Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

From Shiloh to in Country to Feather Crowns: Bobbie Ann Mason, Women's History, and Southern Fiction

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

From Shiloh to in Country to Feather Crowns: Bobbie Ann Mason, Women's History, and Southern Fiction

Article excerpt

What will it be like to read Bobbie Ann Mason's Shiloh a century from now? Will her specific allusions to the contemporary--to pop music, to brand names, to the backdrop of Kroger's and K-Mart--require a reader to grope and imagine a way towards a particular, not fully recoverable past? Will that future reading reveal Mason's fiction as more accurately described by the term "historical" than by "contemporary," uncovering an unlikely generic resemblance to Edith Wharton's fiction: that is, to fiction that captures a specific culture, still vaguely familiar, but so specifically of a particular time and place--fashionable New York in the early twentieth century or small-town America in the 1980s--that it is also "historical," evoking the details, habits, conflicts, and anxieties of a historical moment?

Shiloh, the historical place name that entitles Mason's first collection, introduces characters inattentive to "the insides of history" (16), who have for the most part even overlooked the "historical" battles in which they themselves have engaged. And while those perhaps postmodern characters experience history as unknowable, Mason is as interested in history as that other, more obviously "historical" author who has used the title Shiloh, Shelby Foote. The conception of history with which each works, however, is entirely different. Foote writes about official history in his Shiloh, although he writes from an unofficial point of view and hopes by doing so to reveal the insides of that history. One of his characters observes that most official histories are omniscient "books about war ... written to be read by God Almighty, because no one but God ever saw it that way." This squadsman, Robert Winter, reasonably proposes that history should be another sort of project, the sort in which Foote himself engages. "A book about war, to be read by men, ought to tell what each of the twelve of us saw in our own little corner. Then it would be the way it was--not to God but to us" (164). Foote's project, marked by the twentieth-century emphasis on point of view in history as well as narrative, is nonetheless about official history, and so it is easily placed in Southern literary tradition. By contrast, Mason's fit in that tradition is less obvious. This indistinct fit is not peculiar to Mason: she is not the only Southern woman writer who might seem to be ahistorical, but who, on second glance, has another conception of what constitutes an interest in "history," seen from a different "little corner." Mason could be taken as representative of Southern women writers who, largely without anyone noticing, have been transforming Southern literature's characteristic attention to official history. But studies of Southern literature have repeatedly found women writers inattentive to "History" and, in the all-too-recent past, even placed women writers apart, omitting them from the construction of "Southern literature" in defense of a categorizing notion applied with a too-limited sense of what history is. (Barbara Ladd helps me make this point with her recent protest against the persisting tendency to read Eudora Welty as an "ahistorical" writer, a misreading that Ladd suggests has its premises in "gender in general and William Faulkner in particular," before suggesting that Welty strategically obstructs Faulkner's very male notion of history when she displaces the assumptions of Go Down Moses with those of The Golden Apples.)

Mason, like other Southern women writers, attends history not as Foote and Faulkner have but as women's historians of recent decades have, re-centering it. For them, history is not the chronicle of great deeds and greater battles, borders, treaties, and territories, but an account of lives lived on the margins of official history and culture--of lives silent in history because, by race, class, or gender, they lacked access to official power and event. This new history, like Mason's novel Feather Crowns, contextualizes the prescriptions and taboos of gender behaviors as well as of class and race relationships, locating and examining among other things, sexual mores by focusing on such previously "ahistorical" subject matter as the conventions of childbirth. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.