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Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life Paperback – October 10, 2017
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The Amazon Book Review
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
“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“Franklin's research is wide and deep, drawing on Jackson's published and unpublished writings including correspondence and diaries, as well as interviews….Franklin has shown the interplay between the life, the work, and the times with real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
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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Ruth Franklin's book really is a dual biography--she focuses on Jackson of course but also her husband the literary critic (and Jackson's biggest champion as a writer) Stanley Hyman. Although Hyman didn't have a comparable talent to Jackson, he was a smart and able editor helping Jackson craft her brilliant novels, short stories and humorous sketches.
Jackson's complex personality and her upbringing played a large role in shaping the world view that she portrayed in her novel including the fact that she was something of an outsider even within her own family. Her mother seemed constantly disappointed in Shirley because she failed to measure up to what was expected of a woman in the 40's and 50's. When her mother became pregnant immediately after getting married, she was disappointed that she wouldn't be able to spent more time with her husband without the baggage of children. Born in San Francisco, Shirley and her brother were uprooted when her father received a promotion in Rochester, New York. Shirley's lack of self confidence, her fluctuating weight and insecurity over her looks all informed her writing with a unique perspective even if these insecurities made her unhappy.
Franklin's book does a nice job of taking snapshots of Jackson's marriage, her relationship with Hyman (who was a philanderer) and her the reception of her work at the time ( the magazine that published "The Lottery", for example, received hate mail when it was published because many readers found it so disturbing). Hyman remained a champion of Jackson's work even after her death as he recognized Jackson's original voice as an author.
Franklin does a terrifi. Job of painting a portrait of Jackson presenting her as insecure about her position at a time when women were expected to serve their husbands and have no profession beyond house wife. Franklin also details the many parties and friendships that both Jackson and Hyman had including other authors such as Ralph Ellison. Based on what I've read about Jackson, I don't always agree with Franklin's conclusions of Jackson as a person (she was plagued with neurosis through her life) or author but she does make a compelling case for her conclusions.
Fans of Shirtley Jackson will enjoy this well researched biography which continues to make the case that Jackson was an important voice in literature redefining the horror/suspense genre with her unique talent.
I wasn’t disappointed. Ruth Franklin does an outstanding job, thanks to the monumental research she conducted through Jackson’s archives and interviews with her children and those still alive who were closest to her. Much is told about Jackson’s beginnings and upbringing, her turbulent relationships with both her husband and mother, and her writing career. Her humorous essays and stories on domesticity that were a staple of 1950s women’s magazines may have been embellished—if the real truth of her life is any indicator. Her horror and psychological terror tales (which made me the fan I am, since I’m a 40ish single male who can’t really identify with her “housewife” stuff) gave her a different audience, and had other readers scratching their heads on the departure it was from her more whimsical work.
The book is at times scholarly, a bit juicy here and there, and all together hard to put down. As an author who dips into multiple genres myself, Jackson is one of my many inspirations as a writer, so I always enjoy a good biography on those who paved the way. Her relationships with her husband and mother are a bit heartbreaking at times. Franklin does an amazing job chronicling the complexities of Jackson’s struggles here, as well as other ailments and insecurities. You get the sense Jackson never really found any kind of needed closure with her husband and mother—and never fully rode the wave of success she deserved—before her untimely death (a heart attack in her sleep) at age 48.
As a reader, I’m so grateful for this biography and the works of Jackson that live on more than fifty years after her passing. Reading this book has inspired me to go back and re-read Hill House, as well as the novels of Jackson’s I’ve never read. I’m also now a fan of Franklin’s and can’t wait to see who her next subject will be.