Book Reviews

Book Review – The Letters of Shirley Jackson by Shirley Jackson

Review by
Robert Weibezahl

On the strength of the short story “The Lottery” alone, Shirley Jackson endures as one of our most important American writers. More devoted fans also cherish her novels, such as The Haunting at Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, or the inspired domestic comedy of Life Among the Savages. Yet because she wrote in such wildly different modes—gothic, comic, stark realism—it can be hard to pin Jackson down, and the woman behind the work has remained something of an enigma. The Letters of Shirley Jackson, edited by her son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, makes some headway into our understanding of what made this one-of-a-kind writer tick.

A capacious collection of never-before-published letters from one of America’s most enigmatic writers

Hyman reports that his mother loved writing letters as much as she loved writing fiction and essays and that she fully expected her correspondence to be published one day. (She implored her parents to save everything she wrote to them.) Despite this forward glance toward posterity, the letters are never ponderous or myth-building. Indeed, Hyman attests that they perfectly convey his mother’s natural voice, which seems a congenial mix of insouciance, sardonic wit and exasperation. Jackson wrote these letters on her trusty manual typewriter in a kind of conversational stream of consciousness, mostly in lowercase (which requires some adjustment by the reader).

Of the 500 or so extant letters Hyman could locate, he chose about 300 for this collection, written to some 20 recipients. He has made a bit of a miscalculation, perhaps, by including so many of the early love letters Shirley wrote to her future husband (Hyman’s father, New Yorker writer and critic Stanley Edgar Hyman); the kooky, unconventional tone of their courtship could have been equally well captured in fewer pages. Once the Hymans are married and settled into their own brand of domestic and professional chaos, however, the letters become more engaging.

While the letters are largely quotidian in their concerns (Jackson learns to drive or frets about the household bills or enjoys a martini lunch with her editor), her take on life is generally entertaining and occasionally hilarious. She adroitly expresses the frustrations of trying to write amid the exigencies of motherhood and midcentury housewifery, although her prolific talents seem to win out in the end. On another, obviously unintentional level, the letters beautifully capture a bygone era when one could make a solid living writing short stories—solid enough to raise four children in a rambling house with a domestic attendant or two in ever-changing rotation.

Jackson, who died at 48, never wrote an autobiography, so her letters must stand in for a more polished view. While one feels suspicious of this collection’s elusiveness around revealing certain difficult truths about her personal life, the rough spontaneity of the letters nonetheless make this view into Jackson’s simultaneously conventional and unconventional life extremely intriguing.

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