The two most revealing documents in the hefty collection of unpublished letters written by the novelist Shirley Jackson were never sent. One was addressed to her mother, and the other to her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman.

Both were written not long before Jackson died in her sleep in 1965, at the age of 48. A third important but technically unsent letter included in this volume wouldn't have even required postage : Jackson wrote it to herself, possibly sometime in 1963.

 ''One world is writing and one is not,'' she observed, ''and from the one which is not, it is not possible to understand the one which is.''

Many writers feel that the self who writes exists in a partially unknowable state, separate from the self who goes about her worldly business, talking with friends and colleagues, cooking dinner, ferrying her children around.

With Jackson, the division seems especially vivid, and also tripartite, an impression that this collection, edited by her son Laurence Jackson Hyman, solidifies. She had not one but two authorial identities, and they appeared to be polar opposites.

Early in her career, Jackson wrote linked, semi fictionalized accounts of raising her four rambunctious children in the small own of North Bennington, Vt,. and sold them for a tidy sum to women's magazines.

The publication of these genuinely delightful, humorous pieces in a 1953 collection, '' Life Among the Savages,'' proved equally successful. Another book, ''Raising Demons,'' followed in 1957, and the income Jackson earned from her pen often outpaced Hynan's as a staff writer for The New Yorker and a Professor at Bennington College.

At the same time, Jackson also regularly published more sinister, enigmatic short fiction in general-interest magazines; her most famous story, ''The Lottery'' appeared in The New Yorker in 1948 and generated more reader mail than any other work of fiction the magazine had ever published.

Also set in a small town much like North Bennington, ''The Lottery,'' has, in print and dramatic form, transfixed and perplexed a generation of readers with its depiction of a banal rural morning that segues into ritual human sacrifice.

In contrast to the bemused mom she wrote about for the women's magazines, presiding over a house packed with kids, cats, friends and chaos, the rest of Jackson's fictional heroines tend to be fragile, isolated on the brink of unravelling'

Her 1954, ''The Bird's Nest,'' features a young woman with dissociative identity disorder, the narration including the points of view of her alternative personalities. Any hope that Jackson's private writings might convey a more unified sense of self seems quixotic.

According to her biographer, Ruth Franklin, even as a teenager Jackson ''kept multiple diaries simultaneously, each with a different purpose.''

In the letter to herself, Jackson fortifies her courage to avoid showing her work to Stanley and subjecting - herself - to his disdain; to be ''proud and alone.''

While she never indicates that her children brought her anything but joy, these three unmailed letters give the lie to all those jolly missives to and about her adult relations.

Here at least, the inner world that writes gives voice to the outer world that doesn't. And these, perhaps, are not the only occasions when the two touched. 

''' We Have Always Lived in the Castle,'' Jackson's final completed novel, is widely regarded as her masterpiece. It's about an adolescent girl who poisons her family.

The World Students Society thanks review author Laura Miller.


Post a Comment

Grace A Comment!