An Unforgettable Literary Mama: A Profile of Shirley Jackson
Life Among the Savages
by Shirley Jackson
Penguin Books, 2015; 240 pp.; $16.56 (Paperback)Buy Book
From 1943 until her death in 1965, Shirley Jackson published six novels, several short story collections, two memoirs, and countless short pieces for a wide variety of magazines. Her fiction, generally classified as gothic, involves an eery combination of terror, mystery, doom, and death, writing that captivates and haunts the reader long after the final words. Notably, Jackson’s work is strongly rooted in place, often with settings in small towns featuring a house with an ominous past, one that inevitably bleeds into the present. The fascination with Jackson’s work has endured over the decades, and her classic short story “The Lottery,” originally published in The New Yorker under much controversy, is required reading for most American high school students. Recent renewed interest in her writing has led to the popular Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House and a Hulu biopic, Shirley, focusing on the time period surrounding the composition of her second novel, Hangsaman.
A writer with tremendous versatility, Jackson refused to be boxed into one genre or form. In addition to short stories and novels, she wrote poems, children’s books, even a one-act musical. In many of her pieces for women’s magazines, she wrote about her family, detailing her home life and the complexity of human interaction with witty observations and thoughtful examination. Becoming a mother deeply impacted Jackson’s writing, as Ruth Franklin discusses in Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, her definitive biography about the author. “Practical demands notwithstanding, giving birth…seems to have unlocked Jackson creatively.” The writer’s memoirs Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons are grounded solidly in her own domestic life, showing the integral place that family held for her. Jackson and husband Stanley Hyman’s four children were spaced almost exactly three years apart. For many years, then, she was toggling between pregnancy, toddlerhood, first days of school, and all that comes with multiple children in tow. That she managed to parent four kids while crafting a successful writing career seems as otherworldly as the spirits that haunt her fiction.
The opening chapter of Life Among the Savages begins with a litany of items—books, sandwich bags, tiny wheels from little cars, socks, doll dresses, paint brushes—that have apparently overrun Jackson’s home. She writes about preparing lunches and doing laundry, about music lessons and Little League, about report cards and sibling disputes, allowing readers an intimate glimpse into her day-to-day life. “[M]y personal schedule resolved itself into a round of hemlines and chocolate pudding. When I was not shortening or lengthening the one, I was stirring the other.” Jackson tells readers about relatable and often humorous mishaps and misunderstandings that take place between her children and her husband, and with neighbors and other mothers, situations that usually result in an ongoing trifecta of exhaustion, frustration, and joy. While shopping for shoes with her children and their imaginary friends, she writes, exasperated, “I looked at the clock with the faint unconscious hope common to all mothers that time will somehow have passed magically away and the next time you look it will be bedtime.”
At the same time, being a parent prompted a sense of wonder. “Sometimes, in my capacity as a mother,” she writes in Savages,” I find myself sitting open-mouthed and terrified before my own children, little individual creatures moving solidly along in their own paths.”
Jackson prioritized creating an inviting home for her children. In Savages, she describes a cozy scene of her family in the living room, its walls lined with books, her children working on jigsaw puzzles while she does a crossword and her husband calculates baseball averages. “She was determined,” Franklin writes, “to give her children an upbringing altogether different from her own: down to earth, creative, loving.” Jackson clearly hoped to create a more uplifting, nourishing environment for her children during their formative years than she had experienced, one that would both serve them and satisfy the yearning for care and tenderness she had missed in her own childhood. “Though her family was part of the mainstream social culture, she had always felt like an outsider,” Franklin writes, “unappreciated by her mother, not fitting in with the sorority-girl cliques. . . at home only among the bohemians and other misfits.” Raising a family offered the chance to craft a different experience, one with her own values at the center, most likely leading Jackson to believe that, as Franklin concludes, “in motherhood, perhaps she would find the stability she longed for.”
Becoming a mother, however, wasn’t considered part and parcel of a cerebral woman’s path in the circles that Jackson and Hyman, also a writer, ran in. As Franklin notes, a friend from their social set stated, “‘It was very tough for women to admit, even to themselves, that what they wanted was children or a household. It was not part of the bohemian life.'”
But pushing against boundaries wasn’t new to Jackson, who throughout childhood was pressured by her parents to conform. In college and beyond, Jackson gravitated toward the intellectual realm, in a time when a contemplative mood and an inquiring mind weren’t considered desirable traits for women. Her interfaith marriage to Hyman—amidst harsh opposition from her family and the larger society—was yet another rebellious act. Later, Jackson and Hyman’s close friendship with Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, led to gossip and ultimately shunning by neighbors, who found it scandalous that the couple associated with Black people as equals. Jackson made further waves with her discussion of racial issues, creating a stir with “Flower Garden,” “My Dear Alphonse,” and other stories that deliver commentary on prejudice as it exists in insular, provincial communities.
Yet despite Jackson’s leanings towards the unconventional, she enigmatically centered her work around themes of family dynamics and the home, no matter the genre. In The Haunting of Hill House, the dwelling plays a central role, a character itself, the possessive keeper of resentment, desire, and unmet needs. The ornate decor and architecture in Jackson’s short story “The Lovely House” are deeply relevant to the mysterious relationships and encounters that she portrays. In CJ Hauser’s Literary Hub article “My Niece Is Probably the Reincarnation of Shirley Jackson,” she writes about the houses in Jackson’s work as metaphors, defining “Jackson’s haunted house as an unreal trope that could communicate the emotional reality of female care and motherhood in 1959.” In Jackson’s stories, Hauser decides, a haunted house “carries inside it the power of women’s disappointment and anger and fear and violence.”
Viewed this way, Jackson’s work may have been an outlet for the strain she felt among her roles as a writer, mother, wife, homemaker, and daughter, tension that Ruth Franklin believes “animates all of Jackson’s writing.” This internal tension was also thrust upon her externally, by a society that often refused to deem creative work—especially that done by women—as legitimate. In Savages, Jackson mentions an exchange she had with a nurse when she arrived at the hospital to give birth to her third child.
“Writer,” I said.
“Housewife,” she said.
“Writer,” I said.
“I’ll just put down housewife.”
Jackson persevered amidst criticism about her work from many corners, comments about both the quality of her writing, and about the particular genres she chose. Jackson’s mother, Geraldine, persisted in cajoling her to focus on pleasant, lighthearted stories with mass appeal, like those Jackson wrote for Good Housekeeping, McCall’s, and Life. When Jackson did produce those types of pieces, reviewers often balked. Franklin relays: “‘There is no reason,’ one critic wrote, ‘why a mother should not write at some length about her four children. . . and the continuous bedlam in what must be one of America’s most chaotic households. But when that mother is a prose stylist of the caliber of Shirley Jackson, it is something of a shock to read such ephemeral fluff.'”
Ignoring these sentiments, Jackson paved her own way forward, leaving a large, exceptional body of work as her legacy, as well as considerable inspiration for mothers who write. Through her work and life, she covered territory and dilemmas that existed for bold women in her day, issues that persist in our current times. The solution to being pulled in many directions was the same for her as it is for modern mothers: “Squeezing writing into the in-between moments,” as Franklin describes it. “Writing in the interstices.”