Quinn Dalton’s recent collection Bulletproof Girl contains eleven stories about women in peril. Not physical peril in the tied to the railroad tracks “save me Indiana Jones” way, but social and emotional peril. Each story is a snapshot, a day or two in the life of a woman who has come up against something in her life that is big and hard to move. My favorite story was “Lennie Remembers the Angels” about an elderly woman who is paranoid about her neighbors but turns a blind eye to her son’s transgressions. There is a physicality to her language in this story: damp heat, dark apartments and overpowering food smells. Like “Lennie,” several of the stories in the collection could be mistaken for chapters in a novel; they aren’t self-contained. Dalton is very good at fleshing out her characters, and we know their individual histories. As she leads her protagonists through their hard times, we are given stories that are as character-driven as they are plot-driven. The long title story broadens the themes the Dalton explores in the rest of the collection. Instead of one woman, we have three: Emery, May and Celeste, three generations from the same family, all at difficult crossroads and alternately comforting and pitying one another. Emery is smarting from the loss of her boyfriend, her mother May has been driven to odd obsessive behavior ever since her husband moved out, and old Celeste the grandmother is vibrant, but will not sympathize with her daughter, and instead takes them all on a macabre errand.
Near Touchdown Jesus, a statue nicknamed for his outstretched arms, the smell of pot ambles through the French Quarter. A makeshift band — clarinet, tuba, and drums — plays for tips on the corner. A man in a long-sleeve shirt, sits cross-legged in the middle of the street where his friend has already propped a chair. Bells from St. Louis cathedral announce the time: 12 gongs.
“That’s where Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire,” says a tour guide dressed in all-purple. He’s driving a mule-drawn carriage with signature fleur-de-lis on the back. He points to the Avart-Peretti House at 632 St. Peters Street. After reading John Lahr’s biography Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, shortlisted for the 2014 National Book Award in nonfiction, I came looking for the playwright. I’ve found one of Williams’s French Quarter homes, red brick, nearly identical to others in the neighborhood. Across the street, a sign for a “boutique smoke shop” reads Pipe Dreams. This sign could probably apply to how Williams felt when he first started writing plays.
While a lot of biographies begin with dry lineages, Lahr puts us at Williams’s opening night of his first big play The Glass Menagerie. Right from the start, there’s tension. For Williams, this is his make-or-break moment, because his very first production Battle of Angels had been a crowd-booing fiasco. Williams is considered an autobiographical playwright, so many of his plays’ scenes are dramatized versions of his life. Throughout Mad Pilgrimage, Lahr presents a Williams play, then ties it back to the playwright’s personal life. The Glass Menagerie, Lahr shows, depicts his more-than-dysfunctional family.
When Williams was 7, his family moved from his home state Mississippi to St. Louis. During his childhood, his father, a salesman, often drank and became violent. His father, Lahr says, called the young Williams “Miss Nancy,” because he considered the boy effeminate. To keep a distance from his father, Williams clung to his overbearing mother Miss Edwina. Though Miss Edwina protected her son and nurtured his interest in writing, she barely hugged her children and raised them with fire-and-brimstone-esque ideals. As a result, Williams’s plays often deal with repression, both physically and emotionally. Lahr tells us the playwright didn’t masturbate until the age of 26, a shocking bit of information, but also valuable insight to helping understand the depth of his plays’ characters’ struggles. Williams often turned his work’s gaze toward the male body — think Stanley Kowalski played by Marlon Brando in Streetcar. In his iconic characters Blanche DuBois (Streetcar) and Brick (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), we see the personification of struggling with desire
“On the one hand there is truth,” writes Virginia Woolf in “The New Biography,” “on the other there is personality.”
When done with “personality” in mind, a biography can mimic a piece of jazz music. Lahr states in the preface that he constructed the book closer to a profile than a traditional biography. In this way, he listens to the music. Texture, seemingly improvisational moments, comes from the layering of different sounds. Elements overlap and knock up against each other. He situates Williams’s many pithy and entertaining letters, the post-office kind, in conversation with diary entries, theater reviews, and interviews. To punctuate Williams’s nearly 15-year relationship with Frank Merlo, Lahr often incorporates the playwright’s poetry:
It was not easy to crawl
against those unending torrents
of light, all bending one way.
And only your voice calling, Stay!
— “Humble Star”
As the middle child, Williams often compared himself to his siblings. He adored older sister Rose, but while he had writing to escape his mother’s tyrannical spirituality, Rose wasn’t as lucky. Their mother committed Rose to an institution, in which she received shock treatments and an eventual prefrontal lobotomy. Lahr deftly explores Williams’s relationship with Rose. She was one of the few people he cared for all his life. He had a tumultuous relationship with younger brother Dakin, who Williams saw as their father’s golden boy. The two brothers butted heads their whole lives, and in the biography we see just how much they seemingly despise each other. By portraying Williams’s personal life in connection with his art, Lahr not only makes a claim for the playwright’s artistic ability, he also gives a touching portrait of a complicated — and somewhat selfish! — American icon.
Along with Williams’s family, we hear from many of the people integral to Williams’s life such as Gore Vidal, director and collaborator Elia Kazan, his agent Audrey Wood, and friend Maria St. Just. These voices mix on the page. At times, the book feels close to attending a fancy cocktail party with an A-list invite list. The collage style is effective because Lahr pulls from multiple points of view and recollection. At just over 600 pages long, he crafts crescendo moments and other, softer points to control the rhythm. When analyzing a Williams’s work, Lahr often includes a telling piece of dialogue. These sound bites seem ripped verbatim from Williams’s life.
GLADYS: Your son misses you, Pere.
PERE: That’s likely.
GLADYS: In your mind you have branded him a sissy, and that’s what’s come between you.
PERE: Does he still have on them little velvet knee britches?
— from a sketch of what was then called “The Big Time Operators”
As a theater reviewer in NOLA, I’ve seen two of Williams’s plays over the past year. A company staged The Night of the Iguana, his last big commercial success, in a re-purposed funeral home on Elysian Fields. Later in the year, I sat in a sold-out audience for Cat on A Hot Tin Roof, which coincided with the yearly Tennessee Williams Festival. The playwright moved to the city at the age of 27. New Orleans became, as John Lahr writes, the beginning of Williams’s “literary adventure and his sexual coming-of-age.” Out from under his mother’s thumb, he explored his queerness in the South. At one point, Lahr notes, he was taking home a new guy seemingly every night.
While Lahr’s play analysis sections might drag for some readers — especially those unfamiliar with the stage — this isn’t just a book for the theater-loving set. The biographer guides us through Williams’s work, and he gives us enough of the plot to help us understand the plays’ significance. The narrative is interested in the story of American theater, but Lahr also uses Williams’s work to place the playwright in the larger context of U.S. history. His popularity in the late 1940s “registered the spiritual shift after America’s return to normalcy” at the end of World War II. The response to his work often mirrored the social climate of the time. During his six decades of writing, Williams authored over 30 full-length plays and 70 one-acts. He won numerous awards, including two Pulitzer prizes. Hollywood came calling his name, and his audience expanded to the movie-going public. American screen-royalty Elizabeth Taylor starred in the adaptation of his work Suddenly, Last Summer and as Maggie in the film version of Cat. Williams gained access to the most fabulous social circles. He drank with celebrities and the literati alike.
As with any good party, though, the spotlight eventually starts to dim.
Public tastes changed. More experimental and abstract forms of theater became popular. Though still considered one of America’s greatest playwrights, his style no longer felt like a hot commodity. Even his thematic exploration of repressed sexuality, started to seem tame fare for the progressive sexual movement. He eventually, as Lahr says, found himself a “revolutionary in a post-revolutionary” era. Lahr tracks the playwright’s fall with the same keen eyes as his success. The latter section of this biography is compelling as it explores how an esteemed writer deals with failure. Despite poor reviews of his late work, Williams didn’t stop producing. Writing helped him understand his experiences. Without his typewriter he’d die. Williams had dealt with depression through most of his life, and his new has-been status lead to excessive drinking and drug use. We see his extended stay in treatment facility. Lahr’s prose delicately handles Williams’s collapse. With the playwright approaching personal oblivion, the biographer continues to join the life with his work. He won’t let us forget Williams’s genius, and Lahr writes he ultimately “devoured himself for the sake of his work.” This biography becomes more than a portrait of a famous writer who “changed the shape and the ambition of the American commercial theater.” We see the duality of the human psyche, at once tough and all together fragile. It’s an experience similar to one of Williams’s plays.
While the playwright died in 1983, he’s still alive here in New Orleans. In Jackson Square, where Williams would have walked, artists sell black and white painting of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley. Down the St. Peters Street stands a community theatre which recently produced one of his shows. One of his French Quarter apartments, 710 Orleans Street, is now sandwiched between a property management company and a used bookstore. I had walked passed the front door many times without knowing one of the city’s literary heroes had lived there. It took reading Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh for me to stop and look at his front door. The biography helped me get to better know not only an important writer, but also the city in which I live. Lahr makes Williams feel alive to me. As alive to me as the playwright is here in these New Orleans streets.
Shirley Jackson’s house in North Bennington, Vt., unlike the nearby Robert Frost Stone House, has not been made into a museum. There isn’t even a sign that says that Shirley Jackson used to live there. It stands magisterially, with its four columns, up the knoll on Prospect Street. But if you stop to take a good look at it, you will realize that, despite its white grandeur, the overall impression it gives is one of inadequate upkeep — it could do with a new coat of paint, and the roof is crumbling in some places. The dysfunctional family in Jamaica Kincaid’s novel See Now Then lives in “the Shirley Jackson house…in a small village in New England.” (Kincaid, too, is a resident of North Bennington). From a window of the house, the mother Mrs. Sweet in the novel “could look down on the roaring waters of the Paran River as it fell furiously and swiftly out of the lake…and looking up, she could see surrounding her, the mountains named Bald and Hale and Anthony, all part of the Green Mountain Range; and she could see the firehouse where she sometimes attended a civic gathering…” The new owners of the house seldom come out on the porch; I have walked past it many times but never seen anyone walking in the yard or sitting on the steps. It is not very surprising then that Kincaid chose this house for her novel; its anonymity only fuels its quiet power to command everything in its view. As you walk up the hill and see the house emerge slowly, you feel as if you had stumbled upon the axis of the whole village.
Shirley Jackson was walking up the hill to the same house as she worked out in her mind what would become her most famous story. “The idea had come to me,” she writes in the “biography” of “The Lottery,” “while I was pushing my daughter up the hill in her stroller — it was, as I say, a warm morning, and the hill was steep, and beside my daughter the stroller held the day’s groceries — and perhaps the effort of that last fifty yards up the hill put an edge to the story.” Shirley Jackson left New York City and moved to North Bennington in the ’40s when her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, accepted a teaching position in the literature department at Bennington College, which is only a short walk from Prospect Street. One question that would come up persistently in the deluge of fan- and hate-mail that Jackson received after the publication of “The Lottery” in The New Yorker in June 1948 was: “But where is this fictional village located, whose habitants participate in the cruel ritual described in the story?” In her delightful essay “How I Write” in Let Me Tell You, a new collection of Shirley Jackson’s unpublished and uncollected short stories, essays, and other writings, she writes: “For a while I tried telling them that I was just thinking of my neighbors, but no one would believe me. Incidentally, no one in our small town has ever heard of The New Yorker, much less read my story.” North Bennington is the setting for many of Shirley Jackson’s short stories and for her novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle, considered by many her finest (it was also her last) and Hangsaman, which is about a Bennington College student. Yet, Shirley Jackson never mentions the name of the place; it could be any small village in New England.
It is this effacement of place that makes Shirley Jackson’s writing so astonishing. Nowhere in We Have Always Lived in the Castle does Shirley Jackson mention the name of the hostile village from which the Blackwood sisters are hiding away, but as soon as you start walking around North Bennington, you realize how she was deftly transforming the space around her with her abundant imagination. She explains this process in “How I Write:”
I had been reading a book about choosing a victim for a sacrifice, and I was wondering who in our town would be a good choice for such a thing. Also I was wondering what would happen if they drew lots by family; would the Campbell boys, who haven’t spoken to each other in nearly twenty years, have to stand up together? And I was wondering what would happen about the Garcia boy, who had married a girl his parents couldn’t stand — would she have to be admitted as a member of their family? I was so fascinated by the idea of the people I knew in such a situation, I thought that when I got home I might try writing it down and seeing what happened…Because I was interested in the method, I called the story “The Lottery”…
In the fall of last year, Ruth Franklin, who is working on a new biography of Shirley Jackson to be published next year, contacted me for help with some local research. As I read through old issues of the Bennington Banner from 1957 preserved on microfilm, I stumbled on a trove of local gossip that the newspaper, unfortunately, no longer publishes: “Several local residents caught a glimpse of Mrs Roger W. Tubby Thursday afternoon as she, accompanied by her husband’s sister and husband visiting from England, was on her way home to Saranac Lake.” In one of the issues, the newspaper reported how a Mr. Williams had been admitted to the hospital, but the next day it also published a correction saying that after being contacted by Mr. Williams, the newspaper had realized its sources had been faulty. Who knows what Mr. Williams’s secret afflictions were, or what life-altering effects the noteworthy visit of Mrs. Roger Tubby, wife of a former White House Press Secretary, had on the village? Either of these could easily be the premise for one of Shirley Jackson’s stories.
Jackson had a penetrating eye for the absurd and the horrific in everyday lives, whether in New York City or in a quiet Vermont village. In the story “Paranoia” in Let Me Tell You, a New Yorker happily returning home from work, having remembered his wife’s birthday and carrying a box of candy for her, starts being chased relentlessly by the image of a man in a light hat. Even his home will not be able to shelter him from his pursuer. Let Me Tell You is divided into five sections — unpublished and uncollected short fiction, reviews and essays about work and life, early short stories about the Second World War, humor and family remembrances, and essays on the craft of writing. Some of the short fiction in this collection — like “Paranoia,” “The Man in the Woods,” and “The Lie” — was previously published in magazines like The New Yorker, Tin House, and McSweeney’s. Much of it, however, is wholly new, such as “The Arabian Nights,” in which a girl insists on accompanying her parents and their friends to a nightclub the day after her 12th birthday, but the events following Clark Gable’s appearance at the club make her feel uneasy in the world of adults and want to take refuge in her childhood once again. The stories in Let Me Tell You are not Jackson’s most detailed, and sometimes they’re only one or two pages long, but as Ruth Franklin points out in her illuminating foreword, many of the stories that reappear in this collection were supposed to be part of a short-story collection that Jackson was trying to put together in the ’40s. However, they weren’t included when she found an organizing principle for the collection and it took the form of The Lottery and Other Stories.
Nobody was a more astute chronicler of the post-war crisis of the female mind in America than Jackson. In her novels The Bird’s Nest, Hangsaman and The Haunting of Hill House, the horrors that visit the female protagonists are psychological rather than supernatural. More opportunities were available to women after the war, but they were still shackled by domesticity and their lives continued to revolve around their husbands and children. Stanley Edgar Hyman’s career overshadowed that of Jackson in her lifetime, she was often dismissed as a mere faculty wife, and her neighbors suspected her of witchcraft (though it must be admitted that Jackson took an extraordinary interest in the paranormal). In the story “Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons,” the immaculate housewife Mrs. Spencer’s compulsion to keep everything in her household in order turns into mania, and then into loneliness when everybody in town, including her husband and children, desert her to attend a picnic at the less priggish Oberons’. In “The New Maid,” Mrs. Morgan remains untouched by the arrival of spring because she takes the train to work very early in the morning. Her husband is jealous that she has an important job.
Jackson knew how difficult it was to manage a teeming household and a writing career at the same time, and the pieces about family life in the collection show Shirley skillfully turning her misadventures and imperfections as a homemaker into art. In “Questions I Wished I’d Never Asked,” Jackson’s innocent question, “Who left the hose out to freeze?” is met with confessions of other mischief going on in the house. These writings are of a piece with the hilarity and hysteria of her memoirs Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. Yet, enjoyable and amusing as these pieces are, there is sometimes an uneasiness about them, as if she were negotiating with the Angel in the House. They often come across as stoic concessions of someone who, as the heading of one of the sections in the book says, “would rather write than do anything else.” In “Here I Am, Washing Dishes Again,” she talks of entertaining herself by making up stories about her kitchen utensils while she washes them. The reader is jolted when after these droll pieces about her household she declares in “The Real Me,” “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 wooden stove.” The most interesting pieces are the ones where her family life merges with her creativity and work. In “Private Showing,” she takes her children to a viewing of the film Lizzie, based on The Bird’s Nest, and they are delighted to go to “Mommy’s movie.” In “The Play’s the Thing,” Jackson writes a play at her children’s behest that they can stage, but they make the play their own, and in the end Jackson gives them the copyright. The piece on poltergeists in the house on Prospect Street makes for a truly spine-chilling moment in the volume, when the Hymans sit down to dinner and find a still-warm pumpkin pie on the table, prepared by one of the spirits in the house.
Some of the finest pieces in this collection show a side of Shirley Jackson that the world does not readily associate with her — that of a generous writer who is willing to share her process with her readers and give meticulous advice. “Garlic in Fiction” is one such gem where Jackson illustrates how to hold the reader’s attention with the use of a set of symbols: “what I’m calling images or symbols or garlic,” she writes, “is actually a kind of shorthand, or evocative coloring, to a story.” Jackson shares her experience of the haunting, subconscious, and often adventitious aspects of writing in “Memory and Delusion,” where she says, “I cannot find any patience for those people who believe that you start writing when you sit down at your desk and pick up your pen and finish writing when you put down your pen again. A writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing.” Her essays on Samuel Richardson and Dr. Seuss have the effervescent quality of the literary criticism in Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader. This collection also reveals to us Shirley Jackson the illustrator; it’s dotted with her charming drawings of family life — stick figures of herself, Stanley, and her children. A vanquished Stanley lies on the ground while Shirley, perched happily on a swing, says, “Push me again, dear — it’s just like flying.”
Let Me Tell You is a welcome addition to the reissues of Jackson’s novels, and its publication is a good opportunity to ask why there’s been a resurgence of scholarly and popular interest in her in the last few years. As Jackson’s centenary in 2016 approaches, it might be important to investigate whether we, constantly being watched on social media, bear any resemblance to the paranoid man in Jackson’s story. Is the pressure of “leaning in” really any different for women now than it was in post-war America? The answers may not come that easily, but in the meanwhile we can go on reading Shirley Jackson and marveling at her unique ability to turn happy and stable worlds on their head.