Notes on Life and Works of Bobbie Ann Mason;

taken from a CD-ROM assembled by Diane Telgen and interview by Jean W. Ross for Contemporary Authors in CD-Rom; Gale Research Company, 1995.
Dr Ellen Moody


Born May 1, 1940, Mayfield, Kentucky; daughter of Wilburn A (a diary farmer) and Christian Lee Mason; married Roger B. Rawlings, a magazine editor and writer on April 12, 1969.


She taught at universities for a while; then she became a full-time writer; first published stories appeared in the New Yorker.


She has also contributed many individual stories and some essays to various magazines and anthologies of stories.

From Diane Telgen's sketch:

Two critics: Ann Tyler in the New Republic wrote that from the beginning Bobbie Ann Mason was a "full-fledged artist of the short story." She was never learning or an amateur.

Gene Lyons (another critic) writes that her stories are about a social revolution that has occurred in the the United States; her characters are trying to come to terms with its demands and new modes. They learn the brand names of products as quickly as they can; they absorb all the new things they see and buy; they watch TV intently; nothing seems beneath their observation of what we might call the trivia of life.

A commentary by Telgen taken from her own observations and those of various critics and reviewers:

"Mason is a regional writer who concentrates on working and lower middle class people in western Kentucky (south of Paducah, not far from Kentucky Lake, which is precisely where she grew up). There is a gap which must be bridged between her typical character and the sort of reader who reads books like hers. They are not at all the same people.

Mason is an intensely inward and personal writer. Her stories are about private crises; they are about frightened, alienated people who do nothing which can remotely be called thinking deeply or reflecting analytically upon their world or themselves. They are impoverished imaginatively, have no access to anything finer than the popular movie the distributor has sent to their area or what appears on their TV. They are isolated, deprived; they are also deeply disappointed although their hopes and dreams seem pathetically modest. These are disquieted people; men and women not blessed with any money or education or luck, yet they are sensitive and capable of imagination; they suffer from they know not what. A sense of deep loss and regret permeates her stories.

Her people also exist in a psychological environment or respond to a life that has been gutted; whose physical landscape is undergoing astonishing change they have no control over. They are like people who find themselves in an abandoned buildling and don't know what to do with all the junk they find around them. A flea market is the quintessence of this landscape. They are people who have fallen through the categories normally pesented by public and social discourse. The middle ages would picture its ordinary folk in tapesty; here they are in linoleum."

She is enormously skillful in presenting the realities of this world, its details, its language, its ways; one problem is that her endings are often disappointing or not clear, muddled.

Shiloh and Other Stories

(By Ellen Moody)

This is a book of 16 thematically intertwined short stories which all take place in Kentucky. The characters are mostly working or lower-middle class people who are caught up in a vast social rearrangement, sexual, psychological, legal, going on within family lives today. They are also subject to the demands of an enormous capitalist system which provides jobs which offer little personal fulfillment but to which they must remain more loyal than to their friends or families or they will find themselves outcast, and despised. These are stories of divorce and separation, of quiet banal adultery and alienation. There are some about retired people who don't know where to go or what to do with their lives; some are about the kind of people who run or shop at flea markets. Her people seem to long to have some roots, some stability somewhere. Their only shared culture is what they find on TV. The stories seem to be suffused with a sympathy for the characters, but the characters remain mostly dumb, inarticulate, and are as much the target of Mason's irony as the society in which they find themselves and which they help create. But she also creates great sympathy for the vulnerable and the lost. The attitude behind these stories is a curious combination of hopeless acceptance and cheerful despair. Perhaps the two best stories are of a Christmas family reunion, "Drawing Names," and a woman who does not want to move with her husband from their home to where his new job is located, "Residents and Transients."

In Country:

(By Ellen Moody)

Samantha Hughes's father died in Vietnam. Emmet Hughes, her uncle returned with deep scars from the experience. The novel centers on their close relationship; she tries to find out about her father and to understand the war; he is trying to create a life for himself. The story culminates in a trip they take to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC.

Vergen says Mason has the honesty to portray the actual thoughts of people. This is a remarkable novel which combines dramatic irony with suspense and is full of touching funny scenes. It attempts to get beyond the usual two opposing attitudes towards the Vietnam war, the one which insists it was honorable to go and fight and die, and the other which asserts the war was a corrupt and violent attempt to force upon a poor colonized people yet more exploitation by the wealthy of this world. It sees the war from the point of view of people who have nothing to present against the two views from within, but the remnants of a debased popular culture and a need for affection and stability. This was made into a movie by Norman Jewison in 1989.

Spence and Lila:

(A summary from CD-Rom)

This is about a couple who have been marrried for 40 years and live on a Kentucky farm. She has to go into the hospital for a serious operation. They have never been separated before. The story swings from his or her point of view in a series of poignant yet funny reflective chapters.

Vergen quotes critics on "its stripped-down language;" it is "not mawkish or sentimental."

One critic talks of a real problem in Mason's stories: She shows characters who live in the awkward silences people do in the face of ideas and failings they can't understand or bear to look at. This is common. But we the reader are not allowed to go beyond the dumb silence. We don't know what to infer. The story therefore cannot give us any insight the characters don't have. It is a very limiting technique.

The Interview by Jean W. Ross:

Bobbie Ann Mason says none of her academic writing had any bearing on what she writes today. The reading in college did influence her a great deal. She tells of how Vietnam veterans have written her thanking her for having written In Country; and how Spence and Lila is based on her own family. Her sister illustrated the latter book.

She says she concentrates on language, and listens for cadences. She wants to capture the flat way her people really talk. Their talk in fact perfectly embodies "the hard times and lack of illusions" in their lives. It is "plain speech, matter-of-fat, not romantic language." She says "phrases catchmy ear, and they're not pretty--like 'a sack of doughnuts' or 'a stack of videotapes on the sale tables." They show an attitude.

She says her characters care bout TV, about going shopping, about what they buy, what they make, what they own, but she denies that this is what she is most concerned about, and denies satirizing them. She says she is "distressed" about where the average person is headed, how he or she spends his daily existence, about how the old and vulnerable are discarded and resented or ignored and mistreated. Values and conventions in the last half-century have undergone an enormous change.

She talks of their love of rock-and-roll music. It is "sexual, rebellious." These are people without "any power over their lives economically or politically," and they find in this music "an affirmative expressive way of being alive and being joyous about it."


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