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The Letters of Shirley Jackson Kindle Edition
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NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY KIRKUS REVIEWS • “This biography-through-letters gives an intimate and warm voice to the imagination behind the treasury of uncanny tales that is Shirley Jackson’s legacy.”—Joyce Carol Oates
Shirley Jackson is one of the most important American authors of the last hundred years and among our greatest chroniclers of the female experience. This extraordinary compilation of personal correspondence has all the hallmarks of Jackson’s beloved fiction: flashes of the uncanny in the domestic, sparks of horror in the quotidian, and the veins of humor that run through good times and bad.
i am having a fine time doing a novel with my left hand and a long story—with as many levels as grand central station—with my right hand, stirring chocolate pudding with a spoon held in my teeth, and tuning the television with both feet.
Written over the course of nearly three decades, from Jackson’s college years to six days before her early death at the age of forty-eight, these letters become the autobiography Shirley Jackson never wrote. As well as being a bestselling author, Jackson spent much of her adult life as a mother of four in Vermont, and the landscape here is often the everyday: raucous holidays and trips to the dentist, overdue taxes and frayed lines of Christmas lights, new dogs and new babies. But in recounting these events to family, friends, and colleagues, she turns them into remarkable stories: entertaining, revealing, and wise. At the same time, many of these letters provide fresh insight into the genesis and progress of Jackson’s writing over nearly three decades.
The novel is getting sadder. It’s always such a strange feeling—I know something’s going to happen, and those poor people in the book don’t; they just go blithely on their ways.
Compiled and edited by her elder son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, in consultation with Jackson scholar Bernice M. Murphy and featuring Jackson’s own witty line drawings, this intimate collection holds the beguiling prism of Shirley Jackson—writer and reader, mother and daughter, neighbor and wife—up to the light.
“[Jackson’s] fiction, full of misanthropy, madness and murder, tends to be viewed through the lens of her personal torments and, more generally, of the misogyny of the age. What is striking about Jackson’s letters, however, is that while they testify to pretty outrageous domestic double standards . . . they show very little sign of unhappiness. The mood of the missives is buoyant, garrulous and eager to amuse, and while Jackson often seems stressed and exasperated, she’s rarely despairing. . . . The labors of domesticity and artistry are fused in these letters in a way that seems to me unique.”—The Wall Street Journal
“The letters generously collected here brim with energy—they sear us with their candor and ferocity. This biography-through-letters gives an intimate and warm voice to the imagination behind the treasury of uncanny tales that is Shirley Jackson’s legacy.”—Joyce Carol Oates
“This collection, edited by Jackson’s son, brings together one of Jackson’s other great literary loves apart from short stories: the letter. Written in a distinctive lowercase typewriter font on yellow paper, the correspondence offers another view of the wit that permeated Jackson’s fiction.”—The New York Times (13 New Books Coming in July)
“The breadth of Shirley Jackson’s artistry is still being recognized. This intimate collection of her correspondence makes us feel the odds against which this working mother, daughter, and wife accomplished what she did, and at what costs. This book is surely as much a feminist document as a literary one.”—Jonathan Lethem
“The Letters of Shirley Jackson offers so much more than a simple peek behind the curtain of one of the most important literary lives of the twentieth century. Her letters are full of warmth and insight while displaying her uncompromising wit and talent, as well as a melancholic, haunted vulnerability. . . . A book to be cherished and reread.”—Paul Tremblay
“This collection was invigorating and life-sustaining for me to read, coming to me exactly when I needed it, in a way that feels like a miracle (or like someone cast a spell). These letters are so warm and funny and thoughtful and wicked, revealing an unexpectedly rich way of looking at the world that makes space for both love and horror.”—Kristen Roupenian
“[A] congenial mix of insouciance, sardonic wit and exasperation . . . The rough spontaneity of the letters . . . make this view into Jackson’s simultaneously conventional and unconventional life extremely intriguing.”—BookPage
“Shirley Jackson’s letters are just as compelling and beautifully written as her best novels. . . . At nearly 700 pages, readers are unlikely to find a book that moves with more assured swiftness than The Letters of Shirley Jackson. This is a bountiful offering fans will treasure.”—Shelf Awareness
“The life of Shirley Jackson—as a mother and a writer—emerges in vivid detail in this collection of correspondence. . . . Full of wit and heartbreak, this volume shines, and Jackson’s singular prose never fails to entertain.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A vivid, engaging, and engrossing collection from one of American literature’s great letter writers.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
• • •
From Debutante to Bohemian: 1938–1944
I must stop writing letters and get to writing a novel. If you think of any good scenes for a novel covering about forty pages send them right along. I can use anything I get.
—To Stanley Edgar Hyman?, date?
Shirley Jackson was born in San Francisco, California, on December 14, 1916. Her father, Leslie, had immigrated from England at age twelve with his mother and two sisters and was a self-made successful business executive with the largest lithography company in the city. Her mother, Geraldine, was a proud descendant of a long line of famous San Francisco architects and could trace her ancestry back to before the Revolutionary War.
Shirley primarily grew up in Burlingame, an upper-middle-class suburb south of the city. But when she was sixteen, Leslie was promoted and transferred, and the family moved—luxuriously, by ship, through the Panama Canal—to Rochester, in upstate New York. The Jacksons quickly joined the Rochester Country Club and became well-established in the city’s active societyworld. The move was very hard on Shirley, who missed California and her friends there, especially her best friend, Dorothy Ayling. She finished high school in Rochester (where one of her classes was once interrupted for a few minutes so that Shirley could marvel at snow falling outside the window), then attended Rochester University for one difficult year, before deciding to spend the next year writing alone in her room at home, with the lofty goal of producing a thousand words a day. Little of what Shirley wrote during that period is believed to have survived.
She then enrolled at Syracuse University, where she enjoyed literature classes, and where the university’s journal, Threshold, published her story, “Janice,” a one-page conversation with a young woman who brags that she has that day attempted suicide. Another literature student, Stanley Edgar Hyman, from Brooklyn, New York, the brash, intellectual son of a Jewish second-generation wholesale paper merchant, read her story and vowed on the spot to find and marry its author.
Shirley and Stanley met on March 3, 1938, in the library listening room, and an intellectual connection quickly developed into a romantic one. These letters begin just three months after they met, when both Shirley and Stanley are on summer break, she at home in Rochester, and he at first at home in Brooklyn and then rooming with his friend Walter Bernstein at Dartmouth, then working at a paper mill in Erving, Massachussetts.
This is the earliest known surviving letter of Shirley’s. She is twenty-one, and he is about to turn nineteen.
[To Stanley Edgar Hyman]
tuesday [june 7, 1938]
portrait of the artist at work. seems i brought a collection of miscellaneous belongings home from school, among them a c and c hat which bewilders gaddamnthatword my little brother. he says if its a hat why doesn’t it have signatures all over it. mother seems to think i’m insane, and closes her eyes in a pained fashion when i call her chum. she also tells me that love or no love i have to eat and when i say eatschmeat she says what did you say and for a minute icy winds are blowing. there has been hell breaking loose ever since mother woke me this morning by telling me that that was a letter from dartmouth that the dog was eating.when she came in an hour later and found me reading the letter for the fifth time she began to be curious and asked me all sorts of questions about you. yes, she got it all. consequently there was a rather nice scene, me coming off decidedly the worse, since mother quite unfairly enlisted alta’s assistance and alta went and made a cake and i like cake. mother says, in effect: go on and be a damn fool but don’t tell your father. i had to cry rather loudly though. which means that you are going to meet a good deal more opposition than i had counted on. i think mother was mad because she took your long distance call the other day and the big shot was expecting an important business call and he was quite excited when the operator told him that the party at the other end of the line wasn’t going to pay. yes, and mother says to tell you that any more letters arriving with postage due and she will either steam the letters open since they belong to her since she practically bought them or she will start taking the postage out of my allowance.
however all in all she is being rather sweet, and more intelligent than i gave her credit for, since she absolutely refuses to forbid me to see you which means that now i have no reason to be romantically clandestine. disappointing when i’d already picked out a hollow oak tree. which brings me to the point: if you love me so damn much why don’t you come out and say so? looked all through your letter to find out if you loved me and you refuse to say. damn you anyway. i love you you dope.
notice if you haven’t already that i have borrowed your distinctive writing style with ideas of my own such as no punctuation which is a good idea since semi-colons annoy me anyway. and incidentally i read mother the poem at the top of the pages in your letter and she translated it for me, she knows french and i don’t but even then it wasn’t such a good idea. i also told father all about communism which was wrong, wasn’t it. he said re-ally in a whatthehelldoyouknowaboutlifeyoushelteredvictorianflower sort of voice.
also. y snarls deep down in her throat whenever i mention you which idoratheroftenchum. she thinks you’re a nice sweet child, only it’s too bad you had to fall into my clutches. i managed to get to talking before she did so now she knows all my troubles and i don’t know any of hers. ‘tanley . . . i think i’ll come to new york and get laid. oooooooooh yes. my mother mayhertribeincrease had been reading liberty that oracle of the masses and has discovered that eight out of ten college students are all for immorality. she has been asking me leading questions until i came out and said that if she meant had i preserved the fresh bloom of dewy innocence yes i had but it hurt me a damn sight more than it ever hurt liberty. mother is reassured but not too happy about the whole thing, having doubts.
i didn’t know y was an ardent communist but she is, but then she was a vegetarian once too. we’re going to drink beer, and i mean that we’re going to drink lots of beer. but quantities. we have sorrows to drown.
about our mutual friend Michael. he brought the scamp . . . boat . . . in fifth in saturday’s race and mother saw him that night and he was plenty drunk and getting drunker and the damnfool insulted mother in some way and now she’s mad and michael can’t come see me till mother is appeased and he’ll never remember that he said anything wrong till someone meaning me reminds him. are you happier than formerly?
s.edgar. it’s so silly to write this junk when all i want to say is i can’t stand it i won’t wait four months i love you. what am i going to do? it’s not going to be long, is it? it’ll be september soon, won’t it? like hell it will.
shan’t go on like that. i’m going to Be Brave. bloody, but unbowed. going to be a debutante. yeah. i’m going to count the days and minutes till september. think of me sometimes, won’t you, chum. hell. wish i could think of a good quotation to top that paragraph off with.
i shall go on writing revolutionary poetry as long as i damn well please. i just thought of a good line: capitalists unite you have a world to win and nothing to lose but your chains . . .
dearest, be a good boy, and do wear your rubbers, for mother’s sake, now won’t you?
p.s. s. edgar; goddamn your lying soul why did you have to go away and leave me? I love you so much.
• • •
[To Stanley Edgar Hyman]
[june 8, 1938]
every time i get a letter from you, which seems to be an event happening with astonishing frequency, i think of more things i want to say to you, most of them being i love you but that’s beside the point. so it has come to the position where i write you every day because you write me every day and i hope you like the idea. anyway i like to write letters in your style because i don’t have to hunt for the shiftkey and because it’s easier on ernest, who is typewriter, and makes him very happy because he is lazy too.
this is gibbering
and it looks like e e cummings, who y said my revolutionary poetry reminded her of and when i asked her what that meant she said she didn’t like e e cummings either.
i know that should be whom
stop correcting me
- ASIN : B08L5VR8YS
- Publisher : Random House (July 13, 2021)
- Publication date : July 13, 2021
- Language : English
- File size : 21129 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 602 pages
- Page numbers source ISBN : 0593134648
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #9,107 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
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So, here is a woman who stuck with a man and had four children with him and seemed happy with him at times (they both ate and drank and smoked to the hilt). But hidden in Vermont in the mid-1950s, in the shadow of all-female Bennington College, Shirley seems to have had a breakdown. And odder still, she's surrounded by well-meaning enablers, like the jolly doctor who feeds her pills. And through this, she manages just out of sheer tenacity to pump out a series of brilliant, best-selling books.
I have read Ruth Franklin's biography, and much of what I read in the letters mirrors Franklin's analysis. What is missing is the searing letter that I thought she wrote to Stanley accusing him of raping her—or flatly stating that he had. The long letter to Stanley that does appear here (and I wish I knew if he had read it, but he must have after her death), is bad enough. It contains a terrible passage where she talks about what a bore she must be. That she always thought she was a lively and entertaining person, but she's realized that she really is a bore and repels people. One can see that she wanted reassurance at a very basic level, and that neither Stanley nor her mother was able to give it. But what to make of someone who soldiers on, suppressing so much? I am bothered by this disconnect in Shirley and the fact that she had no intimate female friends. Was it that she simply could never tell the truth about her life to another adult human being? Even the long letters to Wisconsin housewife Jeanne Beatty, which I was looking forward to reading, have a fragmented and childish aspect. They are very intense, as if Shirley felt an urgent need to get her thoughts and feelings out to another human being who seemed to care. Alas, Jeanne stopped writing back at a certain point, eliciting a chilly and peevish letter from Shirley.
So I don't know what to make of Shirley Jackson in the end. I'm slightly baffled. Nonetheless, I recommend the letters, and loved the few occasions when she let her guard down and really blasted someone. (She hated her first publisher, Roger Straus, for example, and loved making snide comments about him.) She had good instincts, and a lot of common sense. She wasn't crazy. She was good at making money. So this alternate Shirley who *was* a bit crazy, who became agoraphobic and paranoid and doped up... I'm not sure what to make of that person. I guess that was the woman who stayed in her marriage because she knew she couldn't survive outside it. Another lingering question I had was how much was Stanley sabotaging her versus how much was she sabotaging herself? I don't know. The Letters don't really answer that question.
Laurence Hyman, her beloved eldest son, who writes an introduction to the Letters, does not mention his father at all except to offer a hilarious passage where Shirley describes her husband's chair breaking and as he gets up to try to fix it, he smashes his head. There are so many "accidents" in this book. And we know what Freud said about accidents... And even early on, as a student, Shirley boasts about drinking with evident delight. It's possible that Shirley and Stanley were both lifelong alcoholics covering up for each other... But even so, I am touched by Shirley's lifelong intermittent efforts to grow as a person. She never completely gave up. She tried to get healthy. She pushed herself out of her comfort zone. She enjoyed her cars :) I am delighted by the thought of her tootling around Vermont in a Morris Minor, the same car that my stepfather's mother had in Ireland when I was a kid in the '70s. Since Shirley always bought new, my grandmother's car was probably the same vintage! So again it comes back to the question: Was it a happy life with some decided bleak points, or a miserable life lived with relish? I'm inclined to say the latter, but each person will have to judge for themselves. And when I think of my own grandmothers' lives (born 1908 and 1919) I can say with certainty that Shirley had a better life than them. And left a legacy that seems to get brighter all the time.
Let’s look at the first part of the ARC . . . since Ms. Jackson often wrote letters without using capitalization, her eldest son Laurence Hyman thought they should be printed that way. Well, there is a reason that correct capitalization, grammar, and punctuation are important when publishing a book. Namely, those things help the reader to easily read what was written, which in turn helps the reader to better understand what the writer was saying and thinking.
Mr. Hyman obviously does not feel that way, but stated in his intro that the letters were not correctly capitalized . . . obviously as well as not correctly punctuated or grammatically corrected . . . for this book because: “Shirley’s habit of writing most everything in lowercase has been preserved here because it reflects her personality nearly as much as the letters’ contents.” It reflects her “playfulness”. Sure. While having such a difficult time trying to make out what was being said in the letters, I felt nothing but happiness as Ms. Jackson’s personality and playfulness shined through the mess. The heck with what she was actually saying in the letters! That’s trivial.
After trying to read the letters to Stanley Hyman, after then starting to skim them, I eventually gave up. Forget it. It’s the editor’s job to clean up messy manuscripts, not the reader’s job. In addition, should they have been published in the first place? Just because a writer becomes famous does not mean everything she or he ever wrote should be published. No writer would want that, except an extremely narcissistic one. Shirley Jackson never struck me as being that way. Instead, she seemed to be someone genuinely concerned about her personal privacy not being invaded by the public. It was her husband who repeatedly told her to make sure to tell her parents to keep her letters to them. One suspects he was thinking of future publication and payment, because he always seemed to see his wife as a cash cow and treated her accordingly. For example, since her letters weren't going to provide current cash, he repeatedly reprimanded her for using her writing time to write them in the first place!
Correct capitalization was also not used in the many letters to her parents, but those were usually not difficult to read, because she was not rambling in a free association way. It’s important to note, however, that those letters to her mother did not reflect the true relationship between them. Only one unsent letter in the book expressed Ms. Jackson’s bitterness about her mother’s lifelong criticism of her looks and weight. Same with the letters where Stanley was mentioned; from reading them you would think she didn’t mind him seeing her as a cash cow; and they didn’t have major marital problems, which they certainly did, as only one or two letters to him reflected. This is another sign that she valued her personal privacy, knowing her letters would one day be made public. She so often sugarcoated her correspondence.
Hence, it may be best to see this book, after the first 18%, simply as a nice time spent with Shirley Jackson, enjoying all her funny stories; the descriptions of her children growing up; the antics of her cats and dogs; the progression of her writings; the trips and socializing; the large house problems and joys; the friends and parents; the book, magazine and movie contracts; the music; the seasons in Vermont, etc. Getting towards the end of the book was truly sad, knowing it would soon state she died in her sleep during her afternoon nap one day. No more letters, no more stories, no more books, no more Shirley . . . .
P.S. For a better understanding of Shirley Jackson’s life, do read Judy Oppenheimer's "Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson" and Ruth Franklin's "Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life". Unfortunately, the first one is no longer in print, so you will either have to find it in a library or buy a used copy. It is definitely worth the search. Years ago, I found it in my local library, and recently got a used copy at Amazon at a fair price and in excellent used condition.
(Note: I received a free e-ARC of this book from NetGalley and the publisher.)