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Reading Shirley Jackson
Michael Kramer

And he brake that gallant ship in twain,
And sank her in the sea.

—last lines from “James Harris,        
The Daemon Lover,” epilogue to "The
Lottery; or The Adventures of James
Harris" in Shirley Jackson: Novels and
Stories,
p. 239.

 

I grow concerned about Shirley Jackson. Perhaps I grow sad. I suppose that seems rather odd—she’s been dead since just before my birthday in 1965, before my freshman year in high school. And, after all, the reputation of the woman and the respect she’s earned as a writer depends little on my opinion or on my concerns. But I find myself concerned.

Some weeks back, I read a review of Ruth Franklin’s recent literary biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016), and thought I ought to read it. I’ve been working with my own short fiction the last few years, and Jackson is a writer whose style I admire and recognize as important. I am glad I am reading this. Franklin writes skillfully and well, having conducted innumerable interviews with individuals involved in Jackson’s life still living, and having carefully worked through what must be volumes of correspondence and relevant papers. The author includes meaningful anecdotes and photographs, allowing the reader to grasp this significant mid-twentieth century American voice. When she quotes Jackson’s own written notes, Franklin maintains the prose writer’s idiosyncratic lack of capitalization and occasional misspellings. I’m getting to know this writer whose story “The Lottery” I first read in high school. I read it again in college. I taught it years ago when I taught freshmen and sophomores in high school English.

I’m accompanying my biography reading with Joyce Carol Oates’s excellently edited Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories, reading odds and ends as they come up in Franklin’s discourses.

And so I find myself this morning feeling concern about this woman I am getting to know.

For more than forty years I taught English, literature and writing in a solidly Lutheran high school, the largest in the United States and arguably one of the best. Over thirty years ago, when I taught freshmen and the school’s English program lacked the books necessary for a rock-solid language arts program (in those days the school supplied texts for students), I remember a conference, an oral book report, with a student, Sue Brockschmidt. She demonstrated stellar mastery of Jack London’s novel The Sea Wolf. I began to close our conversation with, “So, anything else?” That remains a standard final question for me, allowing conversation outside my agenda. Usually the response was, “No,” and the discussion ended. But Brockschmidt said something that caught my imagination and possibly changed my perspective.

She looked me squarely in the eye and said, “Yeah. I wish I could tell Wolf Larson, maybe Jack London, about Jesus.” I may be paraphrasing, but her words were close to that.

I’m Lutheran, a believing Christian, and the school’s mission statement required I incorporate Christian doctrine into my instruction. That was easy with English. Some writers—John Donne —demand it. Most—Shakespeare, Dickens, the Beowulf author, even George Orwell—encourage or allow it. Some engage the Christian literature classroom in dialog. Perhaps foremost here would be Mark Twain, whose later works are openly hostile to Christian belief. I’m finding Jackson perhaps stands shoulder to shoulder with her nineteenth- century Missouri compatriot.

 

Shirley Jackson grew up in the 1920s and 1930s in California and then New York. Franklin recounts that Shirley was never the cute little girl her socialite mother, Geraldine, wanted. Her father, Leslie, seems typical of many men of that era, giving full rein over household affairs and child rearing to his wife. Franklin also assures her readers that Jackson’s mother’s correspondence throughout the writer’s adult life showed continual disapproval with much of what her daughter did as wife, as mother, and even as writer. Franklin highlights the positive, cheery tone of Shirley’s regular letters to her parents as evidence of the accomplished writer’s never-ending desire to win her mother’s favor.

Meanwhile, Shirley Jackson’s marriage to the scholar-writer-critic Stanley Hyman did not do her much better. Hyman was fascinated with manifestations of mythology in culture and literature. Jackson saw much of her best writing as precisely that, retelling of old stories and themes in a more modern setting. A relationship that each of its members and most of their friends assumed would lead to brilliant collaboration led instead to increased reduction of this woman’s self-esteem. Hyman cheated on her openly and routinely during their courtship and their marriage. Jackson more than tolerated it. In an era where Franklin records that society believed the only problem a housewife should have was keeping her husband, Shirley Jackson juggled running a household, mothering four children, and, often, supporting her family through her writing.

But the issue deepens. More often than not, Jackson received one-third to one-half the money paid to comparable (even critically-judged inferior) male writers. The famous incident of her admission to the hospital for the birth of her third child, Sarah, and the orderly’s refusal to write down “writer” as Jackson’s occupation—he insisted on filling the blank “housewife”—pretty well sums up the times. By this event, Jackson’s story “The Lottery” had rocked the sensitivities of the New Yorker crowd (the story remains one of the most significant pieces that magazine ever published). She had just finished polishing the manuscript for The Lottery, one of the best selling short story collections to that point in American letters.

While Shirley Jackson did not champion feminism, this is the era and these the conditions that fostered Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Jackson’s stories often feature the very plight that Friedan documents. Her women are obsessed with household chores; Tessie Hutchinson, the victim in “The Lottery,” arrives late to the event, defending her tardiness with “Wouldn’t have me leave m’dishes in the sink, now, would you, Joe?” Away from their home, women in Jackson’s stories are often agoraphobic (like Jackson herself during her later years). In one interview for a woman’s magazine featuring her stories, Jackson disparages her own writing, suggesting that it came easily, recreationally, that the real meaning in her life came from providing a home for her husband and her children.

No wonder, Franklin suggests, Jackson grew fascinated with witchcraft. Raised nominally Christian, her husband nominally Jewish, Jackson knew her Bible. At one point she and her husband spent a month’s worth of evenings reading the Bible to their children. But they read it as mythology, the stance of so many sophisticated intellectuals in her day and in ours.

At the time I read “The Lottery” in high school, I don’t remember any mention of its updated ritual from pre-Christian vegetation myths. Nor do I remember my college writing mentor, one of the best teachers I ever experienced, pointing that out when I read it as a model for a short story independent study during my senior year. Later, after I had read Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, and after I taught the story at a boarding school, I recognized that level as one of the “multitudinous” (a Melville word) potential interpretations of Jackson’s tale. I shudder at the relationship between humanity and the pagan gods.

And I wonder if any deeply thinking person can have self esteem without understanding divine grace.

Yes, witchcraft promises power to women. But Jackson’s James Harris, her Satan effigy, leads women astray. In “The Tooth,” the odyssey of a young married woman from the country into New York to get an apparently abscessed tooth treated, the reader finds an ending where that woman runs away with Harris, a mysterious blue-suited man,  either in drug-induced hallucination or given over to the devil and his false promises. The visions of beauty described by Jim in “The Tooth” are so similar to those in Child Ballad No. 243 (“I will show you how the lilies grow / On the banks of Italy”), which Jackson uses as Epilogue to her short story collection. At best, this is a sorry solace. Any deal with the devil in folklore and literature—and I suspect in real life—always leads to conviction and sentencing.

 

And this is where I find myself. I have concerns about Shirley Jackson’s soul. I realize fully my place is not to judge; certainly I must own up to my own issues. And, as Protestant, as Lutheran, I do not find routine in praying for the souls of the dead. That becomes Jesus’s glory. I cannot be aware of the state of heart in which Shirley Jackson died. As I write this, I haven’t finished Ruth Franklin’s book just yet, but I somehow doubt if anything there will fill that chasm. I’m just getting to the 1950s and Jackson’s drug addictions.

But I did recently have a very gifted student, a writer. Her stories often thrive on witchcraft and the supernatural. I suppose, like so much else in this life, my obligation to Shirley Jackson, my student, and everyone else, comes in paying debts forward.

I believe that student has a healthy respect for herself. I know the world we live in, while still replete glass ceilings and double standards and pay inequities, has come a long way toward Christian equity (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female…for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Gal. 3:28).

And I know that one retired colleague’s determination that his students every day hear the gospel (as simple as the words “Jesus loves you”) is a reality at the school I served. I know my student has been assured of God’s grace again and again. And I did what I could to add to that.

But I would not be Shirley Jackson’s teacher. Oh, of course, I wanted my students to write with her kind of mastery, her kind of craft. I still teach. I work with writing groups and others. But I deeply desire to meet with all the writers I’ve taught at some sort of heavenly writer’s retreat, hanging out with C. S. Lewis, with J. R. R. Tolkien, with John Donne, with William Wordsworth. And I’ll just have to wait to greet the many others in that Great Camp. And maybe, just maybe, Shirley and I can together rejoice in our Savior’s ever-flowing grace. 

 

 

Michael Kramer taught English at Orange Lutheran High School in Orange, California. He advised the school’s literary magazine, King Author, which was recognized as one of the best in the nation for the past fourteen years. His work has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary magazines.

 

 

Works Cited

Franklin, Ruth. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016.

Oates, Joyce Carol, ed. Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories. New York: The Library of America, 2010.

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