BookScapes: Review of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

My experience of Shirley Jackson began with her two memoirs, Life Among the Savages (1952) and Raising Demons (1957), both genuinely funny, crisp, and captivating. I discovered them in the early 1960s, when I was a young mom with small children, learning how to write and wanting a career as a writer. In those books, Jackson seemed like a perfect–and perfectly inspiring–model. I met the “other” Jackson–the Jackson of “The Lottery,” The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle–much later, and found the light and dark aspects of this complicated, contradictory woman very difficult to reconcile.

Biographer Ruth Franklin has made sense of Shirley Jackson for me. In a biography that is detailed and nuanced without ever losing the compelling narrative line, Franklin pulls together all the various dimensions of a multi-dimensional woman who doesn’t fit the two-dimensional world she lives in. She shows us a writer (also a daughter, a mother, and a wife) who is beset by her own personal demons, raised in a culture that can’t adequately recognize or value her uniquely creative vision, married to a man who has to belittle and even betray his wife in order to boost himself, writing for editors and readers who admire her virtuosity but are bewildered by her serious work. Given all these pushing-pulling forces, it is no wonder that Jackson’s creative work takes such complex forms or was so little understood in her lifetime–and rather better understood now.

One of the things I like best about A Rather Haunted Life is the way Franklin sets her subject into her time and place–which were my time and place, as well. Women who were painfully wedged between the fixed gender expectations of the 1950s and the Second Wave feminism of the uncertain 1960s can recognize ourselves in Jackson’s fiction, Franklin says, for it is “nothing less than the secret history of American women of her era.” Jackson’s popular and lucrative comic memoirs bring us the cheery misadventures of a mom raising four unruly children in an endearing old house. Her novels and many of her stories offer a macabre Gothic vision in which girls and women are captured (both literally and metaphorically) by houses from which there is no escape, by families in which there is no survival, by desires for which there is no consummation. Between these poles, Franklin asks, where are women to find themselves? Where, indeed–and hence the conundrums of Jackson’s extraordinary vision.

Franklin’s biography helped me make sense not only of Jackson’s psychological contradictions but of two decades in my own life, my own “secret history,” when I was trying to manage the contradictory responsibilities of mother, wife, daughter, student, teacher, and writer. For that gift, and for its clear and consistent reading of Jackson’s often baffling work and its appreciation of Jackson’s pared-down prose, I am grateful.

Extra: You can read (or reread) Jackson’s “The Lottery” on The New Yorker site.  It originally appeared in the print edition of the June 26, 1948, issue.

20 comments on “BookScapes: Review of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

  1. I read that The Lottery story came to Shirley Jackson as she was walking home from the grocery store. When she got home she typed it up and sent it off to the magazine. The rest is history as they say. I was surprised when I looked at her biography to see that she was the same age as my mother who was a farmer’s wife in the middle of Iowa.

    • Jackson’s collection of short stories and lectures, “Come Along with Me”, includes a lecture on her experiences with “The Lottery”. People angrily cancelled their subscriptions to the New Yorker; others sent letters asking where this village could be found and how they could be stopped – or studied (!) anthropologically. That brought to my mind the account in Steve Allen’s autobiography “Mark It and Strike It” when Orson Welles’ radio program “War of the Worlds” was first broadcast. Allen was living in a Chicago hotel with his mother and aunt and missed the several reminders during the broadcast that this was a work of fiction. They rushed down to the front desk, appalled that people weren’t fleeing the city in a panic. The reactions to “The Lottery” and “War of the Worlds” showed me the power of the written word in the hands of skilled and creative writers..

      • Barbara, nice to hear from you! I think often of the Danville Library–I’m sure I borrowed The Haunting of Hill House there, the first time I read it.

    • Ruth Franklin studied the manuscript of “The Lottery” and suggests that the real story is a little more complicated than Jackson remembered. You can read about the process here: https://slate.com/culture/2013/06/the-lottery-story-by-shirley-jackson-was-harder-to-write-than-the-author-claimed.html Franklin says: [Jackson’s} account of an editor asking for “one change” and the story going from first idea to print in three weeks sells her own efforts short.”

      I treasure Franklin’s biography because gives us a great deal more insight into Jackson’s process than we’ve ever had before.

    • Yes, indeed, Janet! I had a similar experience with “Turn of the Screw” when I was about 12. Hard to sleep in our dark old farmhouse after that!

  2. I love “I Love Lucy” episodes because I always know that everything will turn out okay. Rather than grasping underlying marital gender conflicts and the potential pain arising from the stunts, I have appreciated the ludicrous situations for sheer comedy. Sometimes it just feels good to take something – especially tv – at fave value.

    • You’re right, Charlotte–the episodes are designed to give us that assurance. Which is what Jackson does with her domestic humor. Her darker stuff–that’s the other side of the coin. I appreciate Lucy because she shows us both sides at once.

  3. I’m afraid I’ve never heard of this author. Now I’m intrigued and will have to find copies of her books at my local library. Thank you!

    • Good, Ann. Start with the early memoirs (Life Among the Savages, Raising Demons), then her short stories. That way, you’ll see both landscapes in her imaginative world.

  4. I’m very intrigued–I had only read one story by Shirley Jackson–“The Lottery.” How wonderful that there are many more works of hers to read. Thank you for this post!

  5. My sophomore English teacher in high school read “The Lottery” to us. I was blown away by the sheer beauty of the way she crafted the story – how the real purpose of the lottery explodes into the mind at the end. It took my breath away. I then read “Life Among the Savages” and “Raising Demons” and my appreciation for Jackson’s superior talent grew. To be so funny on the one hand, and so dark on the other. I was aware of her darker novels, and even collected them, but, after seeing “The Haunting of Hill House” starring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom, I was afraid her darker novels would take me deeper than I wanted to go to the dark side. I finally read all of her books about three years ago – I even found an out-of-print copy of her children’s book – plus Ruth Franklin’s biography and a movie based on her final unfinished novel. I can’t imagine she was easy to live with at times, her husband being one of the demons she had to contend with, but she was true to her genius through it all. Thanks for bringing Franklin’s biography to a new group of readers!

    • Barbara, have you read SHIRLEY: A NOVEL, by Susan Merrell? I wasn’t impressed on the first reading, but now that I’ve read Franklin’s bio, I think I’ll go back and give it another try. Maybe I was too impatient with it.

      Good for you for tracking down Jackson’s OOP children’s book. I imagine that was an exciting find!

  6. An extremely complicated woman trying to make everything work, when it was all mostly working against her. I loved her books and often wondered what she would be writing today in these times.

    • Yes, wouldn’t we love to see how far her imagination might have taken her, Lora? I’m sure we’d still be reading her, avidly.

  7. I read Life Among Savages in high school. It seemed like an Erma Bombeck sitcom life. Later (in my 20’s raising children) I re-read the book, then read a biography of Shirley. Gob-smacked. But as you said, a different era. Very hard for an intelligent, creative and strong woman to flourish.

    • We also have to remember that Shirley Jackson came along more than 10 years before Erma Bombeck, who was following Jackson’s path–except that she worked in newspaper columns rather than books. (She sold her first columns for $3.) In the mid-50s, Jackson’s humor was unique. But even in that domestic comedy, we can read (between the lines) some of her later darker stuff. I think of this every time I see an old I Love Lucy show. Pretty awful back then, wasn’t it?

  8. Will try to read both of those. Years ago I had a young people’s theater group and we did Jackson’s stage version of The Haunting of Hill House. They loved it as did our audiences.

    • Interesting–wonder if the stage play was written in her lifetime or posthumously. I’m sure many in the audience went straight home and read the book!

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