hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture June 2016


‘A ghost or an illusion?’

North Bennington celebrates centennial of writer Shirley Jackson


Contributing writer




Shirley Jackson Day 2016:
Readings of Jackson’s work with two of her children, J.S. Holly and Barry Hyman
7 p.m. Monday, June 27
The Left Bank, 5 Bank St., North Bennington, Vt.
For more information, call (802) 681-7161

“No one in my family is surprised to find me putting the waffle iron away on a different shelf because in my story it has quarreled with the toaster, and if I left them together they might come to blows.”
Shirley Jackson told herself tales all day in her North Bennington farmhouse, as she got her children ready for school and talked with her husband about the novels he brought home for review.

“It looks kind of crazy,” she said in an essay, “How I Write.” “But it does take the edge off cold reality. And sometimes it turns into real stories.”

Her tales turned into nationally known fiction in her lifetime, especially after The New Yorker published what became her best-known story, “The Lottery,” in 1948.

“She had two main styles,” said Barry Hyman, Jackson’s youngest son and a musician who lives just across the New York state line in White Creek.

Jackson, he said, wrote humorous sketches about the family and everyday life -- her bread-and-butter writing – as well as novels and short stories with a paranormal current.

She often walked “a fine line between mental illness and the supernatural,” he said.
“Was it a ghost or an illusion? The genius is that it doesn’t matter,” he explained.
Hyman has seen a strong revival and interest in his mother’s work in the last several years, and especially within the past year. Last year marked 50 years since Jackson’s death in 1965, and this year is the 100th since her birth in 1916.

The anniversary has seen the publication of “Let Me Tell You,” a collection of previously unpublished stories and essays edited by Barry’s older brother and sister, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Dewitt. And a new biography by Ruth Franklin will come out in September, one Barry welcomes as an analysis written with a sense of humor and deep understanding.

Jackson continues to make public appearances, he said. Two of the stories in “Let Me Tell You” -- “Paranoia” and “The Man in the Woods” -- recently appeared in The New Yorker. She has inspired a ballet in New York City and has more tributes in the works: Plans are percolating for a film based on her last novel, “We’ve Always Lived in a Castle,” and a play adapted from “The Haunting of Hill House” is set to open in London in the West End.

Jackson could even wind up on a postage stamp – an honor for which she has earned thousands of votes.

“She’s hot,” Hyman said.


Vermont via Manhattan
Hyman credits his older brother and sister for reviving interest in Jackson’s life. Their mother grew up in the San Francisco suburbs and came east to college in Syracuse, N.Y. When she married Stanley Edgar Hyman, they moved to New York City as poor writers in the Greenwich Village of the early 1940s.

Within a few years, Jackson was publishing stories in The New Yorker and The New Republic, writing while she and her husband both worked and raised their children. They came to Vermont in 1945, when he became a professor at Bennington College.

“It may have been a sacrifice in certain ways, although she wanted to get out of the city -- to be somewhere with blue sky and clean air,” Hyman said. “Towards the end of her life, she wanted to be farther out in the country.”

They lived in North Bennington for the rest of her life except for a brief time in Westport, Conn., when her husband joined The New Yorker staff and their house filled with writers, poets and composers. Ralph Ellison spent months with them as he finished “The Invisible Man.”

In 1948, The New Yorker published “The Lottery,” a short story that shows a small town in New England preparing for an apparently ordinary ritual that turns out to be vicious – and all the more horrifying because people accept it as ordinary. The story caused a national sensation when it ran, and Jackson still is known for it today.

As an adult, Barry Hyman said he admires his mother’s writing thoroughly. Every time he reads her stories they get better, he said. He recently rediscovered “A Great Voice Stilled” as “the funniest, nastiest, most bitter denunciation of literary people you’ll ever hope to read” – and wound up laughing so hard he had to close the book.


Changing point of view
Hyman’s relationship with his mother’s writing has evolved over time, and it has not always been simple. Growing up, he said, he often felt embarrassed by the comic stories she wrote about the family, and he thought of her fiction as her serious work.

He first read “The Lottery” at 16, but he knew about it long before then. The local reaction to his family and his mother’s writing was strong and could be hostile.

But Hyman remembers reading his mother’s stories at 13, getting excited about a book she was writing, and every new 10 pages she would give him to read. He was 13 when she died.

“I knew all these different sides of her,” he said. “She was a very warm, funny, approachable, cheerful, affectionate person. The sarcasm, the cutting one-liners I saw too -- never directed at me very often.”

The stories in “Let Me Tell You” are new to him: A 12-year-old girl goes to a nightclub with her parents; a faculty wife confronts a student over her husband; a new maid bends time.
Hyman flew to California and read through many of these with his brother and sister as they began to edit the collection. It has been in the making, he said, for many years.

In 1995, his brother and sister edited “Just an Ordinary Day,” a collection of Jackson’s unpublished and uncollected work. They all knew then that the Library of Congress had many more stories they had not read or that had not made the first cut. They began to talk about a second collection and to track down more of her writings in magazines.

They also had always known their mother wanted to be a cartoonist, Hyman said. Among 60 cartons of her papers at the Library of Congress, they found some 700 drawings, and those line-art sketches gave them the germ of the new book.

They have gathered essays, sketches and chiefly short fiction often set in times and places like her own, and some feel very much like 1940s small-town New England, for better and worse.
“In a small town, everything observed will be talked about,” Hyman said. “Bennington College had about 300 students then, all women, and anything a faculty wife did or said would be known by evening. She had to be careful. She had had to do that with her mother at 16. She had to choose her words.”


Annual celebration
Fiction gave Jackson a place to speak strongly at a time “when feminism was unspeakable and unknown, never used overtly,” Hyman said.

But her portrayal of small-town life wasn’t entirely grim.

“She showed the horror when the townspeople turn against you, and the beauty of it -- how people take care of each other,” Hyman explained.

He understands both points of view. He has known his doctor for 30 years, and his veterinarian for even longer and his mechanic for many years too. They exchange favors, he said. He doesn’t lock the house.

When Jackson first wrote some of her stories, small-town New England reacted strongly against her scrutiny. But North Bennington has long since adopted her. Hyman said he thinks the town is proud and pleased now that his mother wrote her best work there.

Every year for the past 15 an old friend of his, Tom Fels, has organized a Shirley Jackson Day in North Bennington, with live readings of her stories. Hyman performs music at these events; this year’s is scheduled for Monday, June 27.

As a musician, Hyman said he thinks of editing his notes as his mother edited her words. An essay of hers, “Notes for a Young Writer,” applies as well to song, he said.

“You use simple words, nothing unnecessary: the right note at the right time, not to be impressive -- to be genuine and direct,” he said.

Jackson writes with wit and humor, and with tension and violence confined in apparently civil exchanges, and Hyman said these traits echoed in her taste in reading. She loved 18th-century writers, Jane Austen and Samuel Richardson, and she read mysteries avidly.

Inventing dramas between her frying pans or writing children’s stories about wishes, she brought an impish magic into the places around her. So she used it in her writing -- in a postcard where people come and go, or in a slippery sense of time and space. She twists reality, and the effect can be entrancing and painful.

She could read people, and Hyman said it served her well. She could see conflict in the way the grocer tied up a package -- or know when the postman’s hands on the mail made it obvious he had read the postcards.

“There’s another fine line between psychology and telepathy,” Hyman said. “In neuropsychology, they mean someone reading body language and small detail, someone fiercely observant. She could certainly do that.”

He paused.
“If there is such a thing as magical telepathy,” he said, “she had that too.”