the new yorker

A Stone’s Throw Across Generations

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Very few pieces of literature have been able to traumatize generation after generation of readers. Most high school English classes feature a collection of short stories, demonstrating the style and themes conveyed in a limited space. Shirley Jackson has always been a standout in these collections, her name grim upon a cover. The Lottery drove her to fame, though, as it was the very work which would not just leave intense emotional scars on my mother’s psyche, but also rattled an entire group of subscribers to The New Yorker when it was first published in 1948.

Arguably, this short story is what escalated Jackson’s career in writing. Acting as both housewife and breadwinner, she was constantly engaged in battles of rearing children.

The Lottery had described a small community blindly following a tradition that featured execution. Readers of The New Yorker were not prepared for the sudden violence that Jackson lobbed at them. They were repelled, demanding answers and directing their disdain for the writing to the author herself.

Perhaps it was because Jackson had written this piece in the post-war years, that caused such havoc. People had begun to realize the dangers of blind faith due to the wildly popular anti-Semitic behaviours that nearly eradicated a group of people through a system of industrial execution. This might have spurred the sharp backlash against the magazine and Jackson. It might have even been that people noticed reflections of themselves in her writing, and felt attacked.

Or, maybe they were simply terrified that a mere housewife concocted such a story.

The Lottery clearly earned Jackson a reputation. Recognized as one of the greatest short stories in American literature, it also triggered a landslide of hate. She was responsible for the most mail that The New Yorker had received at the time in response to a published story. By the end of the summer of 1948 she had received over three hundred letters, and only a handful had been kind. Those letters in particular had been written by friends, she admitted.

However, everyone had something to say about her writing. Her own mother contributed to the burden that her mailbox had become, stating her own disapproval for the piece. Jackson was under immense pressure to change her style and to embrace a more optimistic genre of writing. Nonetheless she continued onwards, featuring more abusive villages in her later novels like The Sundial and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Jackson might have been inspired by her own experiences to produce such works. It was when she was living in North Bennington with her family did she experience the toxic environment of anti-Semitic attitudes. Due to her husband’s Jewish heritage and her married name, she experienced social ostracism and witnessed the unchecked behaviour of her neighbours. Despite that turbulent time, however, North Bennington has taken to celebrating Jackson’s life by declaring June 26th Shirley Jackson Day. Clearly, the passage of time has altered some people and their obsession with her work.

Later letters sent to Jackson about The Lottery often carried more curiosity. Readers were determined to discover not only if there were communities such as this, but if they could visit and watch the public stoning.

Interestingly enough, The Lottery grew in fame and popularity that it was later transitioned into other forms of entertainment. The story has been adapted for a ballet performance, a radio play and was also featured on The Simpsons.

Photo Courtesy of Aperture Vintage.

Photo Courtesy of Aperture Vintage.

Jackson had always been loath to discuss her work, or to give any further explanation of it. Her grim worlds had been something of a gift to readers, something she cared little for being interviewed about. It was with The Lottery that she was forced to give a statement saying, “[]what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”

Perhaps Jackson never knew what she would unleash that day she sat down behind her typewriter, struck with an idea of a strange village and a lottery system. Whatever her intentions were, though, she did alter American literature by providing one of the most unique voices to have been found.


Were you traumatized by The Lottery? What do you think about hate mail? Comment your thoughts!


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Rachel Small

Rachel Small is not a small person and might be the present day reincarnation of Lizzie Borden. She crawled to life one night after midnight in the basement of a bookstore.

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