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Publication History and Reception: “The Lottery” was originally published in The New Yorker on June 26, 1948. As of 2013, it holds the record for garnering the highest number of letters to the editor—most of them negative—in the magazine’s history. Jackson herself reported receiving around 300 letters, only 13 of them kind. Readers found the story outrageous, gruesome, violent, and unnecessary. Jackson was accused of being “perverted” and “gratuitously disagreeable.” Moreover, as the magazine at that time didn’t distinguish between fiction and non-fiction, some thought the story described an actual small town in the United States. Jackson was accused, in turn, of being pro-Stalin, anti-Semitic, and a faux anthropologist. Despite, or perhaps because of, the criticism, “The Lottery” went on to be translated into dozens of languages and has been widely anthologized. It is now a mainstay of high school curricula is often referred to as the best-known short story of the 20th century. 

An Unsettling Take on Mid-Century America: In the years surrounding the publication of “The Lottery” in 1948, the United States was experiencing a period of euphoria. Troops returned victorious from World War II, having liberated Europe and Asia from the grips of totalitarianism; the economy soared thanks to the Marshall Plan; networks of state and community colleges developed around the country; and suburbs flowered around the nation’s metropolises, giving rise to dreams of home ownership and financial independence for the common American. But beneath the veneer of the American dream lay an equally present nightmare. Jim Crow laws oppressed Americans of color, the KKK terrorized ethnic and religious minorities, and the seeds of anti-Communist fervor were already beginning to take hold. Surrounded by these contradictory elements of the American zeitgeist, Jackson penned “The Lottery,” a story that evokes many quintessential aspects of small-town American life—the playful lottery, the joy of a summer day, the casual chatter of townspeople gathering—and juxtaposes them with an act of ritualistic violence. In so doing, Jackson critiques the heroic self-image that existed in post-World War II America, as well as the behavior of human social groups at large. 

  • Stylistic Influences: Jackson’s style in “The Lottery” follows in the style of writers like Ernest Hemingway. The descriptive details in the story are sparse, and much of the plot is driven by dialogue. Further, the narrator is removed and abstracted, offering minimal information about each character’s emotional or psychological experience. 

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