It might come as a surprise to readers of Jackson’s crepuscular fiction (she’s most famous for her 1948 shocker “The Lottery”) that the letters here are mostly breezy and bright, full of droll anecdotes about her four children, driving lessons, many cats, merry overindulgence in cocktails, and endless attempts to lose weight (“i have the whole kitchen wall covered with calorie listings,” she wrote to her hypercritical mother in 1956.) But tucked among these letters are a tiny handful that are so jarringly sad that they detonate on the page, hinting at the source of Jackson’s dark vision. They belie the jaunty persona she presented to most of her correspondents and illuminate the lengths she went to conceal her unhappiness. That many other American women of Jackson’s generation felt compelled to do the same, gives “The Letters of Shirley Jackson” deeper resonance.
The book — edited by her eldest son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, in consultation with Jackson scholar Bernice M. Murphy — begins with a few dozen frisky love letters Jackson wrote to “snookums” and “adored one,” a.k.a. her future husband, the literary critic Stanley Hyman: “looked all through your letter to find out if you loved me and you refuse to say. damn you anyway. i love you you dope.” After their marriage in 1940, the love letters give way to amusing accounts of daily life addressed to “mother and pop,” chatty notes to Ralph Ellison (“i realize — don’t think i could ever forget — that i still owe you a batch of brownies”), upbeat bulletins about her health problems, and ever more complicated business correspondence with her literary agents.
“No one can say I don’t work for a living,” Jackson wrote to her agent in 1952. No indeed. “Letters” chronicles a life spent at the typewriter, banging out children’s books, domestic comedies a la Erma Bombeck (like Jackson’s brilliant 1953 book “Life Among the Savages”) and countless magazine articles, in addition to some of the creepiest fiction of the 20th century. “I am having a fine time doing a novel with my left hand and a long story — with as many levels as grand central station — with my right hand, stirring chocolate pudding with a spoon held in my teeth, and tuning the television with both feet,” she wrote to Ellison in 1949.
What do we learn of the genesis of her most brilliant work? Surprisingly little. During the months when she was finishing “The Haunting of Hill House,” Jackson sends her parents updates on their grandkids and describes baking a nut cake. While she was putting finishing touches on her uncanny masterpiece “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” we hear more about decorating Valentine’s cookies and the blouse her daughter made in home-ec class than we do about the novel’s unforgettable and demented narrator. (As she wrote in a letter to her parents when the book came out: “pop: the heroine of this one is really batty.”)
By the end of her life, Jackson was supporting her family. “Stanley says that if I can write and sell six stories this summer he will let me get a grey convertible with pale blue upholstery next fall,” she wrote to her agent in 1958. Stanley would let her get a convertible? Hyman was jealous of her success, and he could be condescending and cruel. Allusions to marital problems are typically subtle and wry. The funny stick-figure cartoons that she drew on some of her letters depict an imperfect union between an overwhelmed wife and a lazy bespectacled husband slumped in an armchair. Also there is Jackson’s understandable disdain for the “screeching girls,” as she called the students at Bennington, the women’s college in Vermont where Hyman, a perennial philanderer, taught. “This is also the time of year when a certain type student asks me very confidentially if Stanley and I are really happily married,” she wrote to her agent in 1956. “I usually pat them on the hand when I answer them. Gently, of course.”
Reading that flippant passage, you’d think the marriage was probably fine. It wasn’t. In a stunning lament addressed to Hyman, Jackson writes: “i am afraid to talk to people because i have that nagging fear that i am actually what you have told me so often i am, a tedious bore.” The letter ends with the two most heartbreaking sentences in the collection: “you once wrote me a letter (i know you hate my remembering these things) telling me that i would never be lonely again. i think that was the first, the most dreadful, lie you ever told me.” Going through these letters can’t have been entirely surprising for her son and yet probably difficult to read in their specifics.
Around 1963, Jackson wrote a letter to herself, the only one in this book. She is trying to come to terms with Hyman’s undermining and to talk herself out of despair. “please just let me write what i want to, and not be stopped,” she writes. “i will not be afraid. ever again. i will not be afraid. i will not be afraid. i will not.”
The letters she wrote to other people rarely hint at this level of turmoil and despair. “The Journals of Shirley Jackson” would have been a more painful and intimate book, but perhaps less revealing. The poignancy of “Letters” comes from the juxtaposition of Jackson’s jaunty social persona and the occasional searing glimpses of a profoundly vulnerable woman.
Jennifer Reese is the author of “Make the Bread, Buy the Butter.”
THE LETTERS OF SHIRLEY JACKSON
Edited by Laurence Jackson Hyman. Contributions by Bernice M. Murphy
Random House. 672 pp. $35