Shirley Jackson, Photograph. CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Shirley Jackson is born in San Francisco, California, on December 14, 1916. Her father, Leslie, emigrated from England at age twelve with his mother and two sisters and became a successful self-made business executive with the largest lithography company in the city. Her mother, Geraldine, is a proud descendant of a long line of famous San Francisco architects and can trace her ancestry back to before the Revolutionary War.
Shirley grows up primarily in Burlingame, an upper-middle-class suburb south of the city. But when she is sixteen, Leslie is promoted and transferred, and the family moves—luxuriously, by ship, through the Panama Canal—to Rochester, in upstate New York. The Jacksons quickly join the Rochester Country Club and become well-established in the city’s active society world. The move is very hard on Shirley, who misses California and her friends there, especially her best friend, Dorothy Ayling. She finishes high school in Rochester (where one of her classes is once interrupted for a few minutes so that Shirley can marvel at snow falling outside the window), then attends the University of Rochester for one difficult year, before deciding to spend the next year writing alone in her room at home, with the lofty goal of producing a thousand words a day. Little of what Shirley writes during that period is believed to have survived.
She then enrolls at Syracuse University, where she enjoys literature classes, and where the university’s journal, The Threshold, publishes her story “Janice,” a one-page conversation with a young woman who brags that she has that day attempted suicide. Another literature student, Stanley Edgar Hyman, from Brooklyn, New York, the brash, intellectual son of a Jewish second-generation wholesale paper merchant, reads her story and vows on the spot to find and marry its author.
Shirley and Stanley meet on March 3, 1938, in the library listening room, and an intellectual connection quickly develops into a romantic one. These letters begin just three months after they’ve met, when both Shirley and Stanley are on summer break, she at home in Rochester and he at first at home in Brooklyn and then rooming with his friend Walter Bernstein at Dartmouth, then working at a paper mill in Erving, Massachusetts.
This is the earliest known surviving letter of Shirley’s. She is twenty-one, and Stanley is about to turn nineteen.
[To Stanley Edgar Hyman]
tuesday [June 7, 1938]
portrait of the artist at work. seems i brought a collection of miscellaneous belongings home from school, among them a c and c hat which bewilders goddamnthatword my little brother. he says if it’s a hat why doesn’t it have signatures all over it. mother seems to think i’m insane, and closes her eyes in a pained fashion when i call her chum. she also tells me that love or no love i have to eat and when i say eatschmeat she says what did you say and for a minute icy winds are blowing. there has been hell breaking loose ever since mother woke me this morning by telling me that that was a letter from dartmouth that the dog was eating. when she came in an hour later and found me reading the letter for the fifth time she began to be curious and asked me all sorts of questions about you. yes, she got it all. consequently there was a rather nice scene, me coming off decidedly the worse, since mother quite unfairly enlisted alta’s assistance and alta went and made a cake and i like cake. mother says, in effect: go on and be a damn fool but don’t tell your father. i had to cry rather loudly though. which means that you are going to meet a good deal more opposition than i had counted on. i think mother was mad because she took your long distance call the other day and the big shot was expecting an important business call and he was quite excited when the operator said that the party at the other end of the line wasn’t going to pay. yes, and mother says to tell you that any more letters arriving with postage due and she will either steam the letters open since they belong to her since she practically bought them or she will start taking the postage out of my allowance.
however all in all she is being rather sweet, and more intelligent than i gave her credit for, since she absolutely refuses to forbid me to see you which means that now i have no reason to be romantically clandestine. disappointing when i’d already picked out a hollow oak tree. which brings me to the point: if you love me so damn much why don’t you come out and say so? looked all through your letter to find out if you loved me and you refuse to say. damn you anyway. i love you you dope.
notice if you haven’t already that i have borrowed your distinctive writing style with ideas of my own such as no punctuation which is a good idea since semi-colons annoy me anyway. and incidentally i read mother the poem at the top of the pages in your letter and she translated it for me, she knows french and i don’t but even then it wasn’t such a good idea. i also told father all about communism which was wrong, wasn’t it. he said really in a whatthehelldoyouknowaboutlifeyoushelteredvictorianflower sort of voice.
also. y snarls deep down in her throat whenever i mention you which idoratheroftenchum. she thinks you’re a nice sweet child, only it’s too bad you had to fall into my clutches. i managed to get to talking before she did so now she knows all my troubles and i don’t know any of hers. ’tanley i think i’ll come to new york and get laid. oooooooooh yes. my mother mayhertribeincrease had been reading liberty that oracle of the masses and has discovered that eight out of ten college students are all for immorality. she has been asking me leading questions until i came out and said that if she meant had i preserved the fresh bloom of dewy innocence yes i had but it hurt me a damn sight more than it ever hurt liberty. mother is reassured but not too happy about the whole thing, having doubts.
i didn’t know y was an ardent communist but she is, but then she was a vegetarian once too. we’re going to drink beer, and i mean that we’re going to drink lots of beer. but quantities. we have sorrows to drown.
about our mutual friend Michael. he brought the scamp … boat … in fifth in saturday’s race and mother saw him that night and he was plenty drunk and getting drunker and the damnfool insulted mother in some way and now she’s mad and michael can’t come see me till mother is appeased and he’ll never remember that he said anything wrong till someone meaning me reminds him. are you happier than formerly?
s.edgar. it’s so silly to write this junk when all i want to say is i can’t stand it i won’t wait four months i love you. what am i going to do? it’s not going to be long, is it? it’ll be september soon, won’t it? like hell it will.
shan’t go on like that. i’m going to Be Brave. bloody, but unbowed. going to be a debutante. yeah. i’m going to count the days and minutes till september. think of me sometimes, won’t you, chum. hell. wish i could think of a good quotation to top that paragraph off with.
i shall go on writing revolutionary poetry as long as i damn well please. i just thought of a good line: capitalists unite you have a world to win and nothing to lose but your chains …
dearest, be a good boy, and do wear your rubbers, for mother’s sake, now won’t you?
p.s. s. edgar; goddamn your lying soul why did you have to go away and leave me? I love you so much.
[June 8, 1938]
every time i get a letter from you, which seems to be an event happening with astonishing frequency, i think of more things i want to say to you, most of them being i love you but that’s beside the point. so it has come to the position where i write you every day because you write me every day and i hope you like the idea. anyway i like to write letters in your style because i don’t have to hunt for the shiftkey and because it’s easier on ernest, who is typewriter, and makes him very happy because he is lazy too.
this is gibbering
and it looks like e e cummings, who y said my revolutionary poetry reminded her of and when i asked her what that meant she said she didn’t like e e cummings either.
i know that should be whom
stop correcting me
you better go easy on my mother. she is getting amused by this faithful in my fashion idea and says she thinks you must be an awful dope to expect me to learn to cook. moreover she wants to know why she can’t read your letters. i told her it was secret propaganda but that didn’t help much either. she is having her reading club here this afternoon which means that she expects me to pour tea but that ain’t all she expects. she says: now, darling, please for my sake put on a decent dress and do something with your hair, and you might even do your fingernails something quiet if you can, and will you be polite to my guests, after all they may be society but some of them are really quite nice and if you’ll only be nice like i said i might buy you that silly book.
that silly book being fearing if i can get it
so i put up my hair
but that ain’t gonna stop me from flapping my eyelashes at miss macarty who is the dame what reviews the book and saying sweetly: do you like cathedral close, dear? don’t you think it’s too, too wonderful, and what about eliot? i adore eliot, but robert frost? so much horse-shit, as i know you will be the first to say. you do have such a wonderful grasp of literature, dear.
if that doesn’t finish mother with the reading club i have lived in vain.
my father has taken to reading aloud to me from the nation’s business and also donates small booklets which i am to read to rid my mind of the foul decay of communism. he has become convinced that i am a confirmed communist and despairs of my soul. here is one paragraph that you might like. from youthinbusiness, a speech by a man whom the big shot says is really quite intelligent: “The system under which we live is not perfect. of course not. no system yet devised by man is. but it has grown better and better over a long period of time, it is the only one that has done this in so consistent and enduring a fashion … the fact that we have come as far as we have doesn’t mean, though, that america has now reached a standstill. i said before that the system was far from perfect, but it is constantly getting better as we learn more about its operations. if you retain this system you will find, as you grow older, a constantly expanding opportunity, an enlarging horizon, better times than we have today …”
am i the only one then who longs to perpetuate the status quo
by the way, y is a socialist and not a communist, but i suppose it’s all the same. all radical. all vegetarians.
dearest. i love you, i love you, and i need you so much. you’ve got walter and dartmouth to console you but all i have is y, who takes a malicious delight in explaining to people thus: “Well, he’s sorta dumb, but he’s got a lot of money. they’ve been secretly married for over a month now. lee isn’t telling people because ….. well, it’s a secret. i think he’s wonderful. he’s taken over the rochester yacht club and is going to try to run it at a profit” you should see janice who by the way is not speaking to me anymore. y says that she took great pains to get a copy of the threshold to janice. y also says that she’s very fond of you and she thinks you’re giving me the needles. y’s cute.
s.edgar. i am afraid that you will have forgotten very soon. please, if you do, don’t go on writing and trying to make me think that you haven’t. but, then, too, please don’t forget or stop loving me, or learn to love someone else more. because i love you so much. If I once start telling you what I really feel you’ll see how scared I am, and how much more I need you than you’ll ever need me.
O.K. i’m sorry. i’ll shut up, and be a good girl and go pour tea. i love you. for gods sake write me and convince me you’re not lying to me when you say it’s all right. i think i’ll tear this damned document up. it’s not very clever is it. not up to the usual jackson standard. blame it on my misery. or on the reading club.
p.s. i gather that you have managed to find a minute to whisper in walter’s pearly ear that you love me.
later….. blessed be the name of my dog. mother took hours to persuade me into a pink dress with dots all over and even got my hair up, dragged me down to listen to mrs. johnston tell about her trip to europe so wonderful, all those places, we really enjoyed it sooooo much, and the boat, so big, and england, so dirty, but charming, and i picked up the cutest bag in belgium, just like the ones in new york, only so much cheaper only mother made the mistake of shutting the dog in my room, and so it became necessary for me to go upstairs and speak to him about his howling, and once upstairs, she can’t leave to come up and get me, so i grabbed the typewriter quick. debutante, indeed.
have gone back to reading p.g. wodehouse. quiet the nerves. please dear write me soon, i’m afraid that whether i have anything to say about it or not y is going to write you. she says she has a few little things she’d like to tell you. god help you. she had a few little things she wanted to tell me and i’m still raw.
for god’s sake can you think of any telepathic way by which i can get myself into your arms and stay there?
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 best-selling 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.
Laurence Jackson Hyman (editor), the eldest child of Shirley Jackson and Stanley Edgar Hyman, has spent most of his professional life in publishing—as a writer, photographer, editor, art director, and publisher. He is the author, editor, or coeditor of dozens of books and monographs, including two posthumous collections of his mother’s stories: Just an Ordinary Day and Let Me Tell You. He was the executive producer for the 2018 film adaptation of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
Bernice M. Murphy (academic consultant) is an associate professor/lecturer in popular literature at the School of English, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. She edited the collection Shirley Jackson: Essays on the Literary Legacy and has written several articles and book chapters on Jackson’s writing. She is also an expert on American horror and gothic narratives. Her current work in progress is a monograph entitled California Gothic.
From the book The Letters of Shirley Jackson, by Shirley Jackson; Edited by Laurence Jackson in consultation with Bernice M. Murphy. Copyright © 2021 by Laurence Jackson Hyman, JS Holly, Sarah Hyman DeWitt, and Barry Hyman. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC.
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