Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Oh, My Gosh! Oh, My Gosh! I Am So Glad I Saw This!

My Shirley Jackson obsession is well-documented here at O.C.. So imagine my delight when Blog of a Bookslut referred me to The Strange World of Stanley Edgar Hyman and Shirley Jackson in the Wall Street Journal. Be sure to read the comments.

Though I have been to Bennington, Vermont a number of times in years past, and one of my sisters lived there for a little while, I cannot lay any claim to knowledge of Bennington College. To Vermonters of my tribe and era, Bennington College was...another world. Out of state. Beyond our grasp and understanding. We could not imagine the wealth or fathom the intellect.

If Shirley Jackson had not been connected with it, I would barely have known Bennington College existed. Because she was, I've paid attention to anything I've read about the place. For her sake.

Coincidently, today I had lunch with my mother-in-law who was a faculty wife during the same period (and beyond) as Jackson, though at much techier colleges. How did those women maintain their sanity?


Saturday, February 13, 2010


A few years back, I read about a woman who had self-published a couple of books about her experiences as a wife and mother. She said that she was careful to put only short amounts of text on each page because she wrote for women, and women were busy and didn't have time to read much.

I have a hard time coming up with the words to describe how I felt about that.

I kept thinking of that woman as I read Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson. The pieces in this book (the structural layout is a little odd, in that things seem run together though they aren't) are just so well done. You never get the feeling that Jackson considered her readers--whomever they ended up being--too busy to consume good writing. She writes of experiences common to women, and she gives mending and going shopping with the kids the attention and style those tasks deserve.

I believe Jackson to have been a writer who was very interested in women's lives. You see it in her short stories, and again in Savages. Her work reflects the period in which she lived. In Savages, for instance, Jackson smokes during pregnancy and appears to have thought nothing of it.

You don't see a lot of Jackson the writer in Life Among the Savages, and when you do, it's in a heartbreaking passage in which she describes being admitted into the maternity ward. When asked her occupation by a clerk,

"Writer," I said.

"Housewife," she said.

"Writer," I said.

"I'll just put down housewife," she said.

Jackson doesn't comment on the exchange, but I don't think she has to.

About those savages--they are piece of works. Jackson, as she appears in this work, clearly loves them. But those kids are...difficult to describe. They have fantasy lives at a time when fantasy lives may not have been all that desirable. They are outspoken with one another and with everyone else. In the last pages the three older ones are introduced to their new baby brother, whom they refer to as "it." These are not Mother's Day greeting card children by a long shot.

As I've often said, I was a big Jackson fan when I was a teenager, and I suspect I read this book back then. I probably found those kids funny, but I couldn't possibly have understood all that was going on here. This is a book for adults (male and female) who don't give a damn about how much they have to read in order to share an experience with a writer.

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Not What I Expected From Shirley

Shirley Jackson's main connection to YA literature is probably through the short story The Lottery, which many students read in high school. I think it's considered attractive to kids because it's scary and surprising. So a lot of readers think, "Oh, Shirley Jackson. Creepy." As Jonathan Lethem said in the Salon article Monstrous Acts, "An unfortunate impression persists (one Jackson encouraged, for complicated reasons) that her work is full of ghosts and witches. In truth, few of her greatest stories and just one of her novels, "The Haunting of Hill House," contain a suggestion of genuinely supernatural events". That is definitely the case with the short story collection The Lottery: Adventures of the Daemon Lover. (This is the original title of the 1949 book and it appears that way on my old paperback published in 1969.)

What struck me about these stories when I reread them last month is that many, if not most, of them are about women. Specifically, they're about women's lives. I'm not talking about a writer making some kind of feminist statement with her writing. (Though her story Elizabeth might be of particular interest to feminists.) I'm talking about a writer showing us women's experience during a particular point in time and in a particular place--mid-twentieth century America. The women in Jackson's stories live extremely claustraphobic, narrow lives. They are almost always referred to as Mrs. Something or Another or Miss Something or Another. They are thus defined in terms of their relationships--or lack thereof--with men. How often do we see Mrs. or Miss or even Ms. used these days the way Jackson uses those honorifics? She creates a very definite feeling of oppression with them.

Jackson's female main characters in these short stories are almost always alone. They are also often trapped emotionally in some way. And many of the stories involve a city woman who has moved to the country, where she is, once again, isolated and trapped.

The Lottery appears at the end of this collection, which is a very good place for it. After having read the other stories, The Lottery doesn't seem all that surprising. Instead, it fits in rather well with Jackson's other stories of women trapped in worlds from which they cannot escape.

It's still scary, though.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Big Read IV

My faithful readers are probably aware that when I'm not obsessed with the Transcendentalists, I'm obsessed with Shirley Jackson. So imagine my delight when I learned that Leila at bookshelves of doom is doing another Big Read, this time on The Lottery and Other Stories. And I own all the stories!

November will be wonderful.

I've already told you the story about how I read The Lottery to my kids when they were little. Ah, memories like that make a person get all warm and fuzzy, don't they?

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Shirley And Me

Back in 2005 I got all excited reminiscing about Shirley Jackson because of a post at Blog of a Bookslut. Well, it's about to happen again because Jessa is reading Shirley.

If you read that 2005 post I just linked to, you saw that I read The Lottery to my kids when they were in grade school. Well, the older boy gets to high school where, lo and behold, they read The Lottery in one of his English classes. He goes, "Hey, my mom read this to us when we were little."

Evidently the other kids in the room were impressed. And not because my boy was so well read. He got the creepy mom award that day.