reader response to shirley jackson's "the lottery" -- 3/20/20

Today's selection -- from Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin. The debut of Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery," in The New Yorker, was met with much consternation:

"The first letters were dated June 24, just after the issue hit newsstands. 'Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" ... despite a certain skill of expression, impresses me as utterly pointless,' wrote Mrs. Victor Wouk of Park Avenue, who wondered whether Jackson was 'not overly preoccupied with the gruesome.' 'If the sole purpose ... was to give the reader a nasty impact it was quite satisfactory, I suppose,' wrote Walter Snowdon of East Thirty-fifth Street. 'I frankly confess to being completely baffled by Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery,"' wrote Miriam Friend, a young mother living in Roselle, New Jersey, asking the editors to send an explanation before she and her husband 'scratch right through our scalps' trying to figure it out. Interviewed sixty-five years later, Friend still remembered how upsetting she had found the story.

"The Lottery" galley proof,
The New Yorker, 1948.
Shirley Jackson Papers,
Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

"These were the start of a torrent of letters that The New Yorker would receive about 'The Lottery.' By now the story is so familiar as a cultural touchstone that it is hard to remember how uncanny it originally seemed: 'outrageous,' 'gruesome,' 'shocking,' or just 'utterly pointless,' in the words of some of the readers who were moved to write to the magazine or to Jackson personally. Within a month there were nearly a hundred letters, 'not counting two newspaper columns and ten notes canceling subscriptions,' Hyman reported cheerfully to Ben Zimmerman. By the beginning of August, the total was up to 150, and more were starting to come in from abroad. The magazine issued a press release to say it had never before received so much mail in response to a work of fiction.

"In 'Biography of a Story,' Jackson gave the final total as more than 300 letters. Only 13 were kind, she claimed, 'and they were mostly from friends.' (One had overheard people on the Fifth Avenue bus saying to each other, 'Did you read that story in The New Yorker?') The rest, she reported with mordant humor, were dominated by three main themes: 'bewilderment, speculation, and plain old-fashioned abuse.' Readers wanted to know where such lotteries were held, and whether they could go and watch; they threatened to cancel their subscriptions; they declared the story a piece of trash. If the letter writers 'could be considered to give any accurate cross section of the reading public ... I would stop writing now,' she concluded.

"Jackson probably did not exaggerate the sheer number of letters. A giant scrapbook in her archive contains nearly 150 of them from the summer of 1948 alone, and she would receive letters about 'The Lottery' for the rest of her life. But though there were some canceled subscriptions and a fair share of name-calling, the vast majority of the letter writers were not hostile, simply confused. More than anything else, they wanted to understand what the story meant. The response of one Connecticut woman was typical. 'Gentlemen,' she wrote, 'I have read "The Lottery" three times with increasing shock and horror. ...  Cannot decide whether [Shirley Jackson] is a genius or a female and more subtle version of Orson Welles.'"


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author:

Ruth Franklin

title:

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

publisher:

W.W. Norton & Company

date:

Copyright 2016 by Ruth Franklin

pages:

229-331
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