Born in 1916, Shirley Jackson shocked the literary world with her short story, The Lottery. Published in June 1948 in The New Yorker, The Lottery is considered one of the most famous short stories in the history of American literature. (Spoiler alert - ending of short story is revealed below)
Shirley Jackson began her literary career early through her involvment with the Syracuse University campus literary magazine. It was there that she met her future husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman - a noted literary critic. The Hymans ultimately settled in Vermont while Stanley worked as a professor at Bennington College and Shirley focused on her writing. Jackson was quoted in Twentieth Century Authors (1954) as saying, "our major exports are books and children, both of which we produce in abundance". The Hymans had four children - all who figured prominently in many of Jackson's short stories. Life Among the Savages, a memoir written by Jackson in 1953, was described by her as, "a disrespectful memoir of my children". Friends of the family described them as "colourful, generous hosts" and both were avid readers with a library estimated to be over 100,000 books.
The Lottery was met with much negativity which surprised both the author and The New Yorker, and ultimately caused many subscribers to cancel their subscriptions and send hate mail. It has since become one of the most important American short stories and continues to be analysed, critiqued and taught in schools.
The short story centres around a small town in America with a population of 300 residents. Each year the town participates in a lottery - to ensure a good harvest - where one member of the community is chosen. In the first round of the lottery each family picks a slip of paper - the one with a black dot on it means that one member of that family is the chosen one. The final part reveals that person is to be stoned to death. The brutal story is simple in nature but has many undercurrents of ancient sacrifice, Christianity and violence. The Lottery has been adapted for radio, television, a ballet, an opera, a one-act play and various films. In 1969, The Lottery was filmed and was considered "as one of the two bestselling educational films ever".
In 1948, Harry S. Truman was president and the US was heading towards an unprecedented period of wealth. Imagine recieving your copy of The New Yorker and casually flipping through the pages. The iconic black and white comic on the first page of the story depicts a persistent door-to-door salesman tapping on a window looking at a woman who is trying to read her book. There's no gentle lead-in, the story begins right away describing the dread the town was feeling on that day. The first paragraph is very no-nonsense about the event and says, "the whole lottery took only about two hours, so it could begin at ten o'clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner."
As well as writing adult literary novels including, The Road Through the Wall (1948), Hangsaman (1951), The Bird's Nest (1954), The Sundial (1958), The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), Jackson also wrote a children's novel, Nine Magic Wishes that was later illustrated by her grandson.
In 1965, Jackson died in her sleep of heart failure at the age of 48. Throughout her life, she suffered from several psychosomatic illnesses, was overweight and a heavy smoker. Regardless of her short life, Jackson will always be remembered as a prolific and influential author who paved the way for many writers.