Shirley Jackson (December 14, 1916 – August 8, 1965) was an influential American author. Despite her numerous works, which include several novels and even a children's novel, she was primarily known for her short story, "The Lottery," which depicts an ancient religious ritual, in which one community member is selected each year to be stoned to death, in a modern, rural American town. This story raised a disturbing question about the extent that civilization has resolved the fundamental problem of human violence.
Born in San Francisco, to Leslie and Geraldine Jackson, Shirley and her family lived in the community of Burlingame, then an affluent middle-class suburb that would feature in Shirley's first novel The Road Through the Wall. In 1939, the Jackson family relocated to Rochester, New York, where Shirley first attended the University of Rochester (from which she was "asked to leave") before graduating with a BA from Syracuse University in 1940. While a student at Syracuse, Shirley became involved with the campus literary magazine, through which she met future husband Stanley Edgar Hyman, who was to become a noted literary critic. For Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Harcraft's Twentieth Century Authors (1954), she wrote:
I very much dislike writing about myself or my work, and when pressed for autobiographical material can only give a bare chronological outline which contains, naturally, no pertinent facts. I was born in San Francisco in 1919 and spent most of my early life in California. I was married in 1940 to Stanley Edgar Hyman, critic and numismatist, and we live in Vermont, in a quiet rural community with fine scenery and comfortably far away from city life. Our major exports are books and children, both of which we produce in abundance. The children are Laurence, Joanne, Sarah and Barry: My books include three novels, The Road Through The Wall, Hangsaman, The Bird's Nest, and a collection of short stories, The Lottery. Life Among the Savages is a disrespectful memoir of my children.
Although Jackson claimed to have been born in 1919, in order to appear younger than her husband, biographer Judy Oppenheimer determined that she was actually born in 1916.
In addition to her adult literary novels, Jackson also wrote a children's novel, Nine Magic Wishes, available in an edition illustrated by her grandson, Miles Hyman, as well as a children's play based on Hansel and Gretel and entitled The Bad Children. In a series of short stories, later collected in the books Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, she presented a fictionalized version of her marriage and the experience of bringing up four children. These stories pioneered the "true-to-life funny-housewife stories" of the type later popularized by such writers as Jean Kerr and Erma Bombeck during the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1965, Shirley Jackson died of heart failure in her sleep at the age of 48. Shirley suffered throughout her life from various neuroses and psychosomatic illnesses. These ailments, along with the various prescription drugs used to treat them, may have contributed to her declining health and early death. After her death, her husband released a posthumous volume of her work, Come Along With Me, containing several chapters of her unfinished last novel as well as several rare short stories (among them "Louisa, Please Come Home") and three speeches given by Jackson in her writing seminars.
She is perhaps best known for her short story, "The Lottery" (1948), which suggests there is a deeply unsettling underside to bucolic, small town America.
The story contrasts commonplace details of contemporary life with a barbaric ritual known as the "lottery." The setting is a small American town (pop. 300) where the locals display a celebratory mood as they gather on June 27, for their annual lottery. After a person from each family draws a small piece of paper, one slip with a black spot indicates the Hutchinson family has been chosen. When each member of that family draws again to see which family member "wins," Tessie Hutchinson is the final choice. She is then stoned by everyone present, including her own family.
In her critical biography of Shirley Jackson, Lenemaja Friedman notes that when Shirley Jackson's story, "The Lottery," was published in the June 28, 1948 issue of The New Yorker, it received a response that "no New Yorker story had ever received." Hundreds of letters poured in that were characterized by, as Jackson put it, "bewilderment, speculation, and old-fashioned abuse."
In the July 22, 1948 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle, Jackson offered the following in response to persistent queries from her readers about her intentions:
Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.
Jackson's husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, has written in his introduction to a posthumous anthology of her short stories that "she consistently refused to be interviewed, to explain or promote her work in any fashion, or to take public stands and be the pundit of the Sunday supplements." That she thought it meant something, and something subversive, moreover, she revealed in her response to the Union of South Africa's banning of "The Lottery:" "She felt," Hyman says, "that they at least understood."
In blurb copy written by Hyman for Jackson's debut novel, The Road Through the Wall (1948), he promoted Jackson as someone who practiced witchcraft. Hyman believed this image of Jackson would help promote sales of novels and film rights. She later wrote about witchcraft accusations in her book for young readers, The Witchcraft of Salem Village (1956). 
Her other novels include Hangsaman (1951), The Bird's Nest (1954), The Sundial (1958), and The Haunting of Hill House (1959), a contemporary updating of the classic ghost story with a vivid and powerful 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.
Adapted to films twice (1963 and 1999), The Haunting of Hill House is regarded by many (including Stephen King) as one of the important horror novels of the twentieth Century. "The Lottery" has been filmed three times, in addition to radio, television, and theater adaptations, and her stories and novels have been the source for several other films, including Come Along with Me (1982), directed by Joanne Woodward. Eleanor Parker starred in Hugo Haas' Lizzie (1957), based on The Bird's Nest, with a cast that included Richard Boone, Joan Blondell, Marion Ross, and Johnny Mathis.
Her 1962 novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, was adapted for the stage by Hugh Wheeler in the mid-1960s. Directed by Garson Kanin and starring Shirley Knight, it opened on Broadway October 19, 1966. The David Merrick production closed after only nine performances at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, but Wheeler's play continues to be staged by regional theater companies.
In 1938, while she was studying at Syracuse, her first published story, "Janice," appeared, and the stories that followed were published in Collier's, Good Housekeeping, Harper's, Mademoiselle, The New Republic, The New Yorker, Woman's Day, Woman's Home Companion, and others.
In 1996, a crate of unpublished stories was found in the barn behind Jackson's house. The best of those stories, along with previously uncollected stories from various magazines, were published in the 1996 collection, Just an Ordinary Day. The title was taken from one of her stories for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, "One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts." A large number of Ms. Jackson's papers are available in the Library of Congress.
Judy Oppenheimer covers Shirley Jackson's life and career in Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson (Putnam, 1988). S. T. Joshi's The Modern Weird Tale (2001) offers a critical essay on Jackson's work.
Darryl Hattenhauer provides a comprehensive survey of all of Jackson's fiction in Shirley Jackson's American Gothic (State University of New York Press, 2003). Bernice Murphy's recent Shirley Jackson: Essays on the Literary Legacy (McFarland, 2005) is a collection of commentaries on Jackson's work.
Although a popular writer in her time, her work has received increasing attention from literary critics in recent years. She has influenced such writers as Stephen King, Nigel Kneale, and Richard Matheson.
All links retrieved November 3, 2019.
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