In Other Words

Liveright/W.W. Nor­ton, 607 pages

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS -

Shirley Jack­son: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin; Ghost Songs: A Mem­oir by Regina McBride

The re­cent out­ing of anony­mous nov­el­ist Elena Fer­rante’s iden­tity stirs old ques­tions about the pur­pose of lit­er­ary biography. Why do we, as read­ers, seek to know the per­son be­hind the books, and do we have any right to that knowl­edge? What part of the writer’s biography en­riches, or is even rel­e­vant to, the works of art they have pro­duced?

Shirley Jack­son’s short story “The Lot­tery,” for which she is mostly re­mem­bered to­day, is leg­endary for hav­ing gen­er­ated an enor­mous amount of hate mail and can­celed sub­scrip­tions to The

New Yorker, where it orig­i­nally ap­peared in 1948. Read­ers were by turns hor­ri­fied and fas­ci­nated by Jack­son’s plainly worded tale of a small town’s grue­some an­nual rite — one that seemed like it could have hap­pened any­where. In the first two months of its pub­li­ca­tion, Jack­son’s sub­se­quent col­lec­tion sold 5,000 copies, an “un­heard of” sum for a book of short sto­ries. But driv­ing the mar­ket for Jack­son’s macabre sen­si­bil­i­ties — part of an Amer­i­can Gothic lin­eage that traces back to Edgar Al­lan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James and on dis­play in Jack­son’s do­mes­tic creep­ers like The Haunt­ing of Hill House and We Have Al­ways Lived in the Cas­tle — was a cer­tain pub­lic cu­rios­ity: What kind of per­son delves so deeply into the dark im­pulses of the hu­man psy­che?

The ti­tle of Ruth Franklin’s ab­sorb­ing, rev­e­la­tory look at Jack­son’s life is a riff on pub­lisher Roger Straus’ one­time char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of Jack­son as a “haunted woman,” but Straus’ la­bel is an in­com­plete assess­ment at best. Jack­son was best­selling in her time but crit­i­cally un­der­rated, then and now, her best-known works of­ten dis­missed as genre fic­tion. She took a strong hand in craft­ing a con­tra­dic­tory im­age: one part spell-cast­ing nov­el­ist who dab­bled in the oc­cult, one part un­sink­able house­wife and proud mother of four. Jacket copy for her books touted her as “per­haps the only con­tem­po­rary writer who is a prac­tic­ing ama­teur witch, spe­cial­iz­ing in small-scale black magic,” while an oft-quoted reviewer noted that “Miss Jack­son writes not with a pen but with a broom­stick.” The au­thor en­joyed play­ing up this rep­u­ta­tion, once tak­ing credit for us­ing witch­craft to break the leg of pub­lisher Al­fred A. Knopf, with whom her hus­band, critic Stan­ley Edgar Hy­man, was feud­ing. But Jack­son also deftly chron­i­cled her fam­ily life in a se­ries of light­hearted Erma Bombeck-es­que ar­ti­cles that she se­ri­ally sold to women’s mag­a­zines like Ladies’ Home Jour­nal. The col­lec­tions of these pieces, Life Among the Sav­ages and Rais­ing Demons, paint a sunny, if un­con­ven­tional, pic­ture of her do­mes­tic life that is some­what at odds with her fic­tional por­traits of psy­cho­log­i­cal sus­pense, all also set in the home. Franklin writes that Jack­son’s fic­tion in­ves­ti­gates not only “the kinds of psy­chic dam­age to which women are es­pe­cially prone,” but also so­ci­etal at­ti­tudes to­ward un­mar­ried women and the par­tic­u­lar lone­li­ness of the un­happy homemaker. Jack­son’s death in 1965 of heart fail­ure at the age of forty-eight, fol­low­ing a pe­riod of ill health and seclu­sion that seems to have been ex­ac­er­bated by her hus­band’s lat­est ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fair, un­der­scores the tragedy lurk­ing around ev­ery cor­ner in her fic­tion.

Young Jack­son’s trou­ble also be­gan at home. Her dom­i­neer­ing mother was dis­ap­pointed in Shirley’s plain face, red hair, and slovenly ways — and had no prob­lem say­ing so well into her daugh­ter’s adult­hood. It seems no ac­ci­dent that some of Jack­son’s fic­tion fea­tured dys­func­tional moth­ers and daugh­ters and even the oc­ca­sional ma­t­ri­cide. Franklin’s light touch in trac­ing the al­chem­i­cal pro­cess­ing of these bi­o­graph­i­cal de­tails and per­sonal pre­oc­cu­pa­tions into Jack­son’s fic­tion is a strength of this por­trait; Franklin never as­sumes too much but rather presents her case in log­i­cal fash­ion.

At Syra­cuse Univer­sity, Jack­son met Hy­man, a left­ist Jewish in­tel­lec­tual from Brook­lyn. The two be­came fast friends and lovers, started a lit­er­ary mag­a­zine to­gether, and mar­ried in 1940. Af­ter Stan­ley se­cured a full-time job at The New Yorker in 1942, the cou­ple set­tled in New York, and Jack­son got down to the busi­ness of hav­ing ba­bies. The cou­ple eked out a mea­ger liv­ing on Hy­man’s salary as both sought to sell their writ­ing to mag­a­zines. When Hy­man was of­fered a teach­ing gig at Ben­ning­ton Col­lege in Ver­mont, they jumped at the op­por­tu­nity for sta­bil­ity.

Moth­er­hood seems to have cre­atively stim­u­lated Jack­son, who wrote when­ever she could, dream­ing up nar­ra­tives while chang­ing di­a­pers, mak­ing din­ner, and wash­ing dishes. (Hy­man didn’t lift a fin­ger around the house.) Be­cause of her ac­tive mind, Jack­son was ready to type out a story at any given mo­ment, and guests tell of her of­ten with­draw­ing to write dur­ing par­ties and so­cial events. Once she re­tired to her study dur­ing a game of Mo­nop­oly, and “could be heard bang­ing away at her type­writer. Less than an hour later, she emerged with a story that was sent off to her agent the next morn­ing and pub­lished with only a change in punc­tu­a­tion.”

Jack­son’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with her wild, well-loved cadre of chil­dren re­flects her own iso­lated and un­happy child­hood; per­haps she sought to cre­ate for them what she her­self never had. But her mar­riage was frac­tured by her and Hy­man’s ex­ces­sive drink­ing, along with Hy­man’s in­cur­able in­fi­delity (though

he in­sti­tuted some “rules” — no cheat­ing within a hun­dred miles of Ben­ning­ton, and no af­fairs with stu­dents un­til af­ter grad­u­a­tion). The fault lines seem to have made their way into her nov­els and sto­ries as op­posed to her care­fully pro­duced non­fic­tion por­trait of fam­ily life — which was, af­ter all, crafted to make money from mag­a­zines be­tween book ad­vances.

In The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique, Betty Friedan ac­cused Jack­son of be­ing part of “a new breed of women writ­ers” who wrote about their lives as if they were “‘just housewives,’ rev­el­ing in a comic world of chil­dren’s pranks and ec­cen­tric wash­ing ma­chines and Par­ents’ Night at the PTA.” But while writ­ing We Have Al­ways Lived in the Cas­tle, a slim novel many crit­ics con­sider to be Jack­son’s mas­ter­piece, she wrote to a friend in her sig­na­ture small-case style, “i de­light in what i fear. then cas­tle is not about two women mur­der­ing a man. it is about my be­ing afraid and afraid to say so.”

In her fic­tion, Jack­son ea­gerly probed the wicked sub­con­scious, in­clud­ing her own. One of her best self-as­sess­ments comes in an early draft of her un­fin­ished novel Come Along With Me, when the nar­ra­tor de­clares, “i’m a kind-hearted mama who stud­ies evil all the time.” But the finest writer is the one who not only shows us a part of her iden­tity but also holds a mir­ror up to her read­ers. Of Jack­son, Franklin writes, “In our fears and in our crimes, she be­lieved, we dis­cover our truest selves. And the out­rage that greeted ‘The Lot­tery’ shows that she was right.” — Molly Boyle

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