Shirley Jackson

In the NYT Book Review on Sunday (the 10th), for Mothers Day, a fascinating essay by Ruth Franklin, “Shirley Jackson’s ‘Life Among the Savages’ and ‘Raising Demons’ Reissued”:

When “Life Among the Savages,” a collection of warm and funny magazine pieces chronicling the ups and downs of Shirley Jackson’s household, was first published in 1953, Jackson was already a well-known writer — of a rather different kind. She had made headlines five years earlier with “The Lottery,” which attracted attention not only for its shocking content, but also for the vehemence of the response it provoked. Many were unsure whether this tale of ritual stoning in an American village was fact or fiction; some railed at The New Yorker for printing such barbarism; others just wanted to know what on earth it meant. Jackson, who had already published the novel “The Road Through the Wall” (1948), about murder and suicide in a small California town, sealed her macabre reputation with her next two books: “The Lottery” (1949), a collection of often suspenseful short stories, and “Hangsaman” (1951), a coming-of-age novel about a college student who suffers a mental breakdown.

Now it’s not unusual for writers to offer glimpses of their personal lives, but “Savages” — which along with its sequel, “Raising Demons” (1957), has just been reissued by Penguin — provoked an outcry not unlike the reaction to “The Lottery.” Critics marveled that Jackson, about whom one reviewer had wryly remarked that she wrote “not with a pen but a broomstick,” was now spinning cheerful yarns about a visit to the department store, the night all the family members (even the dog) found themselves sleeping in the wrong beds or the time the furnace and the car both died while her husband was away on a business trip.

… Jackson wrote these pieces partly out of necessity: Her magazine work was instrumental in paying the bills during the long stretches between her advance checks. Unusually for her time, she was the primary breadwinner for much of her marriage: Her husband, [the influential literary critic] Stanley Edgar Hyman, a professor at Bennington College and staff writer at The New Yorker, made far less money. But she also had a genuine gift for this mode of writing. Her household stories take advantage of the same techniques she developed as a fiction writer: the gradual buildup of carefully chosen detail, the ironic understatement, the repetition of key phrases and the unerring instinct for just where to begin and end a story. Hyman wrote later that critics who were surprised to discover that the author of Jackson’s “grim and disturbing fiction” was also a wife and mother were guilty of “the most elementary misunderstanding of what a writer is and how a writer works, on the order of expecting Herman Melville to be a big white whale.”

I recall reading Savages with great pleasure not long after it first came out.

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