I love Shirley Jackson’s writing, I loved Ruth Franklin’s recent biography of Jackson, and I love letter collections, so of course I wanted to read this collection of Jackson’s letters that came out last year. Edited by her son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, the collection begins in 1938, with Jackson’s letters to her future husband Stanley Edgar Hyman and continues to her death in 1965. Throughout, Hyman chose to preserve Jackson’s spelling and punctuation and her lack of capital letters. And interspersed throughout the volume are some of her cartoons, mostly depicting her married life.
The early letters are almost entirely to Stanley, and they’re somewhat unbearable to read. She’s clearly lovelorn, and that is her main topic of interest, which is just not all that interesting, never mind how knowing about the difficulties in their eventual marriage colors her declarations here. Once she’s married, the bulk of her letters are to her parents and her agent, and she usually writes about how the children are doing and what’s going on with her work. The stuff of daily life. It’s not until late in the collection that her letters take on a confiding tone, when she writes of her agoraphobia and when she writes a few letters to her husband and parents that her probably never sent, describing how their treatment of her made her feel.
On the whole, I don’t think these letters give us a clear look at the heart of Shirley Jackson, aside from in the few unsent letters. For the most part, she keeps things light, and most of her complaints involve money and the difficulty of getting all her work done as a writer and a mother. These are very real struggles, but there are hints that her letters don’t give a complete picture of what’s on her mind. For instance, there are a couple of occasions where she is clearly telling people what they want to hear, even if she says something different when writing to someone else. And her cartoons show how annoyed she is with Stanley’s lack of helpfulness around the house and his infidelity, topics she avoids in her letters.
I think this speaks to something important about what letter collections can and can’t reveal. In a letter collection, we see what the writer wants a specific set of interlocuters to see. So, here, we see the Shirley Jackson that she wanted her boyfriend, her parents, her agent, a few of her friends, her children, each in their turn, to see. Right from the start, letters are curated and then further curated by the recipients who choose what to keep and discard, and finally by the editor of the collection. That doesn’t mean they lack insight, but a biography might offer a more well-rounded picture, and I think that Ruth Franklin’s recent biography does.
Still, from this collection we can see that Jackson worked hard, that she took care of her family physically and financially, that she cared about her craft but also about earning an income, that she fretted about her children, and that she found life to be a lot to take at times. I was glad to read these letters and see this side of her that she presented to others. It is a long collection, and I confess to skimming when letters dealt with topics that interested me less. (I liked reading about her work, not so much about her kids’ camp experiences.) So, as a reader, I was a curator, too.