with the idea that Norma Jean might also be floundering."

In actuality, the flight of the birds symbolizes the trajectory of Norma Jean's life. Like the goldfinches, Norma Jean, who found herself pregnant at the age of 18, had closed her wings and fallen into marriage, not because she was in love, but because she wished to spare her mother Mabel the disgrace of having an unwed mother in the family. When the baby died of SEDS while Leroy and Norma Jean were at a drive-in watching Dr. Strangelove, a movie in which the world is destroyed, their world was in a sense also destroyed. Their marriage since then has been an empty shell, which has lasted only because Leroy was away from home so often and because, like the "off-white dust ruffle" that Mabel makes for their bed, Norma Jean is adept at covering things up, at hiding the truth.

The accident that keeps Leroy at home forces Norma Jean to confront him and opens her eyes to the emptiness of a marriage made tolerable only by his frequent absence—"In some ways, a woman prefers a man who wanders," she says. Her mother's catching her smoking, however, precipitates her decision to leave—"That set something off," she tells Leroy. The last step in her growing sense of independence is the realization that she no longer needs to submit to her mother's wishes. Nor does she need to continue in a loveless marriage. The final battle in her undeclared war takes place, appropriately enough, at Shiloh, where, "picking cake crumbs from the cellophane wrapper, like a fussy bird," she announces her decision to leave:

"She won't leave me alone—you won't leave me alone." Norma Jean seems to be crying, but she is looking away from him. ''I feel eighteen again. I can't face that all over again." She starts walking away.

Faced with the prospect of beginning anew, Norma Jean is not about to repeat her past mistakes. As she stands on the bluff waving her arms under a pale sky, the color of Mabel's dust ruffle, she is no longer hiding the truth. Metaphorically, she has stopped falling, opened her eyes, spread her wings, and lifted herself. Neither Leroy nor Mabel will have the strength to hold her back this time.

Source: Stewart J. Cooke, "Mason's 'Shiloh'," in The Explicator, Vol. 51, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 196-99. Cooke is affiliated with McGill University in Montreal.

Minimalism and the American Dream: 'Shiloh' by Bobbie Ann Mason and 'Preservation' by Raymond Carver

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Mason's story "Shiloh" is about two people and a community who are affected by their beliefs in the American dream and the myth of progress: you can succeed and build a happy life for yourself and your family in this country if you keep up with the times and if you work hard. Leroy Moffitt and Norma Jean, a couple who have been married for fifteen years, find their lives disrupted not only by the trucking accident that has rendered Leroy disabled and unemployed but also by the changes that are occurring in their home town in Kentucky. While the community around them is being built up ("Subdivisions are spreading across western Kentucky like an oil slick")* Norma Jean is building muscles and constructing compositions. Leroy, who passes time smoking marijuana, refuses to look for work; instead, he spends his time practicing at building by putting together craft kits. Finally, despite Norma Jean's refusal to live in a log cabin, he orders a full-size cabin in a kit as a built-in old-fashioned solution for saving his marriage. The act of building offers the reader a framework for understanding this story.

Mason foregrounds details to emphasize the static, spatial nature of the characters' lives. By referring nonchalantly to commercial items—using trade names instead of types: Coke, Lincoln Logs, and The Donahue Show instead of soda, toy logs, and TV talk shows—Mason, as well as Carver, disrupt the reader's conventional expectations for more universal details, causing us to hesitate and to focus on the day-to-day detail. The characters, setting, and situation are revealed in "Shiloh" through an accumulation of synecdochic details such as these; the narrator and Leroy concentrate on the particular as a substitute for the general, emphasizing Leroy's inability and unwillingness to understand his environment and his wife. Norma Jean is also revealed through Leroy's consciousness as a series of anatomical details. The narrator concentrates on her body parts, foregrounding her pectorals, her legs, her arms, her knees, her ankles, her hard biceps, her chest muscles, and on her two-pound weights. Norma Jean is never depicted as a whole person because Leroy and the empathic narrator are unable to see her in that way.

When a scene ends in Mason's work, it almost always ends with a focus on a specific image. After Norma Jean complains to Leroy about comments her mother had made about a baby who was killed by a dog, Mason ends with a detail: "For a long time, they sit by the kitchen window watching the birds at the feeder.'' Then silence, switch of scene. Leroy does not answer her. Are the birds random details selected so that we can experience his loss of words? Or are we to make an analogy between the characters and the feeding birds? These details are selected out of a whole context and offered to us as lingering details, parts of a whole. This final image stands out, causing the narrative to come to a standstill, displacing Leroy's and Norma's pain about their failing relationship and the earlier loss of a baby to crib death, by concentrating on another aspect of the context. These details also offer the reader a moment to hesitate and to make comparisons within the context, finding a metaphoric framework in which to understand the situation.

Leroy's rig is now "a huge piece of furniture gathering dust in the backyard.'' His world is disintegrating into details, and he cannot decide what to do, so his wife—who would rather have him on the road—tries to decide for him. She reads from a list: "Things you could do.... You could get a job as a guard at Union Carbide, where they'd let you set on a stool. You could get on at the lumberyard. You could do a little carpenter work, if you want to build so bad. You could—."

Before Leroy's accident he had taken benzedrine tablets and spent his time "flying past scenery" in his truck; after the accident, however, when he is home and high on marijuana, he drives his car and the ''Power steering and an automatic shift make a car feel so small and inconsequential that his body is hardly involved in the driving process." The reader cannot help but compare Leroy's driving processes, in both instances, to the way he lives his life, numbly fitting into the system without making connections between details. He is out of date— attempting to move backward in history instead of forward into the future where opportunity supposedly lies for someone who believes in the American dream. Leroy is, like the rig, a random insignificant detail, a useless piece of old furniture. And Norma Jean is cleaning house. As readers, we have a choice. We can read metaphorically, making connections between the deteriorating truck, Leroy's body, Leroy and Norma Jean's relationship, life in the suburbs, and the language used, a language that concentrates on details—or we can pass everything by as part of the setting.

Leroy is an observer who wants desperately to go back in time and make things right, but he is unable to act, unable to make connections between facts and details.

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

He watches Norma Jean in the same way that he watches the birds. The birds are not compared to Norma Jean; instead, they are offered as ''selected" details in the context. Leroy just happens to be watching the birds as he is thinking about Norma Jean in bed. Mason's juxtaposition of these two images presents Leroy as toying with the idea that Norma Jean might also be floundering; he never confronts the idea directly. When he comes back to his reverie about Norma Jean, after looking at the birds, he wonders if she closes her eyes when she falls, just as he had wondered about the birds. We recognize, by bringing these two metonymies together, that even though Norma Jean is building up her strength, she is a creature of habit who cannot face intimacy in the light.

Finally, Leroy decides to do what Mabel, Norma's mother (who was raised in a log cabin and hates log cabins), has been urging; he plans a trip to Shiloh, Tennessee, where Mabel and her husband had their honeymoon, a place Mabel explains is full of "history," a Civil War battleground. When the couple goes to Shiloh, they find a log cabin, full of bullet holes. Even Leroy has to laugh. Shiloh is not what Mabel had built it up to be, and it does not hold the same meaning or history for them as it does for Mabel. ''Norma Jean wads up her cake wrapper and squeezes it tightly in her hand." She has been building up her strength for this one moment in Shiloh when, in the middle of a battlefield, she will demolish in her fist Leroy's hope for unity, his hope to reconstruct their relationship. ''Without looking at Leroy, she says, 'I want to leave you'." Again the reader cannot help but make an analogy between Leroy and Norma Jean's encounter and the battles that were fought in Shiloh, a place where Norma Jean's parents began their marriage, a place where lives were lost, where blood was shed, where the shelter is full of bullet holes, a place where Leroy simply looks in the other direction.

Leroy realizes, near the end of the story, the limited way he has seen the world.

Leroy knows he is leaving out a lot. He is leaving out the rnsides 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 Now he sees that building a log house is the dumbest idea he could have had It was clumsy of him to think Norma Jean would want a log house. It was a crazy idea He'll have to think of something else, quickly. He will wad the blueprints into tight balls and fling them into the lake Then he'll get moving again. He opens his eyes. Norma Jean has moved away and is walking through the cemetery, following a serpentine brick path

It is Leroy who has had his eyes closed, not Norma Jean. She is far away from him, and while he has been concentrating on her parts and building an empty metaphor to hold them, she has left him. He is ready to make new plans, but he has again displaced his anger in details: now she is following a "serpentine" brick path. In the final lines, by focusing on the sky, he further displaces the anxiety he is experiencing because of Norma Jean's announcement: "The sky is unusually pate—the color of the dust ruffle Mabel made for their bed."

Mason offers us one example after another— Leroy's body, the truck, the car, the craft kits—and the use of trade names, anatomical details in place of the whole, foregrounded details, as well as examples, focus our attention on the ''part'' rather than the "whole." These synecdoches create a kind of "understatement" and at the same time an aura of special shared knowledge between reader and narrator. In Mason's story, the details also regionalize the story, showing the particular culture that is being lost. A concentration on these types of details and a focus on the activity of building serve as displacements for Leroy's feelings about his marriage and his life, emphasizing the pain and alienation Norma Jean and he are experiencing.

To survive in a modern world, Norma Jean is willing to give up the past and any ideas and rituals involved with their heritage, including their marriage. She believes in the American dream. She must move forward, and she perceives the development of technology as a step forward. From Norma Jean's point of view, malls, television shows, and suburbs improve one's style of living. A log cabin, though, is not as valuable as a condominium in the suburbs, so Leroy—with his dream of a log cabin, his unwillingness to get back to work, and his desire to stop speeding by details—is a failure, in terms of the myth of progress. He is caught in the middle. Because of modernization there is no place in Kentucky for Leroy to build his cabin. Besides that, his understanding of history is distorted; living in a cabin was never such a wonderful experience, as Mabel explains to him, and as the bullet-ridden cabin at Shiloh testifies. It is a no-win situation for Leroy. Perhaps his mistake—in the context of this story—is that he orders a "Mr" to build the cabin, embracing modernization at the same time as opposing it.

The parallels between building up strength, building a model house, building a meaningful relationship, and building a future do not quite work. Norma does improve her muscle tone, but Leroy's house is never built, and their relationship is deteriorating. She enters the mainstream, but in the process she begins to lose her culture and community. One cannot "build" to improve, especially if the foundation—history, relationships, and community—is being demolished. In this story, in semirural Kentucky, now well on the way to being developed, a newly passive husband with a modern wife and a ready-made log cabin will not fit into a suburban maze. And no one in particular is responsible.

Source: Barbara Henning, "Minimalism and the American Dream: 'Shiloh' by Bobbie Ann Mason and 'Preservation' by Raymond Carver,'' in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 35, No 4, Winter, 1988, pp. 689-98.

Making Over or Making Off: The Problem of Identity in Bobbie Ann Mason's Short Fiction

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She grew up on a small dairy farm in rural Kentucky. A few years later she had migrated to New York City and was writing features on Fabian, Annette Funicello, and Ann-Margaret for Movie Life magazine. As a child her favorite reading materials were Nancy Drew and other girl sleuth mysteries. As a young woman she published a scholarly study of Nabokov's Ada.

Given these divergent circumstances of her own life, it is hardly surprising that Bobbie Ann Mason should be interested in culture shock and its jarring effects on an individual's sense of identity. This theme dominates the sixteen pieces in Shiloh and Other Stories, her major work of fiction which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1983. Throughout this collection Mason dramatizes the bewildering effects of rapid social change on the residents of a typical "ruburb"—an area in Westem Kentucky mat is "no longer rural but not yet suburban" [R. Z. Sheppard, Time, 3 Jan. 1983]. Again and again in these stories old verities are questioned as farm families watch talk-show discussions of drug use, abortion, and premarital sex. Old relationships are strained as wives begin to lift weights or play video games with strange men. In such contexts the sense of self is besieged from all sides and becomes highly vulnerable. As O. B. Hardison has observed [in Entering the Maze: Identity and Change in Modern Culture, 1981], "Identity seems to be unshakable, but its apparent stability is an illusion. As the world changes, identity changes... .Because the mind and the world develop at different rates and in different ways, during times of rapid change they cease to be complementary. The result is a widening gap between the world as it exists in the mind and the world as it is experienced—between identity formed by tradition and identity demanded by the present'' (xi-xii).

Mason's stories document many efforts to bridge such a gap. Although the behavior of her characters is diverse, two basic patterns are apparent. When faced with confusion about their proper roles, they tend to become either doers or seekers. They stay put and attempt to construct a new identity or they light out for the territories in the hope of discovering one. In short, they try to make over or they make off. Both patterns are, of course, deeply entrenched in American history. The former reflects the Puritan emphasis on building a new order through work. The latter repeats the typical response of the wanderer from Natty Bumppo to Jack Kerouac. (The occupations of Mason's characters frequently parallel these basic patterns. For example, many of her male characters are either construction workers or truck drivers.)

One good example of a character who attempts to construct a new identity is Norma Jean Moffitt in the book's title story. Even though her double given name may suggest a typical good-old Southern girl, Norma Jean is definitely striving to be a new woman. Like many of Mason's characters, her days are filled with the contemporary equivalents of what Arnold van Gennep [in The Rites of Passage, 1960] has termed 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.'' 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.

Her husband Leroy (no longer the king of his castle) has to dodge the barbells swung by Norma Jean, but 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. In an effort to create a real home, Leroy is even thinking of "building a full-scale log house from a kit." Having failed to make a family because of the accidental death of their baby, he and Norma Jean must now ''create a new marriage." Although Leroy admits that a log cabin will be out of place in the new subdivisions, he apparently sees such a construction as a means of returning to a more stable past. He and Norma Jean could join together in a cabin-raising and revert to the time of those more resourceful Kentuckians like Abe Lincoln or Daniel Boone....

Although Leroy and Norma Jean Moffitt in ''Shiloh'' are both avid makers, this story also ends with a futile journey. Actually Leroy has spent many days on the road. Before his accident he drove his tractor-trailer rig "to kingdom come and back," but he realizes that he never took tame ''to examine anything." Now, at the urging of his mother-in-law, he embarks with Norma Jean on a journey of reconciliation to Shiloh. In an effort to find peace, they ironically go to a battlefield Since Leroy is interested in building a log home, they go to see an old cabin in the park. When they arrive, however, it is surrounded by tourists looking at bullet holes in the walls. The final irony which caps this ill-fated trip is that Leroy and Norma Jean discuss their failing marriage while sitting in a cemetery....

The characters in Mason's stories are a cast of valiant strugglers. They attempt to create order through various sympathetic rites, but their magic is frequently powerless. They journey through wide expanses without ever finding a real sense of place. In spite of all their efforts they repeatedly find themselves caught in the dilemma described by Orrin Klapp [in Collective Search for Identity, 1969]: ''In the accumulation of new things, it is possible for society to pass the optimum point in the ratio between the new and the old... between innovation and acculturation on the one hand and tradition on the other. Beyond this optimum point, where society is roused to creativity by introduction of new elements, is a danger point where consensus and integrity of the person break down." In her "few square miles of native turf" (Towers, New York Review of Books, 16 Dec. 1982), Mason graphically depicts such a society.

Source: Albert E. Wilhehn, "Making Over or Making Off: The Problem of Identity in Bobbie Ann Mason's Short Fiction," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol 18, No 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 76-82.


Critical Overview