Three Days Before “The Lottery”: a Q&A with Laurence Jackson Hyman

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The cover for a 1950 paperback edition of Shirley Jackson’s story collection The Lottery: The Adventures of a Demon Lover

Shirley Jackson is widely known for her ominously transcendent novels and a catalogue of short stories that are still taught in schools today. Married to the accomplished editor, critic, and longtime Bennington faculty member Stanley Edgar Hyman, the two lived and worked alongside one another for years as “the writer” and “the critic.” In digging through the Bennington archives, we found an issue of The Beacon–the official Bennington College newspaper of the time–from June of 1948 that contains side-by-side reviews of Shirley Jackson’s first novel The Road Through the Wall and Stanley Edgar Hyman’s influential study of literary criticism The Armed Vision

Laurence Jackson Hyman, one of Jackson and Hyman’s four children and an alumnus of the College, reveals in this Q&A with Literary Bennington what it was like growing up in North Bennington surrounded by literature and the arts. A writer, editor, and photographer, Hyman was one of a handful of male students to attend the all-female school when he enrolled in 1962, and he later returned to campus to run the public relations office and found The Bennington Review. 

In this lively exchange over email, Hyman shares his extensive knowledge of his mother’s work as well as his experiences at Bennington College. He continues to be involved in both of his parents’ literary legacies, and has recently co-edited a new volume of Jackson’s work Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings (Random House, 2015).

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Side-by-side book reviews in The Beacon from June 24, 1948

Literary Bennington: I like how this is a kind of visual of “the writer” and “the critic.” How prevalent was this ironic juxtaposition in your parents’ everyday lives?

Laurence Jackson Hyman: It’s fun to see this 1948 copy of The Beacon, especially the local advertising. Those were not the most insightful or well-written reviews I’ve seen, but I like your juxtaposition point. Sure, my parents were the perfect combination of creative genius and gifted scholar/editor. They shared many visions. Shirley was a great writer, and Stanley was a great editor, critic and teacher. In their everyday lives this had little bearing. They discussed writing and writers along with everything else that would come up in their busy lives. Between them, they produced a very impressive body of written work, more than two dozen books, in a short period.

LB: I understand that Jackson resisted analyzing her work. Do you recall what kind of reaction she would have to reviews like this one, if any? How would you place The Road Through the Wall among her books?

LJH: Shirley constructed her work very carefully and always believed that it spoke for itself. She refused to “explain” any of her stories or novels, though she was asked constantly to do so. Her work is enigmatic, complex, multi-layered, sparse and to the point. She wrote masterfully in a variety of forms and styles. She referenced many things like mythology, ritual, magic, the Tarot, fairy tales, The Marx Brothers, among many others. She believed that the reader must be an active participant, and that he would come to his own conclusions.

She would have had no public reaction to this review, but privately she might have scoffed a bit. She did not worry about inferior reviews, rare as they were, nor did she gloat when receiving truly great and deserved praise. The Road Through the Wall was her first novel, and it received positive reviews when it was published in early 1948. It is a good novel, and she was very proud of it, but it does not yet have the excitement, craft and polish of her later writing.  

I find it interesting that this newspaper was dated June 24, 1948–just three days later The New Yorker would publish my mother’s story “The Lottery” and shake up the entire publishing world. Shirley achieved instant celebrity, at first not all good, and it changed everything for her.

LB: What is your stance on literary criticism and its value for the writer? Do you have an ongoing relationship with any of your father’s books, like The Armed Vision?

LJH: My father was a scholar, and approached literature from a scholarly point of view. He read voraciously and remembered everything. In The Armed Vision, also Stanley’s first published book, in 1948, he established Modern Literary Criticism. He had worked with Kenneth Burke and others in formulating theories about myth and ritual that were groundbreaking. On its jacket the editor writes: “It is, I am absolutely certain, a critical book of major importance, a book over which rivers of ink will eventually be spilled. It is of enormous scope and brilliance, the end result of the enquiries of an absolutely first-rate mind stocked with vast erudition and able to speak clearly, elegantly, and with wit.” Its publication caused a great stir in the world of letters.  

My father went on to write six more books of literary criticism and edit several other books, including two collections of Shirley’s short stories and her unfinished novel. He also was staff writer for The New Yorker for 25 years and wrote numerous Profiles, reviews and Talk pieces. Whereas Shirley is a rising star again these days, my father’s work has largely been forgotten except by some literary scholars; we are having some discussion about republishing some of his work, especially The Tangled Bank, which seems as relevant today as it was when it was published in 1962.  

LB: A lot of Jackson’s stories depict a malignant small-town atmosphere, like “The Renegade,” “Flower Garden,” and, of course, “The Lottery.” How much do you think living in North Bennington influenced this? Was there any reaction to the stories by your neighbors at the time they were first published?

LJH: That question has been asked many times. I always try to remind people that Shirley’s work is fiction. Writers naturally draw from their experiences when they make fiction, and it would seem inevitable that some mannerisms, looks, or other quirks among the village people she would encounter on a daily basis might find their way into the habits of some of her characters. But she did not write stories about North Bennington. My parents liked North Bennington.

Aside from their friends and colleagues at Bennington College, who would be effusive in their praises, few local residents would have been likely to be reading The New Yorker in the late 1940s. My mother joked to her parents that none of the villagers even knew of the magazine’s existence. She cared far more what people like Stanley, Kenneth Burke, Howard Nemerov and Ralph Ellison thought of her work.

Some of the village residents certainly read Shirley’s stories that were regularly published in the big popular magazines of the day, and the two humorous family memoirs my mother wrote about all of us, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, and I was often asked as a kid about certain stories, and whether I had actually done some of the things Shirley had written. I had learned from her to deflect most of those questions and use her own explanation: “It’s just a story.”

LB: Another theme throughout her stories is of women in small town households versus women living alone in the city, most famously “Elizabeth.” Did Jackson pull from her own experiences living in cities like San Francisco and Burlingame, and then settling down in North Bennington?  

LJH: Once again, it’s fiction. Why is it so important to try to find autobiographical experiences in a writer’s work? Shirley wrote about the things that came into her mind. She was very observant, and noticed things about people as anyone does, but when she sat down at the typewriter what came pouring onto the page was made up stories. She often worked on several at the same time. That’s what she did for a living all her adult life; it was her job, in a time when many women did not work at all.

She was very proud of being a professional writer. She once wrote about checking into the hospital in Bennington to have a baby, and being asked her profession. When she said “writer” several times, the nurse said, “Well, I’ll just put down housewife.”

LB: Jackson has such a way of turning mundanity into horror in almost all of the stories in this collection. How provocative was her social commentary when her stories were first published? Were you aware of this growing up? How do you reconcile the darkness in her work with the humor?

LJH: I’ve never had any problem reconciling the darkness of some of her work with the humorous writing. I like it all. Both the family memoirs were republished by Penguin this past spring and are enjoying newfound popularity. Much of Shirley’s work is remarkably relevant today, despite the fact that it was written six decades ago. I have always enjoyed being a character in her stories and books, and I think she treated me very well in print. She gave me some terrific, funny lines.

I’ve been asked about “Charles” thousands of times over the years, and recently I received more than a hundred letters written by an entire class of sixth graders to “Laurie” [the boy protagonist in the story], asking admiringly if I really did all those terrible things and was I still a prankster. I answered each letter, as did, predictably, Charles. I am currently at work on my own memoir about being a character in her stories.

LB: Your family was very involved in Bennington College, with Hyman as a faculty member for 25 years, and Jackson giving frequent lectures. Is this part of why you enrolled at Bennington even when it was still an all-women school? What was this like?

LJH: I grew up around Bennington College. As a kid I went to movies there, attended concerts and plays, and took art classes. In high school I played trumpet and baritone sax in numerous chamber groups, workshops and orchestras at Bennington, and as a senior was invited to take Kit Foster’s wonderful freshman English class, and it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. She woke me up! I rightly came to believe that Bennington was the Center of the Universe in literature and the arts in those days, and when I was not accepted there at first I went instead to Goddard, a smaller, coeducational version of the Bennington model.  

But after two years there I had taken all the classes that interested me, and after marrying a Bennington student in 1962 I was admitted to Bennington by President Bill Fels, as a special student, one of about a dozen male students attached to dance and drama (out of a total of about 320 students). I was then able for two years to immerse myself at Bennington in music, literature, art, playwriting, and, finally, photography, at which I was self-taught.  

Despite the fact that photography was not yet taught at Bennington then, I managed to do an inter-divisional major in art and literature; my senior thesis was a large-format handmade book of short texts and black-and-white photographs about the East River and Fulton Fish Market in lower Manhattan, titled Calling The Wind. That actually set me off on a career of writing, photography, graphic design and publishing that continues to this day.

LB: You were editor of Bennington Review in your time at Bennington, which the college is reviving in 2016. What was the review like in your time?

LJH: I am delighted to hear that Bennington Review will be reinvented next year. I actually was the founding editor, designer, art-director and publisher of the new magazine when I produced Volume I, No. I back in fall of 1966. When Bennington hired me in 1965 to return to become Director of Public Relations and Publications I decided to split the former alumni magazine into two very different ones: I founded Quadrille as the new newsy publication directed at not only alumni but also faculty and students, and Bennington Review as a journal of the arts, taking full advantage of the enormous wealth of writing and art talent among the faculty. The faculty responded, and some who were used to making thousands on essays or stories were willing to let me have work for our modest per-article budget of, as I recall, $200. We did well.  

I also ran portraits of all the contributors, most of which I made myself, often just outside the Barn. Publishing was wild then, with great new offset printing and graphic arts techniques, and the magazine won lots of national design and printing awards, six Best Cover awards (of nine), and I got some Best Photography awards. Quadrille was twice named Newsletter of the Year by the American Alumni Council. Unfortunately, in 1969 our budgets were severely cut and the magazine published its ninth and last edition in 1970.

LB: At what age did you start reading your mother’s work? Do you remember your first ever reaction to the fictional worlds of Shirley Jackson?

LJH: I probably started reading the humorous stories about myself when I was 8 or 9. She wrote glowingly about me as a ballplayer in Little League, as a young jazz trumpet player, as a carpenter, painter, photographer. I read The Haunting of Hill House when it came out in 1959, and it scared the bejeezus out of me. When I was in my later teens I decided one summer to read all of my mother’s novels. Recently, editing two books of her previously unpublished or uncollected short stories, I have come to appreciate her full mastery as a writer.

LB: What were the biggest surprises when you revisited the material–or read it for the first time?

LJH: The biggest surprise, without doubt, is how good some of that otherwise “lost” fiction really is. We edited Just an Ordinary Day (Bantam) in 1996, to great reviews, but I sensed that there was more good Jackson fiction lurking in the dozens of unsorted cartons of her papers in the Library of Congress. Sure enough, digging around we found many more stories, plus some unpublished essays and lectures, and, to our further surprise, more than 800 of Shirley’s drawings, watercolors and cartoons, some of which I included in the book we just published over the summer, Let Me Tell You (Random House).  

We spent the past two years editing and shaping this book, and we are delighted with the wonderful reviews we have received from around the country, and Europe.  The New Republic named Shirley Jackson “The Queen of American Gothic,” and the UK Telegraph called the book “a literary séance.” Shirley got the front page of the New York Times Book Review, with a color portrait, fifty years after her death.  

Many new readers are discovering her work, and scholars increasingly are teaching courses and writing about her. A definitive biography of Shirley will be published next year, the centenary of her birth. Her work has been adapted many times for theatre, film, TV and ballet, and a new stage adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House opens next month in England. For the first time in many years all fourteen of her books are in print again, and most have been translated into every major language in the world.

As Stanley concluded in his Preface to The Magic of Shirley Jackson (1965): “Shirley Jackson’s work is among that small body of literature produced in our time that seems apt to survive.”

By Amy McMahon ‘19

View a copy of the June 24, 1948 issue of The Beacon from the College archives. The reviews are on page three.

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