Jackson, Shirley (1916–1965)
Jackson, Shirley (1916–1965)
American novelist and short-story writer who gained a reputation as a master of gothic horror and psychological suspense. Born on December 14, 1916, in San Francisco, California; died on August 8, 1965, in North Bennington, Vermont; daughter of Leslie Jackson and Geraldine (Bugbee) Jackson; attended Syracuse University; married Stanley Edgar Hyman (a critic), on August 13, 1940; children: Laurence Hyman (b. 1942); Joanne Hyman (b. 1945); Sarah Hyman (b. 1948); Barry Hyman (b. 1951).
Began writing at an early age, composing poetry and short stories by the time she graduated from high school; enrolled as an English major at Syracuse University (1937); published nearly 20 pieces in the school humor magazine, became its fiction editor, and established a literary magazine before her graduation (1940); married (1940) and moved with husband to North Bennington, Vermont (1945); wrote her most famous short story, "The Lottery," which was published amid much controversy in The New Yorker (1948).
published six novels and some 45 short stories, including The Haunting of Hill House (1959); We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962); (autobiographical) Life Among the Savages (1953); (autobiographical) Raising Demons; (never before published short stories compiled by two of her children) Just an Ordinary Day (Bantam, 1997).
One late spring day in 1948, a curious short story—only nine pages long, less than 5,000 words—arrived on the fiction editor's desk at The New Yorker from an author whose work the magazine had been publishing for five years. It was immediately obvious that this new story was the best thing submitted by the writer to date, but its subject matter was so disturbing and its effect so chilling that the magazine felt obliged to offer additional space in which the author could explain her reasons for writing it. The author declined. "It's just a story," she said. But "The Lottery" would unleash a flood of shocked letters and telephone calls to the magazine and catapult Shirley Jackson to national attention from the remote obscurity of rural Vermont, which had provided the story's setting and, more ominously, its preoccupation with lurking disorder and creeping evil.
Jackson had been painfully aware since early childhood of the sense, as she once described it, "of a human and not very rational order struggling inadequately to keep in check forces of great destruction." It was a peculiar way to view the prosperous San Francisco enclave of Ashbury Park, where Shirley was born on December 14, 1916, to Leslie and Geraldine Bugbee Jackson . While her mother was solidly upper-middle class and grimly dedicated to its social rituals and privileges, Leslie Jackson's background may have provided the early nourishment for his daughter's troubling visions of chaos held barely at bay. The Jacksons of San Francisco had originally been the Henchalls of England but had been forced from their homeland in the 1890s by a scandal so ruinous that they had lost not only their name but their considerable fortune. Although the trouble had arisen when Leslie was just a small boy, it remained a forbidden topic at the time of Shirley's birth and a mystery to her as an adult.
Geraldine had become pregnant almost immediately after her marriage in March 1916 and was not prepared for the rigors of child-rearing or the restless, high-strung daughter to which she gave birth. She had been expecting a quiet, obedient girl destined for the debutante balls and sorority parties which had been a part of her own upbringing. Mother and daughter were so markedly different that Shirley's brother Barry, born almost two years later, thought Shirley's arrival in the world had been "like a goldfish giving birth to a porpoise." Like the hidden troubles of her father's family, the emotional distance between Shirley and her mother would eventually work its way onto the page. Almost all of Jackson's fictional heroines would be outsiders who somehow never fit in.
Geraldine's sense that her daughter was somehow different deepened when Shirley began describing to her the "strange man with a beard" that only she could see or the odd music she would hear wafting through the California sunshine. "How can anyone handle things if her head is full of voices and her world is full of things no one else can see?" one of Jackson's characters wonders in her unfinished novel Come Along With Me, and Geraldine may have wondered the same thing. Then, too, there was Shirley's passionate attraction to writing and reading, a predilection not immediately obvious elsewhere in her family. By the time her father had prospered well enough as an executive at a label-making company to move his family to the manicured San Francisco suburb of Burlingame, his daughter could always be found in her room with a book or scribbling on a pad. "Writing," Jackson said many years later, "used to be a delicious, private thing, done in my own room with the door locked, in constant terror of the maternal knock and the summons to bed."
In 1933, Jackson's father was assigned to oversee the merger of his company with another in Rochester, New York. The move to Rochester was important in several ways, not the least of which was its effect on Shirley's deepening sense of isolation as she entered a strange high school in a cold climate for her last year of public education. Particularly hurtful was Jackson's rejection for membership in a sorority that had at first seemed to accept her. "Shirley … wasn't what they used to call a 'popular' type of girl," one of her classmates recalled. "I think she never learned the techniques of being a more accepted person." Her writing became an even more critical sanctuary; Jackson lost herself for hours each day in a flurry of short stories and sketches, many of them with a strong element of the super-natural. Witchcraft held a special fascination for her. She found in the supernatural a convenient "shorthand statement of the possibilities of human adjustment to what seems at best to be an inhuman world," Jackson would later write. By the time she had enrolled at the University of Rochester in 1934, she had invented on the page an entire pantheon of ghostly figures and sinister personalities drawn from folklore. The half-satyr, half-human Pan was a particular favorite, as well as the French folklore character Harlequin, introduced to Jackson by a French exchange student who became a close friend and who encouraged her writing as a balm for her loneliness.
Jackson dropped out of college after two years, perhaps anticipating a pending dismissal due to poor grades, but continued to pour out a thousand words a day amid rumors that she had suffered a mild breakdown. During the summer of 1937, however, Jackson announced she had applied to Syracuse University, the nearest college to the University of Rochester. Although her parents were concerned about its reputation for leftist politics, the school's chief attractions for Shirley were its strong journalism and creative writing departments, its respected student newspaper, and its widely read humor magazine, The Syracusan. Her hopes for the school proved well-founded, for she had at last discovered a place filled with others who felt as passionately about writing as she did and who accepted her into their circle. Even this group, however, felt there was something different about Jackson. "She was a little more mystical than the rest of us," one of them remembered, while another thought that, at times, Shirley seemed to become overexcited, nearly hysterical, for no apparent reason. "She would get very shrill, words would come tumbling out," this particular acquaintance said, recalling how at these moments Shirley would ask somebody to hit her and calm her down.
I could see what the cat saw.
Jackson's first published work appeared in her sophomore year at Syracuse. "Janice," a one-page dialogue in which the title character describes a suicide attempt to a friend, was un-like anything else in the collection of works from one of her writing classes that was passed around campus in March of 1938. While her classmates' characters epitomized lofty idealism or socialist dogma, Jackson's character talks of locking herself in the garage and turning on the car engine. Among the many admirers of "Janice" was a fellow student named Stanley Edgar Hyman, one of a group of radical intellectuals much talked about on campus, and one of the school's few Jews. A devoted socialist from a poor Brooklyn family, Hyman was as extroverted and boisterous as Jackson was introspective and secretive, but nonetheless the two fell in love. "It was nuclear fission," a mutual friend described their first meeting, "and after that, everything was different. Once she met him, she became completely involved."
Hyman's influence on Jackson's writing was apparent to all who knew her, for Hyman took her literary development in hand by choosing her reading lists and her professors and introducing her to new styles of expressive writing. "He talked a lot, but she wrote better all the time," one of the faculty noted of this period. "His essays were blustering, polemical—hers were more literate." Jackson's work was published frequently in The Syracusan to much admiration, and by 1939 she had been named fiction editor of the magazine—a short-lived appointment, as it turned out, when the university administration decided to cease publication. Undaunted, Shirley and Stanley convinced the school to sponsor a new fiction magazine which they called The Spectre, of which Jackson was again the editor. In one year and four issues, the magazine managed to become the talk of the campus for its sexually liberal content and artwork, and, under Hyman's influence, its frank and often angry discussions of racism and anti-Semitism. The last straw for the college administration was the magazine's scathing review, written by Jackson, of a volume of poetry published by one of the most-respected members of the college's faculty. The Spectre was summarily closed down.
In her senior year, Jackson sported a two-dollar ring bought at a thrift shop as a defense against the fact that she and Hyman were living together. She told friends that Hyman was responsible for holding her insanity at bay, despite frequent arguments over Hyman's philandering. Both of them dealt as best they could with the objections of their respective families to their relationship. Hyman's orthodox father disowned him for his consorting with a non-Jew, while the Jackson family's middle-class anti-Semitism was compounded by their displeasure with Hyman's socialism.
After graduating from Syracuse in June of 1940 (Hyman magna cum laude), the couple defied both sets of parents and moved to New York's Greenwich Village, long the favored nesting site for East Coast political and creative malcontents. Jackson took a job writing commercials for a radio station and, later, selling books at Macy's. Hyman found work at a factory that manufactured shoulder straps until he was offered a position as an editorial assistant at The New Republic after winning an essay contest with an article lampooning Charles Lindbergh's political conservatism. With the steady income the job provided, the two were married in a civil ceremony at a friend's apartment on August 13, 1940.
No one gave the marriage much of a chance, and not only because of Hyman's continued casual affairs with other women. While Hyman found New York exhilarating, Jackson found it oppressive and threatening, developing a particular phobia of pieces of buildings falling off and crushing her. The couple's precarious finances troubled her, too. She complained loudly to friends about Hyman's frugality and his insistence, for example, on "using the same coffee grounds for three days running. And who ever heard," she further pointed out, "of giving up smoking!," a habit she would refuse to abandon throughout her life. Of some comfort was the intellectual stimulation of their circle of literary friends, Ralph Ellison among them, and the lively discussions of the approaching war in Europe that went on long into the evenings. After a year in which making a living overshadowed their dreams of literary careers, Jackson convinced Hyman to spend 12 months living in the country on their meager savings to allow both of them the time to write. Her instincts were right. When she and Hyman returned to New York a year later from their rented cabin in Keene, New Hampshire, Jackson had published her first short story in The New Republic, while Hyman had landed a job as a staff writer at The New Yorker and had begun to get his own literary critiques into print.
The couple's first child, a son they named Laurence, was born in October of 1942, shortly after their return to New York. "Laurie," as they took to calling him, provided a further anchor for Jackson's troubled flights of imagination and would become a leading character in the two humorous autobiographical works Shirley would in publish in later years. It seemed, in fact, that the demands of motherhood acted as a catalyst for Jackson's writing career, for the next year marked the beginning of her long relationship with The New Yorker, which had published eight of her short stories by the time Laurie was two years old. Although the supernatural element was missing, these early stories still revolved around something unexpected disrupting everyday middle-class life. "After You, My Dear Alphonse," for example, is about a boy from a placid, white, conservative suburb, not unlike Burlingame or Ashbury Park, who brings a black friend home for lunch; while "Come Dance With Me in Ireland" concerns three refined society women who are verbally abused by a tramp to whom they have ministered as part of their charity work. As the reputations of Jackson and her husband grew, invitations to the couple's parties became much sought after by the Greenwich Village elite, who delighted in the word games invented by their
hosts and in the mischief of Shirley's presentations at the dining table, including steaks dyed blue served with red-tinted mashed potatoes.
Jackson was pregnant with their second child in early 1945 when Hyman received an offer of a teaching position in the literature department of Bennington College in Vermont. By the time their daughter Joanne was born in November of that year, Jackson and Hyman had rented a rambling old 14-room house in the village of North Bennington, Shirley insisting that they live off campus and in the midst of what she saw as a promising field of study for her fiction. Even though the Bennington campus and its relative cosmopolitanism was less than a mile away over twisting country roads, North Bennington was populated exclusively by the type of white, middle-class Christians who were the chief characters of Jackson's fiction, inhabiting a world narrowly bound by agricultural cycles, church festivals and a deep suspicion of outsiders. Jackson had, in fact, succeeded in casting herself as one of her early fictional heroines, out of step and an uneasy fit with the world around her.
But the fascinations of her new environment, the eccentric charms of the house Jackson described as "old, and noisy, and full" and the rigors of running a household that now included a three-year-old and a newborn, captured Shirley's spirit and her creative instincts. The house soon filled with books, cats and old furniture, she wrote, and "the paraphernalia of our living—sandwich bags, typewriters, little wheels off things." She produced a stream of amusing short pieces about their life in Vermont for Good Housekeeping and other magazines directed at women and, more important, began work on a novel, The Road Through the Wall, which appeared in 1948 to critical praise but only moderate sales. The book, a troubling coming-of-age story, presented two young girls—one overweight and unpopular, the other equally an outcast for being a Jew. Jackson readily admitted that the two characters were different aspects of herself and that the story was drawn from her memories of Burlingame and her family's conformist ethic. "The first book is the book you have to write to get back at your parents," she said in later years. "Once you get that out of your way, you can start writing books." But it was her short story "The Lottery" that cleared the way for her later success.
"She's written a real masterpiece," Hyman told one of his college associates, "and I don't know where it came from." But tales abound of just how Jackson came to write her dark, powerful story of a ritual stoning in a small farming village. Jackson herself said she got the idea from a book her husband gave her about ancient rites of human sacrifice, but also told one of her college professors who wrote to congratulate her on the story that the idea had come to her during one of his folklore classes. Hyman, on the other hand, preferred to say that Jackson had written the story during a gap in a bridge game in which she held the dummy hand and had little to do. Even the villagers of North Bennington got into the act, allowing a rumor that several schoolboys had once thrown stones at Shirley to spread unchecked. (In fact, Jackson recounts in Life Among the Savages an incident in which her son Laurie supposedly threw a stone at a school bully.) Jackson skated closer to the truth in saying that the idea for the story had been born from an overheard anti-Semitic comment delivered by a local shopkeeper. Although the villagers treated the Hymans with polite respect to their faces, certain elements resented the presence of the flamboyant city folk in their midst; certain others harbored outright hatred of the Hymans because of Stanley's Judaism and because of Shirley's well-known interest in the occult. One village woman regularly dumped her trash in the Hymans' hedges; soaped swastikas would sometimes appear on their windows; and there was the usual hate mail warning them to leave. "We were kind of aliens in our home-town," Sarah Hyman , born in October of 1948, recalled after her mother's death. "We were disliked, each of us in our own way."
But "The Lottery," whatever its specific genesis, is entirely in keeping with Jackson's earlier work, before the move to rural Vermont. The story's brisk, deceptively sunny prose barely conceals the horror which bursts through in its last paragraphs, as the villagers crowd around the annual victim chosen by lottery and Old Man Warner hurls the first stone, urging "Come on, come on, everyone" to the others. The story, complained hundreds of The New Yorker's readers after receiving their issues for June 26, 1948, was in "incredibly bad taste" and was "a new low in human viciousness." A reader from Toronto warned the magazine to "tell Miss Jackson to stay out of Canada!," while another demanded a personal apology from the author and yet another sniffed, "We would expect something like this in Esquire, but not in The New Yorker." Jackson was still receiving letters about the story 15 years after its publication, its notoriety ensuring it was included in several collections of her short fiction issued during her most prolific years. It is the story for which she is still chiefly remembered. If her goal in writing it was, as she told an interviewer some years after its first appearance, "to shock the readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives," she certainly succeeded.
Except for a two-year stay in Westport, Connecticut, where Stanley Hyman briefly moved his family to be closer to his beloved New York, Shirley would enjoy her new-found celebrity from the relative isolation of North Bennington. The birth of her son Barry in November of 1951 may have added to the general confusion of the raucous Hyman household and its air of, as one visitor put it, a "genial mess," but Jackson's creative powers seemed to thrive all the more. Her writing continued to serve as a potent outlet for the fears and paranoia that still troubled her dreams and her few private moments—so much so that one reviewer thought portions of her 1951 novel Hangsaman were as "strange and obscure as nightmares of a mad psychoanalyst." Jackson explored multiple personalities in 1954's The Bird's Nest, her most commercially successful novel to that point and the first to be translated to the screen as 1957's Lizzie (which had the misfortune to be released at the same time as The Three Faces of Eve), and delved once again into the hidden horrors of a small town in The Sundial, written after Jackson's vituperative campaign against a teacher her children accused of physically abusing them turned most of North Bennington against her and her family. In between the novels, she produced her two autobiographical works, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. Both were praised for their wry humor, and few remarked on the underlying scenes of hostile outsiders and threatened chaos that were Jackson's trademarks. Jackson merely chose to apply a humorous veneer to these two works, producing what one critic thought was "a fine lemon flavor, nothing of the chocolate cream." In the fall of 1959, Jackson published her best-known work after "The Lottery," The Haunting of Hill House. She spent nearly a year researching haunted houses and ghosts in general before writing the novel, noticing that while hardly anyone she asked had actually seen a ghost, most people were afraid they might if they were not careful. The Haunting of Hill House plays so skillfully on this sense of nervous expectancy that Stephen King later called it the greatest horror novel ever written and dedicated his own Firestarter to the woman he said "never had to raise her voice" to produce her effects. The book was a bestseller and became a successful MGM film, 1963's The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise, and starring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom .
Amid all the praise, Jackson's struggles with both her mental and physical health were known only to her family. Her weight had always been problematical, but by the time she began work on her last complete novel she had ballooned to over 200 pounds, suffered from arthritis in her fingers, and was increasingly troubled by asthma. She had also come to depend on tranquilizers for the episodes of acute anxiety that were becoming more frequent and which made concentrating on her writing difficult. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, published in the summer of 1962, took her three laborious years to produce and left her emotionally exhausted. "It's exactly like having one of the kids leave home," she said when it was finished. The book tells the story of two sisters living in a large house in the now familiar village, one of whom, it is suggested, has killed their parents. Increasingly estranged from the outside world, the sisters end up trapped and alone in the house in which they will probably die. It was a theme at which Jackson had begun to hint in The Haunting of Hill House, where Eleanor Vance comes to believe she is "disappearing inch by inch into this house" and eventually becomes one of its ghosts. With the publication of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson, too, felt herself unable to break free of her own demons. One of her husband's numerous affairs which she discovered at this point only made things worse. By Thanksgiving of 1962, Jackson was terrified to leave the house. "Sometimes she'd make it out to the car, intending to go to the store," her daughter Sarah later remembered, "but then she'd grip the steering wheel and start to cry. The fear of people is a real thing."
For the next three months, Jackson refused to set foot outside. Her confused diary entries during this time indicate that the most troubling aspect of her illness was her inability to work. "i used to be able to write but no one even thinks of me anymore when it's writing no one includes me," she typed in a desperate rush on one page. "i am a writer i used to be a good writer and now no one even stanley says to students that i used to be." Finally, early in 1963, Jackson agreed to see a psychoanalyst in New York, who diagnosed what he saw as a classic case of "acute anxiety." Slowly, the darkness seemed to retreat, although her physical condition changed little. "One day I am fine," she wrote in her journal many months later, "the next depressed and desolate, with no cause at all." But she forced herself back into the world, starting with brief shopping trips to the village, then by inviting friends for lunch or dinner and, at last, by starting a new novel, its relatively bright tone in marked contrast to the despair and gloom of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. On the afternoon of August 8, 1965, Jackson lay down for her usual afternoon nap but failed to respond when one of her daughters came to wake her for dinner. She had died of a heart attack as she slept.
Her last short story, "The Possibility of Evil," appeared in the Saturday Evening Post four months later. In 1968, Stanley Hyman published her uncollected short fiction and the completed portions of her last novel as Come Along With Me. The finished segments of Jackson's last book display her usual preoccupation with the supernatural, but this time there is a lightheartedness to her story, as if she had finally come to terms with her inner turmoil. The last words of her diary, too, indicate a new-found peace. "Laughter is possible," she had written, "laughter is possible laughter is possible. …"
Jackson, Shirley. Life Among the Savages. NY: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1953.
Lethem, Jonathan. "Monstrous Acts and Little Murders," in Salon Magazine. January 1997.
Oppenheimer, Judy. Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson. NY: Putnam, 1988.
The Haunting (1 hr., 53 min.), film starring Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta-Jones , and Liam Neeson, Dream-works Home Entertainment, 1999.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (play) opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in October 1966, starring Shirley Knight .
Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York