Shirley Jackson worked as a shop clerk at Macy’s by day and by night wrote stories that every middle-school child reads and millions of moviegoers watch.
In 1941 she wrote a funny story about her stifling job in the department store that The New Republic published. Then she moved to rural Vermont with her husband. She had four children and became one of the most prominent writers of the 1950s, along with John Cheever, Ray Bradbury and Jean Kerr.
She was born Shirley Hardie Jackson on Dec. 14, 1916 in San Francisco, the daughter of an affluent middle-class family. As a young girl she moved with her family to upstate New York. She then earned a B.A. from Syracuse University, where she met her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, a noted literary critic.
They lived briefly in New York City, where she worked at Macy’s and wrote about it. Her husband happened to edit The New Republic magazine at the time, and so she got the story published.
Shirley Jackson, Witch?
In 1945, they moved to North Bennington, Vt., where Stanley got a job as a professor at Bennington College and Shirley wrote stories. Some were about raising children, some were about the supernatural. She was rumored to be a witch and had 11 cats.
On June 26, 1948, The New Yorker published her story The Lottery, which portrayed a small village that annually stoned a resident to death. The story created a sensation. People sent hundreds of letters to the magazine expressing “bewilderment, speculation, and old-fashioned abuse,” according to Jackson. She also received armfuls of hate mail. The Union of South Africa banned The Lottery, which pleased Jackson because, she said, it showed they understood the story.
The Hyman family moved to Westport, Conn., in 1949, where they entertained often with raucous cocktail parties. There, Stanley helped his friend Ralph Ellison write The Invisible Man. The family then returned to North Bennington in 1951.
Shirley Jackson continued to write in various genres. She published a novel, Hamgsaman, based on the never-solved disappearance of Bennington sophomore Paula Jean Welden. Another novel, The Haunting of Hill House, was twice made into a Hollywood movie and then a Netflix series. Stephen King called it one of the most important horror novels of the 20th century.
Jackson also wrote a book for children about the Salem witch trials called Witchcraft of Salem Village.
Life with R.H. Macy
My Life With R. H. Macy begins with the narrator “segregated” from ‘the only person in the place I had even a speaking acquaintance with; that was a girl I had met going down the hall who said to me: ‘Are you as scared as I am’?”
A series of startlingly beautiful women all named Miss Cooper order her around. They all wear tailored suits and clipped hair. And then,
I went and found out my locker number, which was 1773, and my time-clock number, which was 712, and my cash-box number, which was 1336, and my cash-register number, which was 253, and my cash-register-drawer number, which was K, and my cash-register-drawer-key number, which was 872, and my department number, which was 13. I wrote all these numbers down. And that was my first day.
Her immediate boss was named 13-2246 and sent her to lunch three times because she confused her with 13-6454 and 13-3141.
In the end, the narrator lasts all of two days at Macy’s. (You can read My Life With R.H. Macy here.)
RIP Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson, who with her husband drank and smoked heavily, died at the age of 48 of a heart attack on Aug. 8, 1965.
Thirty years after her death, a crate of unpublished stories was found in the barn behind her house. The best stories, along with others she wrote for various magazines, went into print that year in Just an Ordinary Day.
This story last updated in 2022.
Images: Macy’s By Ajay Suresh from New York, NY, USA – HeraldSquare-Oct14-1, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74460073. Shirley Jackson By http://bnreview.barnesandnoble.com/t5/Reviews-Essays/Fear-and-Delight-The-Fiction-of-Shirley-Jackson/ba-p/2641, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28553658.