The Letters of Shirley Jackson Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
A bewitchingly brilliant collection of never-before-published letters from the renowned author of "The Lottery" and The Haunting of Hill House
i must stop writing letters and get to writing a novel.
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 48, these letters become the autobiography Shirley Jackson never wrote. As well as being a best-selling 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, this intimate collection holds the beguiling prism of Shirley Jackson - writer and reader, mother and daughter, neighbor and wife - up to the light.
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|Listening Length||18 hours and 57 minutes|
|Author||Shirley Jackson, Laurence Jackson Hyman - editor, Bernice M. Murphy - editor|
|Narrator||Kirsten Potter, Gary Bennett, Linda Jones|
|Whispersync for Voice||Ready|
|Audible.com Release Date||July 13, 2021|
|Publisher||Random House Audio|
|Best Sellers Rank||
#137,805 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals)
#53 in Literary Memoirs, Diaries & Correspondence
#559 in Biographies of Authors
#727 in Literary Letters
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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.)