Born 14 December 1919, San Francisco, California; died 8 August 1965, North Bennington, Vermont
Daughter of Leslie H. and Geraldine Bugbee Jackson; married Stanley Edgar Hyman, 1940; children: Laurence, Joanne, Sarah, and Barry
Shirley Jackson began to compose poems and short stories almost as soon as she could write. She won her first literary prize at the age of twelve when her poem "The Pine Tree" won a contest sponsored by Junior Home magazine. Two years later her family, which by this time included younger brother Barry, moved from Burlingame, California, to Rochester, New York. The following year she graduated from Brighton High School at the age of fifteen in the top quarter of her class. She enrolled in the liberal arts program at the University of Rochester in September 1934 but withdrew two years later.
Jackson then spent a year at home in a self-imposed "apprenticeship in writing" in which she kept to a strict regimen of writing at least 1,000 words per day. By the end of the year, she was ready for more formal education and entered Syracuse University in September 1937. Although she began her studies as a journalism major, she eventually transferred to the English Department and graduated with her B.A. in 1940.
During her time at Syracuse she wrote 15 pieces for the campus magazine. She met her future husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, while at Syracuse when they both joined the magazine's staff. A lifelong champion of civil rights, Jackson used her position as editor on the magazine to write editorials questioning the lack of black students at Syracuse and the poor condition of student living quarters. She did not get along well with the administration at Syracuse because of its desire to exercise what she considered excessive control over the campus magazine. She consequently refused to donate her papers to Syracuse later in life, and Hyman instead gave them to the Library of Congress three years after her death.
After their marriage on 3 June 1940, Jackson and Hyman moved to New York City, where he took an editorial assistant position with the New Republic and she wrote in between working at various clerical jobs. A job at Macy's during the Christmas season became the subject of a witty short story, "My Life with R. H. Macy," which was published the following year in the New Republic. Another short story, "After You, My Dear Alphonse," was published in the New Yorker in January 1943 and concerned prejudice and misperceptions of black Americans. More short stories were subsequently published by the New Yorker, including "Come Dance With Me in Ireland," which was selected for inclusion in Best American Short Stories, 1944. Other stories were sold to American Mercury, Mademoiselle, and a short story collection called Cross-Section.
After several years as a staff writer for the New Republic and the New Yorker, Jackson's husband accepted a position as professor at Bennington College and the family moved to North Bennington, Vermont. Their second child was born shortly after the move to Vermont in 1945 and Jackson worked as a substitute creative writing teacher at the college while continuing to write daily. The Road Through the Wall, Jackson's first novel, was published in 1948 shortly before her most famous short story, "The Lottery," was published in the June 26 issue of the New Yorker. It has been said that if Shirley Jackson had written nothing more for the rest of her life, she would still be famous for "The Lottery."
This much-anthologized and -dramatized short story tells of an annual ritual in a small New England town in which local residents draw names to see who among them will be stoned to death by the others. Reader reaction was intense; the story generated more mail than anything the New Yorker had published to date. Jackson's dark view of human nature and her belief in its inherently greater capacity for evil than for good is a theme not only of "The Lottery" but of much of her fiction. In The Road Through the Wall, for example, Jackson wrote of the fictional families on Pepper Street in the Burlingame, California, of her youth. This first novel explores the twisted relationships between the individuals and households on the block and culminates in the murder of a three-year-old girl and suicide of a thirteen-year-old boy.
"The Lottery" was included along with a number of Jackson's other short stories in a collection published a year later in 1949 and titled The Lottery, or The Adventures of James Harris. Jackson continued to sell several short stories to women's magazines, particularly Good Housekeeping and Women's Home Companion. These pieces tended to be light, humorous tales based on her family's exploits and without the ironic twists and black humor characterizing "The Lottery" and similar works.
Jackson and her family moved to Westport, Connecticut, in 1950, in part because of her and her husband's desire to be closer to the literary world of New York City. Hyman was himself a well-respected critic and author of nonfiction, and the two often critiqued each other's work. Jackson and her family soon missed Vermont, however, and moved back to Bennington after only two years in Westport.
Jackson published several short stories in 1950 and her second novel, The Hangsaman, in 1951. The Hangsaman, which received a favorable response from both critics and the public, was hailed by some as one of the outstanding books of the year. The novel centers on the slow mental breakdown of Natalie Waite, a bright seventeen-year-old who, unable to cope with being away from home during her first year in college, invents a friend named Tony.
Life Among the Savages (1953, 1997) and Raising Demons (1957) are hilarious accounts of Jackson's family and include most of her magazine articles on the exploits of her growing brood. These "family chronicles" were often excerpted in magazines or published in condensed form by Reader's Digest. Jackson continued to write fiction, however, and her third novel, The Bird's Nest, was published in 1954 to very good reviews. Jackson got the idea, which focuses on psychology and the inner workings of the mind, from reading a case study on multiple personality disorder.
Jackson's short stories continued to be well received, and "One Ordinary Day with Peanuts" was chosen for the Best American Short Stories, 1956. Her longtime fascination with witchcraft and the supernatural led her to accept an offer to write a nonfiction book for young people about the Salem witch trials. The Witchcraft of Salem Village (1956) is highly regarded as an interesting, accurate, and simplified history of witchcraft. In addition to this nonfiction title, Jackson also experimented with writing children's plays. The Bad Children, originally written for her two daughters, with songs written by her son Laurence, was published in 1958 as a spoof on witchcraft. Jackson's other deviations from her adult novels and short stories include Nine Magic Wishes (1963), a children's picture book, and Famous Sally (1966), a juvenile novel written for her daughter Sarah.
The Haunting of Hill House (1959) was a return to the world of gothic horror Jackson had successfully explored in The Sundial (1958) and to some extent in "The Lottery." The Haunting of Hill House focuses on an investigation of an old estate house by a group of researchers who believe the building may be haunted. One of the women invited to participate becomes obsessed with, and perhaps obsessed by, the house. Unlike most gothic fiction writers, however, Jackson made the haunting real and the evil triumphant in the end. Though The Haunting of Hill House was made into an early black-and-white film (considered a masterpiece), a new variation was offered in 1999 with a big screen remake, complete with host of state-of-the-art special effects.
Jackson's last adult novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), was the second of her works to be named one of the year's 10 best novels by Time magazine. The plot focuses on two sisters, Merricat and Constance Blackwood, who have survived the arsenic poisoning which killed four family members. Although Constance was acquitted of the murder, the sisters still face suspicion and hostility from townspeople. Cousin Charles arrives in the hope of wedding Merricat and controlling the family fortune. She rejects him and sets fire to the house, which the townspeople help Charles destroy. It is only at the novel's close, when the two sisters return to live in the hulking ruin, that the reader learns a chillingly unrepentant Merricat is the poisoner.
Jackson's personal life and professional career are both starkly separate and intertwined. She presents portraits of bleakness, despair, and humanity's inherent banality in her modern gothic fiction "The Lottery," The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Yet she also wrote of her children's humorous exploits in her family chronicles Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. Although the latter may represent the real Jackson, it is the former, with her ability to point out the blackness in every heart, who will always be remembered.
Special Delivery (contributor, 1960). The Magic of Shirley Jackson (edited by S. E. Hyman, 1966). Come Alongwith Me (edited by S. E. Hyman, 1968). The Lottery and Other Stories (1991). The Masterpieces of Shirley Jackson (1996).
Aldridge, J. W., After the Lost Generation: A Critical Study of the Writers of Two Wars (1958). Argenziano, G., "Existentialism in Shirley Jackson's Last Novels" (thesis, 1983). Burrell, D. L., "Shirley Jackson: Contexts, Intertexts, and New Conclusions" (thesis, 1993). Caminero-Santangelo, M. M., "The Madwoman Can't Speak: Feminist Debates and American Women's Writing, 1945-1993" (1995). Delea, C., "Feminists Have Always Lived in the Castle: Shirley Jackson and the Feminist Gothic" (thesis, 1991). Friedman, L., Shirley Jackson (1975, 1980). Hall, K. J., "The Lesbian Politics of Transgression: Reading Shirley Jackson" (thesis, 1991). Lape, S. V., "Hostage of 'The Lottery': The Life and Feminist Fiction of Shirley Jackson" (thesis, 1994). Levy, B. Ladies Laughing: Wit as Control in Contemporary American Women Writers (1997). Metcalf, L. T., "Shirley Jackson in Her Fiction: A Rhetorical Search for the Implied Author" (thesis, 1989). Nardacci, M. L., "Theme, Character, and Technique in the Novels of Shirley Jackson" (thesis, 1980). Noack, J. "Shirley Jackson—Escaping the Patriarchy Through Insanity" (thesis, 1994). O'Callaghan, C. M., "Reclaiming Women and Race in World War II Society: Shirley Jackson's Fiction" (thesis, 1996). Oppenheimer, J. Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson (1989). Reinsch, P. N., "A History of Hauntings: A Critical Bibliography of Shirley Jackson" (thesis, 1998). Varner, D., "A Feminist Analysis of Shirley Jackson's Hangsaman and We Have Always Lived in the Castle " (thesis, 1988). Warren, R. J., "An Overview of Recurring Themes and Concerns and Usage of Genre Conventions Within the Fiction of Shirley Jackson" (thesis, 1992).
Benet's (1991). Best Short Stories of the Modern Age (1982). First Fiction: An Anthology of the First Published Stories by Famous Writers (1994). Granta Book of the American Short Story (1992). CANR (1992). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). TCA, TCAS.
Explicator (March 1954). Great Short Stories About Parenting: Stories by Jessamyn West, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, D. H. Lawrence, and Other Great Writers of the World of Children (1990). Great Short Tales of Mystery and Terror (1982). Great Women Writers: The Lives and Works of 135 of the World's Most Important Women Writers, from Antiquity to the Present (1994). The American Short Story: A Collection of the Best Known and Most Memorable Short Stories by the Great American Authors (1994).
—LEAH J. SPARKS