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Featured Fellow: Ruth Franklin

Ruth Franklin / Cover for  Shirley Jackson

Ruth Franklin / Cover for Shirley Jackson

Ruth Franklin is an author and book critic whose writing has appeared in publications such as The New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, Harper's, and The Atlantic. Six years ago, she decided to embark on a project that would lead her to resurrect a forgotten figure of American literature: Shirley Jackson. Her biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, which was released in late September of 2016 and which won the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for best biography, is a vivid, carefully researched, and refreshing account of the masterful author and her life. In an interview with the New York Institute for the Humanities, Franklin talks about her research process, her love of Jackson’s writing, and the importance of resurrecting such an undervalued writer.

What initially drew you to Shirley Jackson, both as a writer and a person? 

Shirley Jackson has always been one of those writers who was in the background for me. I actually don't have a memory of reading “The Lottery“ for the first time, which many people do have. For me, it was The Haunting of Hill House, which I read as a teenager and just loved. It's still one of my favorite Shirley Jackson novels, just a really great, underrated novel that is both a classic ghost story and something totally beyond that. But it wasn’t until I read more widely in her work and got a greater sense of her range, especially her autobiographical stuff about her life as a writer and mother, that I got really interested in telling the story of her life.

What about Jackson’s writings on her life as a mother, a writer, and a housewife resonated with you?

Well for one thing, it was just so unusual for a woman of her time. Most professional women in those days didn't have families or children, especially not so many children [she had four]. I was interested in seeing how the tension between those aspects of her life was expressed as a kind of undercurrent in her fiction.

How did you conduct your research? How long did you spend from the conception of this idea to finishing the book?

 I spent about six years on [the book]. A lot of it was spent doing archival research. Jackson’s archives are in the Library of Congress, about 50 boxes full of papers. And then her husband, Stanley Hyman, has his own archives at the Library of Congress, so that’s another 50 boxes or so. Along the way I was able to uncover more correspondence in people’s private collections. So it was mostly that and also a lot of interviewing. I travelled around, to California where two of Jackson’s children live, and to Vermont, where her other two children live, and to various other places. I interviewed students who studied with Stanley Hyman, and neighbors who had lived near Jackson and Hyman.

Did you uncover anything that was unusual or that you didn’t suspect?

 Yes, one of the biggest surprises was when I filed a FOIA request for their FBI files, because Stanley Hyman had been involved in the communist party when he was a college student, and I was looking for more detail on what he had been up to. But the surprise was that the FBI actually didn't know anything about his membership in the communist party. He and Jackson had been under investigation in the late 40s and early 50s because of a tip-off. There were movers who moved them from Vermont to Westport, Connecticut, where they lived for a couple of years. Apparently, they had a whole moving truck full of books, and as the story went from the FBI file, a carton of books fell off the truck and broke, and when the mover looked in the box he saw that it was full of communist material, and reported them to the FBI. It started a multi-year investigation where the FBI interviewed a lot of their neighbors and Hyman’s colleagues at Bennington College. I found that incredibly creepy and also so ironic that the neighbors of the author of “The Lottery“ actually did kind of conspire against her.

Do you think that Jackson and Hyman were aware that they were being investigated?

 I don’t think so, there’s nothing in their writing that ever mentions it explicitly. There is stuff of Shirley’s that suggests that if she wasn’t actually aware of what was going on, she kind of sensed that something was in the air in Westport. They ended up leaving Westport relatively quickly. She refers at one point to this kind of uneasiness. I wonder if it could have been an oblique reference to knowing that they were being spied on, or if it was just her very sensitive sense that something was going on.

You spent six yeas of your life, on and off, in Jackson’s mind and life in many ways. Has your perception of her changed at all from when you initially started researching?

 It’s a strangely intimate relationship that you develop as a biographer, and of course it's totally one-sided. But the project really is about trying to get into this other person’s head, at least imaginatively. In terms of how my perception of her changed, I wouldn’t say that there was anything I found out about her that changed my mind about her or deeply shook me or shook my sympathy for her. I started off feeling very sympathetic towards her and that didn’t change. I guess it was really just feeling like I always had her as my imaginary companion for all this time.

Many of the reviews of your book praise you for bringing Jackson back into the literary conversation. Jackson had been a writer that fell into obscurity, or was otherwise really only known as a genre writer. Was it your plan from the start to bring her back? And what about her writing do you feel was being undervalued?

Yes, bringing her back was always part of the plan. I felt that she has this odd distinction, which is that she's almost universally known for “The Lottery,“ but her other works are much less known, and in fact it was even a source of frustration to her during her lifetime. She complained that “The Lottery“ was anthologized much more often than any of her other stories, and tried to find ways to encourage people to read the rest of her work. She was fairly well-known during her lifetime and a couple of her books were bestsellers – We Have Always Lived in the Castle was nominated for a National Book Award. As I came to read more deeply into her work, I really saw that the reason that it was neglected wasn’t because of genre but because almost none of her work can be easily categorized as genre writing. People call “The Lottery“ a horror story, but it’s not really, it's kind of a fable. The Haunting of Hill House is the closest she comes to literary horror, but even that book is much more like The Turn of the Screw, for instance, than anything by Stephen King or by authors we think of as horror writers. And the rest are completely un-categorizable. Some are books about women's psychological disintegration, for example. People sometimes try to call We Have Always Lived in the Castle a murder mystery, but the murder takes place before the book starts and there’s really no mystery about who did it. So as I read more and thought more about this, I really came to believe that the reason she was neglected was because of her almost single-minded focus on women’s lives. You can count the number of male protagonists [in her work] on a single hand. She was telling the stories of women and it’s why critics of her time, who where almost all men, found her marginal to the story of the American novel. They weren’t as compelled by the stories she was telling. In fact, she was telling the stories of about half of American society.

There are some writers who seem almost too advanced for their time, who were born in the wrong era. Jackson seems like one of those writers. But at the same time, the sense that I got was that she was very much of her time as well. Is that something you experienced?

I definitely do think she was of her time, although her writing doesn't feel dated. There's almost nothing in the writing to identify it in a particular historical moment, so it continues to feel very fresh and timely when you read it now. But I do see her as a product of the 40s and 50s, especially as a storyteller who was expressing the cultural anxieties of that era.

What specifically made Jackson a product of 40s and 50s?

It’s predominantly the tension in her work between the role of being a housewife and being a creative artist. Later, Betty Friedan would go on to write about these problems for women in The Feminine Mystique, but even before that it’s written all over the women’s magazines, which are full of these stories. They’re about things like, “Can I go back to work after getting married?“ and the answer is always no! They’re cautionary tales about the terrible things that happen to women who try to have a career and a marriage at the same time, and I don't think Jackson would have been the same writer had she lived at a different time. And also, of course, the xenophobia and narrow-mindedness of small town America in those days is just inscribed all over her fiction.

Do you feel that Jackson was perhaps complicating the happy housewife trope?

It’s funny, because Betty Friedan actually singles [Jackson] out in The Feminine Mystique for criticism. She lumps Jackson with some other housewife writers, who she says played a role, as she describes it, sort of like Amos ’n‘ Andy, making light of the plight of the housewife by laughing at it. I think she really overlooks how subversive Jackson's writing was, and that she wasn't propping up this trope of the perfect, happy housewife. In fact, she always depicted herself as a very imperfect housewife whose house is always a terrible mess and whose children are always running off in all directions and she has to go out looking for them, to her great embarrassment. And she presents herself in this state of extreme distraction and bewilderment, which sounds fairly close to life. It sounds like, from the way I heard her children describe her, she often was quite distracted by her mental activity, and that she was always writing stories in her head while doing the dishes or whatever she was supposed to be doing.

Do you feel like she wanted to be a housewife, or do you think that maybe she would have found more fulfillment being a professional writer or having a more professional life?

I think both parts were important for her. Her writing is so focused around the house, and the house as an important symbol of the family and of domesticity, and all the complicated things that means, not only for her but also in American culture in general. And this was the era of the rise of the suburbs, with everybody living in their own little detached houses with their up-to-date appliances and all the alienation that resulted from that. I don’t think she would have been happy as a more traditional housewife. I think she could have been that if she had wanted to, but she had no interest; she wasn’t interested in having the cleanest floor in town or anything like that. In fact, one detail I love about her work is that it’s often the most villainous characters who have perfect houses.

Was the subtitle of your book, A Rather Haunted Life, your choice or the publishers’? Why was it chosen?

It was my choice. It comes from a line from Roger Straus, the cofounder of Farrar and Straus [now Farrar, Straus and Giroux], which was her publisher for a long time. I struggled a lot over [the quote], because she didn’t like Straus very much. She always thought he wasn’t paying her as much as his other authors and that he didn’t devote as much time to promoting her book, and all that kind of stuff. But I decided to go with it in the end because I think it's such a wonderful line. In an interview after her death, Straus described Jackson as a "rather haunted woman,“ and I think it just gets a lot of her facets because she was haunted. She was haunted by the demons she portrayed in her fiction and her own personal demons, the relationships that she struggled with, and the mental illness that troubled her for so much of her life. But she also was only rather haunted, she wasn’t completely haunted, or only haunted. And there’s a whole other side of her work, these cheerful household memoirs and also all the wonderful lectures that she gave about writing and about technique. So I wanted to try to get at the two facets of her personality with that subtitle.

This is the first biography you’ve written. Knowing what you know now, would you have done anything differently? 

I had no idea how to write a biography, and I felt that I kind of learned how to do it as I went along. I guess I would have been more systematic about things at the beginning. I'm not the world’s most organized note-taker, and it became really clear that I needed a really, really organized way of keeping track of all the documents that I was handling. So on the most prosaic level,that would be my biggest piece of advice to would-be biographers: Just have a system for note-taking and stick to it. In terms of the larger questions, I kind of feel like I got lucky, because Jackson's story had everything that I needed to write the book. There was a lot of archival material, there were living people who knew her well who I could interview, and her body of work was something that I always found really fascinating to go back to.

What were some models of biographical writing that inspired you?

There weren’t any books that I looked at and said, I want my book to look like that, but I love Hermione Lee's biographies, especially her book on Virginia Woolf, and also her book about Penelope Fitzgerald. Those were both ones that I read while I was working on [the biography]. Stacy Schiff is another model of mine, I love her biographies, especially the Vera Nabokov one. And Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Ralph Ellison was also useful, not only for information about Ellison, who was a character in my book [note: Ellison was often a guest at Jackson’s and Hyman’s home], but also as a model of how to write a literary biography.

As a literary and cultural critic, do you feel that the biographer’s work is a form of criticism in itself?

Yes, I definitely intended for my book to have a critical component, because so much of it was about presenting Jackson in a different critical framework as a major writer.

Would you write another biography sometime soon?

Yes, I would write another biography. I don't know of whom. I'm still thinking. I'm realizing now how much of an investment it is in a single person, more than I had ever imagined, actually. So I want to be very careful about making the right choice.

Interview by Luisa Rollenhagen