Friday, December 9, 2016

Biography of a Story

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

Olive Dunbar as Tess Hutchinson in the 1969 dramatization of “The Lottery,” directed by Larry Yust as part of Encyclopaedia Britannica's “Short Story Showcase” series. A 10-minute discussion of the story by University of Southern California professor James Durbin was added to the performance. According to the Academic Film Archive, it became one of the best-selling films ever produced for educators.
It is probably the most famous work of fiction ever published in The New Yorker and certainly the magazine’s most controversial, generating letters of protest and bafflement and even a number of subscription cancellations. And it remains one of the most anthologized and influential stories ever written in English, required reading for several generations of high school students and the precursor to hundreds of horror stories and works of dystopian fiction. Since its publication in June 1948, readers, critics, and scholars have quarreled over the story’s “meaning.” Yet perhaps nobody was more surprised by the reaction to “The Lottery” than the author herself.

If Shirley Jackson is to be believed—and she most assuredly isn’t—“The Lottery” came to her quite easily three weeks before it was published, and the editors made only one minor change. That’s what she told audiences whenever she spoke about the story’s publication. The truth, as William Brennan points out, is a bit more complicated. Jackson sent a draft to The New Yorker several months before the story’s publication, and there were a number of changes suggested by editors over the following weeks. “Jackson, like most writers,” concludes Brennan, “achieved greatness with patient work and the help of others—her editors, her agent, and her literary-critic husband. Drafts were written and rewritten; phone calls with editors were made; galleys were drawn up and edited; and, in the end, the story appeared in print months after it had been conceived.”

The editors of The New Yorker received more mail about “The Lottery” than they had ever received in response to a short story. Alfred L. Kroeber, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, was among those who protested the story’s premise. “If Shirley Jackson’s intent was to symbolize into complete mystification, and at the same time be gratuitously disagreeable, she certainly succeeded.” His daughter, Ursula K. Le Guin, was nineteen at the time, and she recently told Jackson biographer Ruth Franklin, “My memory is that my father was indignant at Shirley Jackson’s story because as a social anthropologist he felt that she didn’t, and couldn’t, tell us how the lottery could come to be an accepted social institution.”

Jackson included the comment from Kroeber, without identifying him by name, in an amusing speech recounting the days following the story’s publication and quoting many of the readers’ reactions. Jackson often gave some version of this prepared talk at colleges and writers’ conferences during the last decade of her life, and it was edited by her husband and published posthumously in 1968. In honor of the centennial of Jackson’s birth on December 14, 1916, we present that speech, “Biography of a Story,” as our Story of the Week selection.

Note: One of the readers quoted by Jackson mentions In Fact, a monthly newsletter that billed itself “An Antidote for Falsehood in the Daily Press” and that published media criticism and investigated stories not covered in newspapers.

*   *   *
On the morning of June 26, 1948, I walked down to the post office in our little Vermont town to pick up the mail. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection is used by permission.
To photocopy and distribute this selection for classroom use, please contact the Copyright Clearance Center.