Today is Shirley Jackson’s birthday—it would have been her 100th. We are publishing this post from A.N. Devers in her honor.
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Like so many readers, I loved and was gutted by Shirley Jackson’s famous New Yorker short story “The Lottery” from the first time I read it, and I have read it so many times since then that I don’t remember when I was first introduced to it. I was young. I have a couple of prime suspect English teachers who might have been the gift-givers. But until about nine years ago, I hadn’t read any of Shirley Jackson’s novels. I was only vaguely aware of one of them, her famous ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House.
Then I wrote a short story my MFA professor was enthusiastic about; it was full of domestic disturbance and the strange, and he assigned me to read all the Shirley Jackson I could get my hands on, which was difficult at the time, since not much was in print. So I read her collected stories, and two novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Hill House. I inhaled them and their contents, the cobwebs and fairy tales, the ghosts and talismans, the anxieties and fears. They are books written by a self-described witch who was also a tremendously gifted writer, and that makes them laced with a kind of special magic. I still can’t believe they aren’t better known or accepted as great American novels.
Since then, I’ve read nearly the lot of it, and done everything possible to get to know Shirley Jackson and her work, including staring up at her white columned house that was illustrated on the cover of Life Among the Savages, her bestselling memoir about raising four children. I wandered the backroads of Bennington, Vermont in my car looking for the inspiration of her haunted Hill House, before I learned it was inspired by a home far away from Vermont’s hills in California.
I’ve also been Jackson’s book pusher. Not too long ago, I dined with a table of smart, friendly, and incredibly well-read British book dealers and explained to them who Shirley Jackson was. They hadn’t read “The Lottery,” but it rung a faint bell. It’s worrisome, but I’m happy to report that they furiously wrote her name down. I once gave my copy of Castle to a stranger at a bar. And as a cherry on top, last year, I proposed and lead the first Shirley Jackson reading group at The Center for Fiction. We pored over her work, and read some of it out loud, and that is when I realized her fiction hasn’t aged. Her storytelling is incredibly modern. She is a writer to read right now.
I thought I’d mention one story in particular that demonstrates her spookily contemporary style, and her prescient insight. “The Pillar of Salt” was published in Mademoiselle in 1948, yet as I returned to it last year, I was overcome with the feeling that it was a story about post-9/11 anxiety. In it, a married couple named Margaret and Brad take a train into New York City from New Hampshire—a special annual trip. Margaret ticks through a mental checklist of everything she needs to do or see in the city and then expresses satisfaction that everything is in order except for making a few dinner reservations. But after a few pleasant days in the city, things go off track. There’s a dinner party in an apartment of a friend, “who had found a place to live by a miracle and warned them consequently not to quarrel with the appearance of the building, or the stairs, or the neighborhood.” Jackson then humorously describes the interior design challenge of New York City apartment dwelling that is as present as ever today—the tenant having “easily caught the mania for slim tables and low bookcases which made his rooms look too large for the furniture in some places, too cramped and uncomfortable in others.”
Margaret feels claustrophobic in the small, crowded apartment and she goes to the window to catch some air. The noise on the street is loud, and she finds people calling up from the sidewalk that a house is on fire. She panics, believing they are speaking to her, and tries to alert the strangers at the party, but they ignore her, so she leaves them and her husband, who she can’t find, and goes down the staircase and outside by herself. On the street people ask for information about others who might be trapped, and she mentions only her husband. She soon realizes her mistake—the house fire was two doors down. She goes back into the party shaken and embarrassed.
What’s so brilliant about the story is that the rest of Margaret’s stay transforms into something pre-apocalyptic. Where the city was once bright and perfect to her, it is now splitting at the seams, and she can see that the “corners of the buildings seemed to be crumbling away into fine dust that drifted downward, the granite was eroding unnoticed.” She begins to unravel as her view of the city begins to decay around her, its people are a mob, its frenetic energy is a future disaster in the making. There is something so true in Margaret’s anxiety, that a city like New York is a kind of organized chaos that walks close to the edge of something else entirely. Jackson harnesses the unspoken secret knowledge of city dwellers—that it is likely inevitable that something horrible, potentially cataclysmic will happen at some point.
That is the crux of Jackson’s work: to suss out the secrets we share silently. She walks close to the edge, gathering ingredients for her strong witches brew of satire and strangeness and in doing so exposes truths about American societal structure and the often troubled roles we all play in holding the seams together.
And yes, of course, Jackson is our American mother-writer foremother, and for all reader’s sake (not just writer-mothers), her work deserves to be broken out of the housewifery world she worked from and was pigeon-holed and abandoned in, and then appreciated for the very same role as housewife she explored in her work. It’s high time that domestic fiction be removed from the bottom bookshelves and be acknowledged as deserving of an equal place in American literature. Jackson’s work is particularly crucial because she seeks to expose just how complicated women’s lives are in a culture that hasn’t fully counted women as whole. She prods at notions of wifery with her witch stick and considers the complexities not only of marriage, but of being alone, being single, or simply being different than what we’re supposed to be.
Jackson should be known as more than just the writer of one perfect story, particularly beyond hip literary circles, where she has cult status. If we don’t find a way to wedge her other work into the bigger conversation, we’re setting ourselves up to exclude extraordinary writers who are taking up her mantle, like Kelly Link, whose work is possessed by a similar intelligence, skill, and magic—and who has even named one of her incredible stories after one of Jackson’s.
But there are signs the wedge is being wedged. In the years since I first swooned over “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” there has been a flurry and then a flood of Jackson’s books reissued, novels like the psychological thriller The Bird’s Nest, her haunting novel based on a real-life disappearance of a college student called Hangsaman, and the creepy and biting satire of class, The Sundial, which I first learned about in one of Tin House’s Lost & Found essays, written by Susan Merrell, who also recently published a smart and eerie novel called Shirley, and which the Jackson estate has been vocally upset about. And now there is a new brilliant biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, by writer and critic Ruth Franklin.
Franklin does an excellent job showing us all that Shirley was, what her writing was about, and importantly, how and why she was and has been continually brushed off to the outskirts by the literary world at large, both while she was alive and in her afterlife. In an excerpt at New York magazine, Franklin writes:
Any doubts about exactly how difficult it was to do what Jackson did — producing classic works of fiction while managing what we now call “work-life balance” with virtually no support from her husband or anyone else — should be put to rest by the fan mail she received constantly from admiring readers, many of them mothers who were aspiring writers in search of advice. Over and over, the letter writers wonder at Jackson’s ability to do her writing while also caring for four children — a phenomenon that also mystified some of her friends. She occasionally wrote back to her readers, suggesting practical strategies such as planning out a piece before sitting down at the typewriter and, not surprisingly, ignoring housework to carve out more writing time. In private, she confessed her impatience with such comments. “This is a remark I have never been able to answer,” she mused after a weekend guest wondered aloud how she could be so productive.
She did it, of course, because there was no other way. She needed the children as much as they needed her. Their imaginations energized her; their routines stabilized her. More important, their heedless savagery was crucial to her worldview. Jackson could not come into her own as a writer before she had children. She would not have been the writer she became without them.
Some might say that Shirley Jackson created a lot of impediments for herself in becoming a writer: She married a rising academic and critic, she embraced the role of house runner while he worked, she took care of four children, and also had to find ways of supplementing her husband’s meager income with paid women’s magazine work that was not considered literary in any way, and as Franklin points out, brought criticism from other female writers who were trying to break out of long-defined roles. But the way I see it, Jackson only created one problem for herself—she took her life as a wife and mother as seriously as she took her writing, and she considered these roles worthy of making art. How dare she.