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Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life Hardcover – September 27, 2016
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“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“Franklin's research is wide and deep, drawing on Jackson's published and unpublished writings including correspondence and diaries, as well as interviews….Franklin has shown the interplay between the life, the work, and the times with real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
“Comprehensive…Jackson’s lifelong interest in rituals, witchcraft, charms and hexes were, Franklin convincingly maintains, metaphors for exploring power and disempowerment…Franklin situates Jackson’s conflicted relationship with coercive postwar US domesticity within the context that would give rise in 1963 to Betty Friedan’s attack on ‘the feminine mystique’…[A] sympathetic and fair-minded biography.”
- Sarah Churchwell, The Guardian
“[Shirley Jackson] strongly affirms the American author’s powerful collection of stories, novels and memoirs. . . . Magisterial and compulsively readable.”
- Lauren LeBlanc, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“[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
“Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life . . . lifts its subject out of the genre ghetto and makes a convincing case that Jackson was a courageous woman in a male-dominated field whose themes resonate strongly today.”
- Jeff Baker, Seattle Times
“To truly reclaim a legacy, it generally helps to have a big, penetrating biography, one that takes into consideration everything that’s come before and pushes forward a new and improved interpretation. Ruth Franklin’s excellent Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life is all that and more…Franklin proves to be a supple biographer.”
- Kate Bolick, Bookforum
“This meticulous biography tackles the work of Shirley Jackson with the kind of studied seriousness some might give to a male titan of history like Robert Moses. And thank goddess for that, as Ruth Franklin wisely rescues Shirley Jackson from any semblance of obscurity. Despite her well-documented magnetism (and dalliances in the dark arts) Jackson's work was often dismissed as mere genre nonsense or, worse yet, women's fiction and Franklin's sensitive, witty and rigorous work makes an airtight case for just why this isn't right. The ire Jackson's short stories inspired in New Yorker readers is only a hint of the drama and intensity that characterized her short but beguiling life, with Franklin captures with a hefty dose of wit and suspense. One of the best literary biographies I've ever encountered.”
- Lena Dunham
“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
“Ruth Franklin has written the ideal biography of a figure long and unjustly neglected in the history of twentieth-century American literature. By restoring Shirley Jackson to her proper stature as one of our great writers, Franklin has in a stroke revised the canon.”
- James Atlas, author of Bellow: A Biography
“Franklin’s biography takes us beyond the chilling stories that made Shirley Jackson’s name into the dilemmas of a woman writer in the 1950s and ’60s, struggling to make a career between the pressures of childcare, domesticity, and her own demons. It’s a very modern story, and a terrific read.”
- Mary Beard, author of SPQR
“With her account of an emblematically American literary life, Ruth Franklin reminds us that her subject was far more than the writer of classy ghost stories. On the contrary, Shirley Jackson was the harbinger of profound upheavals both societal and literary. This is a brilliant biography on every level, but it is especially astute on Jackson's ground- and genre-breaking work, which I will now reread immediately.”
- Tom Bissell, author of Apostle
“A perfect marriage of biographer and subject: Ruth Franklin’s portrait of Shirley Jackson restores to her rightful place a writer of considerable significance, and draws a rich intellectual portrait of the age.”
- Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs
“A biography that is both historically engaging and pressingly relevant, Ruth Franklin’s absorbing book not only feelingly creates a portrait of Shirley Jackson the writer but also provides a stirring sense of what it was like to navigate (and sometimes circumvent) the strictures of American society as a wife, mother, artist, and woman.”
- Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings
About the Author
Ruth Franklin is a book critic and frequent contributor to The New Yorker, Harper’s, and many other publications. A recipient of a New York Public Library Cullman Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship, she lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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Shirley Jackson was born to an established San Francisco family that had made a name for itself by designing the houses of the city’s wealthiest citizens. Whether intentionally connected to the accomplishments of her great-great-grandfather and the family business or not, houses are featured strongly in her fiction; they serve, in her stories, as both sanctuaries and, more commonly, dangerous traps. The house motif was just one that Jackson visited again and again as she wrote stories of vulnerability in the face of horrors real and imagined, supernatural and mundane.
Jackson was a loving and creative mother to her four children, a devoted wife, a well-liked hostess and a respected lecturer. Yet, having grown up with a critical and distant mother, and married to a charming, brilliant and notoriously unfaithful scholar, Jackson lacked the confidence and support needed for a wholly content life, despite her successes, both popular and critical. She was a heavy drinker and smoker, was prescribed a variety of pills for everything from weight loss to anxiety, suffered from agoraphobia and colitis, and tragically died at the very early age of 48.
As she cultivated her craft, Jackson also cultivated a persona. She let people know about her interest in witchcraft and magic, and a few tongue-in-cheek comments later, this aspect of her identity took on a public life of its own. Franklin does a superb job peeling back the many layers of Jackson’s identity, how it shaped her writing, and how she was in the world and at home. The darkness in Jackson’s life was not, as many would believe, related to spells and incantations, but instead to loneliness, frustration and isolation. As a daughter she was often a disappointment to her mother, as a wife she was betrayed by her husband, and as a writer she was often misunderstood and even misjudged. She bucked the conventions of domesticity of the 1950s and ’60s; married to a Jew, she challenged the prejudices of her small-town New England neighbors. All these themes and motifs --- of difference and tension, bigotry and fear, gender and class --- are present in her six powerful novels and countless short stories.
Jackson was also known for her two bestselling memoirs capturing the controlled chaos of her unconventional family. The contrast between these more lighthearted and domestic books and her frightening and strange fiction was one that many critics and readers in her lifetime struggled to reconcile. And Jackson, too, seemed to wrestle with these contrasts, often with devastating results for her doomed protagonists. One of the strengths of Franklin’s biography is a critical glimpse into these two, not unrelated, facets of Jackson’s work and private life. That one woman could be so multi-dimensional, multi-talented, intellectually sophisticated, and diverse in her own view of the world is an idea that was new to many at the time.
A RATHER HAUNTED LIFE is a richly detailed, fascinating, often heartbreaking look at Shirley Jackson’s important contribution to American literature and a fitting tribute to an incredibly compelling and sometimes troubled genius. Vastly entertaining, well-organized and readable, this is a book that does justice to one of our most important and talented modern writers.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman
Franklin addresses the confusion of many critics that Jackson could write both charming, heartwarming stories about family life and deeply unsettling pyschological horror. Franklin's analysis reveals the inherent sexism in the literary industry--that a woman could be a writer, period, as opposed to either a "serious" writer or a "women's lit" writer.
I liked that Franklin devoted a significant amount of time to Jackson's husband and his career. Stanley Hyman the literary critic was Jackson's greatest influence, at the same time that he was the source of Jackson's deepest pain and disappointment. He was a staunch champion of Jackson's work, and predicted correctly that it was being undervalued at the time. At the same time, Hyman's unapologetic infidelities throughout their relationship and marriage created a great rift between them which was never healed. At the conclusion I felt that Franklin's analysis of Jackson's life and death was as close as I could come to knowing the woman herself.