Sunday, October 17, 2021

Back home

I've long been a fan of Bobbie Ann Mason, whose short stories and novels, at one time consigned to the so-called "kitchen sink" school of Realism, dramatize the lives of people whose ceiling may be low and options relatively few, and whose everyday conflicts materialize in small homes in small towns, yet are, of course, no less profound for that. An elevator pitch for her oeuvre might be something along the lines of "Larry Brown minus the violence and baneful manliness," but that description would circumscribe both authors, and so wouldn't be terribly fair, though it is pretty accurate. With its unadorned language and quiet, uneventful resolutions, Mason's work illustrates the idea that an entire universe of moral decisions and personal disappointments, and a graphic blend of resentments and redemptions, exists in every town, population 2,500 or fewer. 

I finally got around to reading her memoir Clear Springs, which was published in 1999. Befitting the author, the book is autobiography that feels like fiction, as Mason's first-person voice and sensibilities are very similar to many of her imagined protagonists. I often half-seriously ask my students if we should be skeptical of any memoir that's written with quoted dialogue (that is, virtually every memoir) as any conversation from the past that wasn't recorded or filmed is reimagined. Thus opens the barn door marked Fictionalizing. Clear Springs reveals that Mason has long been an acutely autobiographical writer, and she clearly kept her fiction writer's toolbox open as she wrote this affecting portrait of generations of her family, the Mason's and the Lee's: the book's spiky with narrative details, full scenes, and a built-in dramatic purpose. As memoirs go, Clear Springs is certainly contrived—not fictionalized, I don't think, rather consciously arranged into a novelistic shape that's pleasing to read, if carefully composed. Like many autobiographies, Clear Springs, which begins as an account of Mason's early farm life in western Kentucky, her early reckonings with the vastness and pleasures of the imaginative life, her burgeoning love affair with books and reading, and her education and subsequent departure from and return to Kentucky, is finally a family memoir. Mason spends many pages outlining her family tree and wrestling with the implications of the severe limitations of the hardscrabble lives her parents, grand-parents, and great-grand parents endured, various absent or scandalous male figures, and the circumscribed lives of so many around her who were born into a rural life at near-poverty and felt forever tattooed by those facts. 

Clear Springs warms in its final third, as Mason, at this point in her life a celebrated author of several books, including a novel (In Country) that has been adapted by Hollywood, returns to her hometown (more or less) to live, wanting to be nearer to her family after decades of trying to shed them and the stigma she felt that she invariably shared. In the final chapters, Mason focusses on her mother Christy, who after her husband dies, grudgingly moves from the farm and homestead where she lived virtually all of entire life to a new home. As the memoir closes, Mason ends up with more questions than answers (a corollary to the quest of art itself, it seems to me) wondering on the implications of the stark emotional reticence she grew up with and the low ceiling of expectations her extended families grew up under, most of them ordinary farm folk who felt tethered to the land they both loved and silently feared, given its annual, indifferent doling out of tragedy and heartbreaks. Her musings on her mother's missed opportunities and her inevitable fate dovetails with affecting, and loving, portraits of her in her old age, and by the end Christy Mason becomes as dimensional and memorable as any fictional character her daughter imagined into being. This is partly because Mason has deep affection for her mother, and partly because by the end of the memoir she comes to identify with her so profoundly. Writing about one's family can be terribly difficult; to do the heavy lifting one must reimagine, must re-see, one's family as subject matter, not simply an unruly blend of lore and deeply felt memories, some acute, some abstract—a certain critical distance is necessary, and Mason manages that distance in her memoir without losing sight of the personal stakes for herself, as both a writer and a daughter. Mason never sacrifices self-interrogation or reflection for the gently pleasing shapes of her reads-like-a-novel book.


In a fascinating passage near the end, Mason writes about her life-long tendency, in conversations, to shy away from her rural upbringing, working through the mild shame and embarrassment she feels as a  Southerner by alternating between retreating from her roots and trumpeting them as a means of baffling her supposed superiors into silence. "I have met people who left their country origins behind, seemingly with ease and good riddance, in favor of the delights of urban fellowship and opportunity," she writes. 
I have dared repeatedly to plunge in over my head, but with my country reserve, I can’t casually summon the knowledge I’ve gathered and jump into intellectual conversations; I can’t serve on a committee or run for office or feel easy at a cocktail party. The rural temperament still has a hold on me that I won’t let go.
Fascinating, then, and poignant, that she finds the way to express her past and her culture in fiction by imagining folks who look, sound, and feel just like members of her own family, her friends, and herself, and putting them through the paces of working through deeply recognizable conflicts and within plots that look like the action outside her Kentucky window. Luckily, Mason also felt that telling such truths while naming them in autobiography can be an equally valuable and artistically satisfying way out, and back in.
Family tree via Clear Springs

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