Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

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Ruth Franklin does the world a great service by shining a steady biographical spotlight on this completely forgotten writer. Shirley Jackson is most known to us (if at all) as the author of the creepy tale, The Lottery, which caused a sensation when originally published in The New Yorker, which at the time did not distinguish its fiction pieces from non-fiction as it does now with a label. People believed the story was true, that a village in the Northeast would draw lots to find out who would get stoned to death. I read this and some of her other stories a few months ago without much enthusiasm, but now that I have the full backstory of Jackson’s life, I’m eager to read more.

Jackson was born in San Francisco, lived in Ashbury Heights, then the outer Richmond, then her family moved south to Burlingame, finally uprooting to Rochester NY for a transfer her father received when Jackson was a teen. Her troubles with her mother started early, Shirley was not the type of girl to really care about her appearance but her mom was a clotheshorse and fashion plate and nagged her all her life about how she looked in letters that crossed the country to plant daggers in Shirley’s heart. She eventually escapes the house, goes to college, starts writing, meets Stanley Hyman whom she marries. She publishes stories here and there, finding success, and settles into being a mother and wife.

Four months after “The Lottery” was published, Jackson arrived at the hospital to give birth to her third child. As she would tell it, the clerk who admitted her ask her to state her occupation. “Writer,” she answered. “Housewife,” the clerk suggested. “Writer,” Jackson repeated. “I’ll just put down housewife,” the clerk told her.

Throughout her life, she was fascinated by the occult, magic. Witchcraft was important to Jackson because it symbolized female strength and potency. Franklin writes:

“The witchcraft chronicles she treasured, written by male historians often men of the church who sought to demonstrate that witches presented a serious threat to Christian morality, are stories of powerful women: women who defy social norms, women who get what they desire, women who can channel the power of the devil himself… To call oneself a witch is to claim some of that power.”

As Jackson grew more successful, her unfaithful, strict, unproductive writer husband grew bitter. Invited to read at the Cummington School of the Arts in the Berkshires, Hyman “annoyed by the attention being paid to her, grumbled that she went on ‘interminably.'”

Jackson joined the Pen and Brush, a Greenwich Village club for women in the arts. “She was especially pleased that Hyman, who didn’t ‘belong to anything yet except the folklore society, which doesn’t have a bar,’ wasn’t allowed in unless she accompanied him.”

She gains more and more success, all while raising four children and running the house while also being the primary breadwinner as her husband carried on countless affairs while teaching at Bennington College. Her anxiety is brought on by him, Hyman berating her for writing letters (worth $40 a page at her story rates!) instead of churning out the stories that paid for their lives. She gains weight and suffers health problems, before eventually dying before her 49th birthday.

Definitely interested in reading more of Ms Jackson.