Shirley Jackson’s North Bennington: a Walking Tour
The cover for an edition of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House
Shirley Jackson, the American master of the uncanny who influenced future writers like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King, lived right in our backyard in North Bennington for much of her adult life. Her husband Stanley Edgar Hyman was a faculty member at Bennington College for twenty-five years, from 1945 to 1970, and Jackson was a fixture both in town and on campus. Given that her association with Bennington was unknown to me at first–and the same is true for too many current students–I decided to explore North Bennington to see if I could find her house and any other traces of the time she spent in the area.
After doing some initial research on the web, I set out on my bike for North Bennington. Following a tip from my professor, I started at the John G. McCullough Free Library in the center of town in search of a cat statue. This cat, I had been told, had once belonged to Jackson and Hyman. For whatever reason, the idea of the cat statue made me a little uneasy. Could a cat statue be haunted? Parking my bike between the bushes and the staircase outside of the library, I walked in and started searching.
The library was small and quaint, much like North Bennington itself. After several minutes of walking through the stacks, looking between and on top the shelves for this feline enigma, I decided to resort to the librarian at the front desk and asked her if she had any knowledge of a cat statue that had once belonged to Shirley Jackson. Susan Warren, the Library Director of Park-McCullough, turned my attention to the top of a bookshelf nearby where, quite obviously, the cat was lurking.
| The mythical cat statue
After asking Warren’s permission, I picked the statue of the cat off the top of the shelf and looked it over, carefully inspecting it for any markings or writing. On the bottom of the statue I found a handwritten label: Shirley Jackson’s Cat, Donated by David Aldridge. When I asked the librarian about David Aldridge and his relation to Shirley Jackson, she said she only knew that Aldridge was the recipient of the cat and that it had once belonged to a larger collection of cat statues in Jackson’s house. Later, in correspondence with Warren, I learned that Aldridge had lived in Jackson’s house after her husband had sold it (Jackson died first, when she was only 48) and that he had given away many of the cats over the years. One of the last two statues went to the library, and it remains there today, looking creepy.
| Every creepy cat statue should have a label
Next, I biked northeast in search of the house at 66 Main Street, which I had learned was Jackson and Hyman’s address. Jackson had lived in the house from 1953 to 1965, writing many of her important works there, including her novels The Bird’s Nest (1954) and The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and her popular family memoir Raising Demons (1957).
| Shirley Jackson’s former house at 66 Main Street
The house was painted tan and white, with a shaded porch facing trimmed hedges that bordered the street. I wondered if it had been so well kept-up in Jackson’s time. The lawn was trimmed and there was a Nissan Cube sitting in the driveway, which made me feel a little invasive about taking pictures, so I decided to move on to my next location.
The research I had done before leaving on the tour indicated that Jackson had shopped frequently at Powers Market, across the street from the library and only a couple minutes’ walk from her own home. The market is inside a white brick building with a row of four imposing doric pillars. Powers, well known to many current Bennington students, has been in existence since 1840, though it has changed owners several times. Now it is mostly a cafe and deli, while during Shirley Jackson’s time in North Bennington, it served as more of an all-purpose market and general store, as well as the social meeting center of the community.
| Where Shirley Jackson did her grocery shopping
As the legend goes, one day in 1948 Jackson was out running errands, pushing a stroller through North Bennington, when the idea for the short story “The Lottery” came to her in a flash and she hurried home to type the story in two hours. “I suppose,” she would later say in an interview, “I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”
If you stand facing Powers Market and pivot ninety degrees to your right, you’ll be facing, on the opposite side of the town square, the restaurant Pangaea. During Jackson’s time in North Bennington, Pangea was a French restaurant called The Rainbarrel. The restaurant was often frequented by Jackson and her husband, as well as other Bennington faculty members and the luminaries from the arts who visited campus. A spookier fact is that Hyman died in the restaurant while eating a meal in 1970. The thought of someone dying in mid-meal behind those doors made me feel a little unnerved, though the feeling might have been heightened by the slow approach of dusk.
| Pangaea, formerly The Rainbarrell
After going by Pangea, I biked up to 12 Prospect Street, the first house in North Bennington where Jackson and Hyman had lived. As I arrived, I propped my bike against a light post. Although the exterior of the house was grand, with Greek Revival columns, it was not especially well cared for; the paint was peeling off the siding and roof shingles looked loose. Although it was not clear to me if anyone was living in the house, I decided to err on the side of caution and keep my distance. It would have been tempting to knock or peek into one the windows, but I didn’t want to disturb anyone who might be living there and wished to be left alone. And part of me wanted to preserve the mystery of the elusive author. It was enough to know that this was where Jackson had lived when she wrote her story “The Lottery” and her other early works.
| The house where Shirley Jackson wrote “The Lottery”
After the house on Prospect Street I only had one more stop on the Shirley Jackson tour to go, and I continued up the hill towards campus. There are many people who believe that the Jennings Music Building, once the Jennings Mansion, was the house that inspired Jackson’s famous ghost story The Haunting of Hill House. Literary Bennington has been in touch with the writer Ruth Franklin, currently working on a biography of Jackson, and she believes, instead, that the Everett Mansion on the campus of Southern Vermont College was more likely the inspiration. Of course, The Haunting of Hill House is a work of fiction, so Hill House is ultimately a work of Jackson’s imagination–something Franklin also emphasized.
| The Jennings Music Building on campus
We should count ourselves lucky that there is such a rich and tangible history related to a timeless writer like Shirley Jackson so close to the Bennington campus. If you ever find yourself in the area with an extra hour or so on one of these brilliant fall days, why not take a walk around North Bennington and visit the sites where Jackson still haunts us?