Authors: Shirley Jackson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American short-story writer and novelist


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.{$I[AN]9810001050}{$I[A]Jackson, Shirley}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Jackson, Shirley}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Jackson, Shirley}{$I[tim]1919;Jackson, Shirley}

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.

BibliographyCleveland, Carol. “Shirley Jackson.” In And Then There Were Nine … More Women of Mystery, edited by Jane S. Bakerman. Bowling Green, Ky.: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1985. This chapter provides the reader with an overview of Jackson’s major works. In addition, Cleveland provides some useful critical insights.Friedman, Lenemaja. Shirley Jackson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1975. Friedman provides the reader with both a biographical and critical study of Jackson and offers information on both her short stories and novels. The volume includes an extensive secondary bibliography.Hall, Wylie. Shirley Jackson: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993. An introduction to Jackson’s stories, with comments by Jackson herself, and a few short, previously published, critical articles by others. Discusses Jackson’s interest in the occult, her fascination with dream situations, her focus on children, and her most famous story, “The Lottery.”Hattenhauer, Darryl. Shirley Jackson's American Gothic. New York: State University of New York, 2003. A strong argument for Jackson's modernity. Analyzes her use of the supernatural as metaphor and illuminates the influences of Jackson's substance abuse, marital strife, and political leanings on her work.Kittredge, Mary. “The Other Side of Magic: A Few Remarks About Shirley Jackson.” In Discovering Modern Horror Fiction, edited by Darrell Schweitzer. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, 1985. A useful study of the use of magic and the supernatural in Jackson’s works. The author draws interesting comparisons between Jackson’s fiction and nonfiction works.Murphy, Bernice M., ed. Shirley Jackson: Essays on the Literary Legacy. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2005. A collection of essays that sheds light on Jackson’s better and lesser known works.Oppenheimer, Judy. Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1988. This volume is the first extensive biography of Jackson. It is finely detailed and provides the reader an excellent view of this author. Oppenheimer interviewed close to seventy persons for this book, including Jackson’s family members, friends, and neighbors. Contains numerous photographs.Parks, John G. “‘The Possibility of Evil’: A Key to Shirley Jackson’s Fiction.” Studies in Short Fiction 15, no. 3 (Summer, 1978): 320-323. This useful article concentrates on Jackson’s short stories. Parks draws useful comparisons with authors such as Flannery O’Connor and Nathaniel Hawthorne.Reinsch, Paul N. A Critical Bibliography of Shirley Jackson, American Writer (1919-1965): Reviews, Criticism, Adaptations. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. From the series Studies in American Literature. Includes an index.Rubinsein, Roberta. “House Mothers and Haunted Daughters: Shirley Jackson and Female Gothic.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 15 (Fall, 1996): 309-331. Explains how Jackson’s fiction demonstrates her increasingly gothic representation of the bonds between mothers and daughters; discusses this theme in a number of Jackson’s stories.Schaub, Danielle. “Shirley Jackson’s Use of Symbols in ‘The Lottery.’” Journal of the Short Story in English 14 (Spring, 1990): 79-86. Discusses how Jackson distracts the reader’s attention into thinking the story is a fable or fairy tale; discusses the symbolic use of setting, atmosphere, numbers, names, and objects in the story.Stark, Jack. “Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery.’” In Censored Books, edited by Nicholas Karolider, Lee Burgess, and John M. Kean. New York: Scarecrow Press, 1993. Discusses some of the reasons for the story’s being censored in schools and some of the values of teaching the story to teenagers; argues that it encourages reflection on some of the issues teens need to understand to become good citizens.Yarmove, Jay A. “Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery.’” The Explicator 52 (Summer, 1994): 242-245. Discusses the importance of setting, historical time, and irony of character names in the allegorical meaning of the story. Compares the ending of the story to the ending of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
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