In Other Words
Liveright/W.W. Norton, 607 pages
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