Letters of Shirley Jackson – 5/5 Stars
A few years ago I read the Collected Letters of Ralph Ellison. One of the very many exciting things about this collection was my learning that he was close friends with Stanley Edgar Hymen and by extention Shirley Jackson. This leads to some various exchanges in that collection that show just how generous of spirit Ralph Ellison often was (and how petty he could sometimes go).
This collection has the same set of joys as that colleciton but in some different ways. We begin with the letters that Shirley Jackson writed to Hymen while they’re dating in college. They has some very undefined elements to this relationship as it seems both of them were also dating other people at the time, and sometimes broken up and sometimes not. This leads to some jealousy issues and a lot of sharp rebukes. But there’s also a lovely genuine affection that permeates all these letters. They’re all written in a free-flowing lightly punctuated and capitalized conversation style that Shirley apparently adopted from Stanley. We are told in the introduction by their son Laurence (who you might know as “Charles”‘s Laurie in that story as well as in the two memoirs – Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages) that this long early part of the relationship settled into itself much later.
This is a truly amazing document ultimately. So many collected letter do offer up the insights and academic interests about writers that you might be clamoring for when you read certain writers. But man, this book is a pure joy to read. Her voice is so strong and so wonderful, and because so many of these letters are written to her parents, there’s so much life and biography happening here. There’s also a lot of hidden pain, but also a lot of hidden joy here. Also, it’s a small thins but having Laurie, if I may call him that, be the arbiter of this collection offers up so much.
Hangsaman – 4/5 Stars
What if a girl!
Shirley Jackson…okay, so now I am completely speculating here, but I was also reading her collected letters while reading this novel. The collected letters might be the closest thing we have to a memoir from Jackson. Yes, it’s true we got Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages, and those are certainly accurate and true to a certain degree, but they were written for entertainment (and they are entertaining!) but they are not a full accounting of Shirley Jackson’s mind. Neither are the letters, but they are often very open and honest, and tell us her life as a wife of a professor (not just a “wife and mother”) and her feelings as a woman more than the other writing. So anyway, it’s my speculation here that this main character is someone who Shirley Jackson could imagine being in one of Stanley Edgar Hyman’s classes and looking at a version of their life together. This is not strictly true as the differences matter greatly. Shirley Jackson was older than Hyman, was never his student, and had kids by the time he was a professor, but I also know she had some feelings about Hyman’s role as a professor and resented the attention he gave to his job (without getting into whether she thought he was cheating — he probably was, but she seemed to have an understanding about that).
The novel is about a young (17) college freshman going through the various rituals of being a young freshman at college in the late 40s/early 50s and becoming friends with the very young wife of one of her professors.
The Bird’s Nest – 4/5 Stars
I was a little worried about reading Shirley Jackson’s novel about a young woman with multiple personality disorder (Dissociative identity disorder) and mostly my worry was that the novel was going to be spending the whole time in the head of the main character. I didn’t for a second believe that a novel from the early 1950s was going to pass any kind of clinical muster in 2021, but I was worried about it being more of a narrative mess.
Instead, I think this is a very good novel that doesn’t quite match up with scientific standards, but does show us some figurative ways in which the behaviors of women are diagnosed and controlled.
Elizabeth is a 23 woman working for a museum in the aftermath of her mother’s death. One day she looks at a letter she began to write the day before, a rejection of a submission for the museum. At the end of the typed section, yet to be completed, she sees a hand scrawled note saying something like “We know who you are and we’re going to get you!”
From here, we begin to understand that the death of her mother has led to the fracturing of her identity. For the very fortunate reader, part of this understanding comes from a very good section written by her psychologist who is trying to treat, is clearly inadequate to the task, and but gives us a solid basis for understanding.
The other parts of the novel follow the different personalities, and thankfully again, consummate writer that Shirley Jackson is, these parts are told through third person narration. I went from a novel I was a little worried about to one I really enjoyed.
The Sundial – 3/5 Stars
In the collected letters, Stanley Edgar Hyman refers to this this novel as Shirley Jackson’s Ivy Compton-Burnett novel. Now if you haven’t read one of Compton-Burnett novels, you maybe should. You also maybe should not, but if you like Shirley Jackson, especially the non-Hill House and Lottery stuff (and those are not all that different but for better or worse they have baggage to them) you might really enjoy her. Ivy Compton-Burnett wrote novels that were often titles things like the “Thing and its thing” and were a kind of almost Samuel Beckett rewrite on the comedy of manners. They are weird, stripped bare, and amazingly wonderful and mean. They are NOT rich, but they are powerful.
This novel takes place in a manor house in a small town and the lady of the manor maybe sort of almost certainly believes the world is about to end and everybody better act accordingly.