Ruth Franklin says that she has always loved a good “ghost story that goes deeper.” But it was not The Haunting of Hill House, or the cult classic We Have Always Lived in the Castle, that inspired her to write a critical biography of Shirley Jackson. Reading the Library of America’s edition of Jackson’s stories and novels, she was impressed by the author’s range. “Suspense was actually a really small part of it,” she says. “It was actually her memoirs about domesticity and motherhood that pulled me in and made me feel like I need to know who this person is.” Franklin’s critical biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, shows how Jackson’s life as a working wife and mother informed her artistic process and thus her writing.
In the biography, Franklin describes not only how the sharply circumscribed roles of a mid-century woman, wife and mother shaped Jackson’s artistic process, but also how that process and the resulting work pushed against those cultural borders in return. To understand this relationship, Franklin looked to two of Jackson’s essays in particular. In one, Jackson writes about going to the hospital to deliver her third child and being asked by the clerk to state her profession. “She says ‘writer’ and the clerk says, ‘I’ll just put down housewife,’ ” Franklin recounts. “When I read that and the essay ‘Biography of a Story’ in which she talks about the process of writing ‘The Lottery’ and how she literally did it with her daughter in a playpen while she was waiting for her son to come home for lunch, I felt like those two anecdotes said so much about the condition of being a mother and a writer at the same time in the era in which Shirley Jackson lived.”
The restrictions of being a woman writer extended beyond Jackson’s life to the posthumous remembrance of her voice—something that this biography makes a conscious project of bolstering. With her sharp analysis of the various drafts of Jackson’s novels, Franklin fills holes in the critical treatment of the author’s works. “A lot of biographers don’t pay attention to that stuff and think that it’s just for literary critics or scholars,” explains Franklin, a longtime literary critic and first-time biographer. “But I felt that since there wasn’t really anybody doing that kind of work on Jackson’s manuscripts that my book had to do that as well.”
Franklin’s other task was to resurrect Jackson’s private voice. She was frustrated by the lack of existing outgoing letters to Jackson’s friends like Libby Burke and Fanny Ellison, whose correspondence was not preserved in the archives of their literary figure husbands. “A sadness of women’s biography in general is that often women tend to be writing to other women, and their correspondence is lost because it’s not considered important by anybody,” Franklin explains. One of her biggest finds lay not in an archive, but in an old barn in rural Pennsylvania. There she found a trove of letters that Jackson wrote to one her readers, Jeanne Beatty, that provided a window into Jackson’s life as she wrote We Have Always Lived in the Castle. A barn in the middle of nowhere: it’s a setting fit for a ghost story. Franklin has created one of her own with her biography, and it goes deeper.
Alexia Nader is a writer in San Francisco and the managing editor of the Brooklyn Quarterly.