Bobbie Ann Mason

With her moving portraits of Western Kentucky and working-class protagonists, Bobbie Ann Mason is known as one of the key voices of American regional literature. Her minimalist prose and use of Kmart realism give life to people and experiences that were previously overlooked in American literature. Many of Mason’s short stories have been widely anthologized, and her novels, particularly In Country (1985), are considered modern American classics.

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Table of contents

    Bobbie Ann Mason: Biography

    Bobbie Ann Mason was born on May 1, 1940, in Mayfield, Kentucky. She grew up on her family’s rural dairy farm with her parents and four siblings.

    Mason’s family home was destroyed in December 2021 when tornados struck Western Kentucky, killing fifty-seven people.

    From an early age, Mason loved to read. Her favorites were popular young adult mysteries like Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins. She describes her young self as “probably pathologically shy.” 1 She attended a small local school until high school, when she transferred to Mayfield High School in the city.

    Bobbie Ann Mason, Kentucky farm, StudySmarterBobbie Ann Mason grew up on a dairy farm in Kentucky.

    In high school, Bobbie Ann Mason developed a life-long passion for rock-n-roll music. She was particularly devoted to a Kentucky-based band called the Hilltoppers and became the president of their national fan club.

    After graduating high school, Mason attended Western Kentucky University, where she majored in English. She graduated in 1962 and moved to New York City, where she worked briefly writing articles for a fan magazine. Mason enrolled in the State University of New York at Binghamton, completing her master’s degree in 1966. She then moved to Connecticut, where she earned her Ph.D. in literature from the University of Connecticut, graduating in 1972.

    Mason describes the early years of her life as having “no direction whatsoever.” 1 She only knew that going to college meant a chance to not work in a factory, one of the only options in rural Western Kentucky.

    I’ve never felt that I decided much of anything…Like ‘decided’ to go to New York. I just sort of did what came along, what was available. There weren’t all these choices laid out like, do you want to be a nurse, do you want to be a doctor, or do you want to go into marketing? I didn’t know about any of those things. All I knew was I could work in a factory, but if I went to a college then I might not have to go to work in a factory, and then maybe I could get work in an office. And work in an office meant being a secretary maybe, or some kind of clerical work. And nothing was very clear. Nobody explained anything.” -Mason (1988)1

    After finishing her dissertation on Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Ada (1969), she moved to Mansfield, Pennsylvania, where she and her husband both worked at Mansfield State College. In 1975, Mason published The Girl Sleuth, a nonfiction study of the popular mysteries she loved as a child. Although she had made various attempts at writing fiction, it was after the publication of The Girl Sleuth in the late 1970s that Mason realized she could write about what she knew: the people and experiences of Western Kentucky.

    She wrote her first story in 1978 and began submitting her work to The New Yorker. Although she kept receiving rejection letters, The New Yorker fiction editor took an interest in her work, and her first story was published in 1980.

    Mason’s first collection of short stories, Shiloh and Other Stories, was published in 1982, bringing her critical acclaim for the first time. The collection won the 1983 PEN/Hemingway Award for a debut work of fiction. It showed Mason that there was an audience for her stories about the working-class Western Kentucky experience.

    Emboldened by the success of Shiloh and Other Stories, Mason published her first novel, In Country, in 1985.

    In Country was adapted into a feature film in 1989 starring Emily Lloyd and Bruce Willis.

    Since the mid-1980s, Mason has published several other collections of short stories, including Love Life (1989) and Midnight Magic (1998), novels, including Feather Crowns (1993) and The Girl in the Blue Beret (2011), a memoir, and a biography of Elvis Presley.

    Mason continues writing today, with her most recent novel, Dear Ann, published in 2020. She is eighty-two years old.

    Bobbie Ann Mason: Writing Style

    Bobbie Ann Mason is known for her stark, minimalist prose that has been described as “mak[ing] Hemingway sound almost Jamesian.” 2 Her writing exudes a realness that captures the everyday life of working-class Western Kentuckians with short, succinct sentences and simple language.

    Bobbie Ann Mason, rural McDonalds, StudySmarterKmart realism includes elements of mass culture, such as fast food restaurants and shopping malls.

    Mason’s writing is also known as Kmart realism, a style that came to prominence in the 1980s in the United States. Her work includes many references to popular and mass culture, including brand names, movies, television, and music, and often takes place in locations such as shopping malls and fast food restaurants.

    Kmart realism explores how consumer culture spread through rural America and changed the lives of working-class people. Kmart realism includes references to facts of middle-class life, like pop culture and brand names, that are often absent in literature.

    Other writers known for Kmart realism include Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and Tobias Wolff.

    Bobbie Ann Mason: Key Works

    Bobbie Ann Mason is known for her novels, short stories, and works of nonfiction.

    Bobbie Ann Mason’s Novels

    Bobbie Ann Mason’s novels include In Country (1985), The Girl in the Blue Beret (2011), and Dear Ann (2020).

    In Country (1985)

    In Country was Bobbie Ann Mason’s first novel. The book is set in Western Kentucky and tells the story of Sam Hughes, a teenage girl whose father died in the Vietnam War before she was born. Sam lives with her uncle, a veteran of the war, with whom she plays video games and watches M*A*S*H. Slowly, Sam starts trying to uncover more about her father and his experience in Vietnam.

    Published in 1985, In Country explores the lasting effects of the Vietnam War on rural America. The novel was a commercial success and was adapted into a film in 1989.

    The Girl in the Blue Beret (2011)

    The Girl in the Blue Beret is a novel about an American World War II soldier, Marshall Stone, who is shot down in occupied Belgium. Years later, Marshall returns to the sight of the crash and remembers the people who helped him escape the Nazis. Among his saviors was a teenage girl who wore a blue beret and guided him through Paris. Marshall sets out on a journey to find the people who helped him escape, particularly the girl in the blue beret.

    Dear Ann (2020)

    Mason’s most recent novel, Dear Ann, tells the story of a young woman from rural Kentucky who moved to New England in the 1960s to pursue her graduate degree. There, she fell in love with a boy named Jimmy and became caught up in the Summer of Love and the many changes sweeping the country. Now an older woman, Ann takes a cruise with her ailing husband and wonders what would have happened if she had made different choices in her youth.

    Dear Ann was long-listed for the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award and included on Kirkus’ list of best books of the year.

    Bobbie Ann Mason’s Short Stories

    Bobbie Ann Mason has written several collections of short stories, the best-known of which is Shiloh and Other Stories.

    Shiloh and Other Stories (1982)

    Shiloh and Other Stories was Mason’s first published work of fiction and critical success as a writer. The collection won the 1983 PEN/Hemingway Award for a debut work of fiction, and many of the collection’s twelve stories have been widely anthologized and are considered modern American classics.

    The stories in Shiloh and Other Stories explore the lives of working-class people in Western Kentucky, including the ins and outs of everyday life and the changes in rural America. The book is an excellent example of Mason’s Kmart realism, with references to brand names and other elements of mass culture that play important roles in the lives of her characters.

    Bobbie Ann Mason, semi truck, StudySmarterThe protagonist of “Shilo” is a former truck driver.

    In the title story, “Shiloh,” a long-haul trucker named Leroy struggles to connect with his wife after an injury leaves him unable to work and, therefore, homebound for the first time in fifteen years. He feels like his wife is slipping away from him. In an effort to bring them back together, he suggests they visit a Civil War memorial in Shiloh, Tennessee. When they arrive, however, his wife announces that she wants to end their marriage. The story explores themes of change, loss, and history with Mason’s signature working-class protagonists.

    Bobbie Ann Mason’s Nonfiction

    Bobbie Ann Mason has also published several works of nonfiction, including the critical analysis The Girl Sleuth, the biography Elvis Presley (2002), and the memoir Clear Springs: A Memoir (1999).

    Clear Springs: A Memoir

    Bobbie Ann Mason’s memoir, Clear Springs, explores the writer’s childhood on a Western Kentucky dairy farm and her path to becoming a successful author. Through telling the stories of her parents, grandparents, and herself, Mason illustrates her own journey as well as how rural America has changed over the decades.

    Clear Springs was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

    Bobbie Ann Mason: Awards

    Bobbie Ann Mason has won and been considered for several awards and fellowships, including:

    • Awarded the PEN/Hemingway Award for Shiloh and Other Stories
    • Nominated for the National Book Award for Shiloh and Other Stories
    • Awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship
    • Awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship
    • Awarded the Kentucky Book Award for Elvis Presley and The Girl in the Blue Beret
    • Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Clear Springs
    • Long-listed for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Dear Ann

    Bobbie Ann Mason - Key takeaways

    • Bobbie Ann Mason was born in Mayfield, Kentucky, on May 1, 1940.
    • Mason obtained her Ph.D. in literature but did not consider the possibility of becoming a writer until the late 1970s when she began submitting short stories to The New Yorker.
    • Mason’s first story was published in The New Yorker in 1980, followed by her first collection of short stories, Shiloh and Other Stories, in 1982, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award.
    • Mason is known for her minimalist writing style and Kmart realism that explores the lives of working-class people in Western Kentucky.
    • She has published several novels, collections of short stories, and works of nonfiction, including a memoir and a biography of Elvis Presley.

    1Mervyn Rothstein. “Bobbie Ann Mason’s Border States.” The New York Times. 1988.

    2Joel Conarroe. “Winning Her Father’s War.” The New York Times. 1985.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Bobbie Ann Mason

    What was the name of Mason’s first novel?

    Mason’s first novel was In Country, published in 1985.

    Where is Bobbie Ann Mason from?

    Bobbie Ann Mason is from Mayfield in Western Kentucky.

    Who is Bobbie Ann Mason?

    Bobbie Ann Mason is an American writer from Kentucky.

    Is Bobbie Ann Mason married?

    Bobbie Ann Mason married the writer and editor Roger Rawlings in 1969.

    What is the theme of “Shiloh” by Bobbie Ann Mason?

    Bobbie Ann Mason’s story “Shiloh” explore themes of loss, change, and history in the life of one of her signature working-class protagonists.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which university did Bobbie Ann Mason NOT attend?

    True or false? Bobbie Ann Mason had her heart set on becoming a writer from childhood.

    Which of Bobbie Ann Mason’s novels was adapted into a film?


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