Review: Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings. By Shirley Jackson.

Posted by Matt Foley on November 13, 2015 in Blog, Reviews tagged with ,

Let Me Tell You: New Stories, case Essays, and Other Writings. By Shirley Jackson. Edited by Laurence Hyman Jackson and Sarah Hyman DeWitt. New York: Random House, 2015. Xxiii + 416 pp.

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Darryl Hattenhauer

Arizona State University West

It is remarkable that so many fine examples of Jackson’s uncollected and even unpublished writing keep surfacing. It is not surprising that many of the pieces in this volume that were previously collected rank with some of her best writing. Indeed, many of them appeared in such venues as Vogue and McCall’s, and three are in The Library of America’s Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates. But it is astonishing that many of the selections in this anthology never appeared in print until now, a half century after her death.

Among the best stories are the eight she wrote about the home front during World War Two. In “4-F Party,” an insensitive and narcissistic husband, who has not gone to war because he is physically unfit, thinks he can have his pick of the wives whom soldiers have left behind. He believes they want him, when in fact they are bravely hoping for the best amidst the world-wide slaughter. Although Jackson didn’t write in the novel-of-manners mode, she mastered of the short story of manners.

Three of the domestic narratives–which were New Journalism and creative non-fiction before those terms arose–have not appeared in print until now. They show the depth Jackson achieved in this form. For they are edgey and even satirical. But as such, they are not the kind of thing magazines such as Good Housekeeping were publishing. Because of her family narratives, Jackson has garnered the title of humorist. But she was not a humorist. She was a wit. Her comedy is far deeper than that of Erma Bombeck, for example.

It is curious that nine of the eleven items in the section entitled “Essays and Reviews” appear in print here for the first time. Writers, editors, and agents sought her editorial advice about new manuscripts. So it is surprising that Jackson’s appreciation of Dr. Seuss did not see its way into print. Similarly inexplicable is that none of the five pieces in the section on “Lectures About the Craft of Writing” have appeared before. She was in demand for speaking  appearances on that topic.

And on the topic of nonfiction, two of the best are the foreword by Ruth Franklin (whose biography on Jackson will appear in September, 2016–the centennial of Jackson’s birth) and the afterword by the editors, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt, who are two of Jackson’s children. Franklin captures Jackson’s writing process. Shirley surrounded herself with minutia–everything from calendars and news clippings, to recipes and shopping lists. Jackson tellingly deploys details like those. The afterword, too, catches Jackson’s writing process. For her children, their mother’s writing was a sound. They remember Jackson and her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, the noted critic, typing next to each other, which is not only an auditory but also a visual image of cooperation it would do well to remember. The foreword and afterword alone are worth the price of admission. They bode well both for Franklin’s forthcoming biography, and for any more collections that her children might offer.

Quibbles? Yes, three. First of all, there could be more of Jackson’s drawings. For example, her papers at the Library of Congress contain her precise map of the neighborhood in The Road through the Wall. They also contain her floor plans and front views of Hill House.  It is good that her youngest child, Barry, saw to it that a few of her cartoons are reproduced, but it would be better if there were more of them. For example, her papers contain a  drawing of her sneaking up behind her husband and wielding a hatchet. She captioned it, “The Neurotic Personality of Her Time.” All of the captions in her papers are in her own handwriting, which is more interesting to see than typeface. However, a special treat is that the inside cover is a faithful reproduction of one of Jackson’s spiral notebooks, complete with Jackson’s rendering of a woman who appears to be cleaning house. In the background are vertical lines suggesting the barred windows in “The Yellow Wall-Paper“ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. A second item that would be interesting for many readers is the correspondence between Jackson and her mother. Among other things, they reveal that the mother was unable to understand her daughter. For example, Mrs. Jackson suggests that Shirley could minimize her obesity by switching to skim milk. Third, the section that includes Jackson’s essays and reviews would be stronger had it included her unpublished review of a Donald Barthelme anthology. It shows that Jackson had no appreciation of the absurdist postmodernism that was taking  over in the 1960’s.

But those shortcomings detract only a bit from this collection’s value. For its inclusion of such a wide range of Jackson’s modes, this anthology is the best of all of her posthumous books.



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