Shirley Jackson: A Literary Renaissance
The controversy surrounding ‘The Lottery’ made Jackson one of the most talked about young writers in the United States. She went on to become one of the most hard-working, respected and commercially successful American authors of the 1950s. Between 1948 and her premature death in 1965, she published a well-received short story collection, six novels, two volumes of comedic family chronicles (based upon her own experiences as a faculty wife and the mother of four young children), and dozens of short stories and magazine articles.
Yet despite substantial prominence during her lifetime, Jackson’s star faded in the years following her death, in large part because the literary and academic establishment wasn’t quite sure what to do with a female writer who so fiercely resisted conventional categorization. Jackson wrote acclaimed works of literary fiction but also penned non-fiction domestic humour for the women’s magazine market. Right from the very beginning of her career, newspaper articles and interviews invariably described her supposedly ‘matronly’ appearance, but also brought up the fact that she was allegedly a self-confessed witch. Although she has always had a devoted core audience, for years, Jackson never quite received the critical and popular attention she was due.
I first came across Shirley Jackson’s writing when I was around 15 years old. As a die-hard Stephen King fan, I treated his engaging non-fiction overview of the horror genre, Danse Macabre, as a kind of horror studies syllabus, and set about reading as many of the works he mentioned as possible. King declared Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House one of the greatest works of horror ever written, which was enough of a recommendation for me. Like almost every first-time reader of this beautifully written yet profoundly disconcerting novel, I was immensely taken with it. The second Jackson novel I ever read, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), made an even bigger impression. It is a simultaneously delightful and disturbing narrative set in the aftermath of a family massacre, and in eighteen-year old Mary Catherine Blackwood (who prefers to be known as ‘Merricat’) it has one of the most fascinating, complex and unsettling narrators ever committed to the page.
When the time came for me to decide upon a PhD topic, Jackson was my first choice. Up to that point (the early 2000s), there had been what seemed to me like a truly surprising lack of substantive academic interest in her work (albeit with some notable exceptions). Under the supervision of Professor Stephen Matterson in the School of English, I did my PhD on the relationship between Jackson’s work and the cultural and historical contexts of the post-war United States.
Towards the end of my PhD, I began to assemble the first ever edited essay collection on her writing, Shirley Jackson: Essays on the Literary Legacy (2005). My interest in Jackson also led me to the subject of my first monograph. During my PhD thesis, I had devoted much of a chapter to Jackson’s debut novel, The Road Through the Wall (1949), which is set in a Northern California suburb much like the one she herself grew up in. I developed this interest in cultural reactions to post-war suburbia into a project which was subsequently awarded an IRC post-doctoral research fellowship. My 2009 monograph The Suburban Gothic in American Popular Culture, was completed during this fellowship, and set me on a research path that I continue to follow to this day. I am fascinated by the relationship between humans and their physical surroundings – both the natural and built environment – and by the ways in which anxieties related to these surroundings find expression in gothic and horror texts. It is, I suppose, also a very Shirley Jackson kind of fixation: her last three novels all revolve around isolated rural mansions and the people who reside within them. I’ve since written a book on the impact that the post-war highways system had upon the American horror film, and another on the depiction of the American wilderness. My current work in progress focuses on nightmarish depictions of Jackson’s home state of California.
It has been truly wonderful to witness the massive resurgence of popular and academic interest in Jackson which has taken place in recent years. She is now, arguably, even more famous than she was back during her initial heyday. Jackson’s most famous novel inspired the hit 2018 Netflix show The Haunting of Hill House; a film adaptation of We Have Always Lived in the Castle was also released in 2018; and Ruth Franklin’s excellent 2016 biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life brought further critical attention to her life and work. A fictionalized version of Jackson can even be seen in the recently released psychological drama Shirley, in which she is portrayed by Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale actor Elisabeth Moss.
In addition, Jackson’s work is now being explored by a new generation of established and up-and-coming academic researchers, including here at Trinity. I was lucky enough to be granted a 2018 Provost’s PhD award for a project intended to facilitate research into lesser known and neglected aspects of Jackson’s work and literary legacy. After a highly competitive selection process, the award was taken up by Janice Deitner, who is now well in to her first year of PhD research under my supervision.
Over the past year, I have also had the honour of acting as academic consultant to Shirley Jackson’s eldest son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, as he edits the forthcoming first ever volume of Jackson’s letters. Reading and re-reading Jackson’s surviving letters – many of which are written in her engagingly free-wheeling lower-case style – has given me a renewed appreciation for her wit, intelligence, and originality. It’s a publication which will certainly fascinate Jackson’s ever-expanding body of readers, and, will, we hope, further consolidate her rapidly rising critical standing. The Jackson renaissance took a while to arrive, but at last, one of American literature’s most fascinating mid-century voices is again receiving the credit she so richly deserves.
Bernice M. Murphy is an Associate Professor/Lecturer in Popular Literature in the School of English. She has published extensively on topics related to horror fiction and film and edited the first ever essay collection devoted to Shirley Jackson's work, Shirley Jackson: A Literary Legacy (2005). She has also published several book chapters on Jackson. Professor Murphy's other books include The Suburban Gothic in American Popular Culture (Palgrave, 2009), The Rural Gothic: Backwoods Horror and Terror in the Wilderness (Palgrave, 2013), The Highway Horror Film (Palgrave Pivot, 2014), Key Concepts in Contemporary Popular Fiction (Edinburgh University Press, 2017) and, with Stephen Matterson, the edited essay collection Twenty-First Century Popular Fiction (Edinburgh University Press, 2018). Her current book project is a monograph entitled California Gothic which received research funding from the Trinity Arts and Social Sciences Benefaction Fund.
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