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The people and land of her native rural western Kentucky figure prominently in the fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason, one of the first American writers to use popular culture to illustrate the impact of mass culture on today s society. Faced by the introduction of television, shopping malls, popular music, and fast-food restaurants, Mason s characters find their traditional country lifestyles challenged by modern society. Although she is often categorized a regional writer, Mason offers a universal look at Americans throughout the country whose dreams have been affected—both positively and negatively—by ”pop culture.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Rural Kentucky Life
Mason was born on May 1, 1940, in Mayfield, a small town in western Kentucky. Because her family s farm was located outside of town, Mason attended a rural elementary school that, she told interviewer Lila Havens, had ”terrible teachers and poor students.” Quiet and somewhat withdrawn, Mason spent much of her time reading and listening to popular music on the radio. Though she attempted to write fiction when she was a child, she was discouraged by her lack of progress. while a student at Mayfield High School, Mason wrote for the town s local newspaper.
Fan Magazines to Feminist Guide
After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Kentucky in 1962, Mason moved to New York, where she worked as a writer for Movie Star and T.V. Star Parade magazines. in 1966, she received a Master of Arts degree from the State University of New York at Binghamton and earned a PhD from the University of Connecticut in 1972. Her doctoral thesis, Nabokov’s Garden: A Guide to Ada, was published in 1974, and was followed by another non-fiction work, The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide to The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and Their Sisters in 1975.
Nineteen New Yorker Rejections
Mason taught journalism at Mansfield State College in Pennsylvania and began writing short stories involving characters modeled after people she had observed in rural Kentucky. Looking back, Mason has expressed amusement at the arrogance that led her to send the second story she wrote to The New Yorker, one of the most prestigious magazines for short fiction. Although this story and the eighteen others that followed it were rejected, the second rejection began a correspondence between Mason and fiction editor Roger Angell, who encouraged her to continue writing. Finally, Mason’s twentieth submission to The New Yorker, the short story “Offerings,” was accepted and published in the February 18, 1980, issue of the magazine. After accepting two more of her stories, The New Yorker contracted a first-reading agreement with her. This meant that Mason would submit pieces to that magazine before sending them for consideration anywhere else. This arrangement continues today.
Novels and More
In 1982, sixteen of Mason’s stories were collected in Shiloh and Other Stories, which garnered rave reviews, received several nominations for national book awards and won the 1983 Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award. In Country, her first novel, was published in 1985 and has been followed by several other novels and short story collections. Throughout her body of work, Mason has addressed the theme of individual identity in a time of social change.
As part of a series published by Penguin, Mason wrote a brief biography about the legendary singer Elvis Presley in 2003. In Elvis Presley, Mason shows a special understanding of her subject, having grown up in approximately the same time and place as the singer and having listened to him throughout his career. The biography includes familiar stories, as well as the author’s observations on topics including southern foods, the hiring of Colonel Tom Parker as Presley’s manager because of his familiar horse-trading style, and the singer’s struggle to be both a poor boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, and the king of rock and roll. In 2005, Mason returned to fiction with An Atomic Romance, her first novel in more than a decade. Currently, Mason lives in Kentucky, where she continues to gather material for her work.
Works in Literary Context
Mason has said that her childhood was marked by isolation and a desire to escape the resulting loneliness through books. She identifies Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins as her most powerful and lasting literary influences. The predominance of aloof, disdainful protagonists in twentieth-century literature prompted Mason to write fiction about the antithesis. As a result, her characters are ordinary, working-class citizens of rural western Kentucky, often living in Hopewell, her fictional version of her own hometown of Mayfield.
The Changing South
Mason most often explores characters facing overwhelmingly personal events that lead to the acceptance of something new or the rejection or loss of something old. Set primarily in rural western Kentucky, Mason’s fiction depicts a rapidly changing South in which individuals who once lived and worked on farms and shared deep-rooted family traditions are now employed by national retail stores, live in subdivisions, and experience the modern world largely through television, popular music, shopping malls, and fast-food restaurants. These adjustments in the characters’ lives reflect a general uneasiness that pervades the cultural landscape; the forces of change and alienation are no less frightening because they are universal or unavoidable.
Mason’s fiction not only describes the commercial, material aspects of her characters’ lives, but also examines the threatening changes in social mores that characterize modern life. Unable to reconcile their present lives with the past, Mason’s characters, sometimes viewed as grotesques, are caught between permanence and transience, between their own inherent need for individual expression and their obligations to family and home. Not surprisingly, this struggle affects their relationships, which are often emotionally and intellectually distant. Several of Mason’s protagonists are alienated from their heritage and have sought refuge in television evangelism, call-in radio programs, or aerobic dancing. If Mason’s characters do find kinship, it is often because they bond over the superficialities of popular culture, including music, movies, and television, and commerce, brand-name products and shopping malls, which invade their formerly remote region. Although she depicts the encroaching impact of suburban America on her rural characters, such as when Wal-Mart replaces the country store, she usually does so not as social criticism, but as a means of providing an accurate and realistic depiction of people within their changing environments. Her inclusion of pop-culture elements enhances the sense of meeting real people engaged in their everyday lives.
Works in Critical Context
Mason has earned critical respect for her compelling and unsentimental portrayals of rural, working-class people attempting to adjust to an increasingly modernized South. Most critics attribute Mason’s success to her vivid evocation of Southern dialect and the physical and social geography of the region. R. Z. Sheppard, for example, describes Mason’s settings as “ruburbs,” places that are no longer rural but not yet suburban, places where subdivisions pop up amongst corn fields. Although some reviewers have faulted Mason’s fictional works for employing the same unvarying narrative voice and for lacking definite resolutions, most agree that her works reveal contemporary Southern life with accuracy, humor, and poignancy. Summarizing Mason’s significance in Short Story Criticism, Roz Kaveney asserts that the author ”illuminates ordinary lives with a quiet, clear diction, and celebrates not only the almost unchanging human values which her characters embody, but also the passing details of fashion and social evolution which their personalities refract.”
Spence + Lila
In Spence + Lila, Mason’s second novel, the title characters are a Kentucky farm couple who have been married for over forty years. Lila’s upcoming surgery is forcing them to face the prospect of being separated for the first time since World War II. As in her other work, Mason looks at the changes in the larger environment as well as those in her characters’ lives—as critic John D. Kalb says, ”the changes of attitudes and values in the modern world that has intruded in [an] isolated haven.” Despite the potential for sentimentality in the story, Mason ”manages to avoid the gooey and patronizing muck that is usually described as heartwarming,” remarks reviewer Paul Gray. He continues: ”Her account is funny and deft, with plenty of gristle.” This opinion is shared by Kalb, who writes that “Spence + Lila is a novel about real love—not saccharine-sweet sentimentality, but the well-aged version of love between two people who have shared a long, sometimes difficult and trying, life together.” Although acknowledging that the book ”suffers from a melodramatic predictability absent from Ms. Mason’s earlier works,” critic Michiko Kakutani concedes that the author treats her subject ”without ever becoming sentimental or cliched.” Kakutani goes on to praise Mason’s ”lean stripped-down language” and ”nearly pitch-perfect ear for the way her characters speak,” adding: ”Mainly, however, it’s her sure-handed ability to evoke Spence and Lila’s life together that lends their story such poignancy and authenticity” to the novel.
Critic Peter S. Prescott, however, finds Spence + Lila a ”gently tedious” book saved only by Mason’s skillful writing. Reviewer Frank Conroy likewise commends Mason’s dialogue, but remarks that one wishes she had risked a bit more in this book, taking us under the surface of things instead of lingering there so lovingly and relentlessly.” Awkward silence in the face of ideas and feelings is a common frailty,” observes Los Angeles Times writer Nancy Mairs, and such lack of personal expression in Spence + Lila leads many reviewers to contend that Mason’s plain, lean dialogue prevents the development of fully realized characters.
- Price, Joanna. Understanding Bobbie Ann Mason. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
- ”Bobbie Ann Mason (1940-).” Short Story Criticism. Edited by Jelena Krstovic. Vol. 101. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2007, 209-277.
- Booth, David. ”San’s Quest, Emmett’s Wound: Grail Motifs in Bobbie Ann Mason s Portrait of America After Vietnam.” Southern Literary Journal (Spring 1991): 98-109.
- Gray, Paul. ”Review of Spence + Lila.” Time (July 14, 1988): 71.
- Havens, Lila. ”Residents and Transients: An Interview with Bobbie Ann Mason.” Crazy Horse 29 (Fall 1985): 87-104.
- Kakutani, Michiko. ”Struggle and Hope in the New South.” New York Times (June 11, 1988): 13.
- Mairs, Nancy. ”A Well-Seasoned Love.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (June 19, 1983): 88.
- Sheppard, R. Z. ”Review of Shiloh and Other Stories.” Time (January 3, 1983).
- White, Leslie. ”The Function of Popular Culture in Bobbie Ann Mason s Shiloh and Other Stories and In Country.” Southern Quarterly 26 (Summer 1988): 69-79.
- Wilhelm, Albert E. ”Private Rituals: Coping with Change in the Fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason. Midwest Quarterly 28 (Winter 1987): 271-282.
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