Shirley Jackson Is Finally Getting the Appreciation She Deserves
Shirley Jackson is best known for her macabre 1948 short story “The Lottery,” about villagers who gather once a year to ritually murder a randomly chosen victim. Ruth Franklin, author of the new biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, says that the story turned Jackson into an overnight sensation.
“‘The Lottery’ came along and cemented Shirley’s reputation,” Franklin says in Episode 225 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “Her fees for stories increased dramatically, to the extent that within a few years she was going to be the family’s breadwinner, an extremely unusual role for a woman of her period.”
Jackson’s other works include Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, which chronicle the adventures of her four children, as well as unsettling novels like The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The common thread connecting all these works is an intense concern with the lives of women.
“You can literally count on one hand the number of male protagonists in her stories,” Franklin says. “I think that’s part of the reason that she didn’t win the kind of acceptance that she deserved.”
Critics openly derided Jackson’s books about motherhood, considering the subject matter trivial. And though her darker tales explored women’s sense of alienation in ways that powerfully prefigured The Feminine Mystique, her writing didn’t fit the mold of what critics regarded as “the Great American Novel.”
“Needless to say that they were mostly male critics at the time,” Franklin says.
“It’s really only over the past decade or so, I’d say, that serious and important academic criticism is being done of Jackson’s work,” Franklin says. “And now of course all of her novels are back in print, as well as her comic memoirs, and she’s been deservedly praised for writing in both forms.”
Listen to our complete interview with Ruth Franklin in Episode 225 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Ruth Franklin on Shirley Jackson’s mother:
“Her mother was kind of a classic socialite, and one of my favorite discoveries in the archive, actually, was a notebook that had on its cover a picture of a very demure young woman, with curls, I think in some kind of silk dress, maybe with pearls on. And the title of the picture, written underneath, was ‘The Debutante.’ And someone—I’m assuming it was Jackson, obviously I can’t say for sure—but someone had taken a pencil and scratched out the face of this woman. And that seemed to me to say so much about what Shirley Jackson as a teenager thought of her mother’s aspirations for her to become a debutante in her mother’s socialite mode. It just wasn’t something that she was ever interested in at all.”
Ruth Franklin on Shirley Jackson’s husband:
“They met at Syracuse University, then as now a popular school for people who wanted to go into journalism, and that’s definitely how Stanley Hyman identified himself. He decided that he wanted to be a critic when he was still in high school, and went to Syracuse, and then one day during his sophomore year he picked up a college literary magazine that had been produced by Shirley’s creative writing class. And the story goes that he flipped through the magazine and said that just about everything in it was junk, but he settled on one story that was really interesting, and after he read it he declared that he was going to marry its author. Unfortunately all the principals are no longer alive to verify the accuracy of this story, but it is the legend that has grown up around their meeting.”
Ruth Franklin on the Red Scare:
“The investigation was triggered because one of the cartons of books fell off this moving truck, and the mover happened to notice that it was filled with communist material, and reported it to the local FBI office. Part of the reason the FBI became interested in Stanley as a target was because the neighbors reported that he had so many books. There were so many books in the house that the FBI thought it might be a storehouse of communist material. Of course it wasn’t, it was simply the library of two incredibly well-read and intellectually curious people. … I think it’s so ironic to learn that the author of ‘The Lottery’ in fact was spied on by her neighbors, who reported her activity to the FBI.”
Ruth Franklin on “The Lottery”:
“The New Yorker said at the time that [the story] generated more letters than the magazine had ever before received for a work of fiction, and Jackson loved to talk about these letters in a lecture that she often gave about the writing of ‘The Lottery.’ She emphasized how vicious they were, that she got all this hate mail, people called her names, and they canceled their subscriptions. And she wasn’t exaggerating about these letters, she received hundreds of them. … But what I found when I went through them was that they weren’t as angry as she made them out to be. Mostly they were confused. People were really and truly disturbed by ‘The Lottery,’ so distressed that they felt called upon to write into the magazine for an answer to this burning question they felt of, ‘What on Earth does this story mean?’”