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Shirley Jackson : a rather haunted life
2016
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  New York Times Review

SHIRLEY JACKSON ONCE WROTE that when she went to the hospital to deliver the third of her four children, the admitting clerk asked for her occupation. "Writer," Jackson replied. The clerk said, "I'll just put down housewife." All her life, Jackson struggled to be taken seriously as a writer. To her chagrin, she was far better known (and better compensated) for the women's-magazine essays she wrote about housekeeping and child-rearing - today they seem like high-end Erma Bombeck - than for her quirky, hard-to-categorize novels like "The Haunting of Hill House" and "We Have Always Lived in the Castle." Even in her marriage, it was her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, a literary critic and popular teacher at Bennington College, who hogged all the attention, though it was mostly her earnings that paid for their lifestyle of nonstop boozing and extravagant book-buying and gift-giving. A few of the Bennington students knew who she was, but to most she was just another faculty wife, and a fat and creepy one at that, someone who drank too much and whose house stank of cat pee. Jackson's posthumous reputation is hardly much better: She is mostly known these days for a single, over anthologized short story, "The Lottery." A few years ago, when the Library of America brought out a collection of her stories and novels, the Newsweek critic Malcolm Jones accused the Library of stooping so low it was about to "jump the shark." But Jackson has always had a coterie of admirers, including Stephen King, Jonathan Lethem, Joyce Carol Oates, the critics Laura Miller and Ruth Franklin, and with this welcome new biography Franklin makes a thoughtful and persuasive case for Jackson as a serious and accomplished literary artist - not a major one, perhaps, but one worthy of renewed attention. "Her body of work constitutes nothing less than the secret history of American women of her era," Franklin writes, placing at the center of Jackson's life the ever-pressing conflict between being an artist and being a wife and mother. That Jackson struggled with this dilemma is certainly true, and the chaotic life that resulted is the subject of much of her nonfiction. But as Franklin's subtitle, "A Rather Haunted Life," suggests, Jackson also had a tragic private life: She was a fragile, damaged and often desolate person, subject not just to the trials that beset ambitious women of her generation but to torments all her own. Chief among the tormentors was her mother, a vain, thoughtlessly cruel social climber who didn't think much of her daughter and never bothered to disguise it. She wanted a beautiful, dutiful child she could groom to be a debutante, and instead she got one who was dreamy, willful and overweight, more interested in making up stories than in clothes or hairstyles. As an adolescent, Jackson was such a mess that her mother informed her she was the product of a failed abortion. Jackson rebelled by going off to Syracuse University (her parents wanted her to stay in Rochester, N.Y., where they had moved from California and were serial country-club joiners) and marrying Hyman: not just a Jew but (for a while, anyway) a Communist. But to the end of her life Jackson also remained in thrall to her impossible-to-please mother, writing her elaborate letters trying to justify herself and explaining what a successful wife and parent she was. In truth, she was always an outsider, someone who never quite fit in. The scapegoat theme of "The Lottery" doubtless derives from the way she and her family were shunned by their provincial neighbors, who had no use for Jews or writers or for Negroes like Ralph Ellison, who was a frequent houseguest. Jackson's husband was both an ally and an antagonist. They began as soul mates: Hyman had never even met her when, after reading a story of Jackson's in an undergraduate magazine, he declared he was going to marry her, and he remained an ardent champion. At times, he was a little like Colette's Willy, nagging her to get back to the typewriter. But they also drove each other crazy. He was fastidious; she was sloppy. In theory he was devoted to the children, but left all the work to her. And Hyman, who objected to monogamy on philosophical grounds, was chronically unfaithful. Franklin says he mostly adhered to a "hundred-mile rule," scheduling his trysts far from home, and unlike many Bennington profs, he at least waited until his students had graduated before pursuing them. But these affairs caused Jackson great pain nonetheless, especially toward the end of her life, when he actually fell in love with one of his conquests. Neglecting the shift key, as she almost always did, she told him in a letter: "you once wrote me a letter (i know you hate my remembering these things) telling me that i would never be lonely again, i think that was the first, the most dreadful, lie you ever told me." Jackson, for her part, once enjoyed a drunken grope, and possibly more, with Dylan Thomas on a winter night in Connecticut, but in general seems less sexually driven than Hyman. There is some evidence, though Franklin dismisses it, that as a child she may have been molested by her Uncle Clifford. In college some people thought she might be a lesbian, though there is even less evidence for that. She had, in fact, an exaggerated fear of lesbianism, and in the late '50s was sent into a tailspin of depression when she discovered herself mentioned in a scholarly book about lesbian-themed writing. In Jackson's own work, as several critics have pointed out, sex is mostly noticeable for being so absent. Her characters long for emotional connections but seldom make them. The story of Jackson's sad and difficult career is told with more vividness and in some ways with more intimacy in an earlier biography, Judy Oppenheimer's "Private Demons," which came out in 1988, and which Franklin, though a careful researcher and fastidious about sources, never mentions in the text. But Oppenheimer is a journalist, not a critic, and her book, based largely on interviews with Jackson's family and friends, is interested more in the life than the work. The value of Franklin's book, which benefited from access to archives unavailable to Oppenheimer, is its thoroughness and the way she traces Jackson's evolution as an artist, sensibly pointing out what's autobiographical and what isn't. She sees Jackson not as an oddball, one-off writer of horror tales and ghost stories but as someone belonging to the great tradition of Hawthorne, Poe and James, writers preoccupied, as she was, with inner evil in the human soul. But her prose, it should be added, was a lot less upholstered than theirs. What makes her masterpiece, "The Haunting of Hill House," so scarily effective is its matter-of-factness, the cleanness of its narrative line. That book, a ghost story, is often compared to James's "Turn of the Screw," but as in a lot of Jackson's work, its darkness is partly lifted by a slyly humorous streak reminiscent of Muriel Spark or even the Hilary Mantel of novels like "Vacant Possession," "Fludd" and "Beyond Black." Franklin, more than Oppenheimer, wants to play down the chaos of Jackson's life, and even suggests that the hurtling back and forth between cooking and cleaning and stolen sessions at her desk may have been as enabling as it was burdensome. Until it wasn't. Always a heavy drinker and smoker, Jackson, while trying to lose weight, became dependent on pills of every sort, uppers and downers. Her mood swings became more extreme, and in 1963 she suffered a full-fledged breakdown, during which she was not only unable to write, she could barely leave her room. After seeking psychiatric help, she seemed to be recovering, and was happily working again, though also preoccupied with the idea of leaving Hyman and creating a new home somewhere. Then, on the sultry afternoon of Aug. 8, 1965, she had a heart attack and died in her sleep. She was only 48. At the time she was working in what she called "a new style," on a novel that she hoped would be "a funny book, a happy book." But her last published story, which came out four months later, was about a solitary New England woman who sent off nightly letters describing the terrible secrets of her neighbors. CHARLES McGRATH is a contributing writer for The Times and a former editor of the Book Review. He is the editor of a Library of America collection of John O'Hara's stories, which has just been published.

  Publishers Weekly Review

Literary critic Franklin (A Thousand Darknesses) renders a gripping and graceful portrait of the mind, life, and work of groundbreaking American author Shirley Jackson (1916-1965). Though Jackson is today largely known for the chilling novel The Haunting of Hill House and the supremely upsetting short parable "The Lottery," Franklin brings forth her full oeuvre for careful study, including a prodigious number of short stories, books for young adults and children, and-perhaps improbably for a horror writer-two bestselling memoirs about life with her four children, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. Franklin's adept readings of Jackson's influences, formative relationships, and major works interweave the obsessions, fears, and life experiences that charge her writing with such wicked intensity. Treating her subject with a generous eye and gorgeous prose, Franklin describes one of Jackson's chief themes, a "preoccupation with the roles that women play at home and the forces that conspire to keep them there," as a product of her cultural moment, identifying Jackson's "insistence on telling unpleasant truths" about women's experience and her ability "to draw back the curtain on the darkness within the human psyche" as the elements that make Jackson a writer of lasting relevance who can still give today's readers an impressive shiver. 60 illus. (Sept.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Summary
Instantly heralded for its "masterful" and "thrilling" portrayal ( Boston Globe ), Shirley Jackson reveals the tumultuous life and inner darkness of the literary genius behind such classics as "The Lottery" and The Haunting of Hill House . In this "remarkable act of reclamation" (Neil Gaiman), Ruth Franklin envisions Jackson as "belonging to the great tradition of Hawthorne, Poe and James" ( New York Times Book Review ) and demonstrates how her unique contribution to the canon "so uncannily channeled women's nightmares and contradictions that it is "nothing less than the secret history of American women of her era'" ( Washington Post ). Franklin investigates the "interplay between the life, the work, and the times with real skill and insight, making this fine book a real contribution not only to biography, but to mid-20th-century women's history" ( Chicago Tribune ). "Wisely rescu[ing] Shirley Jackson from any semblance of obscurity" (Lena Dunham), Franklin's invigorating portrait stands as the definitive biography of a generational avatar and an American literary genius.<br> 60 illustrations
Table of Contents
Note on Quotationsp. xiii
Introduction: A Secret Historyp. 1
1Foundations: California, 1916-1933p. 11
2The Demon in the Mind: Rochester, 1933-1937p. 43
3Intentions Charged with Power: Brooklyn, 1919-1937p. 70
4S & S: Syracuse, 1937-1940p. 90
5The Mad Bohemians: New York, New Hampshire, Syracuse, 1940-1942p. 128
6Garlic in Fiction: New York, 1942-1945p. 158
7Sidestreet, U.S.A.: Bennington, The Road Through the Wall, 1945-1948p. 190
8A Classic in Some Category: "The Lottery," 1948p. 221
9Notes on a Modern Book of Witchcraft: The Lottery: or, The Adventures of James Harris, 1948-1949p. 248
10The Lovely House: Westport, Hangsaman, 1950-1951p. 271
11Cabbages and Savages: Bennington, Life Among the Savages, 1951-1953p. 304
12Dr. Write: The Bird's Nest, 1953-1954p. 331
13Domestic Disturbances: Raising Demons, 1954-1957p. 355
14What is This World?: The Sundial, 1957-1958p. 382
15The Heart of the House: The Haunting of Hill House, 1958-1959p. 407
16Steady Against the World: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, 1960-1962p. 428
17Writing is the Way Out: 1962-1964p. 457
18Last Words: Come Along with Me, 1964-1965p. 485
Select Bibliography: Shirley Jackson's Published Worksp. 501
Notesp. 503
Acknowledgmentsp. 581
Permissionsp. 585
Indexp. 589
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