Ruth Franklin's Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life is a major new biography of the American author, taking readers inside the personal life of the enigmatic Jackson. Franklin picks some of her favorite Jackson details.
If you went to high school in the United States in the 1950s or later, you probably read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” one of the most anthologized short stories in American fiction. Perhaps you’ve also read her spooky novel The Haunting of Hill House (or seen one of the two films made of it) or the mysterious We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But the life story of the woman who created these works is much less well known. Here are some surprising facts from my biography.
1. She was a California girl. Jackson is often associated with New England writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, her American Gothic predecessor. She lived in North Bennington, Vermont, for most of her adult life—in fact, some people believe it’s the setting for “The Lottery.” But she was born in San Francisco and spent her childhood in Burlingame, California, up until her senior year of high school, when her father was abruptly transferred to Rochester, New York. She initially hated the Northeast, and always missed the California avocados and pomegranates—“two for a nickel,” she later remembered fondly. She drew on her memories of Burlingame in The Road Through the Wall, her first novel and the only one set in California.
2. Her family believed in Christian Science. Jackson’s maternal grandmother, who lived with the Jacksons while she was growing up, was a Christian Science faith healer. Jackson would later angrily recall her mother and grandmother praying over her little brother’s broken arm rather than taking him to a hospital. Still, she listed “Christian Science” as her own religion on her college applications.
3. She flunked out of college. The writer responsible for one of the defining stories of her era was kicked out of the University of Rochester after her sophomore year. Jackson spent far more time hanging out in cafés with her best friend, a sophisticated French exchange student, than studying. She may also have suffered a serious depression. (Parts of Hangsaman, her second novel, are based on her experience during these years.) After taking a year off, she enrolled at Syracuse, where she met Stanley Edgar Hyman, her future husband. They graduated in 1940.
4. Her parents didn’t attend her wedding. Neither did Hyman’s. Though he declared himself a “militant atheist” as a teenager, he was brought up in a traditional Jewish household, and his parents didn’t approve of him marrying outside the faith. The Jacksons, for their part, were more than a little anti-Semitic. Jackson didn’t even tell her family that she and Hyman had gotten married until months after the fact. The Jacksons never entirely warmed to him.
5. Her agent shielded her from rejection. Jackson struggled to get published in the early years of her career. For each successful submission, she suffered many rejections. The New Yorker published four of her stories in 1943, four again in 1944, and then nothing until “The Lottery” in 1948. She was in good company—the magazine also rejected all of J.D. Salinger’s early submissions. But because she tended to get despondent whenever she received a rejection letter, Hyman asked her agent to tell her only of her acceptances. If it was unavoidable, he sometimes broke the news to her himself.
6. She wrote “The Lottery” in a single morning. A lot of myths have arisen around Jackson’s writing of “The Lottery,” some of them spread by Jackson herself. In a lecture about its creation that was later published as “Biography of a Story,” she said that The New Yorker had asked her to make only a single change—the date on which the lottery was held—and that the magazine published the story just a few weeks after she submitted it. Neither was true. But all accounts agree that Jackson had the idea for the story while she was out grocery shopping, came home, and wrote it while her two-year-old daughter played in a playpen. She was finished by the time her son came home from kindergarten for lunch.
7. People thought “The Lottery” was a factual report. Jackson received several hundred letters from New Yorker subscribers, which were dominated by three main themes: in her words, “bewilderment, speculation, and plain old-fashioned abuse.” She was most alarmed by the letters from people who wanted to know where such lotteries were still held and whether they could watch. But the fact that some readers believed the story to be true isn’t as bizarre as it now seems, since The New Yorker at the time didn’t designate articles as fact or fiction, and many of the humorous essays were understood to fall somewhere in between.
8. She had a huge library of witchcraft books. Jackson became interested in witchcraft during her early years in college and continued studying it for the rest of her life. Many of her books, including Life Among the Savages, contain references to historical witchcraft chronicles or manuals (known as grimoires). She liked to joke about her skills and even spread the rumor that she had made publisher Alfred A. Knopf—who was involved in a contract dispute with Hyman—break his leg while skiing in Vermont. (She had to wait for Knopf to leave New York, she said, because she couldn’t practice black magic across state lines.) She also read Tarot cards for friends and family. The jacket copy of The Road Through the Wall described her as “perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch.”
9. She was the family breadwinner. As a faculty member at Bennington and a low-contributing New Yorker staffer, Hyman’s income was relatively meager. Jackson, on the other hand, commanded high fees from women’s magazines, where she published both fiction and humorous essays about her family. She collected those essays into a best-selling memoir, Life Among the Savages, and a sequel, Raising Demons. In 1959, the Saturday Evening Post paid $2250 for one of her stories—more than enough to buy a Morris Minor, the British sports car popular at the time (of which Jackson had several).
10. She didn’t believe in ghosts. Though she was intrigued by the occult, she said she had never had a supernatural experience. She based The Haunting of Hill House, her famous ghost story, on historical accounts of haunted houses and pictures she collected of spooky estates—from the Castle Neuschwanstein in Germany to the Winchester Mystery House near her hometown in California. One of the books she most admired was An Adventure, an account by two British women of an uncanny experience in which they apparently stumbled upon a scene from the past while visiting the Petit Trianon at Versailles. She was also inspired by poltergeist accounts collected by the psychical researcher Nandor Fodor, among others.
11. At her death, she was in the middle of writing two new novels. Many people know that Jackson suffered from such severe agoraphobia in the last years of her life that she was sometimes unable to leave her house. But at the time of her sudden death from a heart attack in August 1965, she had made a full recovery and had just completed a reading tour that took her to half a dozen colleges. She read from two separate works in progress: the novel Come Along with Me (published in an unfinished version) and a children’s fantasy story called The Fair Land of Far. Sadly, she died at the height of her creative powers.