Like her peer, fellow midcentury American writer Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson refused to bow to the conventions of women’s writing. But while O’Connor’s Southern Gothic literature is firmly established in the canon of 20th-century American literature, time has been less generous to Jackson, who is largely forgotten, except perhaps for her chilling short story “The Lottery.”
This impressive biography, which arrives just months before what would have been Jackson’s 100th birthday, should correct this oversight.
In “Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life,” book critic and Guggenheim fellow Ruth Franklin painstakingly examines Jackson’s extensive correspondence, diaries and interviews, as well as drafts of her work. This biography is no critical reassessment. It strongly affirms the American author’s powerful collection of stories, novels and memoirs.
In public, Jackson maintained the role of devoted housewife by remaining Mrs. Stanley Edgar Hyman in collegiate North Bennington, Vt. In private, she squirreled away time to write while her four children napped or entertained themselves.
Theirs was a two-writer household — Hyman was a well-known literary critic — with, for some time, one typewriter between the two. It was Hyman who typically commandeered it.
Their relationship initially was propelled by intellectual respect, but it couldn’t escape becoming a product of its time. Jackson was responsible for all household duties and chores and was shamed into accepting her husband’s blatant unfaithfulness. His philandering exacerbated Jackson’s deep insecurities, which were rooted in an emotionally abusive childhood. This played out through her lifelong struggle with weight, an addiction to prescription drugs and eventual agoraphobia. She died of heart failure in 1965 at 48.
Early on, Franklin establishes Jackson’s history as coming from a storied California family of architects and homebuilders. With this legacy, it’s not surprising that her fiction centered around characters who were empowered and imprisoned by their surroundings. This fascination mirrored the era’s celebration of domesticity — a house might be a woman’s reward for securing a husband and family, but too often it was also her prison.
Jackson was a bestselling author in the 1950s, publishing Gothic novels such as “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” and “The Haunting of Hill House,” as well as two comic memoirs about the domestic life, “Life Among the Savages” and “Raising Demons.”
She is best remembered now for her story “The Lottery,” in which residents of a quiet New England town annually select one citizen to be stoned to death.
When the story was published in the New Yorker in June 1948, the magazine was inundated with letters from readers — some canceling their subscriptions, others demanding an explanation of this horrific tale. The press made Jackson a literary star at a time when, as a matter of course, men were paid more than women for their work in the magazine. While publishers had previously courted her husband, it was now Mrs. Hyman who held the spotlight.
We should hope that Franklin’s magisterial and compulsively readable biography will redirect that spotlight once again.
Lauren LeBlanc is a freelance book editor and writer, as well as a senior nonfiction editor at Guernica magazine. A native New Orleanian, she lives in Brooklyn.
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
By: Ruth Franklin.
Publisher: Liveright, 607 pages, $35.