Dye the Steak Blue

Lidija Haas

  • Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates
    Library of America, 827 pp, $35.00, May 2010, ISBN 978 1 59853 072 8

In Shirley Jackson’s best-known story, ‘The Lottery’, the residents of a small New England village get together on a summer morning to draw lots. The sun shines, the children play, the villagers chat: it takes a few pages to figure out that they’re deciding who should be stoned to death this year. The New Yorker published the story in 1948, and got more calls and letters and cancelled subscriptions than ever before or since. A decade later, people were still writing to ask Jackson what it meant. For the most part she didn’t like to say, but she told a former teacher she’d got the idea from his folklore class; to someone else she remarked that ‘of course’ the story was ‘about the Jews’; and to others she said it wasn’t fiction at all, but ‘simply North Bennington’, the Vermont town in which she lived, and the people there, ‘the way they slaughter one another’.

The lottery works in two stages. First, a family is chosen: the head of each household picks a slip of paper from a box. Then each member of that family draws in turn. Tessie Hutchinson gets the marked slip. Before the draw, she’s seen laughing with Mrs Delacroix; when the crowd closes in on Tessie, Mrs Delacroix hurries to join them, choosing a stone too big to carry in one hand. In the logic of the story and the village, it’s possible she’s doing her friend a favour. The martyred woman is no innocent. When Tessie’s husband draws the marked paper in the first round, she tries to improve her own odds by counting her married daughter – who, according to tradition, must draw with her husband’s family – as part of the Hutchinson clan: ‘There’s Don and Eva,’ she yells. ‘Make them take their chance!’

Jackson, whose best work has now appeared in a Library of America volume edited by Joyce Carol Oates, was born in San Francisco in December 1916, though she liked to shed three years. Her father, Leslie, whose English family had lost their money, changed their name and emigrated after a mysterious scandal, was doing well in business. His wife’s relatives had been prominent local architects. In Private Demons (1988), the only full biography of Shirley Jackson, Judy Oppenheimer seems a little too eager to make a villain of Jackson’s mother (‘shallow … vain, foolish … disapproving, unrelenting’). Geraldine Bugbee Jackson was from California not Vermont, but like the fictional villagers, she wasn’t interested in flouting convention; she set great store by what other people thought. Mother and daughter weren’t at all alike – in the words of Jackson’s son, it was as if a goldfish had given birth to a porpoise – and Geraldine didn’t hide her disappointment. As Jackson, never pretty and always overweight, grew fatter with age, Geraldine sent corsets in the mail, and her letters were often tactless. ‘You have too many demented girls in your books’; ‘why oh why do you allow the magazines to print such awful pictures of you? … I have been so sad all morning about what you have allowed yourself to look like.’ When the Pill was introduced, Geraldine wrote to say what a good idea it was, and how silly of the Catholics to make a fuss: ‘I only wish I’d had it back then.’

Jackson and her brother were brought up in Burlingame, a suburb which she skewered in her novel The Road through the Wall (1948), peopling it with near indistinguishable snobs and bullies. The first book, she would tell her own children, is your revenge on your parents: once it’s out of your system you can get on with the real writing. When Jackson was a teenager, they moved east to Rochester, New York, where she liked the people even less, and they disliked her right back. She spent a miserable year at the local university, and another at home after dropping out – or being pushed. Things improved in 1937 when she got into Syracuse University, where for the first time she was admired for her oddness rather than shunned. She published a very short story, ‘Janice’, in which a girl casually tells her friends the details of her suicide attempt earlier that day. Stanley Hyman, part of the small quota of Jewish students at Syracuse, read the story in a college magazine, thought it the only piece that showed any talent and sought Jackson out to tell her so. They fell in love and started their own publication, calling it Spectre, after the one haunting Europe, in which they attacked the university’s policies on race, trashed the writing teacher’s poetry collection, and annoyed the administration so thoroughly that although Jackson became one of Syracuse’s most famous alumnae, and Stanley an eminent critic, they didn’t get invited back for 25 years.

When they married after graduating in 1940, both families were distraught; his father sat shivah for him and didn’t relent for several years. The army classified Stanley unfit for service, so they spent the war living in Manhattan on not much, and started publishing in magazines. In 1945, with one young child and another on the way, they moved to Vermont so that Stanley could teach at Bennington and the two of them could write. They chose not to live near the campus, but settled in North Bennington instead, where they seem to have been treated with some suspicion by their neighbours. Although ten of Jackson’s stories had already appeared in the New Yorker, her first novel didn’t get much attention or sell many copies when it came out in 1948: it was ‘The Lottery’, published four months later, that changed things. From that time on, alongside the literary fiction, she published a stream of short pseudo-autobiographical pieces in women’s magazines. Many other serious writers sold stories to the likes of Good Housekeeping, but few maintained a second career as what Oates calls a ‘domestic humourist’, churning out pieces like ‘The Third Baby’s the Easiest’ and ‘The Night We All Had Grippe’. Joan Wylie Hall, in her 1993 book about Jackson’s short fiction, claims that ‘her name is the only one that is now at all familiar in issue after issue’ of magazines aimed ‘exclusively at a female readership’. In The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood imagines sitting in the crook of a tree with a possible future hanging just out of reach on each branch: she can only choose one, and choosing it means losing all the others, so she watches, trapped, as one by one they ripen, fall and rot on the ground. Jackson didn’t accept that she had to choose: she set out to grab everything she could reach.

She often bragged that she was a witch, and when her second book, a collection of stories named after ‘The Lottery’, came out in April 1949, the publishers spread word of her spookiness far and wide. She liked to make a joke of it, saying a woman who’d offended her fell down an elevator shaft, breaking all the bones in her body ‘except one and I didn’t know that was there’, but the jokes didn’t preclude seriousness, or horror, and she believed her powers were real. When Stanley’s publisher proved troublesome later on, she made a matchstick doll and sent word that though her voodoo couldn’t stretch as far as New York, evil would befall Alfred Knopf should he cross state lines. Weeks later, he broke his leg on the first day of a Vermont skiing trip. Asked about it after her death, Knopf would say only that he’d ‘never published Shirley Jackson’.

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