Writer found vipers beneath veneer
Dark side of postwar U.S. inspired more than ‘The Lottery’
It is hard to think of another writer who is so familiar to so many for so little. Though Shirley Jackson was the author of half a dozen novels, four collections of short stories, two memoirs and four children’s books, her reputation rests largely on one indelible short story, “The Lottery.” It is as if Nathaniel Hawthorne were known entirely and exclusively for “Young Goodman Brown.”
First published in the June 26, 1948, issue of The New Yorker, “The Lottery” describes a cheerful, ostensibly wholesome village whose 300 residents assemble one glorious June morning, as they do every year, to draw lots. The villager who draws the spotted lot is abruptly stoned to death. The story generated the largest volume of mail in the magazine’s history to that point, and it has continued to disturb and perturb readers who encounter it in anthologies and on syllabi.
Jackson tapped into the anxieties of a postwar world in which 6 million Jews had only recently been exterminated, Americans were attacking others for not being American enough, and our species for the first time possessed the technology to destroy itself. The angst of “The Lottery” still resonates in the world of terrorist beheadings, nuclear proliferation and catastrophic climate change.
A Jackson revival is gaining momentum this year, the 50th anniversary of her death at age 48. After rooting about in their mother’s papers in the Library of Congress, two of her four children, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Dewitt, have assembled 56 pieces, most of them unpublished, none previously collected. The volume includes a foreword by Ruth Franklin, whose biography of Jackson is scheduled for 2016, the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth.
Though “The Lottery” is not included in this posthumous collection, 30 other stories are, along with 26 essays. They provide ample evidence that Jackson’s achievement extends beyond a single stunning exercise in dread.
“Paranoia,” the first offering in the collection, is as unsettling as “The Lottery.” On his way home from work on a humdrum New York afternoon, a man finds himself followed and harassed by strangers. Similarly creepy is “Company for Dinner,” in which a man arrives home from work, shouts a casual greeting to his wife in the kitchen, and then sits down at the dinner table, before realizing that he has entered the wrong house. Anticipating the movie Groundhog Day, “Showdown” is the story of a 15-year-old boy who witnesses the same killing day after day after day.
Jackson was a contemporary of Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Serling, and her best work, like theirs, strips away the soothing veneer of daily life to expose something sinister. In most, a traditional patriarchal, middle-class American family becomes a nest of vipers. In many of the early stories, set at the end of World War II, a soldier’s homecoming is anything but joyous.
In some, the site of treachery is a campus very like Bennington, the small Vermont college where Jackson’s husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, taught for many years. “Family Treasures,” for example, recounts how a mousy kleptomaniac avenges herself on more popular classmates by filching valuables from their dormitory rooms.
Theft is also at the center of “The Lie,” in which a woman returns to her home town many years after leaving it in order to confess that she had blamed someone else for the cash she stole in a high school class. Conning a stranger out of his money is one of the cruel pranks played by two 14-year-old girls in the unfinished title story, “Let Me Tell You.”
Flannery O’Connor died on Aug. 3, 1964, almost exactly one year before Jackson, and the two offer an instructive lesson in the possibilities of women’s writing in the decades immediately following World War II. Whereas O’Connor never married, Jackson’s life was centered in her role as mother and wife. O’Connor’s turf was the South, Jackson’s New England. O’Connor was a devout Catholic, Jackson devoutly secular. Yet both women explored the darkness lurking in American life, O’Connor by cultivating the grotesque, Jackson by peeling back the ordinary, in a plain style.
Jackson wrote most of her essays for women’s magazines, including Good Housekeeping, McCall’s and Women’s Day, and they offer a conversational, bemused take on the domesticity that still circumscribed a woman and was still considered the proper subject for a woman writer. “Here I am, washing dishes again,” begins a piece in a lighter tone than Tillie Olsen’s famous 1961 story that begins: “I stand here ironing.”
Writing about laundry, cooking and children, Jackson is wry but never quite bitter. It is only in the fiction that she felt free to transmute household humor into horror. “Still Life With Teapot and Students,” for example, captures the anguish felt by a faculty wife whose wayward husband falls for “every fat-faced little tomato who walks into his class” at a privileged woman’s college quite similar to what Bennington was then.
In “Remembrance of Things Past,” a man is so neglectful of his wife that, until the phone rings and the caller asks for Jane, he cannot even remember her name. The stories in Let Me Tell You offer additional reasons to remember the name Shirley Jackson.