Monday, December 14, 2009

A Story Everybody Read in School

It's Shirley Jackson's birthday today. Born in 1916 in San Francisco, she wrote short stories for the New Yorker and other magazines. One of them made her famous. She was 28 and had recently moved to Vermont with her husband, who taught at Bennington. One morning while she was walking her children to school she thought of a story. By the time she arrived back home it was completed in her head, and she typed it out before the school day was over.

"The Lottery" appeared in the June 26th, 1948 issue of the New Yorker. Her life was never the same again. We all know what the story's about. If you don't I won't ruin it. It became a controversial part of the curriculum in thousands of high school English classes, where it provoked discussions about what human beings are capable of. Arriving as it did, in the aftermath of the war and its atrocities, it made perfect sense, still it floored the comfortable post-war readers who came upon it unawares. It upset their idea of American exceptionalism. "Nothing like that would ever happen in small town America forgodssake." People canceled their subscriptions and wrote angry letters aimed at the author. Many people thought the housewife in the story was going to win a washer-dryer. Imagine their surprise.

I first came across Shirley Jackson in the book catalogs we brought home from junior high. I gave two of her books to my mother for Christmas. "Life Among the Savages" and "Raising Demons" were about Jackson's disordered family life in Vermont. Individual chapters had run in women's magazines. I remember my mom reading them with tears running down her face, laughing. I read them next and they became my guidebook to family life from an adult point of view. She wrote another story I like to read at this time of year: "My Life with R. H. Macy" describes Jackson's short, comical career as a salesperson during the Christmas rush. Shirley Jackson appears one time in A Book of Ages.

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