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Bewilderment, speculation and plain old fashioned abuse
June 27, 2013 3:17 PM   Subscribe

"If Shirley Jackson’s intent was to symbolize into complete mystification, and at the same time be gratuitously disagreeable, she certainly succeeded" - The New Yorker takes a look at the over 300 letters in reaction to The Lottery
posted by Artw (44 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
One of the letters is from "Sterling Silliphant!"
posted by spitbull at 3:20 PM on June 27, 2013


* hides the sugar dish*
posted by The Whelk at 3:20 PM on June 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


Metafilter: Will you please send us a brief explanation before my husband and I scratch right through our scalps trying to fathom it?
posted by Horace Rumpole at 3:21 PM on June 27, 2013 [12 favorites]


If Ursula K Le Guin's dad saw The Purge he'd probably explode.
posted by Artw at 3:23 PM on June 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


Favorite literary detail, the Lottery was apparently thought up while she was carting her youngest around in the pram, watching all the ther young mothers do the same, and a rock got stuck in the wheels.
posted by The Whelk at 3:23 PM on June 27, 2013 [7 favorites]


I highly recommended Jackson's Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages. They're autobiographical and dryly hilarious.

As to the lottery, I recall thinking it was obvious, heavy handed and a bit silly, while doing an excellent job of creating atmosphere and tension, which made it seem real despite the problems. The ease at which humans could be cruel to one another seemed obvious, even in eighth grade.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:28 PM on June 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


I recall thinking it was obvious, heavy handed and a bit silly, while doing an excellent job of creating atmosphere and tension, which made it seem real despite the problems.

See also: The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street
posted by Rangeboy at 3:31 PM on June 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


You want Jackson at her creepy best, pick The Haunting Of Hill House or We Have Always Lived In The Castle. haunting is slightly more Suernatural ( but only slightly). Castle is basically a love letter to agoraphobia.
posted by The Whelk at 3:31 PM on June 27, 2013 [11 favorites]


Wait a minute! This post has nothing to do with comics, superhero movies or obscure table top gaming!

Where is the real Artw and what did you do with his body?
posted by Samizdata at 3:37 PM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Katniss' mom is so whiny in that one.
posted by michaelh at 3:37 PM on June 27, 2013 [6 favorites]


Ooh, thanks for reminding me that I need to share We Have Always Lived In The Castle with my kids. I love that book.
posted by davejay at 3:38 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wait a minute! This post has nothing to do with comics, superhero movies or obscure table top gaming!

/adds HORROR tag to preserve genre credentials.
posted by Artw at 3:41 PM on June 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


"Like all men in Babylon, I have been a proconsul; like all, a slave. I have also known omnipotence, opprobrium, imprisonment..."
posted by peeedro at 3:44 PM on June 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


Interesting that one of her correspondents was a young Ursula K. le Guin. I haven't checked but I'm guessing that comparing and contrasting "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" with "The Lottery" is the sort of thing that an English teacher would hand back saying "try something less obvious".

[googles]

Yep, it's everywhere.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:51 PM on June 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


When I was a teenager, We Have Always Lived in the Castle was my very favorite book. I identified so hard with Merricat Blackwood, being a bullied loner who was drawn to magical thinking. These days, I'm creeped out by what that says about me, but I still love that book.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:01 PM on June 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

Also available as a sub-par Dr Who episode!
posted by Artw at 4:09 PM on June 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


One of the correspondents said she cannot decide whether Shirley Jackson is a genius or a more subtle version of Orson Welles. What did people in the 1940s think of Orson Welles? I feel like I'm missing some cultural insight to decode that remark. Nowadays I think he's considered a genius, at least for his work during that period.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 4:09 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


This wouldn't be too far from the famous War of the Worlds broadcast / prank right?
posted by The Whelk at 4:11 PM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ohhhhh...

That makes a lot more sense in context.
posted by Artw at 4:15 PM on June 27, 2013


One of the letters is from "Sterling Silliphant!"

Stirling Silliphant was one of the writers who thought Shirley Jackson's writing was based in fact. At first, I thought Silliphant had to be joking, but then I looked him up on IMDB and I learned he wrote the screenplay for The Towering Inferno. Then I realized, "Yeah, he probably bought it."
posted by jonp72 at 4:35 PM on June 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


This reminds me of the letters from disgruntled "2001" viewers. The sort of person who thinks that the reading literature is like smashing an oyster against a rock until the "meaning" comes out for consumption.
posted by thelonius at 4:43 PM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sorry, but "Sterling Silliphant" sounds like a rejected character from "Dr. Strangelove".

I thought The Lottery was brilliant when I read it in school, a near-perfect short story. I think it's aged very well and still packs a punch. Thanks for the FPP.
posted by mosk at 4:49 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anybody doesn't like Shirley Jackson is a bad, bad weebis.
posted by cookie-k at 4:56 PM on June 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


I was always more amused by the horrified reactions of censorious adults to the story being taught in school than by the story itself. But then I was practically raised on The Twilight Zone....
posted by dhartung at 4:56 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


It is a heavy handed story -- as, somebody mentioned above, was much of what appeared on Twilight Zone. I miss that sort of heavy handedness. The phrase "too on the nose" has become insidious, I think, robbing us of our ability to tell a story with this sort of oomph.

And, heavy handed though it might be, Jackson's story is still one I puzzle about. Is it satire? Is it a horror story? I don't know. It seems to be both. It seems to be many things at once. It feels weighty, and it's written in a strong and clear voice, but it has its secrets.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 4:58 PM on June 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


I was wondering whether people could have thought it was real because lynchings were still taking place in the US at the time it was written and published, and it turns out there was quite a bit of attention being paid to them right then:
With the beginning of the Cold War after World War II, the Soviet Union criticized the United States for the frequency of lynchings of black people. In a meeting with President Harry Truman in 1946, Paul Robeson urged him to take action against lynching. In 1951, Paul Robeson and the Civil Rights Congress made a presentation entitled "We Charge Genocide" to the United Nations. They argued that the US government was guilty of genocide under Article II of the UN Genocide Convention because it failed to act against lynchings. The UN took no action.
But when I read the rest of that Wikipedia article, I realized "The Lottery" was far too bloodless and mild to have had anything to do with lynchings.
posted by jamjam at 5:24 PM on June 27, 2013


Bunny Ultramod: "Is it satire? Is it a horror story?"

I always interpreted it as a commentary on the draft.
posted by pwnguin at 5:24 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


I read it once, and once in 6th grade one of the teachers read it to us. That was maybe the only literature discussion from my grade school education that comes to mind. The story really had an effect on almost all of us as best as I can recall. Then we read it again when I was a junior in high school in a short story anthology. Everybody but the teacher thought it was stupid. So that is what sticks in my mind--it's a great story for twelve-year-olds. This makes it hard for me to work up the energy to have another go at it.
posted by bukvich at 5:59 PM on June 27, 2013


> The sort of person who thinks that the reading literature is like smashing an oyster against
> a rock until the "meaning" comes out for consumption.

Remembers the pink stuff in Piggy's head.
posted by jfuller at 6:05 PM on June 27, 2013


I love that we teach the lottery in schools and at such a relatively young age. Middle schoolers get that story better than most people.
posted by The Whelk at 6:20 PM on June 27, 2013 [7 favorites]


The number of people who expected Mrs. Hutchinson to win a Bendix washer would amaze you.
posted by jonp72 at 7:49 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh god, I remember reading that in 7th grade. Such a depressing year of books. If it helps you get the mood, I believe the next story we read was "Lying On The Sidewalk, Bleeding."

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go post an AskMe because I can't remember all the details of the previous story we'd read, which I think involved water moccasins and blackberries.
posted by maryr at 8:18 PM on June 27, 2013


Oh god. The Lottery. I wish someone had recorded the dramatic reading my classmate gave in high school.

"They......picked up.......the rocks." Picks up crumpled paper. "They.....picked up.....the rocks." Picks up paper again. . "THEY.....PICKED! UP!..........the ROCKS!"
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:19 PM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


I miss that sort of heavy handedness. The phrase "too on the nose" has become insidious, I think, robbing us of our ability to tell a story with this sort of oomph.

And yet the funny thing is that when the story was published, so many readers were unable to understand it because they found it too obscure.
posted by deanc at 8:26 PM on June 27, 2013


My first year in high school, our drama department put on The Lottery as one of a series of one-act plays. I was just a random townsperson without any lines and it was just a high school play with rocks made out of tinfoil, but there was one performance where something just...clicked, and I suddenly felt like we really were a mob bent on stoning someone, that we really could get carried away enough to do something like that to a person we knew, just because everyone else around us was going along with it.

It was terrifying to realize that something like that really was inside of me. That play was my first really visceral introduction to the idea of the madness of crowds and it's stuck with me ever since.
posted by darchildre at 8:34 PM on June 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


"Readers wanted to know where such lotteries were held, and whether they could go and watch"
posted by jeather at 8:41 PM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


The Lottery is the only homework assignment I ever did that, once I finished, I immediately called my best friend and demand she finish as well so we could discuss. Blew my 14-year-old mind.
posted by aintthattheway at 9:08 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ursula Le Guin is Alfred Kroeber's daughter?! Mind = blown.
posted by barnacles at 1:24 AM on June 28, 2013


It is hard to believe now that anyone could have had trouble understanding it. I wanted to see if it was still as good as I remembered it being and discovered that you can actually mimic the experience of Siliphant, Miriam Friend and the original readers of 1948 by reading the digital edition of the New Yorker from June 26, 1948.

It's still good.
posted by Athanassiel at 1:59 AM on June 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


There were some outlandish theories. [one reader] suspected that the editorial staff had become “tools of Stalin.” . . . Others complained that the story had traumatized them so much that they had been unable to open any issues of the magazine since. “I read it while soaking in the tub . . . and was tempted to put my head underwater and end it all” . . .

You think that's bad?

In the orginal draft, it was a dog that <wins a Bendix washer>.
 
posted by Herodios at 7:53 AM on June 28, 2013


"Readers wanted to know where such lotteries were held, and whether they could go and watch"

That one caught my eye, and heart, jeather.
posted by doctornemo at 11:48 AM on June 28, 2013


But when I read the rest of that Wikipedia article, I realized "The Lottery" was far too bloodless and mild to have had anything to do with lynchings.

Postcards of lynchings were a thing and this one looks pretty bloodless and mild.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:54 PM on June 28, 2013


Postcards of lynchings were a thing and this one looks pretty bloodless and mild.

By "bloodless" I didn't quite mean a corpse so shrunken in on itself that it must have had all the blood drained out of it, Brandon, nor yet a human being strung up and set on fire so that all the blood boiled away rather than flowing out on to the ground, as the subjects of some of the photographs reproduced in the article I linked evidently were.

But the postcard you linked is extremely interesting from many points of view beyond being among the less explicit and instantaneously shocking of those I've been able to view.

It's addressed, for example, to a Unitarian minister in Brooklyn NY and sent unsigned (as far as I can tell) from Andalusia Alabama, and offers to put the recipient on a regular mailing list with a projected frequency of one new card a month, or so.

I'd guess the "Rev. John H. Holmes" must have had a reputation for preaching against these abominations, and that this was meant as a kind of in-your-face to him and his ilk.

I can't make out the month or the day of the month, but there's a clear "1911" below the stamp-- which is very odd because according to the Wikipedia article, lynching postcards were outlawed in 1908:
"Even the Nazis did not stoop to selling souvenirs of Auschwitz, but lynching scenes became a burgeoning subdepartment of the postcard industry. By 1908, the trade had grown so large, and the practice of sending postcards featuring the victims of mob murderers had become so repugnant, that the U.S. Postmaster General banned the cards from the mails."[30]
And the card itself was printed in Germany!

But the overarching point of my earlier comment was just how ironic it is that "The Lottery" was so upsetting and incomprehensible to so many people when structurally similar real events a hundred times worse in every respect than the action of the story were happening in their very own country on a regular basis.

And when I looked online today, I couldn't find any reference to lynchings in any of the summaries of what the critics wrote about "The Lottery", or evidence Jackson herself had mentioned lynching in any of the many talks about it she gave after it became so famous-- and lynching didn't come up in the New Yorker piece, either.

Though I imagine Marion Trout, of Lakewood, Ohio, who "suspected that the editorial staff had become 'tools of Stalin'" must have had Russian criticisms of lynchings in mind.

The New Yorker piece puts this among the "outlandish theories."
posted by jamjam at 4:11 PM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I always interpreted it as a commentary on the draft.

We performed the play in my high school in early 1972; I was a townperson with no lines. Don't recall any discussion among my peers at the time about what it actually meant; we were all just having fun putting on a show but now I'm guessing the draft was why the adults chose this production for us.
posted by Rash at 3:35 AM on July 3, 2013


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