Shirley Jackson Biography

At a Glance

Shirley Jackson's name brings to most people's minds two words: “The Lottery.” This darkly ironic story has been sparking controversy since it was first published in The New Yorker in 1948, when hundreds of people wrote letters in response. Many were openly confused by the story, and some were downright abusive; Jackson has said that only about a dozen of the letters struck a positive note. Though “The Lottery” is striking, its success was a mixed blessing for Jackson. The sheer amount of attention given to that one story can overshadow the extensive body of work she produced, just as her work’s dark tone and disturbing subject matter sometimes let people miss its high literary quality.

Facts and Trivia

  • Jackson attended the University of Rochester but didn’t graduate. She dropped out due to depression and grappled with mental health issues, including psychosomatic illnesses, her entire life.
  • Jackson was married to Stanley Edgar Hyman, a literary critic who taught at Bennington College in Vermont. They had four children. Jackson’s stories about her experience raising these children are collected in Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons.
  • Many of Jackson’s works transform her experience into fiction, often taking a humorous or ironic approach to what she herself had been through. Her first published story, “My Life With R. H. Macy,” is a good example of this; it makes light of her time working in a department store.
  • South Africa banned “The Lottery.” When they did, Jackson said that it was a sign that they, at least, understood the story.
  • Her book The Haunting of Hill House was nominated for a National Book Award in 1960, a rare honor for a horror novel.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

On December 14, 1916, Shirley Hardie Jackson was born to an affluent family in San Francisco. As soon as she learned to write, she began to pen poems, eventually winning a poetry contest at age twelve. In 1933, her family moved east to Rochester, New York, where Shirley went to high school and then on to the University of Rochester. She withdrew after two years, in part because of the tendency to depression which would haunt her for the rest of her life. During this hiatus from college, she developed a discipline of writing at least one thousand words every day.

In 1937, she enrolled in Syracuse University. She initially majored in journalism but then switched to an English major with a minor in speech. She published numerous pieces in school magazines over the following two years. A vehicle for her unconventional outlook was developed when she and two classmates started the literary campus magazine The Spectre. One of these classmates was Stanley Edgar Hyman, who would eventually become her husband.

Jackson and Hyman married after graduation in 1940, and moved to New York City, where Hyman got a job with The New Republic. Jackson worked at Macy’s department store for a short time. This experience formed the basis of her first nationally published short story “My Life with R. H. Macy.” Between 1942 and 1951, Jackson published almost twenty stories and two novels, gave birth to four children, and moved twice. Her famous...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Because Jackson chose to handle unusual topics, such as psychosis and ghostly apparitions, some literary critics relegated her to a minor status. Both horror and humor are sometimes considered to be slightly disreputable genres, and many of Jackson’s works are categorized as these types. Jackson’s complete mastery of the writing craft, however, enabled her to achieve well-deserved commercial and critical success.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Shirley Jackson was born in California on December 14, 1916, and moved with her family to New York when she was sixteen. After an unsuccessful year at the University of Rochester, Jackson enrolled, at age twenty, in the University of Syracuse. This was to be the beginning of an independent life for the author, as she would finally be away from the dominating presence of her mother. At Syracuse, Jackson met Stanley Edgar Hyman, the man she would marry in 1940. Hyman achieved notoriety in his own right as a teacher, writer, and critic. The marriage between Jackson and Hyman was tumultuous in many ways but provided a stabilizing factor for Jackson. Her literary production increased markedly after the marriage and the birth of their four children. Jackson’s own phobias, however, kept creeping into this successful, if odd, relationship. She was an agoraphobic and a depressive. Part of the latter affliction was contributed to by her asthma and arthritis, as well as Hyman’s extramarital affair in the early 1960’s. In addition, Jackson had never really been a social person—she was much too individualistic to fit into any of the polite social molds. In 1963, Jackson began to turn around psychologically. Her husband made a new commitment to the marriage, and an enlightened psychiatrist began to help her work with the agoraphobia. Her writing continued to be an outlet for her. Although Jackson recovered emotionally, she never recovered physically. She was obese and a chain smoker. She died on August 8, 1965, at the age of forty-five.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Shirley Jackson’s horrific fiction belies the biographical facts of her life. Her women characters in particular are often neurotic, alienated, or outcasts from their families and communities. Jackson herself, however, was by all accounts a happily married mother of four who balanced her literary career with activities ranging from school bake sales to entertaining friends, such as fellow author Ralph Ellison, in her family’s home in Vermont. Biographical material by her husband—the writer, teacher, and critic Stanley Edgar Hyman—stresses the disjuncture between her personal life and the content of her most famous fiction, which she viewed as a craft and profession, as opposed to a forum for self-revelation.

The mother, hostess, and lecturer at writers’ conferences who was thoroughly integrated into the life of her family and community created the character of Tessie Hutchinson, whose neighbors, friends, husband, and children stone her to death in the ritual sacrifice that climaxes her most famous and influential work, “The Lottery.” The short story’s impact cannot be underestimated; its terrifying picture of alienation and violence prompted subscription cancellations when The New Yorker published it in 1948. The story was banned in South Africa, which pleased Jackson because she felt that those who had banned the story understood it.

The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle places lonely, sensitive women—the psychic Eleanor Vance and troubled teenager Mary Katherine Blackwood, respectively—in gothic settings. The books feature houses haunted by ghosts of unrealized dreams, frustrated desires, and mysterious deaths. These novels, Jackson’s most successful, gave further impetus to critics who viewed her work as the product of a warped personality. Sensitive to such criticism, Jackson downplayed the single real-life parallel to her fiction—her personal study and practice of witchcraft.

Largely forgotten but closer to Jackson’s personal experience are her humorous accounts of family life, Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957), whose titles reflect the disparity between appearance and reality so evident in her life and work. Jackson, who condemned her characters to terrible fates, died quietly in her sleep of heart failure at age forty-six.