Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson: An Author in Hiding

15 minutes to read
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Bethany Maclachlan
03/05/2021

Many more people will be acquainted with the work of Shirley Jackson than they perhaps realise. Her infamously controversial short story, The Lottery, is included on many high school English curriculums across the United States of America (Chung & Schmidt, 2018), and several film and television adaptations have been made based on her work. Most recently this includes the critically acclaimed Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House (Flanagan & Kaplow, 2018). Throughout her career Jackson wrote six novels, two memoirs, and hundreds of short stories, predominantly within the horror and mystery genres. Her writing career spanned the 1940s – 1960s, during which time Jackson also raised four children with her husband, balancing her career with a family at a time when such aspirations for women were highly unusual.

Promotional Image for the Netflix adaptation of Jackson's novel, The Haunting of Hill House

Jackson was an author in the traditional sense of creating literary works, that were published and received by an audience, situating her as a person of interest to the public. Her stories garnered fame across America at the time they were published, but Jackson largely eschewed the publicity that came with being a successful author. Due to her avoidance of public appearances and interviews, photographs of the author are scarce and there exists only one recording of her voice (Franklin, 2016, pg. 246). For such a successful author, little has been known about her prior to the publication of a biography, to whose author access to private correspondence and family interviews were unusually granted. Given the revival of Jackson’s work over the last decade, combined with the dearth of women writing in the horror genre that largely persists to this day (Trent, L. 2014), it is important to now explore the persona of this mysterious author. This essay will consider Jackson’s reluctance to engage with the media, alongside the postures she chose to perform on the occasions that she did make an appearance. These postures were sometimes in direct conflict with each other, leading to Jackson’s failure to maintain a consistent authorial posture. A case will be presented for Jackson occupying a space between the dead/absent and the present author – that of an author-in-hiding.

Authorial Posture

Meizoz (2010) explained that writers actively create “presentations of self” (pg. 81) in which they convey themselves as belonging to one or more authorial types or ‘postures’. According to Meizoz, posture is an interactive process with the media, through which an author asserts an identity and “marks out his position in the literary field” (pg. 84). Posturing is achieved through discourse with the media and the public, and even includes the way the author chooses to dress or behave in public.  By consistently aligning their discourse, appearance, and behaviour with the values and identity they wish to project, an author can successfully maintain an authorial posture.

Although Jackson was not fond of publicity, she did inevitably create postures for herself as a writer. After her death in 1965, Jackson’s diaries were entrusted to her family and eventually made available to her biographer Ruth Franklin. In her work, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (2016), Franklin reveals the content of some of those diaries that indicate Jackson’s early attempts at posturing. The biography reports that Jackson kept multiple diaries simultaneously, for different aspects of her life, and with different voices. When describing the diaries Jackson kept in her childhood to teenage years, Franklin notes that “in an extension of the persona splitting of her multiple diaries, she took the unusual step of assigning names to her moods, as if they were characters in a play” (pg. 49).

This private experimentation with personas is a form of life narrative. According to Smith and Watson (2001), such self-referential writing allows the author to engage in processes including “justifying their own perceptions, upholding their reputations, disputing the accounts of others, settling scores, conveying cultural information and inventing desirable futures” (pg. 10). The content of these private diaries then are less concerned with factual representation than they are a process of self representation and understanding for Jackson.

So it is clear from Jackson’s formative years that she was concerned with how she came across, and with her authorial identity. However, when Jackson grew up and became an author she continued to experiment with different and conflicting personas publically, rather than choosing and maintaining one. Jackson’s authorial postures are conflicting and serve to undermine each other, and eventually her attempts at posturing declined to the point that she avoided the public altogether. The two key postures Jackson occupied were those of the controversial writer and the housewife, and these conflicting personas may ultimately have contributed to Jackson’s predominant posture as the absent writer.

Controversial Writer

The most significant way in which Jackson postured herself as a controversial writer is within the stories she created. According to Meizoz (2010) “in offering a work, he [the author] constructs a self-image and this image is confirmed or evolves in the course of ensuing works” (pg. 84). So the products that are authored by a writer contribute to their postured identity. With the exception of her two domestic memoirs and a number of stories commissioned specifically for women’s magazines, the bulk of Jackson’s work contained recurring dark themes, including the banality of evil and protagonists experiencing dangerous states of mind. Franklin (2016) suggests that “the demon in the mind…was Jackson’s obsession…often it appears metaphorically as the source of the evil deeds people commit against one another” (pg. 63). The Bird’s Nest (1954) charts a young woman’s descent into multiple personality disorder. The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) include themes of the ostracization of women who do not conform, of the occult, and of matricide. These uncomfortable themes were sustained in her work, which contributed to her posture as a controversial writer.

The piece that attracted the most attention to Jackson as an author was The Lottery (1948); a short story that was first published in The New Yorker magazine. The Lottery describes the events on a single day in a small town, where a name is pulled at random to decide the winner of what is referred to as the lottery. It quickly becomes clear that rather than a monetary prize draw, this tradition is a sacrificial ritual; the winner is stoned to death by their neighbours. The story provoked outrage from much of the magazine’s readership, resulting in over three hundred letters of complaint, “the most mail the magazine had ever received in response to a work of fiction” (Franklin, 2013). The letters complained that the story was “outrageous,” “gruesome,” and “shocking” (Franklin, 2016, pg. 230). However, rather than detracting from Jackson’s readership, this controversy propelled her into fame and gave her a more established position in the literary field, including invitations to lecture at writing conferences (pg. 216). Later her publishers would insist on naming a collection of her short stories after The Lottery to promote its publication and ensure sales (pg. 252). So, it is clear that the nature of Jackson’s writing contributed to her controversial persona.

Where the content of her fictional stories might be considered a passive form of posturing, in so much as the controversy may have been an unintended byproduct of her craft, it is clear that Jackson also occasionally wrote to deliberately provoke. Jackson’s husband, the literary critic Stanley Hyman, was a professor at Bennington College. During his time there Jackson wrote a satirical piece on Bennington faculty wives for the college’s magazine in which she openly mocked the other wives. In one snide comment, Jackson claimed “it is considered probable that ten years or so ago she had a face and a personality of her own” (Franklin, 2016, pg. 197). She also took aim at the professors themselves, comparing being married to one akin to being married to Bluebeard, the literary trope of a man who continually marries and murders his wives. This piece served to distinguish Jackson as separate from the rest of the faculty wives at Bennington, and no doubt to shock, reinforcing her controversial persona. This was furthered by Jackson’s appearance and behaviour, which conflicted with the expectations placed on the wife of a Bennington professor. A rare photograph shows Jackson sat among the other wives on the lawn outside the college, her hair in a casual ponytail and dressed informally. She stands out among their formal dress and carefully groomed hair and makeup (pg. 197). Jackson also garnered a reputation for being temperamental when hosting students at her home (another duty of the faculty wives) and noted in her critical article that she desired to “drop them down the well” (pg. 198). On the occasions where Jackson did make public appearances or write non-fiction pieces, she would further her controversial persona.

This controversial, "other" stance that Jackson carves out for herself in opposition to her peers at Bennington might be explained to a degree by her feelings of failure at meeting feminine expectations of the time. In her biography on Jackson, Franklin (2016) explores the content of the writer’s personal letters to her family, friends, and husband. These letters reveal a deep unhappiness and crippling lack of self-esteem as a result of falling short of the expectations placed on a woman in the 1950s. Letters from Jackson’s mother frequently criticise her appearance and weight, and unsent drafts show how deeply the criticism affected her. Her husband detailed infidelities in his letters to his wife, to which again she would draft pained responses that she would never ultimately send. Franklin paints a picture of Jackson as a victim of societies expectations and of her personal circumstances, from which writing was her escape. It makes sense therefore that Jackson’s books would contain themes of unconventional and psychologically distressed women that caused her to be labelled as a controversial writer. However, it is interesting that in her rare media performances Jackson actually preferred to present herself as a happy, if chaotic, housewife. Such a content and lighthearted portrayal of her housewife persona conflicts with the domestic unease and distress that she presents in the bulk of her writing. Furthermore, now that we have access to these private letters that detail her struggles with her appearance and her marriage, her attempts at posturing as a content housewife do not appear overly authentic.

Housewife

The most prominent way in which Jackson engaged in posturing was through her two domestic memoirs; Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957). In these memoirs Jackson presents her life at home as a mother and wife, humorously portraying the struggles and rewards of domestic life. It is interesting to note that within these memoirs she chooses not to portray herself as a writer at all. Franklin (2016) identifies that Jackson “notes that the family’s possessions include “typewriters,” plural, but Stanley is the only person ever depicted using one” (pg. 369). The memoirs themselves are evidence of Jackson’s authorship, but in their pages she allows her identity as a writer to be eclipsed by that of housewife. This persona is the one Jackson preferred to play up to in her rare media performances, telling how the idea for The Lottery “came to her while she was out doing errands” and “was [sent] off to her agent the next day, with virtually no corrections” (pg. 1). Correspondence between Jackson and her editor refute her claim of few corrections, and the time between submission and publication was proven to be months more than she would describe. It is interesting that Jackson used her role as housewife to downplay her persona as a writer, despite her success. Jackson’s notes revealed her disdain at this identity, claiming “I am tired of writing dainty little biographical things that pretend that I am a trim little housewife in a Mother Hubbard stirring up appetizing messes over a wood stove” (pg. 259). She resented posturing in this way, and yet continued to do so. This unwilling posture may then have been something Jackson felt she needed to do, possibly to pander to the expectations placed on her by society or, closer to home, her mother.  However, given that her controversial persona relied heavily on the subversion of domestic ideals, these two postures were in conflict and served to undermine the authenticity of one another.

Shirley Jackson holding her son Laurence

Death of the Author

The death of the author is a theory put forward by Roland Barthes (1968), which claims that the author is irrelevant in the interpretation and value of their text. Barthes argues that “language knows a ‘subject’, not a ‘person’” (pg. 145) and that the interpretation of a piece of writing lies with the reader and not the author.  According to Barthes, “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”. This means that once a text becomes available to an audience outside of its author, that author role is made obsolete, or in a sense killed, by the text.

Jackson’s refusal to engage with the media or the public could be interpreted as her taking the posture of the dead or absent author. She did not often make herself available to her readers for them to interpret her work, refusing to share definitive explanations of their meaning (Franklin, 2016, pg. 234). She allowed occasional photographs to be taken to accompany her earlier work but would do so reluctantly and eventually refuse altogether (pg. 218). Jackson also disliked providing biographical information about herself, often leaving her husband to write it on her behalf when necessary (pg. 217).

At the time her stories were published, it was common for readers to claim that they did not understand them, and for the media and even her publishers to try to elicit explanations from the author. Jackson would evade providing explanations for her work, seemingly allowing others to interpret for themselves. Her publisher commented on one of her novels, “it’s damned good but I haven’t met anyone who is sure that they . . . know what it’s about” (pg. 232). When The Lottery was published in The New Yorker, the magazine also sought to elicit some interpretation from Jackson. After she declined an explanation, the fiction editor put forward his own, to which she responded “sure” (pg. 228). Jackson’s refusal to define her work publicly fits with the posture of the dead author, where the work is intended to speak for itself. However, since the publication of her biography in 2016, intimate details from personal correspondence reveal that this is not reflective of the attitude Jackson held towards her work.

Hidden Author

Despite allowing her readers to interpret her work themselves, there is evidence to suggest that Jackson took offence when they got it wrong. In response to growing opinion that her novel Hangsaman (1951) included a lesbian theme, Jackson wrote privately that “i happen to know what hangsaman is about. I wrote it” (pg. 63). She then elaborates that a character identified by the public as a lesbian love interest is in fact “not a he or a she but the demon in the mind” (pg. 63). These personal notes reveal that Jackson did consider her work to have definitive meanings and interpretations in line with her own intentions when writing the piece. She did not ascribe to the theory that the work was open to free interpretation, but at the same time she would not disclose the meanings to others. In this way she was still an absent writer, but rather than having been killed by her text it appears she preferred to hide behind it.

If posturing is a way of defining ones position within the literary field, perhaps Jackson’s eventual refusal to do so was prompted by her feelings of alienation from that field. More private letters revealed that she did have higher literary intentions for her work, commenting on the marketing of her novel The Bird’s Nest as a psychological horror story with “it’s really more like moby dick, penetrating to the depths of the human heart, and whatnot” (Franklin, 2016, pg. 336). Jackson undermines herself by adding “whatnot”, trivialising her own work and revealing a humility that perhaps stopped her from claiming a place of significance in the literary field. This hesitance to present herself as a serious contender in the literary domain is likely to have been exacerbated by the context of being a woman in the 1950s. This was a time when women were not expected or supported in balancing a prestigious career with a family, and when their roles as wives and homemakers were more valued than their career ambitions. It was also at a time when the majority of esteemed writers were male (Cima, n.d.). This is perhaps why Jackson pushed her housewife persona in her memoirs and interviews, as such a posture would have been considered more fitting for a woman at that time.

Another reason why Jackson may have wanted to conceal herself as the author is due to the controversial nature of her fiction, and the consequences of her publishers use of that controversy for sales. Jackson read every letter of complaint she received in response to The Lottery and kept some in a scrapbook. She found criticism difficult to receive, to the point that her agent would shield her from the feedback that came with rejections (Franklin, 2016, pg. 146). Her family were treated coldly by neighbours who suspected her depictions of cruel townspeople such as those in The Lottery and We Have Always Lived in the Castle might be based on them. At one point this resulted in her family being evicted from their home (pg. 269). Being identified as the author of controversial fiction, and having readers look to her as the source of the disturbing content, had unpleasant consequences for Jackson’s real life, and so led her to erase herself from any public author role.

This analysis hints at some of the complications authors may experience as they attempt to claim and maintain an authorial posture, which certainly seems to have been the case for Shirley Jackson. Her work explores disturbing themes relating to the polite veneer that women were required to uphold in civilised society at that time, and the wickedness that it can give way to. This presented her as a provocative author bordering at times on the scandalous. However, as a wife and mother those very expectations that Jackson attacked in her stories applied equally to herself in her personal life. Her attempts then to discredit her own credentials as a serious author, and posture as a housewife who wrote on the side as a frivolous hobby, may have come from bowing to societal pressure and/or an attempt to salvage her personal reputation and that of her family. Influenced by the societal context for women in the 1950s, tensions were evident between these personas of controversial writer and housewife. She switched between the two conflicting postures, unsure of by which she wished to be known, until she no longer wished to be known at all. The conflicting personas of controversial writer and housewife, both forged under the influence of societal expectations for women, proved too much to maintain.

Shirley Jackson was an absent author in the sense that she removed herself from the public eye and refused to discuss interpretations of her work; but she did believe her work to have the meaning she, as the author, intended for it. Therefore, Jackson was less a dead author than she was an author-in-hiding. Through the careful collation of her private correspondence, now made available to the public through collaboration of Jackson's family and her biographer, Jackson can once again emerge and claim the visible role of author.

References

Barthes, R. (1968). The Death of the Author. 1st ed. University Handout.

Chung, L.H.W. & Schmidt, P. (2018). "Lesson Plan For Teaching Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery". English Literature Faculty Works. DOI: 10.24968/2476-2458.engl.354

Cima, R. (n.d.). The Gender Balance of The New York Times Best Seller list. The Pudding.

Flanagan, M. & Kaplow, D. (2018). The Haunting of Hill House [TV Series]. Netflix.

Franklin, R. (2013). The Lottery Letters. The New Yorker.

Franklin, R. (2016). Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. [Kindle version]. Amazon.

Jackson, S. (1948). The Lottery. The New Yorker.

Jackson, S. (1951). Hangsaman. New York: Farrar, Straus and Young.

Jackson, S. (1953). Life Among the Savages. New York: Farrar, Straus and Young.

Jackson, S. (1954). The Bird’s Nest. New York: Farrar, Straus and Young.

Jackson, S. (1957). Raising Demons. New York: Farrar, Straus and Young.

Jackson, S. (1959). The Haunting of Hill House. New York: Viking Press.

Jackson, S. (1962). We Have Always Lived in the Castle. New York: Viking Press.

Meizoz, J. (2010). Modern Posterities of Posture. In G. J. Dorleijn, R. Gruttemeier, & K. L. Altes (Eds.), Authorship Revisited: Conceptions of Authorship around 1900 and 2000 (Groningen Studies in Cultural Change) (pp. 81–93). Peeters Publishers.

Smith, S. & Watson, J. (2001). Reading Autobiography. University of Minnesota Press.

Trent, L. (2014, July 11). Horror and the women who write it. Book Riot.