- Reviewed by
The opportunity to know more about two of America's most intriguing women writers of the twentieth century is richly—though differently—afforded by these two recent books. Oppenheimer's Private Demons is the first full-length biography of the author best-known for her short story "The Lottery," and Raper's is a collection of previously uncollected nonfiction and one short story written by Glasgow between 1895 and 1941, the most productive decades of the novelist's career. The differences between these two books derive from more than genre, however: Oppenheimer, a journalist, has invested herself in the frequently painful life of Shirley Jackson, attempting with considerable success to understand her subject's unhappy childhood, her deeply committed though tumultuous marriage to critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, and the mystical turns of mind that led Jackson to write such works as The Haunting of Hill House and "The Lottery." Raper, on the other hand, is so detached a scholar of Glasgow's work that despite the usefulness of his collection, the sexism of his introductory remarks and the intrusive over-documentation of the text threaten to obscure Glasgow's own work.
Private Demons successfully revises the only other extended account of Shirley Jackson's life: Hyman's introduction to The Magic of Shirley Jackson (1966), a paean of praise that belies the fact that at the time he wrote it, two years after Jackson's death at the age of 48, he was married to the much-younger woman he married immediately after her death. Jackson and Hyman had a relationship that would now be termed a codependency; their mutual reliance on alcohol, food, cigarettes—and, in Jackson's case, stimulants and tranquilizers—left scars on their four children, about whom Jackson wrote so amusingly in Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. Interviews with Jackson's children, along with letters she wrote to the parents from whom she professed to be estranged after she—an overweight, unattractive adolescent—rejected their upper-middle-class values, are important sources for this biography, and Oppenheimer uses them well, bringing a journalist's trained objectivity to bear on essentially subjective material. [End Page 290]
Oppenheimer describes the circumstances surrounding the composition of "The Lottery" as a combination of Jackson's mystical proclivities and the stark reality of her position as an "odd" faculty wife in Bennington, Vermont, where Hyman taught at Bennington College. The vitriolic response of readers when the story was published in The New Yorker in 1948 indicated a fictional power at odds with the lack of control over her personal habits that led to Jackson's early death. Oppenheimer convincingly presents Jackson as an unusual combination of what would today be called "supermom" and committed career woman: a fierce defender of her children, an unflagging hostess, and a writer who became increasingly reclusive—even agoraphobic—as staid Bennington came to seem the enemy to her often unorthodox habits and views.
Private Demons is readable, almost novelistic. One wishes, however, that dates were provided more frequently in the text; because the reader is seldom located in time, it is, for example, shocking to realize that Jackson died while her children were still adolescents. Still, this is a compelling analysis of a woman who wrote some of the most humorous and most haunting fiction of the mid-twentieth century.
Ellen Glasgow's Reasonable Doubts, in contrast, nearly sinks under the weight of its scholarly apparatus, much of which betrays the editor's intent to make Glasgow an interesting female artifact rather than an important American writer, although there is no doubt that Raper, author of two previous books on Glasgow (Without Shelter: The Early Career of Ellen Glasgow and From the Sunken Garden: The Fiction of Ellen Glasgow, 1916 to 1945) speaks with authority. In the Preface and other editorial remarks, for example, Raper insists on the pronoun "he" to refer to the reader of...