Franklin’s biography takes us beyond the chilling stories that made Shirley Jackson’s name into the dilemmas of a woman writer in the 1950s and ’60s, struggling to make a career between the pressures of childcare, domesticity, and her own demons. It’s a very modern story, and a terrific read.
With her account of an emblematically American literary life, Ruth Franklin reminds us that her subject was far more than the writer of classy ghost stories. On the contrary, Shirley Jackson was the harbinger of profound upheavals both societal and literary. This is a brilliant biography on every level, but it is especially astute on Jackson's ground- and genre-breaking work, which I will now reread immediately.
A perfect marriage of biographer and subject: Ruth Franklin’s portrait of Shirley Jackson restores to herrightful place a writer of considerable significance, and draws a rich intellectual portrait of the age.
A biography that is both historically engaging and pressingly relevant, Ruth Franklin’s absorbing book not only feelingly creates a portrait of Shirley Jackson the writer but also provides a stirring sense of what it was like to navigate (and sometimes circumvent) the strictures of American society as a wife, mother, artist, and woman.
This meticulous biography tackles the work of Shirley Jackson with the kind of studied seriousness some might give to a male titan of history like Robert Moses. And thank goddess for that, as Ruth Franklin wisely rescues Shirley Jackson from any semblance of obscurity. Despite her well-documented magnetism (and dalliances in the dark arts) Jackson's work was often dismissed as mere genre nonsense or, worse yet, women's fiction and Franklin's sensitive, witty and rigorous work makes an airtight case for just why this isn't right. The ire Jackson's short stories inspired in New Yorker readers is only a hint of the drama and intensity that characterized her short but beguiling life, with Franklin captures with a hefty dose of wit and suspense. One of the best literary biographies I've ever encountered.”
With this welcome new biography Franklin makes a thoughtful and persuasive case for Jackson as a serious and accomplished literary artist. . . . [Franklin] sees Jackson not as an oddball, one-off writer of horror tales and ghost stories but as someone belonging to the great tradition of Hawthorne, Poe and James, writers preoccupied, as she was, with inner evil in the human soul.
Charles McGrath - New York Times Book Review
Ruth Franklin’s sympathetic and masterful biography both uncovers Jackson’s secret and haunting life and repositions her as a major artist whose fiction so uncannily channeled women’s nightmares and contradictions that it is ‘nothing less than the secret history of American women of her era.’
Elaine Showalter - Washington Post
Franklin is a conscientious, lucid biographer, and her book is never less than engaging.
Blake Bailey - Wall Street Journal
Franklin's research is wide and deep, drawing on Jackson's published and unpublished writings including correspondence and diaries, as well as interviews….Franklin has shown the interplay between the life, the work, and the times with real skill and insight, making this fine book a real contribution not only to biography, but to mid-20th-century women's history.
Katherine A. Powers - Chicago Tribune
Masterful…Taut, insightful, and thrilling, in ways that haunt, not quite as ghost story, but as a tale of a woman who strains against the binds of marriage, of domesticity, and suffers for it in a way that is of her time as a 1950s homemaker, and in a way that speaks to what it means to be a writer, an artist, and a woman even now.
Nina MacLaughlin - Boston Globe
A Shirley Jackson biography seems especially timely today, even though Jackson, as with many of her stories, remains somewhat mythically timeless….Franklin’s is both broader in scope and more measured in its analysis….[A] masterful account.
[Shirley Jackson] strongly affirms the American author’s powerful collection of stories, novels and memoirs…Magisterial and compulsively readable.”
Lauren LeBlanc - Minneapolis Star Tribune
[Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life] represents the latest and most concerted attempt to reclaim the writer’s reputation. It’s also a fresh effort to frame her as an artist with extraordinary insight into the lives, the concerns, andabove allthe fears of women…Gender is not the only prejudice that has kept us from acknowledging the brilliance of Shirley Jackson, but Franklin’s biography is a giant step toward the truth.”
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life deftly narrates the influences, experiences and reputation of the author of the famously enduring story ‘The Lottery.’ As a history of the literary culture of the 1940s and ’50s, it teases out the daily lives of people who displayed James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses,’ Wilhelm Reich’s ‘The Function of the Orgasm’ and James George Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough’ on their coffee tables. And as a chronicle of American life in the Eisenhower era, it reminds us of a time when people with too many books could be considered subversive…Much of Jackson’s writing is a weird, rich brew, and Franklin captures its savor.”
Seth Lerer - San Francisco Chronicle
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life . . . lifts its subject out of the genre ghetto and makes a convincing case that Jackson was a courageous woman in a male-dominated field whose themes resonate strongly today.”
Jeff Baker - Seattle Times
To truly reclaim a legacy, it generally helps to have a big, penetrating biography, one that takes into consideration everything that’s come before and pushes forward a new and improved interpretation. Ruth Franklin’s excellent Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life is all that and more…Franklin proves to be a supple biographer.”
Comprehensive…Jackson’s lifelong interest in rituals, witchcraft, charms and hexes were, Franklin convincingly maintains, metaphors for exploring power and disempowerment…Franklin situates Jackson’s conflicted relationship with coercive postwar US domesticity within the context that would give rise in 1963 to Betty Friedan’s attack on ‘the feminine mystique’…[A] sympathetic and fair-minded biography.
Sarah Churchwell - The Guardian
Ruth Franklin is the biographer Jackson needed: she tells the story of the author in a way that made me want to reread every word Jackson ever wrote.
"You once wrote me a letter . . . telling me that I would never be lonely again. I think that was the first, the most dreadful lie you ever told me."
These wrenching lines appear twice in Ruth Franklin's magisterial biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life and are, by some measures, the beating heart of the book. They are taken from an undated letter Jackson wrote to her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. But Franklin employs them not so much for what they reveal about Jackson's frequently unhappy marriage but instead to tease out the many murky nuances of what "lonely" meant for Jackson as a writer whose work frequently defied categorization, as a woman chafing against her era's notions of what a woman could be, and as an artist of singular talent in a time and place when singularity was often suspect. Like countless writers particularly writers who are women Jackson seldom felt a sense of belonging, not in her stolidly conventional family, nor in the starry New York City literary scene, not in the conservative New England towns in which she and Hyman raised their own family, nor, more largely, in the suffocating, gender-polarized environment of midcentury America. The manner and force by which this loneliness fired her imagination and drove her talent fierce, complicated and, mostly sustaining is the story Franklin tells. "Shirley Jackson has always been an original who walks by herself," wrote Orville Prescott in his New York Times review of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. "There is magic in her books, and baffling magic some of it is, too." Indeed, since Jackson first began publishing stories in the early 1940s, there have been critics, editors, and befuddled readers who simply did not know what to do with her. From her psychologically twisty novels to her madcap family memoirs and her wildly diverse stories, which range from Puritan Gothic to family sketches to deft studies in social mores, Jackson's work both defies simple categorization and exposes the limits of such categories, of genre itself. Born in 1916 and raised in comfortable bourgeois surroundings in and around Burlingame, California, Jackson was inspired from an early age by voracious reading of folktales, mythology, the Oz books, and commedia dell'arte. Writing was an escape from her family's efforts to, as Franklin puts it, "mold their daughter into a typical upper-middle-class California girl: proper, polite, demure." When she was seventeen, her family moved to Rochester, New York, transplanting Jackson from her home and friends to a frigid industrial city where she felt even more out of place. Her late teens and early twenties were a series of half-starts and depressive episodes, including a troubled stint at the University of Rochester, before finding a happier home at Syracuse University. There, she began making important friendships with fellow outsiders and artists, including one that would change her life. When Jackson met budding intellectual Stanley Hyman at Syracuse in 1938, their connection was swift and intense. They would remain together, for better or for worse, until Jackson's death to heart failure at age forty-eight. It was with Hyman that Jackson initially found the personal and intellectual communion for which she so longed, and Franklin ably captures the intoxicating and brainy energy of the early years of their relationship, from shared reading adventures to liquor-fueled parties with such luminaries as Ralph Ellison, one of Hyman's closest friends, and Dylan Thomas who either did or didn't drunkenly chase Jackson around her house and share a private moment with her outside in the snow. Franklin even offers a delicious anecdote of a party at the Hyman-Jackson home in 1950 that included a neighbor who brought an old college friend: Bette Davis. Jackson took out a guitar and a sing-along ensued. Before they even married, however, Hyman confessed to liaisons with other women, suggesting Jackson accept his infidelity as part of his nature. "They were a perfect pairing, writer and critic, gentile and Jew, S & S," Franklin writes. But, for Franklin, their symbiosis to often turned "parasitic." She speculates that Jackson's lifelong fascination with magic and witchcraft may have been a way to counteract the "lack of agency she felt in her own life and her corresponding longing to harness power." Hyman had the unique capacity to energize and yet undermine her work, to cling to her and yet strip her of her confidence by his affairs, to encourage her writing but to push her to write "socially conscious" stories he favored or, eventually, the domestic ones that sold. As their family grew, ultimately to four children, Hyman urged his wife to take on lucrative assignments from the likes of Good Housekeeping, McCall's, and Woman's Day, even criticizing her for squandering her writing time on letters to relatives or friends. As a result, Jackson spent most of her adult life fitting writing into every spare corner of time while she ran a busy household, maintained her role as faculty wife, and managed her publishing career. Hyman, meanwhile, took years to complete his considerably less lucrative books of literary criticism. The pressures, compounded by her sense of being the "eccentric" in Bennington and the other New England towns in which they landed, weighed heavily on Jackson. Jackson's experience of motherhood was far less complicated. Franklin offers a portrait of an engaged and loving mother, deeply curious about her children and eager to celebrate their differences. Thanks to the participation of all of the children, Franklin brings to vivid life the chaotic and lively Jackson-Hyman household but also untangles it from the spirited portrayal in Jackson's wildly popular domestic memoirs, Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957) books that were authentic reflections but also shaped by an author very aware of the marketplace. According to Franklin, the greatest pressures on Jackson and the source of much of her anxiety and unhappiness, which eventually led her to periods of agoraphobia and what Jackson called "nervous hysteria," are a consequence of the era in which she lived. The expectations and demands postwar America placed on middle-class women to keep home and hearth and achieve a kind of domestic perfection were uniquely high. Even Jackson's New York Times obituary refers to her as a "neat and cozy woman" and features the reassuring subheading "Housework Came First." Jackson couldn't escape strictures from the opposite side of the ideological aisle, either: Franklin reports Betty Friedan's critique of Jackson as one of those "new breed of women writers" who reject their craft in favor of cloying, propagandist accounts of domestic pleasure. Friedan's narrow point of view didn't allow for Jackson's unique, incendiary power. As Franklin ably argues, Jackson's family memoirs contain "genuinely subversive" elements, such as showing both a mother's faux-murderous frustration in much of her responsibilities and her unabashed pleasure in escaping them, whether into a "weekend away or . . . two martinis to get through the dinner hour." Touchingly, Franklin quotes a condolence letter from a "housewife on Long Island" to Hyman after Jackson's death, noting, "She was one of us, and greater and smarter, and funnier than any of us. It was good to know she was there." While her memoirs made Jackson a bestseller and her brilliant and virtuosic novels foremost We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House have ensured her legacy, most readers today, if they know Jackson, know her from her unforgettable (and endlessly anthologized) short story, "The Lottery." Its publication in The New Yorker in 1948 changed Jackson's life forever. Franklin shows how her privacy invaded, her personal life parsed, her mailbox flooded by frequently angry or accusatory letters from readers across the globe Jackson came to rue the story's success even as she knew it made her name. By approaching the well-worn story and its impact on Jackson from every angle literary, cultural, and personal Franklin breathes new life into it, and it is in such close parsing of the texts themselves that A Rather Haunted Life truly dazzles. Rare is the author biography (Blake Bailey's study of Richard Yates is another) that so thoroughly explores and illuminates the subject's writing itself. Franklin offers inspired discussion of every novel, both memoirs, and many of the major stories. It is with the same keen literary-investigative eye that Franklin makes astute but measured connections between Jackson's work and life._ One illuminating example is a discussion of two letters Jackson wrote but never sent. The first occurs after Jackson receives a note from her mother a source of lifelong anxiety for Jackson criticizing her appearance after seeing her daughter photographed in a Time magazine profile. Jackson's initial, unsent reply demands her mother cease her "unending" critiques. Franklin finds a canny parallel when, early in their relationship, Jackson wrote Hyman an angry, broken letter after he confided an infidelity. Once more, she never sent it, never let her pain reach its source. Both mother and husband provoke her rage and break her heart, yet Jackson stifles herself not on the page, but the pages never reach their intended recipient. Her fiction, however, is where those feelings find their home. If there is a constant in Jackson's stories and nearly all her novels, it is on a character feeling alone among others, even her own family ( The Bird's Nest, Hangsaman, The Haunting of Hill House), or a family standing apart and isolate from the larger community or world ( We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Sundial). In the last few years of her short life, the spotlight more intense, her marriage foundering, children leaving the household one by one, Jackson's loneliness and anxiety seemed to overwhelm her. But she mined these emotions always and found an immense readership by doing so. "Insecure, uncontrolled, i [sic] wrote of neuroses and fear," she wrote in her diary, "and i think all my books laid end to end would be one long documentation of anxiety." That is a statement that, however specific to Jackson's psyche, denotes something larger and more resonant: how a writer's anxiety, pain, and anger can take darkly luminous shape, ready to be shared with readers in a way that we don't comprehend so much as experience as revelation. Jackson's imagination transmits to us the hauntedness of love and of family and the essential loneliness that stories (and perhaps stories alone) have the power to efface.
Reviewer: Megan Abbott
The Barnes & Noble Review
…with this welcome new biography Franklin makes a thoughtful and persuasive case for Jackson as a serious and accomplished literary artistnot a major one, perhaps, but one worthy of renewed attention…The value of Franklin's book…is its thoroughness and the way she traces Jackson's evolution as an artist, sensibly pointing out what's autobiographical and what isn't. She sees Jackson not as an oddball, one-off writer of horror tales and ghost stories but as someone belonging to the great tradition of Hawthorne, Poe and James, writers preoccupied, as she was, with inner evil in the human soul.
The New York Times Book Review - Charles McGrath
Literary critic Franklin (A Thousand Darknesses) renders a gripping and graceful portrait of the mind, life, and work of groundbreaking American author Shirley Jackson (1916–1965). Though Jackson is today largely known for the chilling novel The Haunting of Hill House and the supremely upsetting short parable “The Lottery,” Franklin brings forth her full oeuvre for careful study, including a prodigious number of short stories, books for young adults and children, and—perhaps improbably for a horror writer—two bestselling memoirs about life with her four children, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. Franklin’s adept readings of Jackson’s influences, formative relationships, and major works interweave the obsessions, fears, and life experiences that charge her writing with such wicked intensity. Treating her subject with a generous eye and gorgeous prose, Franklin describes one of Jackson’s chief themes, a “preoccupation with the roles that women play at home and the forces that conspire to keep them there,” as a product of her cultural moment, identifying Jackson’s “insistence on telling unpleasant truths” about women’s experience and her ability “to draw back the curtain on the darkness within the human psyche” as the elements that make Jackson a writer of lasting relevance who can still give today’s readers an impressive shiver. 60 illus. (Sept.)
With unprecedented access to private papers, Franklin traces the evolution of Jackson’s sensibility as a writer, building toward an ever-more nuanced understanding of the covert ways she deftly paired ‘the horrific with the mundane’ to both express her own anger and pain while also illuminating the fears, anxiety, anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism of the conformity-obsessed Cold War era. A precise, revelatory, and moving reclamation of an American literary master.
Booklist (starred review)
Despite battles with anxiety, oppressive societal expectations, and a fraught relationship with husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, Shirley Jackson (1916–65) wrote six novels, a collection of short fiction, and a handful of nonfiction and children's books. Even though her promise as a writer of supernatural suspense reached fruition with The Haunting of Hill House, the author's most infamous work was the short story "The Lottery." The story—Jackson claimed to have written it in a single day—generated unprecedented buzz, confusion, antipathy, and even hate mail. Yet as Franklin (A Thousand Darknesses) points out in her engaging portrait, Jackson is far from a one-hit wonder. Franklin writes that "[her] brand of literary suspense is part of a vibrant and distinguished tradition that can be traced back to the American Gothic work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry James." Drawing on a trove of research—including previously unpublished letters and interviews—and her own astute analysis of Jackson's fiction, Franklin gives her subject her much-deserved due and sets the standard for future literary biographers wrestling with the legacy and the unwarranted inattention of a major figure in 20th-century American literature. VERDICT Highly recommended for readers of Jackson's fiction as well as those interested in the connection between the inner lives of authors and their work. [See Prepub Alert, 3/28/16.]—Patrick A. Smith, Bainbridge State Coll., GA
An engaging, sympathetic portrait of the writer who found the witchery in huswifery.Critic Franklin (A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, 2010) ably captures both the life and art of Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) in this sharp biography. Franklin presents her as the classic square peg: a woman who didn't easily fit in to midcentury America and a writer who can't be neatly categorized. Jackson was the ungainly, rebellious daughter of a socialite mother who never stopped nagging her about her weight or appearance. Later, she would be the neglected wife of an esteemed critic and teacher, Stanley Edgar Hyman, who all but flaunted his adulteries under her nose. It was an anxiety-ridden life, but she had the imagination to put it to good use. Her stories and novels involved people fighting losing battles with either themselves or society, whether they are usurped by the big city or run up against the barbarism of cozy small-town life—as in her classic story "The Lottery." She wasn't a witch, although she let people think so; rather, she was a harried domestic goddess who also wrote children's fiction, bestselling chronicles of life with Hyman and their children, and—further resisting pigeonholing—a masterpiece of horror fiction (The Haunting of Hill House) and a curiously comic novel about a young lady who poisons her parents (We Have Always Lived in a Castle). Jackson's life was both disciplined and devil-may-care; she ate, drank, and smoked like there was no tomorrow until finally, at the age of 48, there wasn't. Franklin astutely explores Jackson's artistry, particularly in her deceptively subtle stories. She also sees a bigger, more original picture of Jackson as the author of "the secret history of American women of her era"—postwar, pre-feminist women who, like her, were faced with limited choices and trapped in bigoted, cliquish neighborhoods. A consistently interesting biography that deftly captures the many selves and multiple struggles of a true American original.