How did Bobbie Ann Masons upbringing in the rural south influence her writing of Shiloh Essay

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Bobbie Ann Mason is considered as one of the great American writers from the South. Her personal background as a Southerner influenced and set a backdrop for most of her fiction stories. From a small country girl who used to read Bobbsey Twins and the Nancy Drew mysteries, Bobbie Ann Mason has become one of the Americas leading fiction writers. In 1980 The New Yorker published her first story. It took me a long time to discover my material, she says. It wasnt a matter of developing writing skills; it was a matter of knowing how to see things. And it took me a very long time to grow up.

Id been writing for a long time, but was never able to see what there was to write about. I always aspired to things away from home, so it took me a long time to look back at home and realize that thats where the center of my thought was (Bobbie Ann Masons Homepage). This discourse will try to map out the journey that Bobbie Ann Mason has taken from being just a country girl to being one of Americas leading fiction writers as well as how her upbringing has been manifested in her writings, especially Shiloh. Bobbie Ann Mason was born in 1940 in a small town in Mayfield, Kentucky.

Growing up in her parents dairy farm, she spent most of her childhood days in the typical rural Southern setting and experiencing the Southern way of upbringing. (Bobbie Ann Mason, Wikipedia) The first nine (9) years of her educational life were spent in a rural school. Shortly thereafter Bobbie Ann Mason attended a city school where she stayed until her graduation. It was here where she first experienced living in the city and experiencing the hustle and bustle that was absent from the rural setting that she was accustomed to in Kentucky (Webber).

It was her love for literature that prompted her to pursue a degree in journalism from the University of Kentucky and eventually attain a Ph. D. in English from the University of Connecticut. (Bobbie Ann Mason, Wikipedia) This seeming duality of her background, growing up in the Southern Setting and highly educated in a metropolitan setting, is reflected within most of her written works (Hunt). Rothstein describes Masons style as a combination of her intellectual sophistication (after all, she had a doctorate degree) and the sense of isolated, yearning existence of her rural characters [is] one she has never quite shed herself.

The influence of growing up in the South is clearly shown in most of her characters in her stories yet the theme and feel of the story reveals her intellect and cosmopolitan views as well. A perfect example of how Mason reveals this duality is in Shiloh. In Shiloh, Mason shows this through the challenges that the characters undergo; some of these changes that the characters in experience deal with the nature of human life, the changes brought on by death, the issues on disease and aging; but these changes are not so common, nor as troublesome, in Masons stories as the changes brought on by a changing society.

These changes, as Edwin T. Arnold correctly observes, are brought about by the fact that the present has effectively displaced, transformed, and cheapened the traditional, and Masons characters are depicted as they lose their strengths and beliefs and find nothing substantial to replace them (136) Bobbie Ann Masons writings are mostly set in the South. Her version is more realistic and not romanticized; unlike the works of Faulkner or OConnor (Hunt), she depicts small-town rural Southern living, using dialogue and settings characteristic of the South (Hunt).

However, southern history and all it represents seems irrelevant to her characters lives (Fine 87). Bobbie Ann Mason occasionally reveals her talent and wit by being able to focus more on her characters and their sense of isolation and their want for something more from their lives and draw the reader towards the characters and make them empathize with the characters. These characters are not simply depicted as typical Southerners, but rather as people who are trying desperately to get into the society rather than out of it (Reed 60).

Mason shows the Southern Influence by creating believable characters that are caught in the transition between the old, pastoral, rural world of farms and close-knit communities and the modern, anonymous, suburban world of shopping malls and fast-food restaurants (Shiloh: Themes). In Shiloh, for example, Leroy did not notice the change in his hometown while he was on the road as a trucker. However, now that Leroy has come home to stay, he notices how much the town has changed. Subdivisions are spreading across western Kentucky like an oil slick.

Change, a theme often used by Mason in her works, shows just how much Mason is influenced by her upbringing and also reveals how she laments over how people are slow to realize the changes in southern society. In this story, it takes a traumatic event of some kind to make the characters see that the land has changed or that they no longer know who they are. In Leroys case, it is his accident and injury in his rig that make him see that the land has changed, that Norma Jean has changed, and that in all the years he was on the road he never took time to examine anything.

He was always flying past scenery (2). Several of Masons characters react to the changes in their lives by trying, at least momentarily, to go back. Leroy thinks that he can hold onto his wife if he can go back to a simpler time. He decides to accomplish this by building her a log cabin for which he goes so far as to order the blueprints and to build a miniature out of Lincoln Logs. Mabel, Leroys mother-in-law, is convinced that if Leroy and Norma Jean will go to Shiloh where she and her husband went on their honeymoon, they can somehow begin their fifteen-year-old marriage anew.

So does Leroy. He says to Norma, You and me could start all over again. Right back at the beginning (15). It is ironic, fitting, and symbolic that it is at Shiloh that Norma tells him she wants to leave him. By storys end, Leroy knows that he cannot go back as it occurs to him that building a house of logs is . . . empty ” too simple. . . . Now he sees that building a log house is the dumbest idea he could have had. . . . It was a crazy idea (16). He realizes that the real inner workings of a marriage, like most of history, have escaped him (16).

The female characters that Mason brings to life are what set her stories apart from the usual literature which depicts Southern women; their dreams, goals, and their want for progress significantly differs from those of the traditional Southern belle characters such as Scarlett OHara and Adie (Hunt). The female characters of Mason embrace change and are not afraid of it (Kincaid 582). This seemingly feminist theme reflects the change in social relationships between men and women; how evolving and rapidly shifting gender roles affect the lives of simple people.

Mason also shows how some of her women try to forge new identities in the wake of shifting gender roles and how their efforts often include a blatant shrinking of traditionally feminine behaviors or characteristics; sometimes they seem almost completely to be trading roles with the men in their lives. And since change often causes uncertainty and instability, another aspect is the way these women find some solid ground through connections with other women (Bucher). Shiloh is a story that symbolizes the modern woman striving to find her identity (Cooke 196).

In this short story, Bobbie Ann Mason masterfully portrays the lead female character, Norma Jean, as one such woman; strong, determined and confused in a search for her identity. Mason is able to show this to the reader through the acts of Norma Jean as she tries to improve her physical appearance by working on her pectorals (Mason 271), enrolls in a variety of classes, from weightlifting to cooking exotic foods to English composition in an attempt to become a new woman (Thompson 3). These actions of Norma Jean actions reveal more of a strong desire for inner personal transformation, much more than anything else.

However, Mason also recognizes that abrupt change in ones personality has its own dangers (Hunt), as illustrated by Norma Jean and Leroys relationship. Norma Jean and Leroys relationship is a perfect example of the dangers of an abrupt change as it shows a marriage with serious problem and the effect that change has on it. Leroy and Norma Jean Moffitt, are working-class people living in the modern South, and thus they bring into their marriage all sorts of unspoken expectations of who they should be, which often contrast violently with who they are even more so with who they are becoming (Bucher).

When in a twist of fate, Leroy loses the use of his leg, Norma Jean suddenly assumes the role of being the man in the family and this leads to problems. It is this sort of change that is not only abrupt but also drastic which Mason shows in Shiloh that reveals her Southern influence. She emphasizes the changing role of women in society by using the Southern setting as a backdrop. Mason is a lover of rock and roll music. This passion and preference for rock music and pop culture are frequently reflected throughout her stories as well (Webber).

Writing is my version of rock-and-roll, Rothstein quotes her (Webber). This is aptly shown in Shiloh, where the main characters themselves are named after Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, popular icons of the rock and roll scene and pop culture in the early 1950s. All in all, it can be said that Bobbie Ann Masons personal background shows a very consistent influence in the fiction stories that she writes and provides a deeper and different perspective about living in a Southern setting and rural life in general.

In the country in Kentucky, people are just amazed that anybody in New York wants to read about their lives (Rothstein). With fiction stories of Bobbie Ann Mason, however, it is not surprising that people will want to read more about Kentucky or the Southern locales of the United States, for that matter, for her stories speak of the universal human experiences that transcend physical and cultural boundaries which people can identify with.


Arnold, Edwin J. Falling Apart and Staying Together. Appalachian Journal (1985): 135-141Aycock-Simpson, Judy. Bobbie Ann Masons Portrayal of Modern Western Kentucky Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association, No. 7 (1989) Bobbie Ann Mason. Wikipedia: Free Encyclopedia. August 30, 2006. November 11, 2006 Bobbie Ann Mason. Bobbie Ann Masons Homepage. September 17, 2005. November 24, 2006 Shiloh: Themes. Short Stories for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 1998. eNotes.

com. January 2006. 24 November 2006. Bucher, Tina. Changing Roles and Finding Stability: Women in Bobbie Ann Masons Shiloh and Other Stories Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association, No. 8 (1991) Cooke, Stewart J. Masons Shiloh. The Explicator 51 (1993): 196-197. Fine, Laura. Going Nowhere Slow: The Post-South World of Bobbie Ann Mason. The Southern Literary Journal 32 (1999). Hunt, Kristina. Masons Transformation of the South. October 27, 2000. November 11, 2006.

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