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Shirley Jackson knew the real Vermont

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Oct 26, 2018

You probably know Shirley Jackson as the author of “The Haunting of Hill House” but you should know her because of the brilliant and eerie “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.”

Zoë Heller on the new Jackson biography:

In a new, meticulously researched biography, “A Rather Haunted Life,” Ruth Franklin sets out to rescue Jackson from the sexists and the genre snobs who have consigned her to a dungeon of kooky, spooky middlebrow-ness. Franklin’s aim is to establish Jackson as both a major figure in the American Gothic tradition and a significant, proto-feminist chronicler of mid-twentieth-century women’s lives. In contrast to Jackson’s first biographer, Judy Oppenheimer, whose 1988 book, “Private Demons,” somewhat played up Jackson’s alleged occult powers, Franklin argues that Jackson’s sorceress persona was mostly shtick: a fun way to tease interviewers and to sell books. Jackson was interested in witchcraft, she writes, less as a “practical method for influencing the world” than as “a way of embracing and channeling female power at a time when women in America often had little control over their lives.” Similarly, Jackson used supernatural elements in her work not to deliver cheap thrills but, in the manner of Poe or James, “to plumb the depths of the human condition,” or, more particularly, to explore the “psychic damage to which women are especially prone.”

Heller goes deeper into the gender issues at play:

The tension between socially acceptable housewifery and creative ambition is certainly easy to find in Jackson’s life, but it’s rather harder to locate in her fiction. There’s no question that, in her books, the house is a deeply ambiguous symbol—a place of warmth and security and also one of imprisonment and catastrophe. But the evil that lurks in Jackson’s fair-seeming homes is not housework; it’s other people—husbands, neighbors, mothers, hellbent on squashing and consuming those they profess to care for. And what keeps women inside these ghastly places is not societal pressure, or a patriarchal jailer, but the demon in their own minds. In this sense, Jackson’s work is less an anticipation of second-wave feminism than a conversation with her female forebears in the gothic tradition.

Shirley Jackson and her husband, the lesser-known author Stanley Edgar Hyman, lived in my hometown of North Bennington, in a house just down the street from where I grew up.

In 1945, after their first child was born, they settled in Vermont, where Hyman had been offered a post on the literature faculty at Bennington College. Here, in a rambling, crooked house in North Bennington, they raised four children and became the center of a social set that included Howard Nemerov, Ralph Ellison, Bernard Malamud, and Walter Bernstein. Their domestic life, as described in the comic dispatches that Jackson wrote for Good Housekeeping and Woman’s Home Companion, was raucous and warm. But Jackson was miserable a good deal of the time, as indicated by her increasing reliance on alcohol, tranquillizers, and amphetamines. She felt patronized in her role as a faculty wife and frozen out by the townspeople of North Bennington. (She took her revenge by using them as the model for the barbaric villagers in “The Lottery.”)

This reminds me, she’s not the only novelist to fictionalize my hometown.