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. Read More