“The Letters in the Barn”: Shirley Jackson Biographer Ruth Franklin Helps Uncover the “Secret History” of Women’s Lives
When Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery” appeared in the pages of The New Yorker in 1948, she baffled and horrified the magazine’s readers—many of whom thought the tale of villagers who participate in a ritual stoning might be based on reality.
“Utterly pointless,” “gruesome,” and “nasty,” complained some of The New Yorker’s readers, who sent more than 300 letters altogether—more than The New Yorker had ever received about a piece of fiction.
Unless you run in the literary circles obsessed with Jackson’s novels, like We Have Always Lived in the Castle or The Haunting of Hill House, your only experience with her writing might be an encounter with that unsettling, much-anthologized story in a high school English class.
For the rest of her career—and until her death in 1965—Jackson tried to out-write her reputation as the author of “The Lottery.” The story, most likely loosely based on her experiences living in the buttoned-up New England town of North Bennington, VT, would make her famous.
“It annoyed her to no end during her life that she was primarily known for ‘The Lottery’ and that that was the story that everybody always wanted to reprint, to the exclusion of so much of her other work,” explains Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson’s biographer and author of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, recently published by Liveright.
Franklin and I speak by phone one bright September morning, right before the release of her book—the first literary-critical biography of Jackson ever written. (There is one other biography from 1988, written by Judy Oppenheimer, says Franklin. But it’s “a very personal biography and doesn’t really go into the writing process, or into depth about Jackson’s writing and her life and as a book critic,” she adds. And Franklin is quick to point out there’s more archival material available now than when Oppenheimer penned Private Demons almost 30 years ago.)
When I ask how her morning is going, Franklin mentions she stayed up late to appear on “Darkness Radio,” a radio show about the paranormal, the night before. Given Jackson’s relationship to spooks, witches, and haunted houses, I wonder if this is a common request for Franklin to field.
“That’s definitely what she’s most known for,” says Franklin. “A general reader has probably read ‘The Lottery’ and might have read The Haunting of Hill House or seen one of the movies made of it.
“But I’m getting a lot of interest around the different aspects of her life, especially the combination of being a mother and a writer—that’s central to my book,” she explains.
This combination, “being a mother and a writer,” is a crucial one for Jackson’s career. Yet it’s a distinction that often stymied Jackson’s critics, who attempted to separate her “light” magazine writing about motherhood from her novels, most often characterized by their keen psychological insight and creeping sense of danger—both real and imagined. Take her bizarre second novel, Hangsaman, which tells the story of a college student suffering in the aftermath of sexual assault and—perhaps—mental illness, or even the magnificent Castle, in which the young protagonist poisons her family at dinner.
By restoring the historical and political context to Jackson’s work, Franklin demonstrates how the constraints of female domestic life in the 1950s and 60s—along with her progressive personal politics—permeated everything she wrote, whether fantastic or realistic.
“Her body of work constitutes nothing less than the secret history of American women of her era,” Franklin writes in the introduction to A Rather Haunted Life. “And the stories she tells form a powerful counter-narrative to the ‘feminine mystique,’ revealing the unhappiness and instability beneath the housewife’s sleek veneer of competence.”
Jackson’s commitment to telling women’s stories makes her achievements in essay and fiction writing all the more impressive—and also explains why she may have been overlooked in critical writing about mid-century literature for so long.
Unusually for the time period, Jackson’s earnings from women’s magazines made her the primary breadwinner for her family. She earned incredible fees for magazine pieces about mothering four children, later collected in Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, commanding as much as $2,500 per essay. That was, says Franklin, “enough to buy a small car” in the 1960s.
Despite her commercial success as a magazine writer, Jackson’s writing process was prolonged, filled with starts and stops, missteps and self-doubt.
In correspondence Franklin unearthed after an impressive bit of detective work, she was able to trace the halting progress of Jackson’s last novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle—which was almost abandoned.
Jackson told few people of her difficulties with the book, but she did confess her troubles to a housewife in Baltimore named Jeanne Beatty, who wrote Jackson letters throughout the early 1960s.
“The name [Jeanne Beatty] didn’t ring any bells for me,” says Franklin, who read through the letters from Beatty in Jackson’s archives, which are housed at the Library of Congress. “This wasn’t a famous person or somebody Jackson had mentioned in other letters.”
Once she started reading, though, Franklin was hooked. “The letters were so smart and sensitive and beautifully written,” says Franklin, but she desperately wanted to read the other half of the conversation—the letters Jackson sent Beatty.
Through the miracle of the internet, Franklin tracked down Beatty’s daughter, who thought Jackson’s letters may still be in a family-owned Pennsylvania barn about to go on the auction block.
Franklin arranged the trip, and after a day spent sifting through “boxes and boxes of old newspapers and magazines” and “dust and spiders and mouse droppings,” she came up empty handed.
“I could not face this mountain of boxes on my own, so I called my best friend from childhood [to come help],” says Franklin. “She drove up from Baltimore and took one look at the barn and said, ‘Hey, what’s in this front room?’”
The two friends opened a filing cabinet drawer filled with sheaves of Jackson’s “signature yellow copy paper,” says Franklin. “All there in a folder! It was unbelievable. As if it had been set there, waiting for us to discover it.” (The trip was so momentous for Franklin, she dedicated an entire issue of her TinyLetter, “Updates from the Shirley Jackson Files,” to it.)
In the excerpts from Beatty’s letters in Franklin’s book, it’s easy to see why Shirley was drawn to Jeanne. Beatty’s letters are at times poetic, expressing her “purest saturated envy for your aloneness…and your wandering,” as she wrote of one of Jackson’s solo driving trips. “I want loneness, no kids, no responsibilities but me, or nothing [no writing] comes.”
In kind, Jackson wrote about her children and her husband, critic and New Yorker writer Stanley Edgar Hyman, who begrudged Jackson her letter-writing time. Most tellingly, she described her struggles with Castle. “my book is so completely bogged down that i am almost frightened, quite seriously, writing these long letters to you (and, oddly, i do not write so to anyone else, perhaps because your letters are so delightful),” she wrote in February of 1960, using her all-lower case drafting style. According to Franklin, Jackson also shared early drafts of Castle with Beatty and depended on her correspondence to work through troubles with the novel.
This newly unearthed correspondence represents a thrilling contribution to Jackson’s archives, and in its depiction of a complex female friendship, retraces the important, but often overlooked, territory of Jackson’s life work.
“My hope is that this book will show that [Jackson] wasn’t just a teller of weird tales or supernatural ghost stories, but that her project was much more ambitious,” says Franklin. “It was to tell the story of the women of her time.”
Thanks to Franklin’s incisive historical and literary analysis, this story now includes a fuller picture of Jackson’s life and career, a wonderfully complex explication of domestic life in mid-century America.
By reading over Jackson’s shoulder—and Franklin’s—it’s also possible to receive the tiniest of glimpses into the life of Jeanne Beatty, an unknown housewife with unrealized literary ambitions, and one hell of a pen pal.
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