“And Then They Were Upon Her”: Shirley Jackson and “The Lottery”

The Lottery

Shirley Jackson’s chilling short story “The Lottery” debuted in the June 26, 1948, issue of The New Yorker. By July, Jackson had been forced to upgrade her mailbox to the largest one available in the Bennington, Vermont, post office—and she and the postmaster were no longer on speaking terms. Jackson had once daydreamed about uplifting readers with her stories; far from being uplifted, the readers of “The Lottery” were mailing Jackson letters she claimed to be “downright scared to open.”In Private Demons, her biography of Jackson, Judy Oppenheimer describes the public’s reaction to “The Lottery” as “instant and cataclysmic. Nothing in the magazine before or since would provoke such an unprecedented outpouring of fury, horror, rage, disgust and intense fascination.” Picking up the mail gave Jackson an “active feeling of panic.” She never anticipated this unusual tale would cause such a furor, but her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, knew it was “something special” and praised his wife for writing a “real masterpiece.”

Today “The Lottery” is one of America’s most anthologized short stories, but 67 years ago New Yorker readers had no idea what to expect. It begins innocently enough: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day.” Three hundred or so people in an unnamed village have gathered at 10 o’clock for an annual lottery. The whole event takes less than two hours, which allows the villagers “to get home for noon dinner.” The head of each household draws a white slip of paper from a battered old box for each person in his family; whichever family draws the slip bearing a black dot draws again. The family member who picks the black dot is stoned to death. “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right!” screams the lottery’s victimized “winner.” The story doesn’t lack for speed, and Jackson ends it simply with “and then they were upon her.”

ShirleyJacksonJackson claimed the New Yorker editors requested only one revision to her piece: changing the date of the lottery to June 27, to coincide with the day following the issue’s publication. But “The Lottery” provoked hundreds of canceled subscriptions, along with the angry letters, setting a record for the magazine. As Joyce Carol Oates has noted, “Jackson’s story suggested that ordinary Americans—like the readers of The New Yorker, in fact—are not so very different from the lynch-mob mentality of the Nazis.” The puzzled Jackson kept all the letters—which derided her story as “gruesome,” “nauseating” and a “new low in human viciousness”—in a big scrapbook that is now archived at the Library of Congress. She categorized the remarks in three ways, “bewilderment, speculation and plain old-fashioned abuse.” The latter are the most fun to read:

“Tell Miss Jackson to stay out of Canada.”

“Who is Shirley Jackson? Cannot decide whether she is a genius or a female and more subtle version of Orson Welles.”

“We are fairly well-educated and sophisticated people, but we feel that we have lost all faith in the truth of literature.”

“Was the sole purpose just to give the reader a nasty impact?”

“I will never buy The New Yorker again. I resent being tricked into reading perverted stories like ‘The Lottery.’”

“We would expect something like this in Esquire, but NOT in The New Yorker.

Ha! Jackson is having a moment in 2015. The novel Shirley, by Susan Scarf Merrell, gives a fictional account of the writer’s tempestuous marriage to Hyman. Norton is poised to publish a new biography by Ruth Franklin. For the first time in years, all 12 of Jackson’s books are in print. And most important for her legion of fans, Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays and Other Writings will be published in August. Perhaps a new “Lottery” awaits in this book of previously unpublished, uncollected materials. Readers who associate Jackson mainly with “The Lottery” and such macabre novels as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle may be stunned to learn she also published two collections of humorous magazine stories, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, about running her household of four children.

The Lottery mediumJackson’s lecture about the aftermath of “The Lottery,” published as “Biography of a Story” in 1960, explains, “It was not my first published story, nor my last, but I have been assured over and over that had it been the only story I ever wrote or published, there would be people who would not forget my name.” Despite insisting that she was “out of the lottery business for good,” Jackson, until her premature death at the age of 48, in 1965, was constantly asked by well-meaning fans and friends to explain the ending of her most famous story. She once snapped at a close friend who innocently posed the question, “It’s there. I’m not going to comment any further; you either get it or you don’t, that’s it.” Even her own parents were bewildered. “Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,” Jackson’s mother wrote. “It does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?”

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