The Southern Literary Journal 36.2 (2004) 47-58
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"I Keep Looking Back to See Where I've Been":
Bobbie Ann Mason's Clear Springs and Henry David Thoreau's Walden
The title of Bobbie Ann Mason's memoir, Clear Springs, refers both to the small town in Western Kentucky near the farm where Mason grew up and to the attempt to see clearly, the goal for which she struggles throughout the book. Mason demonstrates in Clear Springs that "to write about nature is to write about how the mind sees nature, and something about how the mind sees itself" (Cameron 44). Throughout the memoir, references to nature relate to learning to see and to leaving or returning home, central issues the memoir explores. Learning to see also relates to maturity, personal growth, and philosophical insights, notions that parallel transcendental principles posed by Henry David Thoreau, who also alludes to seeing clearly throughout Walden and his journals. For Thoreau, clear perception leads to spiritual awakening, the central metaphor he uses to illustrate individual growth. In Clear Springs, Mason builds on Thoreau's notion of clear perception and spiritual awakening to represent variations of mythical journeys.
The structure of Mason's Clear Springs parallels that of Thoreau's two-year stay at Walden, which he condenses to one year for the purpose of unity. Opening in Spring 1994 and closing in October 1996, the first and final chapters frame Mason's memoir, which covers a time span of three generations of Masons who have resided in Clear Springs. [End Page 47] As does Thoreau's Walden, Mason's Clear Springs follows the outline of the seasons: it begins "It is late spring" (3). It opens after Mason has returned to her former home, where she gathers her thoughts while "wrestling with pondweed" (3), an activity that she concludes brings her "unexpected satisfaction" and inspires her to identify with nature: "I am a product of this ground" (3; 6). Her physical motions are juxtaposed against her mental deliberations, which conclude with her insight that she has betrayed her farming heritage by "leaving the land" in pursuit of goals that have inspired her to live in various cities across the United States (3). Mason says that, although she prefers to "admire" the "lovely" pondweed, her mother feels it "is her enemy" (3). The opening chapter relates the themes of the memoir to seasonal changes: "Now it's winter. What happened to my generation? What happened to me and my generation? What made us leave home and abandon the old ways? Why did we lose our knowledge of nature? Why wasn't it satisfying? Why would only rock-and-roll music do? What did we want?" (11). Packed with references to nature and situated in outdoor, rustic settings that define the memoir as nature literature, the opening chapter highlights important philosophies that provide interesting interpretative tools for what otherwise might be an ordinary autobiography.
Repeatedly throughout the memoir in a motif that parallels Mason's internal conflict, the question arises whether it is better to stay home, near a close-knit family and familiar surroundings, or to venture into the unknown and risk danger for the possibility of a more fulfilling life. Recalling that she had desired to travel to "find out what was out there" and describing "the wide world [she] eventually left home to see," Mason reveals that she had left Kentucky immediately after graduating from college, only to discover that she felt uncomfortable in New York: "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" (279). Upon returning home, she recognizes the freedom she and her siblings have experienced by having had both a familiar home base and opportunities to veer from home: "We've been free to roam, because we've always known where home is" (13).
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