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The Secret Things of the Earth

By (November 1, 2016) No Comment

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
By Ruth Franklin
Liveright, 2016

jackson-coverA deliberately cruel biography could boil down Shirley Jackson’s life to this, a discarded draft of a jacket note for her publisher:

i don’t like housework but i do it because no one else will. my older daughter and i are practically learning to cook together. i write in the evenings mostly, i guess, although sometimes i let the children help me write in the mornings. they are all very sympathetic about my writing, and my son no longer tries to justify me to his friends.

Or to the following anecdote, related as a piece of comedy in her first memoir of family life, Life Among the Savages. On entering the hospital to have her third baby, she was asked for her occupation. “Writer,” she answered. “I’ll just put down housewife,” replied the clerk.

We read biographies of writers for multiple reasons. In some cases it’s because they’re such major figures that they actively shaped the culture of their times off the page as well as on. In other cases, it’s because we sense something in the work that is feeding on something in the life—that our reading of the fiction would be richer were we to know more about the facts behind it. That’s where we are with Jackson: today, with our awareness of the challenges that midcentury women faced at home and in the workplace, we can’t read Jackson’s stories of emotionally fragile young women, or even her comic memoirs of family life, without feeling beneath them the quiet rumble of inchoate feminist frustration. Where do you get your ideas?, the naive reader asks the writer. Jackson’s ideas, many of them, are strange, uncanny, inexplicable—but we can sense the stream that fed them, and we want to know more.

Ruth Franklin’s fine new biography of Jackson serves that purpose, deftly placing Jackson’s life in the context of both her work and her era, thereby helping us to understand both. The outline of Jackson’s life is pretty straightforward. She was born in 1916 to an affluent family in San Francisco, moved with her family to Rochester as a teen, and met her eventual husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, who sought her out while they were students at Syracuse after reading her first published story in the college magazine. After college, the couple moved to Manhattan, where both tried to make it as writers, with Jackson writing short stories while Hyman concentrated on criticism. In 1945, Hyman began teaching at the newly founded Bennington College, and the couple moved with their son (the first of what would eventually be four children) to the small town of North Bennington, Vermont.

Jackson published her first novel, The Road through the Wall, in 1948, and that summer, the New Yorker published her short story “The Lottery,” which generated an intense reader response and all but made Jackson a household name. For the rest of her life, she was a success as a writer, with women’s magazines willing to pay well for her lighter fiction and nonfiction about family life and Hollywood turning two of her novels into films. At the same time, however, she struggled personally: the strain of parenting and managing the household with essentially no help from Hyman, combined with long-standing tendencies to depression and self-doubt, exacerbated by alcohol and the full-throttle prescriptions of midcentury doctors, wore on her, and in her final years she barely left the house. She died in 1965 of heart failure, having published six novels, two volumes of memoir, and a collection of short stories.

The flesh Franklin puts on the bones of this story is substantial and illuminating. A lot of it comes from Jackson’s own unpublished writing, as Franklin makes extensive, effective use of Jackson’s diaries, unpublished story fragments, and letters. Jackson’s relentless self-doubt and criticism, rooted at least partly in a lifetime of cruel criticism from her mother and amplified by marital discontent, can be hard to read at times, as in this note about her writing from her early twenties:

worst of it is, i can see damn well myself that it’s good, but this constant belittling has made me feel that perhaps i may be kidding myself. . . . sure, i’m a sap for trying to write a novel, but . . . it’s a good novel.

Or this, from a letter to Hyman:

tantrums and hatred and disgust—what a married life.

Or this, even worse, from another letter to Hyman:

you once wrote me a letter (i know you hate my remembering these things) telling me that i would never be lonely again. i think that was the first, the most dreadful, lie you ever told me.

Other people’s marriages are among the secret things of the earth, but Jackson’s copious writing Jackson did about hers enables Franklin to give us a remarkably clear view, which she takes pains to present fairly. In one sense, the pair were obviously well matched: two strong intellects who took each other seriously and brought to the marriage the full power of their engagement with literature and ideas. But it’s clear that Hyman was always the dominant partner—a function, it seems, both of the expectations of the times and of his and Jackson’s own characters. This paragraph succinctly shows the good and the bad, and how deeply they were interwoven:

[I]n many ways, their interests were perfectly aligned, as they always would be. From the first days of their relationship, Stanley took pride in Shirley as his personal discovery. He was her faithful cheerleader, encouraging her to write more and to write better; he also saw himself in the role of her educator, constantly suggesting books for her to read. Though he was entirely convinced of her genius, he saw it as innate, instinctive, and perhaps even unrecognized by her. He told Walter Bernstein that she had “no idea what the things she wrote meant. Whatever came out of her head, went on the page,” Walter recalls.

rdthroughParts of this are troubling to contemporary sensibilities in a way they wouldn’t have been back then, the man as discoverer and teacher eliciting at least a raised eyebrow today. But the appeal is also clear: to a woman who had internalized her mother’s belittling attitude, a brilliant man who saw her talent must have been a near-magical tonic. They married and began to conduct a happily bohemian life, which, even in later years, when Jackson was more isolated, always included major literary and cultural figures of the time. If her mother valued only social surfaces, Jackson and Hyman would deliberately value only art and freedom.

But what happens when the wife—the student—begins to outstrip the teacher, outshine and out-earn him? Even as Hyman struggled for decades to produce two dense books of criticism that didn’t sell, he railed at Jackson for not being more productive, even once, Jackson wrote, “in a fury figur[ing] out that considered in terms of pure writing time my letters are worth forty dollars a page.” At the same time, he expected her to do all the housework and all the parenting, to a degree that seemed excessive even to their peers. Then there was the habitual belittling cruelty, and the constant string of unapologetic, even flaunted affairs, the product of a seemingly honest (if convenient) conviction about the futility of monogamy:

Stanley sometimes tried to soothe Shirley’s feelings after these dalliances. “You have forever spoiled me for other girls,” he told her after one episode. But he truly seems to have felt obliged to be transparent about both his beliefs and his activities: he regarded monogamy as a politically and philosophically useless enterprise, and he saw no reason to restrict himself accordingly. The obvious argument—that Shirley wanted him to—did not compel him in the least.

Reading these pages, we feel real pain, augmented by isolation. If your purported soulmate is the person who’s hurting you, and doing so in ways that are painful or embarrassing to discuss with others, where do you turn? Franklin makes good use of one outlet that she discovered herself, in a cache of letters in a New England barn: an epistolary friendship with an ordinary housewife named Jeanne Beatty, who wrote Jackson a fan letter and kicked off a long, intimate correspondence. Franklin writes,

In Jeanne, Shirley had finally found an ear attentive to her and her alone, a person who not only was truly interested in what she had to say about the things that mattered to her most, but also posed no threat of exposing her to anyone else she knew.

The women would correspond regularly for more than two years, their letters full of the frustration with their husbands and their lives that would make The Feminine Mystique a sensation just a few years later. But complaining to a near-stranger could never be enough: it seems obvious that at least by the later years of her marriage, Jackson wanted to leave Hyman. Only fear, often crippling, held her back.

Amid all the pain, however, there was some happiness. It seems clear that Jackson loved her children—Life among the Savages and Raising Demons may telegraph anxieties despite their wonderful comic gloss, but they’re nonetheless obvious documents of love. And she found great satisfaction during the late 1950s in lecturing on writing. Her lectures reveal a keen knowledge of craft and attentiveness to effect, a clear refutation of Hyman’s talk about her “instinctive” talent. Perhaps most important, the lectures betray none of the self-deprecation of her memoirs, or the self-doubt of her journals. At the lectern, Franklin writes, “Jackson relaxed happily into her authority as a writer”—an authority that, at least briefly, she was able to claim without reference to Hyman’s opinion.

There was also the writing. Her journals and letters reveal it to have been frequently maddening and slow, but it also seems to have been a driving, energizing force. Pointing to the fact that many of her stories and novels featured women making breaks—from stultification or even from reality itself—risks being too reductive, but it seems unquestionable that Jackson’s own frustrations fed her themes. Nearly all the attempts end badly, but not because the women deserve punishment for their actions. Rather, escape is inherently risky, and the fact that we bring our selves—always part of what we are trying to escape, whether we realize it or not—with us, makes it almost impossible. That doomed quality, however, is leavened by a reliable strain of black humor rooted in satire (Ivy Compton-Burnett is an obvious influence, and one that Jackson confessed to being worried about) so that even the darkest novels have moments of unexpected comedy.

lifeamongMany of the short stories are light, but there’s at least a slim volume’s worth of masterpieces, ranging from the truly strange to extremely well-executed examples of the art of magazine fiction: along with “The Lottery,” I’d recommend “The Demon Lover,” {The Rock,” “The Beautiful Stranger,” “Paranoia,” “The Man in the Woods,” and “The Summer People” to start. The novels, meanwhile, all have something to recommend them. The Road Through the Wall, her first, is the weakest, but even it has sharply observed humor and genuine darkness. Hangsaman is legitimately unsettling, and the first book in which Jackson used well an effect that she would perfect in The Haunting of Hill House: leaving time and continuity vague, so that the gaps between scenes disorient us—we simply find the characters somewhere else doing something else, with the strange combination of confusion and inevitability of such transitions in nightmares. The Bird’s Nest is inventive enough and deliberately fractured enough to overcome the fact that it’s a novel about multiple personalities from 1954—that it escapes being badly dated by Freudianism is in itself impressive; that its fractured protagonist feels believably unmoored even more so. The Sundial is the most Compton-Burnett of the novels, a biting comedy about perhaps the most unfit group of people ever to confront the prophesied end of the world. Reading it recently, I actually laughed out loud multiple times.

The Haunting of Hill House is justly famous for its opening paragraph:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Any one of these three sentences would be sufficiently effective to drive an opening paragraph. Taken together, with their combination of aphoristic insight, careful balance and rhythm, consonance and assonance, they strike a powerful note of unease that carries through the whole book. There are hints of both The Turn of the Screw and The Yellow Wallpaper here, with Jackson refusing to answer questions about the reality of the haunting, even as she frightens us with its manifestations.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle also opens well; the contrast with Hill House offers a great example of Jackson’s range, and her ability to mix tones:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

lott3There are lines here that call to mind Charles Portis, or Joan Aiken. And then there is the turn leading to the end that could only be Jackson. Castle is her masterpiece, creating a convincing, compelling world that operates by its own mad, fairytale logic, driven by Merricat’s unforgettable voice and the hermetic, strange world she and her sister create around themselves.

Jackson was working on another novel when she died, after a period of a couple of years when her agoraphobia and depression had prevented her from writing much at all. In her diary, she contemplated trying “a funny book, a happy book . . . a new style.” The remaining fragment of that book, Come Along with Me, seems to bear out that plan: while there are supernatural (or psychotic) aspects, and deaths, comedy outweighs the darkness:

“I had a friend who had cancer,” I said, “but they cut off her right leg.”
“That’s never enough,” she said. “Mark me, she’ll be back for her other leg. I knew a woman once who lost both arms that way.”
“My uncle fell under a truck,” I said.

We can’t know where it would have gone or how it would have turned out—a number of her earlier novels had altered form dramatically during their gestation—but the fragment we have is enticing.

At the same time, it seems fitting that Castle was Jackson’s last book, if for no other reason than that she allows her characters a happy ending, and one that is entirely on their own terms. Having been forced to struggle with the world, Merricat and her sister manage the unlikely feat of re-securing their own private place in it. Jackson may not ever have quite been able to do that in her own world, never quite made her escape—reading Franklin’s biography, it’s hard not to yearn for a different, easier life for her—but her fiction has given us a lasting account of how powerful the urge is, and how much it can cost to act on.

Levi Stahl is the editor of The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany and the associate marketing director of the University of Chicago Press. He blogs at www.ivebeenreadinglately.com and tweets about books as @levistahl.