Friday, May 6, 2011

The Night We All Had Grippe

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

Detail from “The Great Grippe Mystery,” illustration by Herbert Danska (b. 1926) for “The Night We All Had Grippe,” Harper’s, January 1952. Click here to see entire illustration.
Of the five hundred selections presented by Story of the Week over the last decade, the most widely read is “Charles,” by Shirley Jackson—a perennial favorite among schoolchildren (and, we must assume, their teachers). The story presented many readers, young and old, with a side of Jackson quite different from the writer famous for such horror classics as “The Lottery,” We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Haunting of Hill House. First published in Mademoiselle, “Charles” was reprinted in her 1949 collection The Lottery, and then revised and incorporated into her humorous family memoir Life Among the Savages.

“The Night We All Had Grippe” is another of Jackson’s comic tales chronicling her adventures as the mother of three children, and it recounts the night her entire family was confined at home with the flu (what used to be called “the grippe”). When Gregory Cowles, a staff editor for The New York Times Book Review, discovered 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.” Indeed, when Jackson first delivered the manuscript to her publisher in late 1952, her editor, Margaret Farrar, extolled the book to her colleagues: “Completely delightful and entertaining reading—not Shirley on a broomstick at all.” The staff of the publishing house Farrar, Straus knew they had a best seller on their hands.

The breadth of Jackson’s writing is beginning to be appreciated by academics as well. In an essay on Jackson’s “comic-satiric-fantastic-Gothic” modes, James Egan (a Renaissance literature scholar and, at the time, an associate editor of Seventeenth-Century News) noted 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,” noted critic Ruth Franklin a decade ago in an essay reappraising her oeuvre. “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.”

Franklin went on to write a best-selling biography of Jackson, in which she argued that the “two aspects of Jackson’s writing are profoundly interconnected. Her horror stories, which always take place primarily on a psychological level, are grounded in the domestic [while] the domestic tales often need only the gentlest tap to slide into the dark, as with ‘Charles.’” It is that “gentlest tap,” an almost cynical edginess, that caused one contemporary reviewer to call her the “female Thurber,” and readers will surely notice how “The Night We All Grippe” contains faint echoes of one of James Thurber’s most famous stories.

The above introduction, first posted in May 2011, was revised and updated in April 2020.

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