Friday, May 6, 2011

The Night We All Had Grippe

Shirley Jackson (1916–1965)
From Shirley Jackson: Novels & Stories

One of the most popular Story of the Week selections last year was “Charles,” by Shirley Jackson. Many readers discovered a side of Jackson quite different from the horror writer famous for such classics as “The Lottery,” We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Haunting of Hill House.

This week’s selection, another of Jackson’s humorous tales of her adventures as the mother of three children, recounts the night her entire family caught the flu (what used to be called “the grippe”). When Gregory Cowles, a staff editor for The New York Times Book Review, first heard about the story a few years back, he admitted to surprise:
“Shirley Jackson?” I said. “The author of ‘The Lottery’?”

The very one. . . . For those of us accustomed to her position as Important Anthologized Story Writer, it’s a bizarre transformation, like learning that Chekhov had a second career writing jokes for Johnny Carson.
Intrigued, Cowles took the bait and found Jackson’s domestic tales “genuinely charming.” The breadth of her writing is beginning to be appreciated by academics as well. In a recent essay on Jackson’s “comic-satiric-fantastic-Gothic” modes, James Egan (a Renaissance literature scholar and an associate editor of Seventeenth-Century News) notes how her fiction extends “from domestically comic scenarios like those of Jean Kerr and Erma Bombeck; to mainstream, conventional satires of manners such as Sinclair Lewis might have written; to the metaphysically fantastic idioms of Nathanael West and Franz Kakfa.”

It’s long-overdue respectability for a woman who arrived woozily at the hospital to deliver her third child, only to face the following exchange.
“Name?” the desk clerk said to me politely, her pencil poised.
“Name, “ I said vaguely. I remembered, and told her.
“Age?” she asked. “Sex? Occupation?”
“Writer,” I said.
“Housewife,” she said.
“Writer,” I said.
“I’ll just put down housewife,” she said.
        [from “The Third Baby’s the Easiest”]
“Jackson sets down these lines without bitterness,” notes critic Ruth Franklin in another recent appreciation. “But they made me think of how many women writers—particularly American women writers in the postwar era, the era without servants—have both profited and suffered from the confusion of their dual role. . . . Then and still now, women write when the baby naps, while the children are at school, after the dishes are done and the lunches are packed and the house is at last quiet.” And so, for Mother’s Day, we dedicate this Story of the Week to mothers, writers, and mothers who are writers—as well as to their spouses and children.

*   *   *
We are all of us, in our family, very fond of puzzles. I do Double-Crostics and read mystery stories, my husband does baseball box scores and figures out batting averages, our son Laurie is addicted to the kind of puzzle which begins, “There are fifty-four items in this picture beginning with the letter C,” our older daughter Jannie does children’s jigsaws, and Sally, the baby, can put together an intricate little arrangement of rings and bars which has had the rest of us stopped for two months. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click the right button at the top of the reader to view the story in Google Docs or click here (PDF) to read it—free!

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Anonymous said...

This is enjoyable, then becomes real fun after it has ended!--when the reader realizes that the sum of the parts is the whole thing. Very nicely done.

Anonymous said...

I've always loved Shirley Jackson's domestic stories. Years ago I stumbled across her two books about her family's adventures. I only recall one title "Life Among the Savages." Sadly, those books are longer in our public library, nor have I had any luck finding them other place.

Anonymous said...

a very witty story,tries to capture all a too familiar domestic scene. The language is very cleverly used, mimics action. Mothers are centers of funny, most of the time meaningless,tedious, tiresome unproductive work but mothers find fulfillment in engaging in it. Indeed the story is a good tribute to mothers. jyothi natarajan

Rev.Penny said...

I found the story interesting and funny except in the end I still wonder where the blue blanket went but a blue blanket was only mentioned once in the story and did not say it had a design until the end..I read it three times and still cannot locate the blanket..hmmm...did Mom have too much brandy?