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.
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!