Laurence Hyman, son of the late Shirley Jackson, has been on a quest for more than 20 years. Jackson was just 48 when she died, in 1965, and left behind an extensive backlog of unreleased material. Her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, made little effort to organise her papers beyond giving them to the Library of Congress, so Hyman and his sister, Sarah Hyman DeWitt, took on the job.
They have made several trips to Washington, sorting through boxes and sometimes finding sections of a given work in different piles, a process especially time consuming because Shirley Jackson rarely dated her manuscripts. Hyman, who manages his mother’s estate, has co-edited two posthumous collections of her stories and other writings and otherwise seen her reputation soar well beyond being the author of The Lottery.
Two volumes of her fiction have been issued by the country’s unofficial canon maker, the Library of America, and Jackson was the subject of an award-winning biography by Ruth Franklin. Hyman says at least 10 film or television adaptations are in the works, along with stage productions, a multimedia project by composer Ryan Scott Oliver and a collection of her letters that is scheduled for 2021.
“There is still material we haven’t gotten to,” Hyman told The Associated Press. Meanwhile, an early story never published before, Adventure On a Bad Night appears this week in the new issue of Strand Magazine. Adventure On a Bad Night was likely written during World War II or shortly after, Hyman says. It’s a brief sketch about a housewife named Vivien who takes a needed break to go out and buy cigarettes.
She meets a heavily pregnant woman who seems to have an Italian accent and is being shunned by the store clerk as she attempts to send a telegram. Vivien helps out and the woman responds by paying for her cigarettes. Strand managing editor Andrew Gulli says the story has “the Jackson trademark touch of imparting something touching and significant out of the mundane.
“Also it shows her knack for showing how those marginalised by society struggle to survive,” said Gulli, who has published obscure works by Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner among others. Franklin, whose Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life won a National Book Critics Circle prize in 2017, says the story echoes other Jackson narratives from the time, about “a woman in search of ‘adventure’ of some kind and/or an encounter with racism or xenophobia”.
She cites After You, My Dear Alphonse, in which Jackson pokes fun at a white woman’s presumption that her son’s Black friend is poor, and in need of food and clothing. Jackson resisted calling herself a feminist, but Adventure On a Bad Night captures the ongoing tension of a woman coping in a male world. At home, Vivien is preoccupied with chores while her husband remains seated, reading the paper.
On her way back from the store, she sees three sailors and wonders if they’ll whistle at her, walking faster before noticing over her shoulder the “sailors were eyeing a girl going the other way.” Laurence Hyman says that, judging by letters she wrote at the time, Jackson was happy in her marriage while writing the story. But details do mirror Jackson’s domestic life. Stanley Edgar Hyman was a compulsive newspaper reader, and images of indifferent and sedentary husbands appear in cartoons she drew.
“I wouldn’t assume that the couple in the story are an exact replica of Jackson and Hyman, but there do seem to be similarities,” Franklin told the AP. “She often depicts Hyman as removed and distant, even oblivious; in one of the cartoons, she sneaks up behind him with a hatchet as he relaxes behind a newspaper.”
Laurence Hyman called Jackson’s work a “a personal view of the female experience in the 1940s and 1950s, when women were expected to be housewives, and happy to be. But Shirley’s stories and novels and drawings cut through that veneer too expose the uncomfortable truths about a woman’s oppressed role in the culture of that era.
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