This historically relevant biography establishes Shirley Jackson as a towering figure in American literature and revives the life and work of a neglected master.
Known to millions mainly as the author of the "The Lottery", Shirley Jackson has been curiously absent from the mainstream American literary canon. A genius of literary suspense and psychological horror, Jackson plumbed the cultural anxiety of postwar America more deeply than anyone. Ruth Franklin reveals the tumultuous life and inner darkness of the author of The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
Placing Jackson within an American Gothic tradition stretching back to Hawthorne and Poe, Franklin demonstrates how her unique contribution to this genre came from her focus on "domestic horror". Almost two decades before The Feminine Mystique ignited the women's movement, Jackson's stories and nonfiction chronicles were already exploring the exploitation and the desperate isolation of women, particularly married women, in American society.
Here Jackson emerges as a ferociously talented, determined, and prodigiously creative writer when it was unusual for a woman to have both a family and a profession. Mother of four and wife of a prominent New Yorker critic and academic, Jackson lived a seemingly bucolic life in Vermont. Yet, much like her stories, which explored the claustrophobia of marriage and motherhood, Jackson's creativity was haunted by a darker side. As her career progressed, her marriage became more tenuous, her anxiety mounted, and she became addicted to amphetamines and tranquilizers. Franklin insightfully details the effects of Jackson's upbringing, hypercritical mother, and relationship with her husband.
Based on previously undiscovered correspondence and dozens of new interviews, this book explores an astonishing talent shaped by a damaging childhood and turbulent marriage and becomes the definitive biography of a generational avatar and American literary giant.
©2016 Ruth Franklin (P)2016 Blackstone Audio
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"An incredible writer; a courageous woman"
Millions of Americans have read "The Lottery"--if you've ever wondered about the mind behind it, you will love this biography.
Using new interviews and new correspondence, Ruth Franklin has produced a vivid yet nuanced portrait of Jackson, both as a writer and as a woman leading what was a very unconventional life for a member of The Greatest Generation. Her marriage was "mixed": her husband, critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, was Jewish at a time of widespread anti-semitism. Amid the racial bias of that era, some of the couple's friends, like novelist Ralph Ellison, were not white. Her more frightening works, like "The Lottery" and "The Haunting of Hill House," caused sensations when they were printed, and Jackson herself read tarot cards, claiming the label of "practicing amateur witch."
Coexisting with all that, however, was a more conventional person, a writer whose funny family stories frequently appeared in magazines for "ladies," like Good Housekeeping and Mademoiselle. A mother of four herself, she produced a book of advice for new mothers.
At the same time, neither version of Shirley Jackson was definitive--and neither was happy. The only daughter of a viciously critical mother who essentially rejected her, Jackson was self-conscious and anxious to extremes, suffering from agoraphobia and nightmares. Her marriage was not happy: Hyman, too, was over-critical, and she felt he lavished attention on his students and friends (including female friends), while paying less attention to her and the children.
Franklin observes the tension between the two unhappy Shirleys, drawing sharp parallels to Jackson's fiction. She is usually kind, even toward the womanizing Hyman, but she's never condescending as she shows us everything that Jackson was up against in post-war America: the idea that writing was men's work meant her writing often didn't get the attention it deserved. Small-town prejudice created constant nuisance in her daily life. The expectations for women of her era were difficult for any woman to embody--let alone a brilliant creative like Jackson.
I came away with a feeling that Jackson would have been happier if she were born later in history, and the simultaneous knowledge that a later Jackson would not have been the same writer. Like all the best biographers, Franklin concentrates on the personal while never overwhelming us with too much detail. Bernadette Dunne's smooth narration makes this book an excellent listen. Five stars all around--recommended for anyone who loves Jackson, even those who've read only "The Lottery."
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