Shirley Jackson on Navigating Literary Fame Alongside Financial Uncertainty

The Struggles of a Great American Writer, Revealed in Letters to Her Parents

The late 1940s were a pivotal professional period for Shirley Jackson. Her first novel, The Road Through the Wall, was published by Farrar, Straus and Company in February 1948. She was catapulted into literary celebrity (and notoriety) that June, when her short story ‘The Lottery’ first appeared in The New Yorker. The author received hundreds of letters in the weeks that followed, many of them from readers enraged or baffled by the tale’s infamous conclusion.

She was also preparing her first collection, The Lottery and Other Stories, for publication during this time. Jackson wrote frequent (and often very lengthy) letters to her parents, Geraldine and Leslie. In them, details of her latest publishing contracts, publicity obligations, and sales were provided alongside family news and witty personal and professional anecdotes. Jackson was married to the academic and literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. The couple had three young children at the time when these letters were written, and were living in North Bennington, Vermont.

*

[To Geraldine and Leslie Jackson]

saturday [December 18, 1948]

dearest mother and pop,

thank you so much for the card and letter, and for pop’s nice birthday letter, and especially for the lovely robe. the robe will certainly come in handy—my old one was beginning to get a little drafty where the corduroy had worn off in patches, and wandering around this house at night is a mighty cold proposition.

i took both laurie and joanne to see santa claus in new york; we spent a day going around the stores. Bunny—my sister-in-law—came with us, fortunately, since that made two of us to carry the snow suits, presents from santa claus, half-finished lollipops, and so on. we started at ten in the morning, and rode on the merry-go-round at gimbel’s, and jannie balked at speaking to santa claus. laurie was an old hand at it, and went up and sat on the old gentleman’s knee and rattled off a list of approximately 50 items (including a camera, a typewriter, and a new electric train) but jannie saw only a strange man trying to entice her to sit on his knee and she flatly refused. then we spent an hour or so riding up and down on the escalators, in the christmas crowds, and the children loved it, and then we walked around along with 5,000 other people and saw the window displays. then the children, who were running the occasion, declared for lunch in the automat, and bunny and i doggedly ploughed our way through the automat mobs, still carrying the snow suits, etc., and since laurie and jannie must put their own nickels in, bunny and i held off a crowd of people while the kids kneeled on the counter and tried to decide whether they wanted a peanut butter sandwich or a cheese sandwich, and apple pie or chocolate cake.

bunny and i each got a cup of coffee; i was too embarrassed to go near the sandwich counter and bunny was trying to carry three trays; laurie dropped his sandwich and the plate shattered and we all ran to the other end of the room and pretended we hadn’t noticed. after that we got the children onto the top half of a fifth avenue bus and rode them up and down fifth avenue for the rest of the afternoon, counting santa clauses on the corners. when we got back to the hotel we put the children to bed for a nap, and bunny and i took off our shoes and ordered a lot of cocktails from downstairs; the children thought it was the most wonderful day they had ever had.

that was my birthday, by the way, and stanley’s father gave me a birthday party that evening; in order to include the children, he arranged for dinner in the hotel room, with champagne and a birthday cake, and the children both had champagne and felt very pleased with themselves, and all of stanley’s family was there, bringing me fancy presents like bottles of perfume and nylon stockings. i felt like a movie star being feted. thinking about that day now, i think it was fun, but at the time i was pretty bewildered; the combination of the cocktails bunny and i had had in the afternoon and the champagne for dinner had both bunny and me giggling and mixing up our words.

except for that one day, our whole trip was pretty discouraging. my book of stories is all wrong; they set it in type all mixed up, and as a result of fixing that, the book will be delayed until april; they put through the copy for the jacket blurbs without consulting me, and made two serious errors and a number of embarrassing statements about me, which i am trying to have taken out now, and which will probably delay the book still further, and their advertising campaign, which they told me about proudly, is so excruciating that i will never show my face out of vermont again. they are playing up lottery as the most terrifying piece of literature ever printed, which is bad enough, and they have a long statement from christopher morley saying that lottery scared him to death and will give ulcers to anyone who reads it, and they are working on things that say “do you dare read this book?” and except for lottery it’s a harmless little book of short stories. i feel like a fool.

They are playing up Lottery as the most terrifying piece of literature ever printed, which is bad enough.

and the two stories i had at the women’s home companion and mademoiselle—they were both being considered, and looked very promising—both came back with glowing statements about how they were the best stories these people had ever read but of course they couldn’t buy them. which leaves me high and dry till the stories get to another magazine. and stanley, who is marketing his new book, got offered a contract with a thousand dollar advance, by a fine publisher. the only catch is that they don’t want to sign for six months or a year, until he’s got more of it written. which leaves us high and dry again, and which also brings me to the uncomfortable part of my letter, which is your asking how we stood financially.

i was going to answer you saying thank you and that we were doing fine, because stanley was getting his advance and i was selling at least one story, but now that everything has bounced at once things are a little grim, and i would like to ask you if you can lend us a couple of hundred dollars; we will be all clear again in the spring (those stories have got to sell some where, even to a literary magazine for 50 bucks; stanley is bound to get his advance some time) and some money now would make it possible to clear everything up that can’t be postponed, and would also enable us to keep mrs nadeau, who is our main luxury right now. we suddenly find ourselves living very bohemian-ly, something we haven’t done in quite a while—i charged all my christmas presents at gimbel’s and got out fast, stanley just barely managed to get money to the bank to cover the check we gave the hotel, and so on. we always manage to spend more than we’ve got, because money seems to come so easily, for stories and articles, and then suddenly something like this happens, and we realize that we live too well, and i think we both get scared. at any rate if you can find it possible, we’d be terribly grateful, and if not—just before christmas is a fine time, isn’t it?—please don’t worry about it. everything always manages to come out all right somehow.

i am writing frantically, partly to have enough stuff out so that something will sell, and partly because in the last six months i have been saving most of the stuff i wanted to write until after sally was born, so i am spending most of my time writing, and not doing much else.

i hope you have a lovely christmas. we will all be thinking of you and wishing you were with us. love from all of us.

s.

• • •

[To Geraldine and Leslie Jackson]

monday [April 11, 1949]

dearest mother and pop,

although there are a million things i want to ask you—like how you are, for instance, and whether you are all recovered and feeling fine again—i am so excited by my book that i’ve got to tell you about that even before anything else! you know, it comes out this wednesday, the 13th, and by now, two days before publication, they’ve sold more copies than they did of the novel, and are talking seriously about passing any records so far for short story sales. they’ve had a second printing before publication, have two english publishers competing for the english rights, have featured reviews in the times and tribune, including an extra one in the times, daily as well as sunday, and an associated press review that says i am author of the week and that lottery is a work of genius and the publishing event of the year! there has been a lot of publicity about it, mainly because of the story lottery, so that featuring it in the book was probably very wise of them, although i opposed it. they’ve turned down three or four requests to reprint the story itself, because they are very optimistic about having the whole book reprinted as a pocketbook before the end of the year.

their publicity plan, which is smart although acutely embarrassing, got me down to new york for one day last week to be interviewed by a very nice man from associated press, who said that he understood i was a specialist in black magic and would i please tell him all about it. fortunately he had just bought me two drinks, so i was able to tell him, very fluently indeed, about black magic and incantations and the practical application of witchcraft in everyday life, most of which i remembered out of various mystery stories. he kept telling me i was the greatest writer in the world and i kept giving him this sick smile and saying thank you very much may i have another drink please. i kept thinking what a fool i was making of myself and then when he got up to go i said very politely that i hoped his newspaper would like the interview and he said if it worked out right it ought to hit about two hundred newspapers.

all i can think of is some of my idiotic statements in 200 newspapers. also, the government—don’t ask me why—has bought fifteen hundred copies to put in all the army and navy libraries.

joseph henry jackson in san francisco, who is for some reason working his head off for me, is apparently holding bookstores up at the point of a gun and making them order thousands of copies. i think he thinks we’re related. i have already passed the point in the sales where the advance is paid off, and all is gravy. from 2,000 copies on i’ve been making money. they have 6,000 in print now, with their two printings, and calmly expect to sell them all, although the novel only sold about 3,000. moreover, they expect to get rid of those odd thousands of copies of the novel now; they’ve had two requests from reviewers for copies of it, saying they missed it before and lottery has gotten them interested in it. the publishers haven’t put a cent into it yet; all this is honest free publicity.

Their advertising campaign, which they told me about proudly, is so excruciating that I will never show my face out of Vermont again.

you can imagine how i feel, in the middle of all this. sort of small, and scared, and desperately anxious to go up and tap j.h. jackson on the shoulder and say listen, mister, the book is terrible, honest. because it is, of course. i read it a few days ago and it’s flashy and sensational and all fixed up to sell. and every advance review we’ve seen is favorable, although they keep referring to saki, and truman capote, and john collier, none of them writers i admire particularly, as people of whom the stories are reminiscent. and they’re all cashing in quite shamelessly on the press the devil has been getting recently, including half a dozen respectable books, mostly novels, which have come out in the last six months, and which use the devil as a character. also, there have been several odd witchcraft cases in the papers, and it all mounts up into a general interest in magic and such, which farrar and straus are exploiting, with me in the middle.

the thing that really sends cold chills up and down my back is the story that pyke johnson, publicity man at farrar and straus, is telling around as a great joke; it started with a joke of stanley’s and mine, and i’ve been sorry for it ever since. when stanley was fighting with alfred a knopf, and the fight was at its worst, and everyone who knew alfred and knew what a rat he was, was urging stanley on and giving good advice, alfred took a weekend off and came up to vermont to go skiing, fell down the first day, and broke his leg. stanley and i made a joke about how it was obviously magic, and i did it, and we had to wait until alfred crossed over into vermont from new york because federal laws keep us from operating magic across a state line. it wasn’t a very good joke either.

first thing we knew we started meeting our own joke everywhere we went, with all credit given me for breaking alfred’s leg. and the first thing the AP man said to me was that he understood i had broken the leg of a certain publisher who shall be nameless, and would i please tell him all about it. and later pyke slaps me on the back and says boy, that story sure is going to sell copies of the book. i feel about those things exactly as though i had a very bad hangover and everyone was telling me the screamingly funny things i had done the night before. if i really had a broomstick i would come to california and hide in the cellar of your house until about august.

i hope everything goes well with you now. and i assume from that that you’re taking it easy and resting up. lots and lots of love from all of us.

s.

• • •

[To Geraldine and Leslie Jackson]

[June 13, 1949]

dearest mother and pop, it has been so long since i’ve been near the typewriter that i’ve almost forgotten how to type, and i’ve certainly forgotten how to sit still. so much has happened.

the things that have been happening start with lottery’s being quite a success; it’s sold 5,000 copies, which beats all books of short stories for just ever so long. i’ve been lined up for interviews and photographs in everything from time on—wasn’t that picture a stinker, though? that was the one he wanted to take in the lobby of the algonquin hotel, and i balked. i’ve been interviewed by the times and the tribune and the associated press, and all the nonsense i told you about, that the publishers made up, is turning out to be wonderful stuff because the book is selling, so i have to tell people all this nonsense all over again, because the publicity man from the publishers is sitting over me and he corrects me if i say any of it wrong.

All I can think of is some of my idiotic statements in 200 newspapers.

anyway on the strength of lottery i sold three stories in a row to good housekeeping and we paid all our bills including the income tax. and we bought a television set which was the silliest thing we ever did, and the children love it and so do all our friends, the reader’s digest has picked up my third baby thing, and something called omnibook wants lottery, and the best short stories of 1949 does too. the agent turned down two people who wanted to make it into a play, and accepted the offer of an english publisher to bring it out in london this fall, followed, if there is any interest, by the novel next spring. if joseph henry jackson writes two more articles about it farrar and straus will put it into a third edition. the silliest thing of all is that my agent’s asking price is now a thousand bucks a story for me, and then she keeps me so busy with interviews i don’t have time to write. except the new york times asked me very politely to review a book for them and i said sure. naturally i’m having a wonderful time being fussed over, and i love it, but i feel like an awful fool most of the time.

except for one other thing, that can wind up the literary news for today. surprisingly enough, stanley is not teaching but i am. stanley turned down the college offer of a job because they wanted him on a five year contract and he only wants to teach alternate years, and the next week there was a grand fight—completely unconnected—in the literature division and two of the faculty quit in the middle of the year. one of them was the short story man, and they asked me to fill in for him for a month, so again i said sure, and here i am teaching short story, and i love that, too. i have two classes a week and the girls and i talk very seriously about the art of writing and then they ask me very timidly where they can sell their stories and i tell them there’s nothing to it. i took the job with two conditions—one, a hundred bucks a week, and the other, that the college president learn to square dance. if he doesn’t learn by this coming saturday i quit.

aside from my being the belle of the ball this season, there is not much news. we acquired a dog, who is naturally the biggest dog in town. he is a three-year-old shepherd, named toby and is so big that when he stands on his hind legs he is a head taller than i. like most dogs that size, he’s very gentle, and joanne rides on him. he is strictly the children’s dog, although he condescends to come with me occasionally to my classes, and he has followed laurie to school three times. he wakes laurie up in the morning by putting his front feet on the top half of the double decker bed and licking laurie’s face.

both stanley and i have been asked to lecture at the marlboro fiction conference this august; if we work it right the family gets a free vacation.

the only other thing is something i’ve delayed telling you for quite a while, for all sorts of reasons. it’s about my teeth. right after sally was born the dentist announced that it was no longer possible to fill my teeth since the fillings fell out before i got downstairs, and he suggested i get what he called an artificial denture and what turned out to be false teeth, for the top teeth. after much family discussion i decided to do it, and i have spent all the time since being grateful for it. it was wonderful. i made four one-day trips to new york; the first one was to have six back teeth pulled, which i did at nine in the morning, and spent the rest of the day shopping and having four martinis for lunch to celebrate. and then i had another trip for a check-up, and then—the great moment, friday the 13th—the rest of the teeth out and the plate put in while i was still unconscious, so that i never saw myself without teeth and have not yet, thanks to will power.

I took the job with two conditions—one, a hundred bucks a week, and the other, that the college president learn to square dance.

i’ve been to new york once more for a checkup, and the dentist said it was the most beautiful job he had ever seen, and i’m inclined to agree with him. the nicest thing is that it’s really not noticeable; two days after having the plate put in i had to read lottery at a college assembly, and no one noticed it; i had no trouble talking or anything. since then, i’ve been lecturing to my classes and so on, with no trouble. i was very self-conscious for about two weeks, but no longer. i am just tremendously pleased with my appearance. i can eat almost anything, too. i tried a steak the other night and managed beautifully, almost without thinking about it. i look so much better, that i couldn’t possibly regret anything but the necessity for it. also i grin in all the photographs.

this is a very confused and abrupt letter, mostly because i taught my class this afternoon sitting out in the sun, and got sunburned and so tired that when i came home stanley made a lot of martinis so i got tight before dinner. and then (probably because we were both tight) we went out after dinner and played baseball with laurie and his friends and i hit a home run. so by the time i got to this letter i was a little dopey anyway, but i didn’t want to put off writing it just because i was dopey.

my class finishes in a week, so i shall be able to get to the things i want to do. we all send lots and lots of love, and are already excited about seeing you this winter.

love,

s.

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The Letters of Shirley Jackson

Excerpted from The Letters of Shirley Jackson. Used with the permission of the publisher, Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Laurence Jackson Hyman, JS Holly, Sarah Hyman DeWitt, and Barry Hyman.

Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson was born in San Francisco in 1916. She first received wide critical acclaim for her short story “The Lottery,” which was published in The New Yorker in 1948. She is the author of six novels, including The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Sundial; two bestselling family chronicles, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons; and hundreds of short stories, many published in five separate posthumous collections. She died in 1965 at the age of forty-eight.





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