Bobbie Ann Mason Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Mayfield, Kentucky, 1940. Education: The University of Kentucky, Lexington, 1958-62, B.A. 1962; State University of New York, Binghamton, M.A. 1966; University of Connecticut, Storrs, 1972. Career: Writer, Mayfield Messenger, 1960, and Ideal Publishers, New York; contributor to numerous magazines including Movie Star, Movie Life, and T.V. Star Parade, 1962-63; assistant professor of English, Mansfield State College, Pennsylvania, 1972-79. Since 1980, contributor to The New Yorker. Awards: Hemingway award, 1983; National Endowment award, 1983; Pennsylvania Arts Council grant, 1983, 1989; Guggenheim fellowship, 1984. Agent: Amanda Urban, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019.
In Country. New York, Harper, 1985; London, Chatto and Windus, 1986.
Spence + Lila. New York, Harper, 1988; London, Chatto and Windus, 1989.
Feather Crowns. New York, Harper, and London, Chatto and Windus, 1993.
Shiloh and Other Stories. New York, Harper, 1982; London, Chatto and Windus, 1985.
Love Life. New York, Harper, and London, Chatto and Windus, 1989.
Midnight Magic: Selected Stories of Bobbie Ann Mason. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1998.
Uncollected Short Story
"With Jazz," in New Yorker, 26 February 1990.
The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide to the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and Their Sisters. New York, Feminist Press, 1975.
Nabokov's Garden: A Nature Guide to Ada. Ann Arbor, Michigan, Ardis, 1976.
Clear Springs: A Memoir. New York, Random House, 1999.
In Country, 1989.
University of Kentucky, Lexington.
"Making Over or Making Off: The Problem of Identity in Bobbie Ann Mason's Short Fiction" in Southern Literary Journal (Chapel Hill, North Carolina), Spring 1986, and "Private Rituals: Coping with Changes in the Fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason" in Midwest Quarterly (Pittsburg, Kansas), Winter 1987, both by Albert E. Wilhelm; "Finding One's History: Bobbie Ann Mason and Contemporary Southern Literature" in Southern Literary Journal (Chapel Hill, North Carolina), Spring 1987, and "Never Stop Rocking: Bobbie Ann Mason and Rock-and-Roll" in Mississippi Quarterly (Jackson), Winter 1988-89, both by Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr; "The Function of Popular Culture in Bobbie Anne Mason's Shiloh and Other Stories and In Country " by Leslie White, in Southern Quarterly (Hattiesburg, Mississippi), Summer 1988; "Bobbie Ann Mason: Artist and Rebel" by Michael Smith, in Kentucky Review (Lexington), Autumn 1988; "Downhome Feminists in Shiloh and Other Stories " by G.O. Morphew, in Southern Literary Journal (Chapel Hill, North Carolina), Spring 1989; Bobbie Ann Mason: A Study of the Short Fiction by Albert Wilhelm, New York, Twayne, 1998.
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Bobbie Ann Mason is known for her portrayal of everyday Americans who perhaps read the newspapers and the tabloids and a favorite ladies or hobby magazine each week rather than pick up a book but who are, nonetheless, people whose stories deserve to be told. Mason's characters are farmers and truckers and waitresses and hairdressers as well as the unemployed. They are usually people working, or attempting to work, without college degrees, though some may be taking a course or two at their local community college. Like the late short story writer Raymond Carver, Mason gives voice to the working class in American life who labor long and hard, often without being taken seriously by those who are educated and who consequently may have some kind of power over decisions that affect these people's lives. Mason's contribution to American literature is important because, as she has often noted in interviews, there are more people living in the working classes in America than there are in the professions, and to ignore their stories is to ignore the fertile heartland of what makes that large nation tick.
Most of Mason's characters are European-Americans from, or around, her native state of Kentucky. Her award-winning short story collection, Shiloh and Other Stories, is a good introduction to Mason's interests and concerns. Ironically, it is this work that most of the people she writes about will least likely read themselves. Several of the stories first appeared in The New Yorker magazine, which is geared toward an audience of urban professionals. "Shiloh" and other stories from the collection are often now anthologized in college textbooks. Exploitation of the working class might be a fair charge to level at Mason in this context, were not the stories themselves told with such dignity toward the characters' hopes and dreams as well as the everyday problems and deeper tragedies of despair that are universal. The book portrays a phenomenon called the "new South" of the 1970s and 80s, when suburban icons such as shopping malls, fast food and discount store chains, and cable television first moved to the more remote rural areas of the Southern states.
Oddly enough it was probably Mason's first novel, In Country, that made her work more known by the people of western Kentucky. This was probably more due to the film version that was shot in Paducah a few years later. Mason says that it gave her particular pleasure to see area residents used as extras in the filming of the story, which is primarily about the aftermath of the Vietnam War on a family and a community. Sam is a teenager whose father died in Vietnam and whose Uncle Emmett returned home infected with Agent Orange. The novel explores Sam's quest for her father, her desire to know him through his diary and letters, and her attempt to unlock long-kept secrets from her uncle who, like may vets who came back, does not want to talk about the war. In many ways, Sam represents the next generation of American youth, as well as those of the same generation as the war who have unanswered questions about a history that is being kept silent and locked away by those who came home to a national ambivalence about the conflict. By the end of the novel, Sam comes to some measure of knowledge and understanding about the conflict, and many vets have heralded Mason's novel and the subsequent film for helping start a long overdue national dialogue about the Vietnam war and its aftermath.
What may be unfortunate about Mason's choice of details, such as the use of the television show M*A*S*H, which fuels Sam's imagination about war and begins her discussions with Emmett, is that the "new South" will not stay new forever. She is often criticized for her heavy use of allusions to popular culture, which are trendy and transient, at best. It will be an interesting facet of Mason's work in the years ahead to examine whether the pop culture allusions to television shows and commercials, for example, which are so familiar to her contemporary readers, will interfere with future readers' understanding and enjoyment of the novel.
Spence + Lila is, on the surface, a simple love story between a man and a woman who have been married for forty years. They are a farm couple who suddenly come face to face with a much more technical world when Lila is diagnosed with breast cancer. This is a couple for which love has been enacted on a daily basis, but perhaps not spoken about much. Spence struggles with words to express to Lila how he feels about her and his fear of losing her, and much of the novel is about the value of the verbal expression of love in a relationship that has every other sign of it intact.
Feather Crowns is perhaps Mason's weakest novel to date. In this novel, she veers away from the people and times she knows so well and attempts to put some of the same themes to work back at the turn of the century with a family that bore North America's first set of quintuplets. The couple tours with them like a sideshow act. The carnival-like atmosphere surrounding the couple echoes the artificiality of today's celebrities in popular culture, but so far Mason is on sounder ground writing about contemporary people and issues.
Perhaps Mason herself felt the need to regain her footing on familiar soil as well. In Clear Springs: A Memoir, her next book after Midnight Magic, a remix of previously published stories, Mason literally brings her writing back home to western Kentucky, describing her own experience coming of age in the middle of the twentieth century.
—Connie Ann Kirk
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