Writer found vipers be­neath ve­neer

Dark side of post­war U.S. inspired more than ‘The Lottery’

The Dallas Morning News - - BOOKS - By STEVEN G. KELL­MAN Spe­cial Con­trib­u­tor Steven G. Kell­man teaches com­par­a­tive literature at the Univer­sity of Texas at San An­to­nio.

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.


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