Secret Histories: On Shirley Jackson

by Heather Clark
March 3, 2017

On June 27, 1948, Shirley Jackson published “The Lottery” in The New Yorker. Savagery unfolds slowly in this strange, spare story about a ritual stoning in a New England village. Jackson opens with images of blossoming flowers and “richly green” grass. Neighbors gather in the town square and talk amiably about “planting and rain, tractors and taxes.” But soon children stuff stones in their pockets, and everyone gathers around a black box to draw lots. A local housewife, Tessie Hutchinson, draws a slip with a black dot. “ ‘All right folks,’ Mr. Summers said, ‘Let’s finish quickly.’ ” Someone hands Tessie’s young son rocks to throw at his mother. The end comes suddenly. “ ‘It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,’ Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.”

The New Yorker received more letters about “The Lottery” than any other work of fiction it had ever published. Many readers, on the verge of McCarthyism, understood Jackson’s prescience. “In this story you show the perversion of democracy,” a reader from Missouri wrote. Another from New York claimed that “humanity is normally opposed to progress; instead, it clutches with tenacity to the customs and fetishes of its ancestors.” Jackson was reluctant to clarify the story’s meaning, except to say she was proud it had ended up on South Africa’s list of banned books. Her husband, the literary critic Stanley Hyman, said, “she felt that they at least understood the story.” Jackson would not be shocked by our current political climate.

Jackson wrote many short stories, domestic life memoirs, and well-regarded novels, including The Bird’s Nest (1954), The Haunting of Hill House (1959)—a favorite of Stephen King’s—and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). But she is best known for “The Lottery,” which, as Ruth Franklin writes in her brilliant new biography of Jackson, is “one of the most read and discussed works of twentieth-century American fiction.” The story has been interpreted as a dark fable of intrinsic human malice. Yet Franklin points out that the story’s victim is a woman and a housewife. “The Lottery,” she argues, is also “a parable of the ways in which women are forced to sacrifice themselves: if not their lives, then their energy and their ambitions.”

Shirley Jackson felt she was constantly on the verge of drawing that fatal lot. She wrote prolifically while raising four children under the gaze of a philandering husband and a domineering mother. She had the courage to embark upon a “mixed marriage”—Hyman was Jewish, from Brooklyn—despite her wealthy WASP parents’ objections. Alongside Hyman, she tackled anti-Semitism and racism in her work and her life. At a time when racial segregation was unquestioned, she and Hyman became close to Ralph Ellison, who finished Invisible Man at their home and became their youngest child’s godfather. Hyman helped Ellison negotiate a better contract for Invisible Man with Random House, while Jackson helped him break through a writing block. Ellison wrote to a friend that it was only after reading the proofs of Jackson’s novel Hangsaman that he found a way to finish his own novel—“and then, man, I was on.” Such anecdotes—in rich supply—underscore Jackson and Hyman’s importance as a liberal force in mid-century American letters. (The couple was investigated for Communist sympathies.)

Very few women working at mid-century were able to combine motherhood and writing as successfully as Jackson. The best-known women writers at the time—Virginia Woolf, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop—were single or childless. Franklin suggests this balancing act took a physical and psychological toll on Jackson, who was overweight and taking a “cocktail” of prescription drugs by the late 1950s. Still, Jackson inspired a young Sylvia Plath to believe a future of babies, books, and beef stew—as Plath put it in her journal—was possible. Plath asked to interview Jackson when she worked as an intern at Mademoiselle in 1953, but she was assigned to Elizabeth Bowen instead. Plath would remember Jackson’s short stories about the insularity and meanness of country life when she, too, moved to an isolated rural village with her husband, poet Ted Hughes. Plath lived in England, Jackson in New England, but they experienced similar prejudices. Jackson’s Vermont neighbors balked at Ralph Ellison, a frequent visitor; townsfolk in Plath’s Devon village gossiped about the mail she received under her maiden name. In 1962, Plath wrote a short story, “Mothers,” about an American woman who must abandon her cosmopolitan sympathies to fit into her parochial English village. The story could have been written by Jackson. “The Lottery,” which Plath probably read in high school, reverberates in her famous 1962 poem “Lady Lazarus,” where the peanut-crunching crowd pays to witness the spectacle of a ritual suicide. Jackson’s novels Hangsaman and The Bird’s Nest, which Plath read at Cambridge University in 1955, influenced The Bell Jar.

But Jackson’s influence on mid-century women writers also ran in another direction. By the late 1940s, she was publishing sentimental stories about domestic life in women’s magazines to support her family. When her mother told her the stories were beneath her, Jackson responded, “at a thousand bucks a story, i can’t afford to try to change the state of popular fiction today.” The money gave her—and Hyman—more time to write serious literature, she said. The irony is that ambitious women writers like Plath read and absorbed these saccharine stories without realizing that their author disavowed them. Jackson had unwittingly created a vicious feedback loop: Plath, too, would submit sentimental fiction to women’s magazines in hopes of funding her—and Hughes’s—poetry. Jackson’s popular memoirs about raising children also conformed to the safe feminine parameters that she ignored in her novels. Franklin argues that Jackson gave her readers “spinning madcap I Love Lucy-style” capers in exchange for the freedom to write novels of “sexual assault and schizophrenia.” The imperfect bargain allowed her to explore, in Franklin’s memorable phrase, the “secret history of American women of that era.” Still, Jackson left a dual inheritance.

Stanley Hyman claimed that Jackson’s Gothic works were not “personal, even neurotic fantasies,” but oblique commentaries on the Holocaust and the Bomb. The same can be said of Plath. Yet both women have suffered from reductive, melodramatic portrayals: Jackson is the witch, Plath the death-cult priestess. No matter that Jackson is said to have owned 100,000 books when she died at 48, or that Plath was among the most highly educated women of her generation. In the popular imagination, they have become victims of their own black magic. Franklin dismisses the myth and takes Jackson seriously as a great American writer in the tradition of Poe and Hawthorne. She has returned Jackson to us at a time when we need her most; today, “The Lottery” reads like uncanny prophecy. Franklin has written her own “secret history” of the cerebral woman writer passionately engaged in the causes and conflicts of her day—not the one who, as the New York Times once wrote, “used a broomstick for a pen.”

Ruth Franklin's biography of Shirley Jackson, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, is available now from W. W. Norton.