The Letters of Shirley Jackson by Laurence Jackson Hyman (ed) - review by Heather Clark

Heather Clark

Life Among the Savages

The Letters of Shirley Jackson

By

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When Shirley Jackson died in 1965 at the age of forty-eight, she was at the height of her literary power. Her fifth novel, The Haunting of Hill House, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1960 and her short story ‘The Lottery’ was still the subject of debate and discussion, nearly twenty years after its publication in the New Yorker. Jackson commanded top advances and invitations to the most prestigious writing conferences in America, while her works attracted Hollywood adaptations. A major profile appeared in Time in 1962, the same year reviewers swooned over her last novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

After Jackson’s death, her reputation dimmed. Stephen King claimed that she wrote some of the best gothic tales of the 20th century, but second-wave feminists looked elsewhere for literary heroines. Jackson’s husband, the critic Stanley Hyman, was troubled by obituaries that touted her as the ‘Virginia Werewolf’ of ‘séance-fiction’. Recent work by Jackson scholars and a groundbreaking biography by Ruth Franklin have helped to restore Jackson’s reputation as a major mid-century writer who rendered the interior lives of women with uncanny psychological depth. Jackson, Franklin writes, ‘believed her role as a writer was to draw back the curtain on the darkness within the human psyche’.

Three hundred of Jackson’s letters have now been published in a selection edited by her eldest son, Laurence Jackson Hyman. Most of these letters are addressed to Jackson’s parents, her husband, literary agents and fans. They are full of humour and wit; few reveal the anger, jealousy, depressions and hurt that beset Jackson in the 1950s and early 1960s. Only a small number of the letters in this 640-page book, for example, address her festering fury towards Hyman as she raised their four children and wrote six novels and hundreds of short stories. But this compelling collection offers something more valuable than the record of a broken marriage. It is, as Jackson writes in the first sentence of her first published letter, a ‘portrait of the artist at work’.

Jackson had a difficult relationship with her aggressively critical mother, but apart from one furious unsent letter, little of that family drama is on display. Jackson hints at her lonely girlhood and adolescence in love letters to Hyman, whom she met as an undergraduate at Syracuse University. We get an early glimpse of the marriage’s troubling dynamic when Jackson, in 1938, calls Hyman ‘a deceiver of women’ and tells him to ‘go to hell’. And then, a few sentences later, ‘I LOVE YOU AS MUCH AS IF NOT MORE THAN I ALWAYS DID … TAKE ME BACK.’ In 1939, when Jackson’s father became convinced that she was a communist, she begged Hyman to marry her: ‘for christ’s sake are you prepared to help me,’ she wrote to him that August. They married a year later. Both parents disapproved of the marriage, but tensions eased as grandchildren arrived. Hyman’s infidelities caused Jackson considerable anguish throughout their years together.

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Jackson’s letters are full of madcap stories about her domestic life, but say less about her and Hyman’s political involvement or their close friendship with Ralph Ellison, who finished writing Invisible Man at their home. In 1954, while Jackson was working on a short book about the Salem witch trials, she wrote to her agent, ‘I have been working on a combination of McCarthy hearings by day, and witchcraft trials by night, a truly well-rounded life.’ She was outraged by the contemporary witch-hunt (Hyman was tracked by the FBI), but she kept quiet about her sympathies to her family and agents. She admitted to feeling like an outsider, though, when she moved from Greenwich Village to Bennington, Vermont. At a meeting of the ‘local mother’s club … no one mentions the fact that i also write books, as though it were not polite to talk about.’ In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan accused Jackson of glorifying the ‘happy housewife’ stereotype in her magazine stories, which were the basis of her domestic memoirs Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. But many exhausted mothers told Jackson that her funny stories gave them the strength to ‘get through dinner one more night without screaming’.

Although Jackson maintains a light, witty tone in most of her letters, she nevertheless conveys the stresses of managing both a family and a career. After Jackson’s first child was born, she told a friend that she wrote at night, ‘after the last feeding’. Three more children followed. Maids and nannies never stayed long and Jackson endured the daily grind of motherhood without much help. Hyman became a staff writer at the New Yorker and later a professor at Bennington College, but Jackson’s earnings (and regular cheques from her parents) paid the bills. These letters make clear that her position as the family’s breadwinner was a constant source of tension in the marriage. As punishment, Hyman seems to have exerted maximum control over his wife. While he was free to work on tomes of literary criticism for years, she felt pressured to write a new story every week. Indeed, Jackson hints at a Colette-and-Willy-like dynamic when she tells her parents in 1953, ‘stanley feels that every minute i am not doing housework is potential writing time.’ The next year, when her doctor diagnosed her with ‘overwork’ and prescribed a break from writing, she joked to her parents that Hyman was furious and wished the doctor had diagnosed her with ‘underwork’. In September 1960, Jackson’s agent told her to take a vacation after she had earned almost $70,000 (over $600,000 today) for a film adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House. Hyman told her, ‘over my dead body you rested all summer … get the hell up to that typewriter and write something.’ And in a 1963 ‘letter to self’, the most poignant letter in the collection, Jackson writes, ‘stanley intends at all costs to obstruct my serious writing in any way he can … he will not allow me to write anything in which I feel that I am doing more than only writing for money … please let me not tell him or show it to him or answer him when he asks what i am doing. please let it be mine, and not soiled, and not ruined, and not hurt, by jealousy. please just let me write what i want to, and not be stopped … i will not be afraid.’ She felt ‘a dim silent meaningless creature’ in his presence.

Interspersed throughout these letters are Jackson’s New Yorker-style cartoons, which Laurence Jackson Hyman calls ‘playful’. They are anything but. In many of them, Stanley is either pursuing naked women or reading the newspaper in an overstuffed chair as Shirley feeds babies, washes nappies and sweeps the floor. She is always standing; he is always sitting. The cartoons suggest her rage towards her unfaithful husband, barely concealed in her 1951 novel Hangsaman. In the final cartoon, Shirley creeps up behind an oblivious Stanley, relaxing in his easy chair and reading the paper, with an axe. Yet these letters also make clear that she depended on him, intellectually and emotionally, and enjoyed travelling and dining out with him. The marriage was complicated.

Jackson’s letters to her powerful agents Bernice Baumgarten and Carol Brandt provide a more inspiring view of her professional writing life. In these letters, Jackson presents herself as strong, resilient and wise. She uses her agents as sounding boards for novels and stories; she negotiates deadlines and advances with steely determination; she complains about sensational book covers, paternalistic male publishers and condescending interviewers; she turns down an invitation to appear on Edward Murrow’s television show and a chance to write a movie for Lucille Ball. To a ‘complaining reader’ she writes, ‘Dear Mrs White, If you don’t like my peaches, don’t shake my tree.’

This Jackson bears no resemblance to the cruel and psychologically fragile woman played by Elisabeth Moss in the 2020 film Shirley. Here, Jackson steers her own ship and has the confidence to tell an important male editor who rejects her work, ‘i don’t think you’re any kind of judge of what i’m trying to do.’ What she was ‘trying to do’, she told her agent, was to write in the tradition of Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. She was dismayed by her publishers’ tendency to misrepresent her work as just psychological horror stories when her novels were closer to Moby-Dick: ‘I am concerned to find that their general tone seems to emphasize the “readers who like ghost stories” angle rather than the idea – mine – that this is a serious novel.’

In April 1963, Jackson wrote to her parents that she had recently suffered a nervous breakdown. Two years later – after almost a decade of struggles with her weight, her marriage, acute anxiety, ‘wild panic attacks’, agoraphobia and dependence on prescribed barbiturates and amphetamines – she died in her sleep. She had just begun her seventh novel and was about to embark on an ambitious lecture tour. In her last surviving letter, she wrote to her agent, ‘everything this summer seems to have been conspiring to keep me from working, but I do make progress.’

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