Table of Contents
3. In Country: Content and Form
3.3. Narrative Technique
4. Socio-economic and Cultural Background
4.1. The Vietnam War
4.2. The Countercultures of the 1960s and 1970s
5. Blurring the Boundaries
5.1. “Reality” and “Representation”
5.2. “High” and “Low” Culture
5.3. “Man” and Woman”
5.4. “The North” and “The South”
Bobbie Ann Mason is one of the most important southern female writers at the end of the 20th century. Joseph M. Flora in his contribution to the The History of Southern Women’s Literature notes that “apart from Eudora Welty, few have more national visibility” (550). A number of Mason’s short stories were re-published in anthologies (see KcKee 359); her novel In Country became part of the syllabus in many high schools and colleges since its publication in 1985, and the 1989 Hollywood film adaptation starring Bruce Willis made her work accessible to an even broader audience. The critics have also shown a keen interest in her work as the huge number of overwhelmingly positive literary reviews and academic publications demonstrate (see Flora, Fiction 282-285). The topics Mason raises in her work seem to strike a chord with both the general as well as the professional readers. As one scholar put it, the most important innovation of the contemporary realist authors such as Mason “is their ability to portray the experiences of people from a lower economic class with realism, complexity, and dignity”. (Hovis, K Mart 395f.) In her work, Bobbie Ann Mason describes a contemporary southern society from a white working-class perspective, mostly places and characters that are well known to her, without looking down on what could be perceived as their lack of education or backwardness. It also reflects the socio-economic, historical and cultural changes and the loss of traditional certainties that the U.S., and in her case particularly the rural and semi-rural areas of Kentucky, have faced over the last century. In In Country, Mason pays homage to the countercultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s that have played a pivotal role in the shaping of western societies as we know them today; the all-pervading theme, however, is the Vietnam War and its aftermath. This paper will focus on a particular aspect fostered by the historical events and developments of the 1960s and 1970s, namely the dissolution of conventional binary oppositions such as that of “Man” and “Woman”, elitist and mass culture, reality and fiction, past and present, “the North” and “the South” and the trespassing of boundaries in Mason’s novel In Country.
Mason’s life itself is characterised by various acts of transgression. Born on 1 May 1940 in Mayfield, a small town in western Kentucky, she spent her childhood on her parents’ dairy farm (see Price 1) but later went on to live in bigger towns, and even in New York, before returning to rural Kentucky (a farm near Lexington) in 1990.
As a result of the transfer from a small country school to Mayfield High School, which she attended from 1954 to 1958, she became aware for the first time that she was different from the norm, a working-class “country bumpkin” in an alien environment. More experiences of “culture shock” were to follow as an undergraduate studying for a B.A. in English at the University of Kentucky (1958–1962) and then again when she moved northeast to the urban centre of New York City in order to work as a writer for movie fanzines (1962 – 1963).
After this short excursion into the world of commercial publishing, she went back to academia and received an M.A. in English from State University of New York (1966). In 1972, she concluded a Ph.D. program at the University of Connecticut with a dissertation on Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Ada.
Entering the world of higher education and a more exciting life in the capital again meant, however, that Mason “teeter-tottered between two worlds”. As she put it herself, “As I struggled to become sophisticated, my folks, and their country culture were always present in the deepest part of my being. Yet I was estranged from them, just as I was a stranger there in the North. I was an exile in both places” (Mason, Springs xi).
Having married fellow student and future academic Roger B. Rawlings in 1969, the couple went to live in Pennsylvania, where Mason’s husband held a teaching post at Mansfield State College. While taking up a part-time teaching job there herself, she started to pursue her career as a writer. Her first two publications are of an academic nature. They demonstrate the broadness of her interests, as one is a study on Nabokov’s highly sophisticated Ada and the other ventures into the rather different world of popular girl’s detective stories (The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide to the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew and Their Sisters published in 1975). Thus, it becomes obvious that for her, no distinction between “high” culture versus popular mass culture exists, both are deemed worthy subjects of academic study. Popular culture had already played an eminent role in her life as a teenager, when she had written and edited her own fan magazine for a Kentuckian “boy band” called The Hilltoppers. This continuous interest in popular culture, especially in pop music, film and television, is reflected in her literary work as well, and particularly prominent in In Country.
Mason left her teaching position in order to become a full-time writer in 1979 and her first short stories were published in The New Yorker in 1980. They were later compiled under the title Shilo and Other Stories (1982); a book that found immediate critical acclaim and won her a number of awards and fellowships. Mason has since published further short stories, novels and a memoir. Her autobiographical as well as her fictional work is distinctly based on her own biographical background. According to Kathryn McKee, “[t]he rolling countryside of western Kentucky serves as the touchstone for much of her personal life and the setting for a majority of her fiction, located in and around the imagined community of Hopewell, Ky” (358).
3. In Country : Content and Form
The small south-western town of Hopewell, that Joseph Flora calls “a fictionalized Mayfield, another name carrying possibility in its first syllable” (552), also provides most of the setting for her first novel In Country. The story spans over just a month in the summer of 1984, or as expressed in the novel by Mason’s main character and figural narrator Sam(antha) Hughes, “It was the summer of the Michael Jackson Victory tour and the Bruce Springsteen Born in the U.S.A. tour” (Mason, Country 23).
17-year old Sam Hughes and her quest for her father, who died in the Vietnam War before she was born, and also for her own future, are at the centre of Mason’s novel. She desperately wants to understand the past, the Vietnam experience of her father Dwayne as well as that of her uncle Emmett Smith (35), a Vietnam War veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, who lives with her in a crumbling house in Hopewell, together with their flee-infested cat Moon Pie.
Her mother Irene’s former life as a young Vietnam War widow turned hippie in the late 1960s is also part of Sam’s search for her roots. Irene has since moved up the social ladder through marriage to a bourgeois white-collar worker. She has a new baby, goes to psychology classes and now lives in Lexington, a much larger Kentuckian town. As Sam has just finished high school, she now faces the decision of what to do next. Her mother wants her to join her and attend the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Sam, however, believes that it would be wrong to leave her uncle Emmett behind, just as Irene had done. She thinks he cannot manage without her and also tries very hard to reconcile Emmett and his former girlfriend Anita.
Sam’s move to Lexington would also mean leaving behind her hunky but a bit dim boyfriend Lonnie, with whom she will, however, finish during that summer anyway. Staying with Lonnie, she reckons, would eventually result in settling down in Hopewell, becoming a wife and mother: a fate she is not willing to subscribe to, unlike her pregnant friend Dawn who seems quite happy to do so. Furthermore, when Sam becomes involved with Emmett’s vet friends, she develops a crush on one of them, Tom, a car mechanic.
Sam’s grandparents on her fathers and mothers side represent a much older generation and different, more traditional lifestyle, in stark contrast to Sam’s and Emmett’s: Especially Dwayne’s parents, Mamaw and Pap Hughes, who live on a farm outside the town, incorporate the hard life and backward attitudes of rural society, invoked also by their use of dialectal expressions in the novel. Sam, on the other hand, is a thoroughly modern girl, she does part-time jobs, loves hanging out in shopping malls with her friends, takes contraceptive pills, occasionally drinks alcohol and from time to time smokes a joint provided by her uncle Emmett.
The latter, although an outsider since his return from Vietnam, is nevertheless liked by many. Emmett doesn’t believe in steady work and in general rejects what he sees as a very backward way of living in Hopewell. By the 1980s, he has become rather sedate in his ways, in contrast to the 1960s, his wild years, when he had brought a group of hippies and with it a short whiff of counterculture to the small town.
In Country consists of three distinctive parts. Part One and Three, which describe Sam, Emmett and Mamaw Hughes’ trip to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., are mostly written in the present tense and therefore creating a sense of great immediacy. Right from the beginning, we as readers are thrown “in medias res”, and despite some explicatory sentences about age and relationship of the three characters, a lot of questions remain open: Why are they going to Washington? What happened during that summer? What happened in the swamp? (see Mason, Country 3-8) These “gaps of meaning” build up a kind of suspense; and the answers to these riddles will eventually be revealed in the middle part, which is written in the past tense. In cinematic terms, one would speak of a flashback. A few pages into the third part, when the narration returns to the trio travelling towards Washington (Mason, Country 236), this is reflected on the linguistic level by switching back into present tense.
 The majority of biographical information is taken from Wilhelm 162-165. When additional sources were used, they are indicated in the main body.