BookMarks: Another surprise ending for Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson is really hot right now! A visit to my local independent bookstore's fiction section revealed 13 volumes of her work, easily outdistancing Henry James, her nearest neighbor on the shelf, and a quick perusal of Amazon.com found 48 separate titles being offered. There's also the celebration of her work and life each year on Shirley Jackson Day in late June in North Bennington, her home for the final 30 years of her life, and the annual Shirley Jackson Awards given since 2007 to the outstanding work from the prior year in multiple categories. Finally, as reviewed below, there is the recent reissue of the only short story collection published in her lifetime, a recent graphic novel treatment of "The Lottery," and an award-winning biography published on the centenary of her birth. The result has been intense attention focused on the estimable Ms. Jackson.
This level of interest would not have been surprising when Jackson died in 1965 at the age of 49. Her short story, "The Lottery," had caused a huge furor and resulted in instant notoriety when it was published in The New Yorker on June 26, 1948. It went on to become one of the most anthologized short stories in American collections. She had been a nominee for the 1957 National Book Award along with Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Philip Roth (who won for "Goodbye Columbus"). She had reached The New York Times best-seller list with her novel "We Have Always Lived in The Castle" in 1962. Her two humorous books about raising children had been well received by critics and had sold well. She was a frequent and popular speaker at the Bread Loaf Conference, the Columbia Writers Conference, and the Suffield Writer-Reader Conference. Nonetheless, while Bellow, Updike, and Roth have remained best-sellers and household names through the present, by 2000 Shirley Jackson had largely vanished.
Her well-deserved return to the literary scene began with her original publisher, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, reissuing her short story collection, entitled "The Lottery and Other Stories," in 2005. Originally published in 1948 and building on the notoriety of the eponymous title story, these 26 stories are an excellent introduction to her work. Her primary themes — the centrality of the home, the disenchanted housewife, the disorientation of modern life, the intrusion of the evil side of the human psyche disguised as the supernatural — are all here. These stories are set in the smothering intrusiveness of small town New England or the impersonal, cold, dehumanizing, and panic-inducing big city, settings that Jackson repeatedly returned to in her novels and magazine stories. Her life-long fascinations with magic, the devil, and the unnatural are emphasized by the epigrams between each of the four sections which are drawn from an obscure book on witchcraft written in 1681.
"The Lottery," the final story in the volume, remains one of the most chilling and mysterious short stories in the American canon. It has been adapted for radio, television (including an episode of The Simpsons), ballet, opera, and a movie. I read it for the first time more than 50 years ago, and re-reading it was again a powerful experience. It will no doubt be introduced to another new generation of readers in the recently published graphic adaptation "The Lottery: The Authorized Graphic Adaptation" by Jackson's grandson, Miles Hyman. Since there are only sparse excerpts of the text, the reader can focus on the details of the finely drawn illustrations in this graphic novel. It is a powerful presentation of this classic work and provides visual chills and horror that are effective companions to Jackson's words.
Another major contributor to Jackson's re-emergence on the literary scene is the Library of America volume "Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories," published in 2010. Joyce Carol Oates wrote the introduction, and it includes "The Lottery" as well as two of her best novels, "The Haunting of Hill House" and "We Have Always Lived in The Castle." An LOA volume is as close as we come to an official stamp of approval from the academy, and its publication vaulted Jackson back into the forefront of serious contemporary literature.
The reissuance of all of her novels by Penguin Classics in fine-looking, black (how appropriate!) paperback volumes began in 2006 and has continued each year since then. This October saw the publication of the latest volume in this rediscovery, "Dark Tales," described by the publisher as "a collection of Shirley Jackson's scariest stories" and featuring an introduction by the PEN/Hemingway Award winner Ottessa Mashfegh. Its publication was greeted with a positive review in The New York Times by Paul Theroux.
Another new contribution was the publication of "Let Me Tell You," a collection of her work comprising 30 short stories (10 previously unpublished), 10 short pieces about her family, and 16 essays and lectures. Edited by two of her children and with a foreword written by Ruth Franklin, this book appeared in 2015, the year prior to the centenary of her birth.
The publication of Franklin's New York Book Critics Circle award-winning biography, "Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life" (Norton, 2016) was perhaps the biggest boost to the growing interest and fascination with Jackson. Showing admirable restraint in limiting her book to 500 pages (in contrast to Ron Chernow's latest volume on Ulysses S. Grant, which weighs in at 1,074 pages!), Franklin's book is a readable and revealing exploration of Jackson's childhood years in Burlingame, Calif., her education at Rochester and Syracuse universities, her complicated marriage to literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, her life in North Bennington, where she raised her four children, her up and down literary career, and her ultimate success cut short by her untimely death at age 49.
Franklin points to the disapproving and critical mother, the adulterous and domineering husband, and the often confused book reviewers as the antecedents to Jackson's love/hate relationship with her life as a housewife and her joy and agony in writing. Jackson's strength of character to persevere under these circumstances and the superior talents she evinced in her plot and character development make her achievements quite extraordinary. In addition, her themes and observations about a woman's role in the 1950's anticipate much of the tension and accomplishments of the feminist movement in the 1970's and beyond. What Betty Friedan was describing in her non-fiction, Jackson was living and writing about in her novels and stories.
The re-discovery of Shirley Jackson's work is a literary event of major importance in the early years of the 21st century. This writer and explorer of the darker side of the human personality and of American life in both rural and urban settings lived quietly and in relative obscurity in North Bennington for nearly 30 years, a fact that should lead us all to contemplate our neighbors more carefully in the future. Read "The Lottery" and be skeptical of the suggestion that sacrificing any of those among us is the solution for our problems. Even in 1948, Jackson realized that scapegoating and literally sacrificing members of our society was not the way to address the complexities and challenges we face in our lives. She remains a valuable writer to delve into. You don't have to wait for the next "Lottery Day," June 27, 2018, to discover her work!
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville, Vermont and Cambridge, Mass. He can be reached at email@example.com
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