Shirley Jackson’s best known for her 1948 short story "The Lottery" (and who amongst us who taught American lit didn’t offer this one?) and her best known novel is “The Haunting of Hill House” (1959). Jackson wrote literary suspense in the tradition of like Hawthorne and Poe. In “Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life,” Ruth Franklin writes that her unique contribution was “her primary focus on the lives of her generation of women who were raised in the mid-20th century, on the cusp of the feminist movement."
In a readable biography, Franklin traces Jackson’s mythmaking life from her girlhood in a northern Californian suburb through her marriage to literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman with whom she had four children (after they had met at Syracuse University), thus, alas, where he began a lifetime of infidelities. “Their sometimes tortured intimacy reverberates seismically through her work,” notes Franklin, who suggests this was the basis for her literary themes!
Jackson's work, of course, was not that prolific, but she does have a following. And a solid place in American literary history.
Like a lot of things in life, a second look or return visit is called for in order to get the real meaning of the story. This rule of thumb applies equally well to the works of Shirley Jackson, and what better way to do it than to read a definitive biography like Ruth Franklin's. As one who has only read some of Jackson's short stories and a novel, I wanted to know what motivated her to be so apprehensive about her middle-American existence, case in point the Orwellian life portrayed in "The Lottery". Franklin describes a woman driven to overcome a very real sense of personal inadequacy stemming from having grown up in a male dominated world with a very uncertain home life. What distilled from this was a very talented individual seeking a path to self-fulfillment, never quite sure that she would make it because of the imagined forces arrayed against her. Her story is both dark and compelling because of the incredible energy Jackson brought to the herculean task of keeping the wolves away from the door.The price she had to pay to find personal security meant struggling to be recognized as an accomplished woman writer in a world largely dominated by males. What she settled for were compositions that largely described the lot of someone who overthought life, was continually haunted by the prospects of failure, and was manic in her pursuit of literary success. I liked this study for how Franklin takes the reader into the very recesses of Jackson's mind as she strove to keep ahead of the demons. We get to see her as a university student, an aspiring young writer, someone looking for love, a housewife, and a regular contributor to a prestigious literary magazine. In this frenetic pace she set for herself, she was always willing to try something new to show that she wasn't afraid to take on the unknown like marrying a very temperamental husband, raising a family, living the rustic life, and coping with publicity. The metaphor of the house on a hill became a very appropriate one in her life because it shows how vulnerable and complicated one's life can become when emotional stability and financial security are been sought after. The fantasies of Gothic horror, death, danger, and superstitions are never too far from any of Jackson's writings, be they letters, poems, essays or stories because, like Kafka, these are states of mind she created in order to define the obstacles she had to overcome to be continually successful. In the end, it would be her poor health that would wreck these efforts.
4.0 out of 5 starsThe haunted life of Shirley Jackson presented in a well researched biography by Ruth Franklin
November 14, 2016 - Published on Amazon.com
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Shirley Jackson remains best known for two seminal works both of which have been adapted into films and/or TV shows; The Hainting of Hill House which redefined the gothic novel for the 20th century and the short story "The Lottery" which remains a haunting story demonstrating that violence and evil can inhabit small town America just as it can a major city.
Ruth Franklin's book really is a dual biography--she focuses on Jackson of course but also her husband the literary critic (and Jackson's biggest champion as a writer) Stanley Hyman. Although Hyman didn't have a comparable talent to Jackson, he was a smart and able editor helping Jackson craft her brilliant novels, short stories and humorous sketches.
Jackson's complex personality and her upbringing played a large role in shaping the world view that she portrayed in her novel including the fact that she was something of an outsider even within her own family. Her mother seemed constantly disappointed in Shirley because she failed to measure up to what was expected of a woman in the 40's and 50's. When her mother became pregnant immediately after getting married, she was disappointed that she wouldn't be able to spent more time with her husband without the baggage of children. Born in San Francisco, Shirley and her brother were uprooted when her father received a promotion in Rochester, New York. Shirley's lack of self confidence, her fluctuating weight and insecurity over her looks all informed her writing with a unique perspective even if these insecurities made her unhappy.
Franklin's book does a nice job of taking snapshots of Jackson's marriage, her relationship with Hyman (who was a philanderer) and her the reception of her work at the time ( the magazine that published "The Lottery", for example, received hate mail when it was published because many readers found it so disturbing). Hyman remained a champion of Jackson's work even after her death as he recognized Jackson's original voice as an author.
Franklin does a terrifi. Job of painting a portrait of Jackson presenting her as insecure about her position at a time when women were expected to serve their husbands and have no profession beyond house wife. Franklin also details the many parties and friendships that both Jackson and Hyman had including other authors such as Ralph Ellison. Based on what I've read about Jackson, I don't always agree with Franklin's conclusions of Jackson as a person (she was plagued with neurosis through her life) or author but she does make a compelling case for her conclusions.
Fans of Shirtley Jackson will enjoy this well researched biography which continues to make the case that Jackson was an important voice in literature redefining the horror/suspense genre with her unique talent.
5.0 out of 5 starsA Wonderful and Well-Researched Biography on a Literary Legend
November 27, 2016 - Published on Amazon.com
When I was in eighth grade, one of the stories in our literature textbook was “Charles”. This was my introduction to Shirley Jackson, and a few years later, I read The Haunting of Hill House. I was forever a fan after that, and have since gone on to read many of her other stories. So when I saw a biography on her was on the way, I waited anxiously!
I wasn’t disappointed. Ruth Franklin does an outstanding job, thanks to the monumental research she conducted through Jackson’s archives and interviews with her children and those still alive who were closest to her. Much is told about Jackson’s beginnings and upbringing, her turbulent relationships with both her husband and mother, and her writing career. Her humorous essays and stories on domesticity that were a staple of 1950s women’s magazines may have been embellished—if the real truth of her life is any indicator. Her horror and psychological terror tales (which made me the fan I am, since I’m a 40ish single male who can’t really identify with her “housewife” stuff) gave her a different audience, and had other readers scratching their heads on the departure it was from her more whimsical work.
The book is at times scholarly, a bit juicy here and there, and all together hard to put down. As an author who dips into multiple genres myself, Jackson is one of my many inspirations as a writer, so I always enjoy a good biography on those who paved the way. Her relationships with her husband and mother are a bit heartbreaking at times. Franklin does an amazing job chronicling the complexities of Jackson’s struggles here, as well as other ailments and insecurities. You get the sense Jackson never really found any kind of needed closure with her husband and mother—and never fully rode the wave of success she deserved—before her untimely death (a heart attack in her sleep) at age 48.
As a reader, I’m so grateful for this biography and the works of Jackson that live on more than fifty years after her passing. Reading this book has inspired me to go back and re-read Hill House, as well as the novels of Jackson’s I’ve never read. I’m also now a fan of Franklin’s and can’t wait to see who her next subject will be.