Bobbie Ann Mason
(Biography – Short)
Bobbie Ann Mason writes about blue-collar people in small-town and rural America—store clerks, waitresses, truck drivers—men and women who, she says, believe in "progress," but who "are kind of naive and optimistic, for the most part: they think better times are coming." They are, she says, a "shopping mall generation," people adrift in a high-tech world that controls their jobs and their desires, that gives them fast foods that gratify their taste and television sitcoms that fill their empty hours.
Mason came to know the lives of small-town working people and the world of mass culture while growing up in Kentucky on a farm outside the small town of Mayfield. She spent her youth doing farm chores, reading stories of the Bobbsey Twins and the girl detective Nancy Drew, listening to rock music on the radio, and following the lives of celebrities. In the 1950s, she became the teenage president of the national fan club of a popular singing quartet, The Hilltoppers, and followed them on concert tours through midwest America.
Her youthful experiences at the edge of the world of entertainment glitz and glamour made her want to be a journalist, and when she was eighteen, she entered the University of Kentucky. Four years later she graduated and moved to New York, where she earned, her living by writing articles on teen idols such as Fabian and Annette Funicello for “fan mags" like Movie Stars, Movie Life, and T.V. Star Parade.
But her university courses had stirred her interest in literature, and she entered the State University of New York at Binghamton, where she earned an M.A. in 1966. She then went to the University, of Connecticut, where she graduated with a Ph.D. in English in 1972. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on Vladimir Nabokov, and in 1974 it was published as Nabokov's Garden. From 1972 to 1979, she taught at Mansfield State College in Pennsylvania, and she published her second book, The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide to the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and Their Sisters (1975), a scholarly study of the popular books she had enjoyed when she was young.
In her late thirties Mason began to write short stories, and she soon discovered that her best subjects for fiction were the working-class people of her native western Kentucky. Her stories began to appear in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Paris Review, Mother Jones, and Harper's. In 1982 her first collection, Shiloh and Other Stories, appeared. Her next book was a novel, In Country (1985), which was made into a successful motion picture. A second collection of her short stories, Love Life, appeared in 1989. Her novel Feather Crowns (1993), sympathetically examines a pair of ordinary Americans to whom fate brings instant fame as curiosities in the carnival and freak-show world of the early twentieth century, foreboding antecedents of the grotesque simpletons who display themselves on today's TV talk shows before audiences fascinated by prurience and abnormality. Midnight Magic: Selected Stories of Bobbie Ann Mason appeared in 1998, and in 1999 she published Clear Springs: A Memoir, describing her origins in Kentucky and the stern and often numbing life on farms and in small towns that shaped her view of men and women and the lives they struggle to endure. Her most recent collection of short stories is Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail (2002).
Mason's writing is peeled and terse. Her flat diction, direct sentences, and references to common, everyday things, to brand names, to the icons, of pop culture, convey the sparseness and the pathos of her characters' lives. Her women shop at Kmart, wear Dr. Scholl's. sandals, and eat "tasty" food prepackaged for the microwave.
They have frosted curls, like the heroine of "Shiloh," who works on her pectorals with dumbbells and reminds her husband of Wonder Woman. The men are vague. They sit, waiting, amid the wreckage of their lives. They have ill-fated plans for triumphs and exploits, like the hero of "Shiloh," who creates a log cabin out of Popsicle sticks and has noble dreams of building a real log cabin—from a kit. Drugged by American consumerism, they are fascinated by America's materialistic trivia and the higher sleaze exhibited by their moneyed betters, the rich and famous.
Mason's stories have been called "Grit Lit" and "Shopping Mall Realism." Her fiction is the kind, it is said, that "her own characters would never read" even if they were to turn off the television long enough to look at a book at all." She is resolutely unsentimental regional writer in the tradition of William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor; and Eudora Welty, and like them she has created characters who are recognizable anywhere in America.
FURTHER READING: A. Wilhelm, Bobbie Ann Mason, 1998; J. Price, Understanding Bobbie Ann Mason; 2000.
TEXT: Shiloh and Other Stories, 1982.