Chances are that you don’t read The New Yorker — no offense intended, those are just the odds — but I’d bet that you have probably read Shirley Jackson’s famed short story “The Lottery.” (It’s part of our previous shared cultural heritage now — which given its subject matter is just a little bit ironic.)
The New Yorker, in which it was first published, came out with an article this week regarding the story, written by Jackson’s biographer, that I found fascinating.
How unready was the magazine’s audience for a realistic and naturalistic horror story by a female author? Highly, highly, unready.
Here are some of the letters that the magazine (and Jackson herself) received, showing a reaction to a story now read in junior high that from today’s vantage seems more amazing and foreign in some ways than the custom depicted in the story itself. I’m taking as much as I think I can for Fair Use; after that, click the link. I don’t think that you’ll be disappointed. (But what do I know?)
In a lecture Jackson often gave about the story’s creation and its aftermath, which was published posthumously under the title “Biography of a Story,” she said that of all the letters that came in that summer—they eventually numbered more than three hundred, by her count—only thirteen were kind, “and they were mostly from friends.” The rest, she wrote with mordant humor, were dominated by three main themes: “bewilderment, speculation, and plain old-fashioned abuse.” Readers wanted to know where such lotteries were held, and whether they could go and watch; they threatened to cancel their New Yorker subscriptions; they declared the story a piece of trash. If the letters “could be considered to give any accurate cross section of the reading public … I would stop writing now,” she concluded.
As Jackson’s biographer, I’ve pored over more than a hundred of these letters, which she kept in a giant scrapbook that is now in her archive at the Library of Congress. There were indeed some cancelled subscriptions, as well as a fair share of name-calling—Jackson was said to be “perverted” and “gratuitously disagreeable,” with “incredibly bad taste.” But the vast majority of the letter writers were not angry or abusive but simply confused. More than anything else, they wanted to understand what the story meant. The response of Carolyn Green, of New Milford, Connecticut, was typical. “Gentlemen,” she wrote, “I have read ‘The Lottery’ three times with increasing shock and horror.… Cannot decide whether [Jackson] is a genius or a female and more subtle version of Orson Welles.”
One of the many who took the story for a factual report was Stirling Silliphant, a producer at Twentieth Century-Fox: “All of us here have been grimly moved by Shirley Jackson’s story.… Was it purely an imaginative flight, or do such tribunal rituals still exist and, if so, where?” Andree L. Eilert, a fiction writer who once had her own byline in The New Yorker, wondered if “mass sadism” was still a part of ordinary life in New England, “or in equally enlightened regions.” Nahum Medalia, a professor of sociology at Harvard, also assumed the story was based in fact, though he was more admiring: “It is a wonderful story, and it kept me very cold on the hot morning when I read it.” The fact that so many readers accepted “The Lottery” as truthful is less astonishing than it now seems, since at the time The New Yorker did not designate its stories as fact or fiction, and the “casuals,” or humorous essays, were generally understood as falling somewhere in between.
The occasion for all of this is that the events of the story are depicted as taking place on June 27 — i.e., yesterday’s date — so if any community in Orange County is planning on some re-enactment (I’m looking at you, Villa Park!), you’ll have to wait an entire year for it. (Note: Orange Juice Blog advises against this.)
This is your Weekend Open Thread. Talk about that, or anything else you’d like, within broad bounds of decency and decorum.