Born in San Francisco, California, in 1916, Shirley Hardie Jackson is best known as a writer of short stories and novels that frighten as well as entertain their readers. Jackson is generally judged to be a skilled storyteller and a significant figure in American literature. Her wit, clear style, and narrative ability make her work enjoyably readable. At the same time, most critics believe that Jackson’s characters and themes lack the depth found in the work of a great writer.
Jackson had a comfortable early family life with her father, Leslie H. Jackson, president of a label and lithograph company; her mother, Geraldine Bugee, who came from a family of educated, prominent professionals; and her brother, K. Barry. As a young woman, Jackson believed in the supernatural. Early diary entries show that she was also beset by what would be a lifelong feeling of inferiority and a sense of being an outsider.
After two years at the University of Rochester, in New York, Jackson was dismissed and spent a year writing conscientiously every day. She then entered Syracuse University, where she met her future husband, fellow student and future literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, with whom she edited a controversial campus magazine, Spectre.
Jackson began her prolific short-story publishing in 1941 with “My Life with R. H. Macy,” a satirical account of a part-time job at Macy’s department store in New York City, followed by “After You, My Dear Alphonse,” which appeared in The New Yorker in 1943. The latter story concerns prejudice against blacks, which Jackson had protested during her years at Syracuse. When Hyman became a professor of English at Bennington College in 1945, Jackson and their son Laurence moved with him to North Bennington, Vermont, where her daughters Joanne and Sarah and her son Barry were born.
In 1948, Jackson published her first novel, The Road Through the Wall, and her most famous short story, “The Lottery,” along with several other noteworthy stories such as “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” “The Pillar of Salt,” and “The Tooth.” The Road Through the Wall, set in a town modeled after Burlingame, California, where Jackson was reared, explores a theme that permeates Jackson’s fiction: the cruelty and evilness of ordinary people in their daily lives, especially in small towns. The New Yorker’s publication of “The Lottery” brought Jackson worldwide notoriety. Quickly written one June day, the story generated a torrent of mail to The New Yorker, most of it angry, even abusive. Much of the story’s horror stems from the reader’s jarring realization that what seems at first to be a festive occasion, the traditional community lottery, actually involves a brutal ritual in which the villagers participate unquestioningly. “The Lottery” was republished in a 1949 collection of short stories, The Lottery: Or, The Adventures of James Harris.
Jackson’s interest in abnormal psychology, the occult, and the supernatural are reflected in her novels Hangsaman, The Bird’s Nest, The Sundial, The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Natalie Waite, the young heroine in Hangsaman, is a schizophrenic, and Elizabeth Richmond in The Bird’s Nest is a woman with four personalities. A gothic motif of The Sundial, The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the mysterious, ominous house in which the inhabitants are threatened by one another, by ghosts, and sometimes by the outside community. These novels have received mixed critical reviews but have been commercially successful.
Jackson continued to publish short stories in popular magazines, many of them creating suspense and ambiguity with their situational irony and their blending of realistic detail and dreamlike unreality. Jackson also published humorous pieces based on her escapades as a wife and mother of four children, such as “The Night We All Had the Grippe” and “Charles.” Most of the stories were anthologized in two autobiographical volumes, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons.
After Jackson’s death, her husband edited Come Along with Me, which includes her unfinished novel of the same name along with fourteen stories not previously collected and three lectures on the writing of fiction which Jackson had delivered at colleges and writers’ conferences.