We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Bobbie Ann Mason's _Clear Springs_ · 14 November 05

Dear Marianne,

Before I lose the intense sense of uplift I feel upon finishing Bobbie Ann Mason’s memoir, Clear Springs (HarperCollins Perennial, 2000), I’d like to tell you about it. I finished it about an hour ago. It is another deeply-felt group of women’s autobiographies embedded into a central one, Mason’s.

The patterning is cyclical: the prelude is a dream-like meditation on the land her family owned and farmed for a few generations, which she was brought up on, and which she has returned to. The feel and point of view, deeply-felt scientific nature writing in effect, reminded me of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The narrative proper begins with Mason’s own girlhood, moves back to her early childhood and then forward to early adolescence, teenagehood and college years, ending with her time in New York City, two sophisticated post-graduate schools (New York State, Birmingham, and a Ph.D. in at the University of Connecticut). This first two-thirds of the book by a process of association also tells the story of her paternal grandmother, Ethel Mason’s quietly shattered existence, and her mother, Christie Mason, as she knew her when Christie was her mother. This cyclical patterning supporting a flowering out of an array of related women’s lives is so common to women’s memoirs. Caroline Bynum Walker says cycles are the way women experience life in society; I’ll name Mary McCarthy’s Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood, Marge Piercy’s Sleeping with Cats and Nuala O’Faolain’s My Dream of You as three works which move cyclically, with an array of women presented; older ones nicludes George Sand’s huge autobiography and Germaine de Stael’s Delphine.

Again, like Janet Frame, Gabrielle Roy, Mary McCarthy, and so many women writers, in order to find herself as a writer, find an audience and congenial friends, make adequate contacts, Mason had to leave the beloved place, but as the second third of the book ends, she has returned to it, with a husband—about whom she says remarkably little, athough they’ve been married many years. The book is at that point in danger of falling into superficiality and then pollyanna as she describes ever so generally her time as a journalist in New York, and hastes over her post-graduate years and marriage, but then again by process of association we find ourselves reading about her mother’s mother’s very hard brief life (she died young after a pregnancy led to a destructive marriage), a tale which contrasts to the life of her paternal grandmother, and which is compared to that of other women in the generations before Mason herself, and which concludes with a long set piece about her mother’s childhood and years before marriage.

The book ends with the tale of her mother going fishing as a very old woman: she almost drowns in an effort to wrest a fish out of a river, but succeeds in pulling the fish out and getting it home. It’s a paean to an indomitable spirit of hope which matches the book’s prelude. The modern metaphor of searching into our memories and past as a form of archeaological endeavour emerges in this last part, e.g.,

Moving Mama is a job for archeaologists. It involves unearthing and sifting and cataloguing. The history of her place is in the boxes and barrrels in the junkhourse, the farm equipment and tools in the other out-buildings (p. 243).

When she writes,

I am dismayed, angry at the way the most valuable things we squirrel away seem to be the most vulnerable. There is no way to save what is of real value. What endures is perpiheral and empty (p. 247)

Mason echoes Jennifer Wallace’s despair at what we really see and really do with corpses, junk, objects:

Nothing survives. Nothing is sacred … Excavation, which apparently unearthed non-negotiable facts—urns, bones, arefacts—only revealed an emptiness of meaning, the nothingness of life" (Digging the Dirt [Duckworth 2004], pp. 137, 139).

Clear Springs is also a paean, a love song to her mother, who was and is (so Mason presents her), intelligent, selfless, loving, someone who fights for herself and how she wants to enjoy life irrespective of others, who allowed herself for years to be cowed by her husband and the needs of her mother-in-law, but had time and insight to create things she was proud of, and offer occasions of joy. The process of association works through Mason’s mother: from Mason as a teenager, we move to Mason’s paternal grandmother by her telling of how her mother was driven to serve this woman; from Mason as a graduate student and young married woman, we move to Mason’s maternal grandmother by her telling of her mother’s isolation and upbringing by her maternal grandmother’s narrow relatives. The prelude begins with her mother’s fishing, the prologue ends on her mother’s near drowning, and the book’s last words are her mother’s:

She had a habit of giving away a secret prematurely. Her grinning face—and her laughing voice—gave her away. When she had a surpise for the children, she couldn’t wait to tell them. She wanted to see their faces, the delight over something she had brought them for Christmas or some surprise she had planned, ‘Wake up, get out of bed. Guess what! Hurry! (p. 296)

These are tales told of the anguish, frequent defeats, and hard-won occasional successes of women—and that of men too. To use her words, "lonely, troubled, mistreated, empty" (p. 128). Towards the end of the book, we are told of her mother

Lately she had been reviewing her life, reflecting on the hardships she had endured. She bridled at the way the women always had to serve the men. The men always sat down in the evening, but the women kept going. Why had the women agreed to that arrangement? How had they stood stood? What is she had had an opportunity for something different? (p. 288)

Mason’s father and paternal grandfather are given space, only her maternal grandfather is skirted some, partly because she doesn’t know enough about him. Enough is given so that we can see that he was not simply the callow ne’er-do-well villain she had been led to imagine, but someone himself equally exploited (he was 16 to her maternal grandmother’s 21 when her maternal grandmother married him), and exploiting, by turns desperate, hard, and gay.

Success in this book is not a matter of accumulating money, prizes or admired positions; rather it is continually measured rom where the individual began, and given resonance through what the individual’s inner nature and gifts were.

Mason has a few great short stories to her credit; one of these, called "Residents and Transients," now emerges as a crystallized moment from a long preoccupation of Mason’s:

For a long time, I’ve been preoccupied with why some folks stay and some stray. I read about a scientific study of cats in the wild. It had been assumed that cats who established a territory, or home base, were the successful ones, while those who remained roamers were the losers. The study uncovered evidence that the transients, not the residents, might be the more resourcefulcats, accepting greater risks and more varied opportunities for prey and mates. It was almost as thought they were exercising imagination. It’s an old question – the call of the hearth or the call of the wild? Should I stay or should I go? Who is better off, those wh traipse around or those who spend decades in the same spot, growing roots? (p. 280)

Edward and I have led the life of transient residents. We have few friends, and live far from any relatives: our home is a country of the mind we can rarely share with others beyond ourselves. Yet we’ve lived in this neighborhood nearly 26 years, and are among the oldest residents; had we not had to leave New York City, we’d still be living in our rent-stablized apartment under the hill on top of which sits the Cloisters, and our time there would now add up to 35 years.

I was charmed by it because Mason’s milieu is the one I was brought up in: it seems that class cuts across rural and city locations. The behaviors, norms, entertainments, expectations, paraphernalia, and visibilia she describes are those of my child-, and girlhood. North (I am a New York City person) and South don’t seem to be all that different when it comes to the lower middle white classes. She also (as she has done before in her Girl Sleuth) reminds me of myself: the books she read and loved are the American ones I read and loved (Little Women, Gone with the Wind, Judy Bolton), and her way of coping in her younger years with being different; her moods, and especially a central thematic examination of living life as a transient or resident, with the latter mode finally found to provide the greater contentment and meaning I recognize. Perhaps her having been formed by a core of American books by women I too read, recognize, remember is the core of my identification. Mason is the first voice I have read in years and years to utter the word "victrola." That’s a word that comes naturally to me still for phonograph1.

Of course I differ too. My high school years were most unlike hers; and I know nothing of the kind of career she was able to pull off and the living alone and making contacts her accumulated strength and experience gave her. Indeed I am most unlike Mason as she ends up "full circle," back with her family. To me my family are aliens and when I am with them I must be so controlled that I am in a kind of suspended state, waiting to live again. The last place I’ll go back to nowadays is the Southeast Bronx. I shudder to see a corner in lower Manhattan such as the one I grew up in: bar on the corner, small sordid tenement, awful to live in, perched on a noisy hectic car-loud street. She cites no English books, no European (though her dissertation was on Nabokov) as formative of her self and a number such were formative of mine.

And nothing could be further from my feelings about my mother or her personality: she was and is secretive for a start, getting through life by lying and behaving in an unashamedly cloying sycophantic way when f-to-f with whomever. A pretense of drivelling when she’s presenting manipulative subtexts intended to uphold and enforce conformity, an apparently unconsciously cruel tongue, teaching by fear, the cunning of the tenacious simpleton. You don’t give gifts, you give what enables you to control the other or show your value. She came to my daughter’s wedding to assert her presence, meant nothing more by it. My naive (about this sort of person) son-in-law did not understand and really thought she meant to be a friend. But I digress.

It’s difficult to do justice to Clear Springs, to convey its intimate texture and large general meaning about personal momentary victory and joy brought out of defeat, loss, fear, and ordinary bad luck. Mason avoids schmaltz; it’s not (as the blurbs on it insist) a book about "family values" (buzz phrase), as Mason shows how people within families prey on and destroy one another just as much as they support and compassionate. I do think I will try to teach it if I am ever given a course where I can fit it into a theme. Say the next time I am given Advanced Composition on the Humanities and spend the last quarter or third on memoirs, memory and self, and a search for lost time through reading and writing about books from childhood? It would go very well with her The Girl Sleuth.

I’ve taught her In Country twice, her Shiloh and Other Stories twice, and Girl Sleuth innumerable times. Now I’ve taken down from my shelves Lila and Spence, a novel about a long-term marriage, centering on two retired people. I hope to get to it soon.

I am feeling somewhat better. Not all well, but I can more patiently wait for my appointment with Dr Villafuerte on Wednesday.

E. D.

1 My students call phonographs record-players, and when I use the word phonograph they look puzzled. I wouldn’t dare use the word victrola. And yet it was a common word among the people I grew up among in the 1950s.

Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Thanks for making "Clear Springs" a must-read.

    I’ve always been surprised that a grown woman would continue to go by "Bobbie Ann."
    R J Keefe    Nov 14, 10:16am    #
  2. Dear RJ,

    Good to hear from you. I’m having trouble with my email just now so I’m cheered to have conversation on my blog.

    One problem with Clear Springs is Mason skirts her own time in New York City as a journalist "in the business," as well as her relationship with her husband. Like all autobiographies, and biographies, there is the reality of living people having to survive on. She doesn’t tell in concrete detail how she made the transition from journalist to academic life (as a graduate student) and then again as a writer individually.

    She began as a southern writer—Bobbie Ann has these resonances. In Clear Springs she discusses racism in Kentucky, but again gingerly, tangentially.

    She has the problem of being a woman writer too—she’s easily dissed anyway.

    To conclude, in her The Girl Sleuth she makes fun of her name. She says the first books she wrote as a girl (she confirms this in Clear Springs) were modelled on these series books. So her first was "Bobbie Ann: Her First Little Novel."

    Elinor (I’m preferring this third pseudonym for now)
    Chava    Nov 14, 11:53am    #
  3. Ellen, have your read Mason’s biography of Elvis Presley? I thought it was really good, partly because it was written by someone who understands the culture of lower-class whites in the South.

    Also, I find your description of your mother very upsetting. Have you written about her elsewhere? I can’t help but wonder what made her the way she is.
    Bob    Nov 14, 8:12pm    #
  4. Dear Bob,

    No I’ve not read Mason’s Presley but would like to. The reviews made it sound perceptive.

    I know it’s unconventional and probably unacceptable social behavior every once in a while to talk about my mother the way I do, but I do it. I have a couple of times before on this blog as sheer release. Very early on I described some incidents in my childhood (deep in blog now), and recently "Confrontational norms" was abou ther. This time I show how far I am from Mason.

    Chava    Nov 15, 12:47am    #
  5. Dear Ellen,
    I didn’t mean I was upset that you wrote about your mother but rather that you had such a difficult mother. You described her so vividly that I’m curious about what made her the way she was, as well as how you learned to deal with her. But of course my curiosity is probably intrusive.
    Bob    Nov 15, 11:00am    #
  6. Dear Bob,

    I didn’t say much actually. I’ve tried to write an autobiography once or twice but each time quickly bog down at the start, for even at the age of 59 my feelings and thoughts are so raw, bitter, and grim that I cannot gain sufficient control or perspective, particularly at the outset. I’d have to save the early childhood and bring it in later.

    I have no plan or way of dealing with her—as I don’t with most people. All ad hoc I. At age 47 I said I had paid more than enough and since then have stayed away literally; very lately I simply get off the phone (when she calls) as quickly as I can.

    Chava    Nov 16, 8:01am    #
  7. Ellen, I admired your review of CLEAR SPRINGS, which is one of the most enjoyable memoirs I’ve read in recent years. I read quite a few memoirs, being one of those rare readers who admire the form. (At least I assume I’m rare. Remember the backlash against memoirs in the ‘90s, when journalists insisted there was a glut of them on the market? Unsupported by stats, as far as I could see. I’ve always read memoirs and autobiographies.) Perhaps Mason’s memoir is idealized to an extent, but it’s charming and fun to read.
    Kathy    Nov 16, 2:51pm    #
  8. Thank you much Kathy. I think we need to differentiate between what is said by reviewers and what is actually read and bought. It’s also equally notorious (given the snobbery of attitudes towards de-mystifying literature) that readers love and are eager to buy autobiography and biography. Not that readers as a group seem to admire any "form." These books are (so it’s thought) not being read for their form, but their content.

    I stay away from words like "charming:" like "interesting" they are contentless. Together with the word "fun," the effect is to trivialize or make unimportant any book in the scheme of things. I have Marianne on my side there; read her on imagination and sensibility in her dialogue with Edward.

    Chava    Nov 17, 7:31am    #

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