The Alternating Identities of Shirley Jackson

At the same time Jackson also regularly published more sinister, enigmatic short fiction in general-interest magazines; her most famous s...


At the same time Jackson also regularly published more sinister, enigmatic short fiction in general-interest magazines; her most famous story, “The Lottery,” appeared in The New Yorker in 1948 and generated more reader mail than any work of fiction the magazine had ever published. Also set in a small town much like North Bennington, “The Lottery” has, in print and dramatic form, transfixed and perplexed generations of readers with its depiction of a banal rural morning that segues into ritual human sacrifice. In contrast to the bemused mom she wrote about for the women’s magazines, presiding over a house packed with kids, cats, friends and chaos, the rest of Jackson’s fictional heroines tend to be fragile, isolated girls on the brink of unraveling. Her 1954 novel, “The Bird’s Nest,” features a young woman with dissociative identity disorder, the narration including the points of view of her alternate personalities. Any hope that Jackson’s private writing might convey a more unified sense of self seems quixotic. According to her biographer, Ruth Franklin, even as a teenager Jackson “kept multiple diaries simultaneously, each with a different purpose.”

Jackson was born in San Francisco in 1916, and raised in the posh, manicured suburb of Burlingame by a politically conservative, English-born businessman father, and a mother, Geraldine, who claimed descent from a Revolutionary War general and expected her daughter to follow in her footsteps as an elegant fixture in the society pages. Shirley — introverted, brainy and prone to frumpiness — baffled and disappointed Geraldine. Jackson met Hyman, the son of a Jewish paper merchant from Brooklyn, while the two were undergraduates at Syracuse. He announced his intention to marry her, sight unseen, after reading a story she’d published in the campus literary magazine, and at first he was a great champion of her talent. The couple wed in 1940, living in bohemian precarity in Greenwich Village and Connecticut before finally settling into the rambling, book-crammed house in Vermont.

Because Jackson lived far from her parents at a time when long-distance phone calls were expensive, most of these letters, and most of the longest ones, are to them. Geraldine’s side of the correspondence is absent from these pages, but Franklin’s biography describes it as “drops of poison”: relentlessly critical of Shirley’s appearance and housekeeping, forever nagging her toward self-improvement and decorum. You could never deduce this from Shirley’s responses, however. Very much in the tone of “Life Among the Savages,” the daughter’s letters are lively, funny, studded with perfectly executed anecdotes about her children’s antics and eccentricities, with occasional cameos by Stanley as he vetoes 8-year-old Laurence’s requests for a mohawk, and extinguishes a fire the children accidentally set outside the house while trying to roast marshmallows. Later, when Jackson’s children were old enough to spend extended periods of time away from home, she wrote them similarly amusing letters. Occasionally, a literary luminary wanders across the page. Ralph Ellison (“do you know his great book ‘invisible man’?” she writes to a friend, “because it was written in our house”) appears at Hyman’s side, urging Jackson to down a vile potion of castor oil and cream soda to induce labor; and driving from Connecticut to Vermont carrying the family dog on his lap.

Jackson is such merry company in this domestic mode that it feels churlish to complain how little most of the letters in this collection fit the title of Laurence Hyman’s preface: “Portrait of the Artist at Work.” She does not discuss her writing with most of her correspondents, apart from her agents. What she does talk about, and at length, is money — although this, in my experience, is pretty common in writers’ letters. To notice how often Shirley has to hit up her parents for a few hundred bucks is to understand why she felt compelled to keep Geraldine sweet, however much her mother’s criticism ground her down. The funny stories about her kids — Jannie’s invisible friends, Barry’s birthday request for a “cluster of microbebacteria” — while as snackable as popcorn, come to feel themselves a bit like currency, or a screen.

In researching her biography, Franklin discovered a cache of letters Jackson wrote to a fan named Jeanne Beatty, whose taste in books she shared. The two never met. It’s only in reading these letters, written between 1959 and 1963, that it becomes evident how lonely Jackson was. Her confessions and enthusiasms come gushing forth as if she were a teenager who had finally, finally found a best friend. She explains to Jeanne her struggles to craft a “sustained taut style full of images and all kinds of double meanings.” At times, these letters relax into something like stream of consciousness, her habitual lowercase prose flowing from household noises to Jackson’s protean plans for “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”: “oo let us make a orchestra cries david you bang on the wastebasket. her name is jenny. she lives with her sister constance in a big old brown house saturated with family memories and her husband lives there too; they have been married for seven years and her sister constance still calls him mr harrap. they are going to kill him because he is a boor i think.”

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