Books: Then and Now

Category: Now

Review: Let Me Tell You by Shirley Jackson

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.”                         Shirley Jackson

                                             (from: The Haunting of Hill House)

A friend gave me an Indigo/Chapters gift card for my birthday a while back, and I used it recently to pick up a hard-cover edition of Let me Tell You by Shirley Jackson. The book epitomizes my idea of biblio-decadence. Four-hundred and sixteen pages divided into five sections containing a total of fifty-six of her previously unpublished works of short fiction; essays and reviews; humorous vignettes about her family life; and lectures she had given on the craft of writing.

Students of twentieth-century literature will likely have read (or at least heard of) Shirley Jackson. Others perhaps not, unless you were born before 1975. The book is, for me, a twelve-gauge blast from the past. I have a fondness for the short story, and she held a seventh-degree black belt in the crafting of short fiction. I think it’s because, in my estimation, Shirley Jackson knew people. She understood the inner workings of humanity, the intricate clockwork of the human mind, as well as any other fiction writer before and since her time.

the Shirley Jackson papers filled fifty boxes in the Library of Congress

Let me Tell You was compiled and edited by Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt, two of Shirley Jackson’s four children. As such, the book is, in a way, a tribute to their mother, but it is much more than a thinly disguised hagiography. It contains sparkling little gems that were formerly unpublished, not because they didn’t have polish and merit but because Shirley Jackson died before her forty-ninth birthday, leaving a voluminous archive to be curated by others. Three collections of her work were published posthumously; however without the writer’s own energies to nudge the remaining material (the Shirley Jackson papers filled fifty boxes in the Library of Congress) into public view, much of the archival material remained in stasis until now.

The book contains a foreword by Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson’s biographer and it aptly describes the scope of the author’s productivity, as well as provides insight into her psyche. The (few) biographical comments by Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt and the selected Shirley Jackson quotes that are included, provide perhaps as much understanding about who the author really was, as anyone can truly know about anyone else.

Her short story, The Lottery, was groundbreaking for its reader shock value and established her as a fiction writer of serious note.

Much is still made in literary and academic circles about the effect the short story, The Lottery, had on Shirley Jackson’s career when it first appeared in The New Yorker in 1948. This is as it should be. The story was groundbreaking for its reader shock value and established her as a fiction writer of serious note.

The mid twentieth century just after World War Two was a time of cultural and intellectual buoyancy (and, arguably, naiveté), among middle class society in North America. It was generally not a time of mawkish introspection. The war had been won by the “good” side. There was wealth and prosperity in abundance. Life was uncomplicated and the prevailing Zeitgeist of the time was that, on the whole, people were regarded as respectable, moral and wholesome.

 Shirley Jackson knew the power of groupthink and its effect on societies large and small…

So when The Lottery was published, it was shocking, shocking!, to readers that such a degree of vileness could exist at the core of so many of the seemingly upright people around them, that would precipitate such cold-blooded actions. But Shirley Jackson knew the power and insidious influence of groupthink and its effect on societies large and small, and her acute understanding of one of humanity’s great failings has been vindicated many times in the decades that followed her death in 1965.

Like in Jackson’s other well-known work, there is a cuttingness of perception in the pieces that were selected for Let Me Tell You that is as sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel. In Family Treasures she sums up the character of a college student who had become known to those around her for her casual perfidy, in one sentence.

“Helena’s ankle bracelet was of solid gold, and had been given to Helena by a young man in whom she no longer had any profitable interest.”

For those reading her for the first time, prepare yourselves for an introduction to the delightful.

A powerful (and probably autobiographical) vignette of only a page and a half in length, She Says The Damnedest Things,  precisely captures the flavour of a conversation between two people talking about a third, as well as their dichotomy of opinion about behavior.

“SHE’S BATS, THAT GIRL,” SAID DOTTIE.”I MEAN, HONESTLY, BATS. She does the damnedest things.”

“She must be charming,” I said.

“Honestly though!” said Dottie. “You should see her. She’ll sit down here, and talk about the craziest notions she’s got, like buying the university and turning it into a pig farm because no one would ever notice the difference.”

“Already I like her,” I said.

For those who know Shirley Jackson’s work, Let me Tell You will be like getting together with an old and dear friend. For those reading her for the first time, prepare yourselves for an introduction to the delightful.  If you’re lucky you might even find a copy like the one I have. It includes an old-fashioned, bound-in ribbon bookmark. Perfect!     REG

Links for additional information:

Shirley Jackson