Gotta say, I've been reading some stellar biographies lately, and Ruth Franklin's recent tome on the life of Shirley Jackson fits right in that category. It's thoroughly researched, thoughtfully reported, has a good balance of respect for the author being written about combined with an objective distance that keeps the respect from tipping over into fandom, and, after all, a pretty interesting subject.
If you don't know much about Jackson other than that she wrote The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House, well, Franklin has the book for you. Jackson is a fascinating person on her own. She grew up in a dysfunctional household, and to the end of her life, her mother harangued her about her looks and weight, sometimes doing so instead of honoring Jackson's writing successes. Jackson found her soul mate--or so she thought--in Stanley Hyman, a man who early on recognized her writing ability and respected it. Unfortunately, he wasn't so respectful of her feelings about his having affairs on the side, situations he didn't bother to hide; he just saw that as who he was, and if she wanted to be with him, she needed to go along with it. Combine that attitude with the rough world for women in the 1950s, as well as the difficulties of moving to a small New England town where outsiders are viewed with suspicion (especially female outsiders who had a profession and left their house messy) and Jackson, who was very bright, had a lot of thoughts and feelings about the world, about the home, and about women's place in each.
In other words, if you take her stories for simple horror stories, you're not getting past the face value. There's a lot more going on. Franklin explores that deeply, looking at repeated motifs (and names) throughout Jackson's work, and does an exemplary job examining various drafts to see how Jackson revised her work, what she cut or changed, and what she kept. Possibly the best parts of the book (for me) were these literary analyses, which made me want to put the bio down and look up each work referenced. (Sadly, I got the book from the library, and there's a waitlist, so that project will have to wait for another day.) But doesn't a paragraph like this make you want to read everything Jackson wrote:
"One of the ironies of Jackson's fiction is the essential role that women play in enforcing the standards of the community--standards that hurt them most. The psychological intrigues that dominate their lives have the power to bring down the neighborhood. The Road Through the Wall, like "Flower Garden" and the majority of Jackson's stories, exists almost entirely in the world of women and children: nearly all the action on the street takes place after the men have gone off to work. The fact that these works are dominated by women does not necessarily make them feminist, a term with which Jackson did not identify. Still, the way she portrays certain of her characters' attitudes strikingly anticipates the movement to come: one neighbor, who regards herself as 'something more than a housewife,' is scorned by the others for putting on airs. But no escape from the hothouse of hostility in which these women live."
My only criticism of the book is that Franklin was a bit rushed in wrapping things up. Yes, we all know Jackson died, so it's not that that needed dwelling upon. But Franklin raises some questions about Jackson's actions and motives at the end of her life that aren't explored as thoroughly, nor documented as well as the other sections of the book. Still, the book overall gives Jackson a deeper place in American literature, something that Jackson herself--and Hyman--always felt she deserved. And they were right.