3/2-3/8 Shirley Jackson, Faculty Wife


Shirley Jackson and Stanley Edgar Hyman from a joint book review in the Bennington Beacon in 1948

There are varying opinions on where to locate the Golden Age of literature at Bennington. For my students, the discussion always starts with the 1980s, a time when the College produced an impressive lineup of novelists and writers including Donna Tartt (’86), Bret Easton Ellis (’86), Jill Eisenstadt (’85), Jonathan Lethem (’86, though he didn’t graduate), and many others who haven’t necessarily been branded ‘Bennington Writers’ to the same extent. We’ll talk more about the makeup of the literature faculty during the 1980s next week, but I’m going to make the argument, in the hope that it might kick off a larger debate, that the Golden Age of the Bennington Writer actually took place between 1948 and 1965, and the key figure wasn’t a student or a member of the literature faculty at all–though she did deliver regular lectures–but a faculty wife named Shirley Jackson.

Pretty much everyone alive in North American has read Shirley Jackson’s famous short story from 1948 “The Lottery.” It’s a staple of high-school English classes, and its portrait of systematized savagery in small-town New England has become embedded in our critique of community life, a kind of short-hand for persistent Puritanical attitudes and the forms of violent retribution that come along with them. Jackson, though she has remained remarkably poplar with readers since her death in 1965, has never quite received the kind of literary respect that her work deserves–not until recently, anyway.

As part of my Literary Bennington class this past fall, we took another look at her short stories from the late 1940s and spoke with her son Laurence Jackson Hyman about her legacy, her marriage to the literary critic and longtime Bennington faculty member Stanley Edgar Hyman, and the her psychologically savage portrayals of provincial life in New England small towns that share a lot of qualities with North Bennington.

Here is the Literary Bennington Q&A with Laurence Jackson Hyman. 

Here is a link to Ruth Franklin’s forthcoming biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (Sept. 2016).

For those readers interested in reading one of Jackson’s classic tales of psychic fracture and all-too-domestic horror, here is her 1949 short story “The Daemon Lover,” a retelling of a traditional Scottish Ballad.

Assignment: With our next book we’re going to read what is probably my favorite novel by Bernard Malamud, one of the giants of Jewish-American literature and a member of the faculty at Bennington from 1961-1985. The Fixer was first published in 1966 to immediate acclaim, winning both the National Book Award for Fiction and the Pulitzer Prize. It tells the story of Yakov Bok, a “fixer” (or handyman) from the Shtetl in Czarist Russia who loses his wife, moves to Kiev to try and change his luck, and gets blamed for the murder of a Christian boy–the inciting event for a wave of panic and anti-semitic hysteria. This week, I’d like you to read the first four chapters of the book, up to page 137 in the FSG edition.

The novel is loosely based on the case of Mendel Beilis, a Jewish laborer who was accused of ritual murder of a 13-year-old boy in Kiev in 1913.

For anyone interested in learning more about life in the Shtetl, there is an excellent documentary from PBS available online here.

I’ll post a new discussion thread on the forum in the next few days and am eager to know what you think about The Fixer!

3 thoughts on “3/2-3/8 Shirley Jackson, Faculty Wife”

    1. Maria, I liked it too.
      The short story is a versatile medium. I admit being lazy and simply listening to NPR Selected Shorts instead seeking out published works in print. I think my last purchased short stories were Robert Fulghum’s! Dates me….

      The way Jackson maintains her mystery is adept…my heart was lamenting all along the way.

      Now I am slogging through the torment of “The Fixer”. Malmud’s piece is too dark at this juncture for me, being March, mostly overcast, and rainy in NW Montana. Poor Jakob Bok. A fellow born out of his element yet of it.
      Zhivago kept coming up in the back corners of my mind last evening. Yentel. Fortunately, Fiddler on the Roof gave me some relief when plays and films slipped into my reflection. Oye vey, mein Gott im Himmel, gentile Grandma used to say. She lived among the Jews in Brooklyn. :o)

      My roommate in Franklin House at Bennington was hilarious. She would make me cry for laughing at her Jewish jokes. At the time we were not dwelling in past stigmas of our heritage. She would say in her Pittsburgh Jewish accent, “So, here we are. A Jew and a Gentile in the same room and we’re both a couple a hicks.”
      “Oh, and by the way, can you sew? You know by brotha is a taila. He can make anything you want.”
      I would go to gatherings with her on campus and got my fill of pot luck traditional food. I can tell you that pickled herring and gefilte pate’ were not on my list of faves in those days.
      But the people were.

      Bless my room mate. I couldn’t type and had terrible punctuation, so she typed all my papers for me from my messy drafts. What a girlfriend.
      Thankfully. we were a long way from Malmud’s Kiev.

  1. Great to read all this background on Jackson and Hyman. What sticks with me, from way back, is Eleanor and her cup of stars–don’t let them take that away from you! Just for fun I watched the 1963 film version of “The Haunting” (of Hill House), with Julie Harris and Claire Bloom. On the surface, a classic B&W horror flick, with lots of shadowy hallways, spiral staircases, and screaming women. But not spook or monster in residence–only the mental baggage the visitors brought in with them. All this gave me a new appreciation of Jackson’s art.

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