Shirley Jackson: Book summary and reviews of Shirley Jackson by Ruth Franklin

Shirley Jackson

A Rather Haunted Life

by Ruth Franklin

Shirley Jackson by Ruth Franklin
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  • Published in USA  Sep 2016
    624 pages
    Genre: Biographies & Memoirs

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Book Summary

This "historically engaging and pressingly relevant" biography establishes Shirley Jackson as a towering figure in American literature and revives the life and work of a neglected master.

Still known to millions primarily as the author of the "The Lottery," Shirley Jackson (1916–1965) has been curiously absent from the mainstream American literary canon. A genius of literary suspense and psychological horror, Jackson plumbed the cultural anxiety of postwar America more deeply than anyone. Now, biographer Ruth Franklin reveals the tumultuous life and inner darkness of the author of such classics as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Placing Jackson within an American Gothic tradition that stretches back to Hawthorne and Poe, Franklin demonstrates how her unique contribution to this genre came from her focus on "domestic horror." Almost two decades before The Feminine Mystique ignited the women's movement, Jackson' stories and nonfiction chronicles were already exploring the exploitation and the desperate isolation of women, particularly married women, in American society. Franklin's portrait of Jackson gives us "a way of reading Jackson and her work that threads her into the weave of the world of words, as a writer and as a woman, rather than excludes her as an anomaly" (Neil Gaiman).

The increasingly prescient Jackson emerges as a ferociously talented, determined, and prodigiously creative writer in a time when it was unusual for a woman to have both a family and a profession. A mother of four and the wife of the prominent New Yorker critic and academic Stanley Edgar Hyman, Jackson lived a seemingly bucolic life in the New England town of North Bennington, Vermont. Yet, much like her stories, which channeled the occult while exploring the claustrophobia of marriage and motherhood, Jackson's creative ascent was haunted by a darker side. As her career progressed, her marriage became more tenuous, her anxiety mounted, and she became addicted to amphetamines and tranquilizers. In sobering detail, Franklin insightfully examines the effects of Jackson's California upbringing, in the shadow of a hypercritical mother, on her relationship with her husband, juxtaposing Hyman's infidelities, domineering behavior, and professional jealousy with his unerring admiration for Jackson's fiction, which he was convinced was among the most brilliant he had ever encountered.

Based on a wealth of previously undiscovered correspondence and dozens of new interviews, Shirley Jackson - an exploration of astonishing talent shaped by a damaging childhood and turbulent marriage - becomes the definitive biography of a generational avatar and an American literary giant. 60 illustrations

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Book Awards

  • award image National Book Critics Circle Award, 2016

Reviews

Media Reviews

A New York Times Notable Book of 2016
A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Pick of 2016
An Entertainment Weekly Best Book of 2016
A Time Magazine Top Nonfiction of 2016
A Seattle Times Best Book of 2016
A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2016
An NPR 2016's Great Read
A Boston Globe Best Book of 2016
A Nylon Best Book of 2016
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2016
A Booklist 2016 Editors' Choice

"With this welcome new biography Franklin makes a thoughtful and persuasive case for Jackson as a serious and accomplished literary artist... . [Franklin] sees Jackson not as an oddball, one-off writer of horror tales and ghost stories but as someone belonging to the great tradition of Hawthorne, Poe and James, writers preoccupied, as she was, with inner evil in the human soul." - Charles McGrath, New York Times Book Review

"Ruth Franklin's sympathetic and masterful biography both uncovers Jackson's secret and haunting life and repositions her as a major artist whose fiction so uncannily channeled women's nightmares and contradictions that it is 'nothing less than the secret history of American women of her era.'" - Elaine Showalter, Washington Post

"Franklin is a conscientious, lucid biographer, and her book is never less than engaging." - Blake Bailey, Wall Street Journal

"Franklin's research is wide and deep, drawing on Jackson's published and unpublished writings including correspondence and diaries, as well as interviews….Franklin has shown the interplay between the life, the work, and the times with real skill and insight, making this fine book a real contribution not only to biography, but to mid-20th-century women's history." - Katherine A. Powers, Chicago Tribune

"Masterful…Taut, insightful, and thrilling, in ways that haunt, not quite as ghost story, but as a tale of a woman who strains against the binds of marriage, of domesticity, and suffers for it in a way that is of her time as a 1950s homemaker, and in a way that speaks to what it means to be a writer, an artist, and a woman even now." - Nina MacLaughlin, Boston Globe

"A Shirley Jackson biography seems especially timely today, even though Jackson, as with many of her stories, remains somewhat mythically timeless….Franklin's is both broader in scope and more measured in its analysis….[A] masterful account." - Jane Hu, New Republic

"[Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life] represents the latest and most concerted attempt to reclaim the writer's reputation. It's also a fresh effort to frame her as an artist with extraordinary insight into the lives, the concerns, and - above all - the fears of women…Gender is not the only prejudice that has kept us from acknowledging the brilliance of Shirley Jackson, but Franklin's biography is a giant step toward the truth." - Laura Miller, Slate

"Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life deftly narrates the influences, experiences and reputation of the author of the famously enduring story 'The Lottery.' As a history of the literary culture of the 1940s and '50s, it teases out the daily lives of people who displayed James Joyce's 'Ulysses,' Wilhelm Reich's 'The Function of the Orgasm' and James George Frazer's 'The Golden Bough' on their coffee tables. And as a chronicle of American life in the Eisenhower era, it reminds us of a time when people with too many books could be considered subversive…Much of Jackson's writing is a weird, rich brew, and Franklin captures its savor." - Seth Lerer, San Francisco Chronicle

"Ruth Franklin is the biographer Jackson needed: she tells the story of the author in a way that made me want to reread every word Jackson ever wrote." - Neil Gaiman

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Ruth Franklin is a book critic and former editor at The New Republic. She has written for many publications, including The New Yorker, Harper's, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, and Salmagundi. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in biography, a Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library, a Leon Levy Fellowship in biography, and the Roger Shattuck Prize for Criticism. Her first book, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2011), was a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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