The name Shiloh customarily refers to the civil war battle near Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, where nearly 24,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were wounded or killed on April 6 and April 7, 1862. In Bobbie Ann Mason’s 1982 story, however, the name resonates with other sorts of battle: those between husband and wife, tradition and change, masculinity and femininity, the old and the new. Winner of the Ernest Hemingway award, the story begins soon after 34-year-old LeRoy Moffitt, a truck driver who had spent 15 years on the road, returns home because of a serious leg injury resulting from an accident. In the opening lines, LeRoy’s wife, Norma Jean Moffitt, also 34, is lifting weights to enlarge her pectoral muscles. “Shiloh” depicts the increasingly distinct battle lines as the two characters come to grips with their changing relationship. The story is told largely through the marijuana-befuddled observations of LeRoy (he learns that his name means “king”), whose unwelcome proposal to build a log cabin demonstrates his vague yearning to return to a simpler time when men’s and women’s roles were sharply defined.
LeRoy is in a time warp, and, once home, he struggles to understand the changes that have taken place in his part of western Kentucky. The farmers who used to play checkers in the courthouse square have departed; in their place are sprawling subdivisions and a new shopping center where LeRoy buys marijuana. He can fathom these changes no more than he comprehends the changes in his relationship with Norma Jean; he only dimly sees that “something is happening” (12). As the narrator comments, “the real inner workings of a marriage, like most of history, have escaped him” (17).
Norma Jean works at the cosmetic counter in the local drugstore. The story makes clear that she is limited by her work and its “creams, toners, and moisturizers” (4); her mother, Mabel Beasley, who treats her as an adolescent and urges her to take a “second honeymoon” with LeRoy (14); and LeRoy himself, whose years on speed and marijuana render him incapable of sustained thought. We learn that the two married because Norma Jean was several months pregnant; ironically, the baby, Randy, died of sudden infant death syndrome when he was only four months old. The allusion to Norma Jean Baker (a.k.a. Marilyn Monroe) and her complicated life may be interpreted in at least two different ways: From the most obvious perspective, Marilyn Monroe is an iconic sex symbol representing one traditional and limiting option for women. From another, however, as suggested by Mason’s use of flight imagery in the story, Monroe rose above her disheartening background, which included illegitimacy, rape, and incest, to demonstrate women’s potential to succeed.
In making Shiloh central to the story, Mason may also be alluding to Shel Silverstein’s haunting ballad “In the Hills of Shiloh,” made popular by the singer Judy Collins in the 1960s. The song opens with the question “Have you seen Amanda Blaine in the hills of Shiloh?” as she wanders mournfully through wind, rain, and mist in her yellowed wedding gown, seeking a lover who never returned. The end of the song reveals that the battle ended 40 years ago, but the distraught and uncomprehending bride continues to mourn and to seek her lost husband. If, traditionally, Shiloh evokes the thousands of lost and grieving widows of the post–Civil War South, then Norma Jean flatly flaunts that tradition. Although, like Amanda, Norma Jean is mournful and sad throughout much of the story, the cause of her dissatisfaction lies not in her longing for her husband, but in the fact that her husband has returned home. Having graduated from her bodybuilding course and now enrolled in a college English course where she is learning to write, she improves both body and mind and discovers that her name derives from the Norman “invaders,” endowing her with power. On her trip with LeRoy to Shiloh, Norma Jean, as does Amanda, seems to wander “aimlessly through the park, past bluffs and trails and steep ravines” (15). Unlike Amanda, however, she is driving the car, piloting herself, and she is heading definitively toward this statement: “I want to leave you,” she tells LeRoy (16).
As with the Battle of Shiloh, which, despite catastrophic losses of life, did not result in victory for either side, an uncertainty inheres in the ending of the story as Norma Jean walks away, gazes across the Tennessee River, and waves her arms. “Is she beckoning to him?” (17). Or is she performing chest muscle exercises? The open ending evokes the marriages of the grieving Amanda Blaine; Norma Jean’s widowed mother, Mabel, who spent her honeymoon in Shiloh; and Norma Jean herself, the New Woman of the New South who knows that, despite the ambiguity and irresolution embodied in the ending, she has vanquished the traditions and customs that nearly defeated her.
Ditsky, John. “Following a Serpentine Path: The Fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason.” In Companion to Contemporary Literature in English. New York: Twayne, 2003.
Mason, Bobbie Ann. Shiloh and Other Stories. New York: Harper, 1982.
Morphew, G. O. “Downhome Feminists in Shiloh and Other Stories.” Southern Literary Journal 21, no. 2 (1989): 41–49.
Price, Joanna. Understanding Bobbie Ann Mason. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
Wilhelm, Albert E. “Private Rituals: Coping with Change in the Fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason.” Midwest Quarterly 28 (1987): 271–282.