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“And Then They Were Upon Her”: Shirley Jackson and “The Lottery”


Shirley Jackson’s chilling short story “The Lottery” debuted in the June 26, 1948, issue of The New Yorker. By July, Jackson had been forced to upgrade her mailbox to the largest one available in the Bennington, Vermont, post office—and she and the postmaster were no longer on speaking terms. Jackson had once daydreamed about uplifting readers with her stories; far from being uplifted, the readers of “The Lottery” were mailing Jackson letters she claimed to be “downright scared to open.” In Private Demons, her biography of Jackson, Judy Oppenheimer describes the public’s reaction to “The Lottery” as “instant and cataclysmic. Nothing in the magazine before or since would provoke such an unprecedented outpouring of fury, horror, rage, disgust and intense fascination.” Picking up the mail gave Jackson an “active feeling of panic.” She never anticipated this unusual tale would cause such a furor, but her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, knew it was “something special” and praised his wife for writing a “real masterpiece.” Today “The Lottery” is one of America’s most anthologized short stories, but 67 years ago New Yorker readers had no idea what to expect. It begins innocently enough: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day.” Three hundred or so people in an unnamed village have gathered at 10 o’clock for an annual lottery. The whole event takes less than two hours, which allows the villagers “to get home for noon dinner.” The head of each household draws a white slip of paper from a battered old box for each person in his family; whichever family draws the slip bearing a black dot draws again. The family member who picks the black dot is stoned to death. “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right!” screams the lottery’s victimized “winner.” The story doesn’t lack for speed, and Jackson ends it simply with “and then they were upon her.” Jackson claimed the New Yorker editors requested only one revision to her piece: changing the date of the lottery to June 27, to coincide with the day following the issue’s publication. But “The Lottery” provoked hundreds of canceled subscriptions, along with the angry letters, setting a record for the magazine. As Joyce Carol Oates has noted, “Jackson’s story suggested that ordinary Americans—like the readers of The New Yorker, in fact—are not so very different from the lynch-mob mentality of the Nazis.” The puzzled Jackson kept all the letters—which derided her story as “gruesome,” “nauseating” and a “new low in human viciousness”—in a big scrapbook that is now archived at the Library of Congress. She categorized the remarks in three ways, “bewilderment, speculation and plain old-fashioned abuse.” The latter are the most fun to read: “Tell Miss Jackson to stay out of Canada.” “Who is Shirley Jackson? Cannot decide whether she is a genius or a female and more subtle version of Orson Welles.” “We are fairly well-educated and sophisticated people, but we feel that we have lost all faith in the truth of literature.” “Was the sole purpose just to give the reader a nasty impact?” “I will never buy The New Yorker again. I resent being tricked into reading perverted stories like ‘The Lottery.’” “We would expect something like this in Esquire, but NOT in The New Yorker.” Ha! Jackson is having a moment in 2015. The novel Shirley, by Susan Scarf Merrell, gives a fictional account of the writer’s tempestuous marriage to Hyman. Norton is poised to publish a new biography by Ruth Franklin. For the first time in years, all 12 of Jackson’s books are in print. And most important for her legion of fans, Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays and Other Writings will be published in August. Perhaps a new “Lottery” awaits in this book of previously unpublished, uncollected materials. Readers who associate Jackson mainly with “The Lottery” and such macabre novels as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle may be stunned to learn she also published two collections of humorous magazine stories, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, about running her household of four children. The Lottery mediumJackson’s lecture about the aftermath of “The Lottery,” published as “Biography of a Story” in 1960, explains, “It was not my first published story, nor my last, but I have been assured over and over that had it been the only story I ever wrote or published, there would be people who would not forget my name.” Despite insisting that she was “out of the lottery business for good,” Jackson, until her premature death at the age of 48, in 1965, was constantly asked by well-meaning fans and friends to explain the ending of her most famous story. She once snapped at a close friend who innocently posed the question, “It’s there. I’m not going to comment any further; you either get it or you don’t, that’s it.” Even her own parents were bewildered. “Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,” Jackson’s mother wrote. “It does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?” Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

by Colin J. Warnock

Jun 26, 2015

Mediander CultureTalk: Rachel Dolezal


At first glance, the Rachel Dolezal story seems like something out of The Onion, the satirical newspaper that once ran the headline “Judge Rules White Girl Will Be Tried as Black Adult.” In other words, fake. But while outlandish, Dolezal’s story is no spoof, and her actions have provoked a lot of disdain and hurt feelings. They range from embarrassment and betrayal to questioning her mental state. The African American community, often perceived as engaging in groupthink, is pretty much split on this issue. Did Dolezal assimilate to the culture she appears to have such an interest in, or did she misappropriate it? Has she added to the controversial blackface narrative? I sat down with a diverse and funny group of people to try and answer these questions. We talked about the black experience in America, Michael Jackson and his kids, hair, Halle Berry and Iggy Azalea. Oh, and Caitlyn Jenner came up a few times too.

Who’s in the video?

Clarissa Cummings is the founder of urbanational, a social justice initiative dedicated to building collaborations between the U.S. and South Africa.

Kaethe Fine is a playwright and Creative Director at Mediander.

Tom Kelly is a stand-up and web-based comedian best known for his segments on The View.

Kenan Weaver is a laid-back, inquisitive comedian based in New York City.

Feature photo courtesy of clarkarrington/Flickr

by Chalaire Miller

Jun 23, 2015

Judy Blume Writing for Adults? Likely Story


Despite what the press release says, I’m not sure if Judy Blume’s new novel, In the Unlikely Event, was written for adults or for teenagers. Set in suburban New Jersey in 1951, In the Unlikely Event is ostensibly a coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old-girl named Miri. The novel also hints at larger themes of terror, war and mental illness, but ultimately it doesn’t go deep enough to satisfy the reader. The terror comes in the form of three plane crashes in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the “unlikely event” of the title. Three planes really did crash in Elizabeth in the span of 58 days in the winter of 1951–52, and Blume, like her protagonist Miri, was there to witness the tragedy’s effects on her suburban town. Among the students at Hamilton Middle School, paranoia immediately sets in: Leaving aside the awkwardness of the script-like dialogue, this passage contains all the nuance of a YouTube comments “discussion,” and it’s a moment that epitomizes Blume’s approach. Often when the author has the opportunity to give us insight into her characters’ fear, paranoia and polarization, she declines to do so. Blume sidesteps another difficult issue when Miri’s best friend, Natalie, confides that she has been hearing the voice of a victim from the first plane crash. The victim, Ruby, instructs Natalie to dance continuously, and tells her not to eat. Natalie worries she’s going crazy, and her symptoms seem to indicate schizophrenia. To have a major character—one who is beautiful, wealthy, smart and female—suffer from schizophrenia could have dismantled conventions about mentally ill characters. Fifty pages later, however, the voice is gone and Natalie is anorexic instead. When Miri asks Natalie, “What about Ruby? What does Ruby think?” Natalie responds, “She abandoned me a while back. Didn’t even say goodbye.” Rather than develop Natalie in a potentially groundbreaking way, Blume trades her taboo mental illness for a more familiar, more palatable one for the reader. In the Unlikely mediumAs a fan of Blume’s books certifiably written for teenagers, I was puzzled that In the Unlikely Event is largely concerned with marriages and breakups. Miri falls in love with Mason. Mason’s brother, Jack, falls in love with Christina, who works for Natalie’s father. Natalie’s brother falls in love with Kathy, who dies in a plane crash. Meanwhile, Miri’s grandmother falls in love with Ben, whose wife died in a plane crash. If these love plots sound interchangeable, it’s because they are. The exception is Miri’s relationship with her father, the mysterious man who left Rusty, Miri’s mother, when Rusty was 17 and pregnant. “Who is my [father]?” Miri asks at the end of the first chapter, and when the truth finally emerges we find tenderness, compassion and a fair share of relatable mistakes—a more complete picture than the other marriages and breakups Blume chronicles. Toward the end of the novel, Miri writes an article for the school newspaper in which she repeats many of the rumors floating through the hallways—despite having learned it was nothing more than mechanical failures that brought down the planes. Surprisingly, Blume seems to celebrate this strange turn, even while making it difficult to empathize with Miri’s inscrutable motivations. Why, for example, does Miri assert that the “children of Elizabeth” are “under attack”? Why does she implicate, variously, zombies and the aforementioned Martians? Readers looking for psychological complexity here will be disappointed. In Blume’s work for teenagers, a happy ending didn’t mean girl-meets-boy, it meant self-realization. Her young-adult work resists convention in a way that still makes adults uncomfortable, which is probably why five of her books made the list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990 to 1999. While reading In the Unlikely Event, I was hoping to find some of that honesty, pain and awareness. Instead I found a lot of marriage. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

by Monica Wendel

Jun 22, 2015

Five Manhattan Walks: World Sauntering Day


Today is World Sauntering Day, and what better place to go for a stroll than the enchanted isle of Mannahatta? New York is one of the world’s great walking cities. A lot of people will tell you so—including such literary big shots as E.B. White, Alfred Kazin and Colson Whitehead. Adding our voice to the chorus, we’ve put together five Manhattan ambles for your wayfaring wont. They’re free as a compliment, so take one!   Riverside Park If you head over to the Hudson River Greenway on the west side of Manhattan, walk north to the 79th Street Boat Basin. (Don’t forget to share the road.) Among other things, this docking spot is where the New York Tugboat Race begins each year. RiversideInset Photo courtesy of Howard Brier/Flickr Continue from 83rd Street to 95th and enjoy Riverside Park’s views of the Hudson. Pro tip: If you’re feeling extra sprightly and want to walk all the way up to Fort Washington Park, you’ll find Manhattan’s only remaining lighthouse, the inspiration for the children’s classic The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge. RiversideInset2 Photo courtesy of shinyasuzuki/Flickr Freeman Alley Have you heard of this tucked-away little path down on the Lower East Side? Enter on Rivington Street between Chrystie and the Bowery. It dead-ends, so you can’t use it as a shortcut. But you can use it to get a sense of pre-grid Manhattan, from before the island was razed and dotted with banks. FreemansAlleyInset Photo courtesy of kapkap/Flickr You can also check out Freeman Alley at night, perhaps after wandering the galleries of the nearby New Museum. Look for the string of pretty lights heralding Freemans Restaurant. FreemansAlleyInset2 Photo courtesy of misocrazy/Flickr The High Line Is there anything left to be said about the High Line, New York’s apogee of ambulation? It’s still got it, especially now that it terminates on the southern end with the newly opened Whitney. HighlineInset1 Photo courtesy of davidberkowitz/Flickr Well, maybe one thing hasn’t yet been said, and that’s how much the early sections have changed since luxury buildings have risen at the very edges of the walkway. Now we seem to be strolling through a steel-and-glass canyon, a Low Line of sorts. Pro tip: Pick up a delicious lunch special at Dil-e Punjab Deli and skip the High Line’s overpriced fare. HighlineInset2 Photo courtesy of urbanlandinstitute/Flickr  Financial District Or FiDi, as no one should ever call it (ever). There’s some great stuff down here—and not just Charging Bull and his shiny brass balls. Check out Stone Street and its lovely cobbles and lampposts. StoneStreetInset1 Photo courtesy of flissphil/Flickr Walking this tight, light-choked artery can feel like stumbling right into Gotham City. StoneStreetInset2 Photo courtesy of flissphil/Flickr 81st Street Last but not least is our favorite cut through the ever beautiful Central Park. Begin at 81st Street and Central Park West. You’ll wander east toward Fifth Avenue and happen upon Belvedere Castle, home not only to a weather station but also to the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park stage. Pro tip: Hit it at golden hour! CentralParkInset1 Photo courtesy of johnjoh/Flickr Tune in next year for our peregrinations into the outer boroughs! Feature photo courtesy of boscdanjou/Flickr

by Mediander Staff

Jun 19, 2015