"A Faithful Anatomy of Our Times": Reassessing Shirley Jackson
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"A Faithful Anatomy of Our Times":
Reassessing Shirley Jackson

History has not been kind to Shirley Jackson. Today she is remembered almost entirely for her much-anthologized short story "The Lottery" (1948) and her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, a fact that does not do justice to the number and complexity of the novels and short stories she produced.1 In his preface to a posthumously published collection of her work, The Magic of Shirley Jackson (1965), her husband, critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, wrote that "for all her popularity, Shirley Jackson won surprisingly little recognition. She received no awards or prizes, grants or fellowships; her name was often omitted from lists on which it clearly belonged, or which it should have led. She saw these honors go to inferior writers." More optimistically, Hyman predicted that his wife's "powerful visions of suffering and inhumanity" would be found "increasingly significant and meaningful," that her work was among "that small body of literature produced in our time that seems apt to survive."2

But in fact Jackson's fiction, with the exception of the two works mentioned above, is rarely read or written about today; in Lynette Carpenter's phrase, she has been "written out of literary history."3 Carpenter suggests that Jackson's many publications in women's magazines and two books that humorously fictionalized her domestic life with her husband and children, Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957), caused her devaluation by traditional male critics who had difficulty reconciling Jackson's housewife status with her production of Gothic narratives.4 Jackson, Carpenter wrote in 1988, needed a reevaluation by feminist critics, a reevaluation that has to some degree already occurred. It has not, however, led to any sustained critical attention to Jackson's work, in spite of Darryl Hattenhauer's contention that criticism of Jackson has recently "flourished." Hattenhauer, who uses John Barth's term "proto-postmodernist" to describe Jackson's work, characterizes her as an "inchoate postmodernist" whose writing has been neglected because its complexity and variety of forms have made it difficult to categorize.5 [End Page 73]

I wish to approach Shirley Jackson somewhat differently. Stanley Edgar Hyman believed that the nature and purpose of his wife's work were misunderstood because her "fierce visions of dissociation and madness, of alienation and withdrawal, of cruelty and terror" were interpreted as "personal, even neurotic, fantasies." Hyman insisted that instead these visions were "a sensitive and faithful anatomy of our times, fitting symbols for our distressing world of the concentration camp and the Bomb."6 In this discussion I want to position Jackson as a quintessential writer of the 1950s whose work dramatizes the concerns and fears of that decade in ways that are not always immediately obvious.7 In Embattled Paradise: The American Family in an Age of Uncertainty (1991), Arlene Skolnick writes about the "contrasting visions" of the 1950s that included idyllic images of family life that appeared in situation comedies and popular magazines and, on the other hand, "a nightmare vision of American family life" presented in the works of Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee.8 In her fiction, Shirley Jackson depicted her unique version of the subterranean undercurrents of the 1950s, and reading her contextually provides new insights into her contributions as a writer.

By focusing on her female characters' isolation, loneliness, and fragmenting identities, their simultaneous inability to relate to the world outside themselves or to function autonomously, and their confrontation with an inner emptiness that often results in mental illness, Jackson displays in pathological terms the position of many women in the 1950s. But her unveiling of this era's dark corners is not limited to one gender, for her apocalyptic consciousness, sinister children, and scathing portraits of nuclear families and their suburban environments, her depiction of a quotidian and predictable world that can suddenly metamorphose into the terrifying and the bizarre, reveal her characters' reactions to a culture of repression, containment, and paranoia.

The stereotype of the 1950s housewife and mother has its origins both in the images presented in popular culture and the academic criticism of the time...