“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right” (From the Books)

A literary anniversary went by last week, and I do want to mark its passing: on June 26, 1948, seventy-five years ago, The New Yorker published a new story by author Shirley Jackson. By this time Jackson was an established writer, albeit early on in her career, and her June, 1948 appearance in The New Yorker is the event that put her on the literary map, so to speak. And what an event that story’s publication was: that story became one of the most controversial ever published by that magazine, and to this day the story is a classic of the horror genre, which is even more notable as it does not contain one bit of supernatural behavior in it. No, this story is a simple one of the horror of human interactions and human adherence to tradition, and most disturbingly, the oh so human way of managing to put human life into a position of secondary, or even tertiary, importance.

The story is “The Lottery”. You can read it here. I recommend doing so; it’s a great work that has lost none of its ability to disturb in all its years. It’s not a long read, and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it, if you haven’t read it.

Jackson would later write a lecture about her experiences with the reaction to “The Lottery”. I don’t know where or when she actually delivered this lecture, but it’s been anthologized in a book called Come Along With Me, which anthologizes several of her stories, a couple of lectures, and a novel draft on which she was working at the time of her untimely death in 1965.

Here is a portion of that lecture:

On the morning of June 28, 1948, I walked down to the post office in our little Vermont town to pick up the mail. I was quite casual about it, as I recall–I opened the box, took out a couple of bills and a letter or two, talked to the postmaster for a few minutes, and left, never supposing that it was the last time for months that I was to pick up the mail without an active feeling of panic. By the next week I had had to change my mailbox to the largest one in the post office, and casual conversation with the postmaster was out of the question, because he wasn’t speaking to me. June 28, 1948 was the day The New Yorker came out with a story of mine in it. It was not my first published story, nor my last, but I have been assured over and over that if it had been the only story I ever wrote or published, there would be people who would not forget my name.

I had written the story three weeks before, on a bright June morning when summer seemed to have come at last, with blue skies and warm sun and no heavenly signs to warn me that my morning’s work was anything but just another story. The idea had come to me while I was pushing my daughter up the hill in her stroller–it was, as I say, a warm morning, and the hill was steep, and beside my daughter the stroller held the day’s groceries–and perhaps the effort of that last fifty yards up the hill put an edge to the story; at any rate, I had the idea fairly clearly in my mind when I put my daughter in her playpen and the frozen vegetables in the refrigerator, and, writing the story, I found that it went quickly and easily, moving from beginning to end without pause. As a matter of fact, when I read it over later and decided that except for one or two minor corrections, it needed no changes, and the story I finally typed up and sent off to my agent the next day was almost word for word the original draft. This, as any writer of stories can tell you, is not a usual thing. All I know is that when I came to read the story over I felt strongly that I didn’t want to fuss with it. I didn’t think it was perfect, but I didn’t want to fuss with it. It was, I thought, a serious, straightforward story, and I was pleased and a little surpised at the ease with which it had been written; I was reasonably proud of it, and hoped that my agent would sell it to some magazine and I would have the gratification of seeing it in print.

My agent did not care for the story, but–as she said in her note at the time–her job was to sell it, not to like it. She sent it at once to The New Yorker, and about a week after the story had been written I received a telephone call from the fiction editor of The New Yorker; ti was quite clear that he did not really care for the story, either, but The New Yorker was going to buy it. He asked for one change–that the date mentioned in the story be changed to coincide with the date of the issue of the magazine in which the story would appear, and I said of course. He then asked, hesitantly, if I had any particular interpretation of my own for the story; Mr. Harold Ross, then the editor of The New Yorker, was not altogether sure that he understood the story, and wondered if I would care to enlarge upon its meaning. I said no. Mr. Ross, he said, thought that the story might be puzzling to some people, and in case anyone telephoned the magazine, as sometimes happened, or wrote in asking about the story, was there anything in particular I wanted them to say? No, I said, nothing in particular; it was just a story I wrote.

I had no more preparation than that. I went on picking up the mail every morning, pushing my daughter up and down the hill in her stroller, anticipating pleasurably the check from The New Yorker, and shopping for groceries. The weather stayed nice and it looked as though it was going to be a good summer. Then, on June 28, The New Yorker came out with my story.

What ensues is an encapsulation of Jackson’s reaction to the reactions to her story, which roughly fall into general groups: those who wonder if the events described in the story are based on reality, those who think the story is disturbing fiction, and…well, those pretty much are the two camps. Jackson’s story even inspired a number of “Cancel my subscription!” reactions. One particular such demand is phrased quite well:

Heretofore mine has been almost a stockholder’s pride in The New Yorker. I shared my copy with my friends as I do the other possessions which I most enjoy. When your latest issue arrived, my new distaste kept me from removing the brown paper wrapping, and into the wastebasket it went. Since I can’t conceive that I’ll develop interest in it again, save the results of your efforts that indignity every week and cancel my subscription immediately.


The New Yorker did a retrospective of reader reaction to “The Lottery” ten years ago, which you can find here; one interesting tidbit is that the magazine did not always label its fiction and nonfiction pieces, so perhaps the befuddlement of some readers who couldn’t determine on their own that “The Lottery” was just a story with no basis in the daily life of any small town in America is to be excused. I don’t know, I wasn’t there. But surely these events would have been common knowledge if they were real, yes? I mean, wouldn’t everyone know about that small town in such-and-such a state where every year they got everyone in the town together and held a lottery to choose one of its denizens for–wait. That would be spoiling it, if you haven’t read “The Lottery”.

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2 Responses to “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right” (From the Books)

  1. fillyjonk says:

    I think it was eighth grade where my English class read this (based on who I remember the teacher as being). I am not sure it hit me as hard as it hit some of the kids, maybe given my “bullied kid” background, I was more like “yeah, sure, why not a quaint New England town where they do (redacted to avoid spoiling) annually?”

    The town in which I grew up – though it was in Ohio – was very very much a New England wannabee town.

    In high school, I read “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” (on my own, IIRC, not as a class assignment; my high school did stuff more like Homer and Aesculus) and I remember liking that BETTER maybe because it was longer? And I admit I liked the idea of outcasts basically going “yeah well forget you” to the town.

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