Life Among the Savages

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The Dark Background of the Bright Tapestry: On Shirley Jackson’s ‘Let Me Tell You’

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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 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.