Tessie Hutchinson’s Apron: A Thank You Note to Shirley Jackson & to BOA
I don’t remember the first time I read Shirley Jackson’s iconic story “The Lottery,” but I do know that every time I reread that story I can’t help but think: Please God, don’t let me die right after doing the dishes.
Her fingers still wet from the sink, Tessie Hutchinson scrambles to reach the village square in time for the lottery. Once there, she wipes her hands on her apron. She’s still in that apron when stones, hurled by her neighbors, rain down upon her.
When “The Lottery” was first published readers were outraged. Shocked by the stoning of Tessie, some cancelled their subscriptions to The New Yorker. The year was 1948. It would seem that scapegoating, reflexive obedience to traditional authority, and ritualistic brutality shouldn’t have come as a surprise then, any more than now.
In her account about how she got the idea for the story, Jackson recalls pushing up a hill a baby carriage loaded with not only a baby but groceries. The labors of caretaking, of tending others’ needs, and fierce encounters with the irrational—whatever force possesses those townspeople to throw stones—link a work of social criticism like “The Lottery” to Jackson’s supernatural narratives. Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House has been suffocated by years of caretaking until her rage is hardly contained. In other plots by Jackson, girls and women are haunted by the outsized demands thrust upon them, by loneliness, and by fear of their own buried powers. Jackson enacts their rage as well as their longings for beauty and grace, what amounts to “the cup of stars”—that image in The Haunting of Hill House for the desire to defy the cramping of a life from the labor of fitting oneself to the shape of others’ demands. It requires time to tend a mind of one’s own. How few have such time.
The eerie and the uncanny run alongside even Jackson’s most seemingly daylight-filled writing. In her domestic essays the home becomes a site for conflict, however comic—even for battles between cutlery and kitchen appliances. But it’s her writing directly about the supernatural that I care for most—the inroads she made to explore the irrational in the midst of running a household, raising four children, and withstanding not only her Vermont neighbors’ unearned animosity but, more crucially, her husband’s infidelities. (I’m willing to bet that rationalizations for infidelity may be especially convoluted and self-justifying if you’re married, as she was, to a respected literary critic.) Then too, she withstood a mother who relentlessly criticized not only much of her daughter’s subject matter but her looks. The letters from Jackson’s mother to her daughter that appear in Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life could make anyone wince in sympathy.
Out of Jackson’s talents and perseverance, and despite her own disappointments, she cut a route to the underworld for characters whose needs were never met or actively subverted. She shakes out a character’s inner life and lays it before us—including the inner life as it appears externalized in a house where a character’s own feverish impulses may be met. Jackson runs through the possibilities of the house as threat, as defense, as retreat, as ultimate mystery. In Emily Dickinson’s famous formulation, “Nature is a haunted house—but Art—is a house that tries to be haunted.” In both The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle Jackson’s unforgettable houses don’t even have to try to be haunted.
The way a malevolent force blows through Hill House, the way mysteries unfold into greater mysteries, the shock that attends the fate of many of her characters—all testify to the power of Jackson’s work. Some of her harrowing stories allow us to imagine and even confirm our sense of what lies beyond whatever we can yet put into language. Through her work we may experience something peripheral to peripheral vision, an intuition about intuition. Reading her should make any number of us feel more secure about following our own intuitions. In certain ways her work even suggests what it feels like to write fiction: the ghostly recurring presences of characters, the invisible forces of memory and inspiration that govern the act, the unexpected detours up dark stairways, the sensation of being possessed by a plot.
I’m grateful to Shirley Jackson for her thorny stubbornness, her skill at overturning expectations, her insistence on creating adventures that can’t be fully explained. I even want to say to her, as if it were possible any longer to do such a thing: Thank you for upsetting your readers, thank you for Tessie Hutchinson, and thank you for having Tessie wipe her hands on her apron. For that moment when she could be any of us.
This post is a way to recount my gratitude for Jackson’s fiction and, in a roundabout way, BOA Editions. When Peter Conners wrote to let me know I had won the BOA Short Fiction Prize, my immediate response was to think of BOA as The Tao of Humiliation’s home—with all the kindest possibilities that a home might offer. A home for the homes in my stories. In some stories in that collection, and in stories I’ve written since then, houses are temporarily inhabited or rented or about to be demolished or sold. The persons inhabiting those houses may be hiding from their own shame. Yet the houses hold out the possibility that something unexpected can be worked out there, something subterranean. I’ll never stop being grateful to BOA for giving my first book of stories a home in the world, and for publishing so many authors whose work I admire.
In Franklin’s superb biography we learn that before Jackson’s early death of apparent heart failure at forty-eight she wanted to explore a new direction in her writing and fantasized about creating a space for herself that was clear, calm, peaceful, safe. That’s what BOA has given many writers: a safe home for work that we were haunted by as we struggled to make something of our imaginations—with the sincere hope that, if we’re profoundly lucky and work hard enough, our writing will haunt someone else after it’s read.
The BOA Short Fiction Prize will be open for submissions from April 1 - May 31, 2017. The winner will receive a $1,000 honorarium and book publication by BOA Editions in spring 2019. Click here for the complete submission guidelines, and send in your manuscripts!
Lee Upton’s The Tao of Humiliation, published by BOA Editions, was named one of the “best books of 2014” by Kirkus and was a finalist for the Paterson Prize. A second collection of her short stories, Visitations, is forthcoming in Fall 2017 in the Yellow Shoe Fiction Series, edited by Michael Griffith.