I am Shirley Jackson and Shirley Jackson is me

As T.W.O. would put it, that’s overegging the pudding a tadge.  I’ll never publish the most notorious and universal short story in American history.  More intimately, my husband is not a Kavorka Man.

But she and I both are housewives with strong intellectual drives living in whitopias where household help is only for weird inferior women who can’t manage entirely on their own or micromanage the bleep out of that poor cousin they did have come by a few days a week.  She couldn’t get nice college girls because mother’s helping was beneath them in 1950 and non-college girls were from families that hadn’t moved in 50-100 years and so they didn’t have anyone “strange” come help.  People tend to think college towns are all the same, but they operate along a continuum.  And Jackson was not in a college town where the degree was a MRS.

She also put her kids in preschool, which was called “community nursery school” and which 10-20% of women used back then.  Exact data is had to come by because of terminology and lack of collecting data issues.  And even back then it was the middle and up stay at home mothers who used it part-time and the smaller pool of working mothers using it full time.

I have her sense of anxiety and frustration, but not her pretty solid domestic skills. Our children find us odd but loving.  There is a sort of weirdly beautiful e-drama online somewhere where one of Stanley Jackson’s coed affairs is bragging about it on salon or something similar and Shirley’s kids post comments defending their mother and whaling on the smarmy coed selling the only interesting thing about herself. I was touched by the love her kids (one of which I think was a grandparent by now) had for her and their respect for her hard work keeping their home so it could be an entertainment vehicle for dad.

Stanley Jackson was a literary critic and professor who tomcatted around and expected his wife to produce both domestically and intellectually, but was jealous of her ability to get thousands of dollars for a handful of stories about women and children and often the domestic sphere.

I 100% do not think I can compete with the mad literary skills of Mrs. Jackson, but it’s reassuring in a strange way to know that this literary ninja had some of the same struggles I, a much more ordinary housewife, have sixty or so years later.

It also brings me back to wanting to smash conservatives in the face for chronically declaring that there was no widespread frustration among average women in the 1950s and during the WWII era and that anyone talking about it was just a loser who was unhaaaaappppy or a communist.  Shirley Jackson wrote for Good Housekeeping, for pity’s sake.  She was not writing some edgy scandal stuff like Peyton Place.  And yet there remain in both sets of writing much the same sort of struggles of women trying to adapt to the rapid shifts in technology, social roles and relationships with men.

One of the anecdotes in her domestic memoirs is about a pregnant woman she meets at the hospital when she has her third baby who is running late on delivering and is relieved and happy to be free of household tasks for what in the anecdote is about two weeks and heading into a third.  General audiences of women wouldn’t have wanted to read about stuff like that if it didn’t seem real.  They were very quick to write letters where they believed something to be unrealistic in its slicing of life.

Anyway I’ve only just begun reading her domestic memoirs and that sensation of being drawn close in time to a writer across so many seismic changes in daily life is dizzying.

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11 thoughts on “I am Shirley Jackson and Shirley Jackson is me”

  1. Interesting. MIL had one of her books (the one you’re mentioning above, with #3) and it was pretty ragged when I got it, and I read it the rest of the way to destruction. Light and funny – there was a chapter about her stream of “mother’s helpers”.

    Although the bit about one of them frosting Mr. Jackson’s cookies with “Sinner Repent” is now MUCH, MUCH funnier.

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    1. Phyliss McGinley’s Sixpence in Her Shoe is another addition to the library of mid-century housewife memoirs. (Of course PM was also a BIG poet.)

      PM found homemaking very jolly and was apparently a fine cook, but PM had only two children and a long succession of maids. (She kind of had to, because she had had some weird experimental spinal surgery that didn’t allow her to bend over anymore.)

      I also like Please Don’t Eat the Daisies and the movie version of it. There’s a wonderful scene from the movie that I love, where Doris Day and her husband are meeting the principle of the local school who obviously has designs on all their free time. The husband gives a rousing speech about how the PURPOSE of school is to free up parents and take the kids off their hands.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Elspeth said:

      “I’m not sure what the myths of the conservative homemaking/homeschooling circles are based on, but it’s not uncommon for people in current generations to was on about the good old days that never were.”

      Here are some thoughts as to why that might be.

      1. People shield children from the harsher realities. So a child (or an adult remembering their childhood) does not have all the facts.

      2. In the pre-social media generations, there is often an emphasis on keeping a stiff upper lip and not complaining, particularly not to one’s children or grandchildren. Also, in older generations, there is more of a sense of the importance of keeping up appearances. All of the “interesting” stories I’ve heard about my mom’s family have come from my dad or my sister–my mom never tells a story that doesn’t make her family sound like the Waltons.

      3. Family mythology can be very powerful. I’m in my early 40s, and I’ve only now seen through a number of myths I grew up with. For instance, that our family was living a life of sturdy pioneer independence. I now realize to what extent my grandparents were picking up the slack.

      4. One’s youth is surrounded by a rosy haze (barring truly horrific circumstances) because it is one’s youth. I remember talking to a middle-aged Russian friend years ago, and that was her explanation of why the old folks were so nostalgic about life under Stalin (and they totally were). Life was better…because they were younger. Had they been middle aged or old people under Stalin, they would have felt differently.

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      1. Apologies for monopolizing the thread! But it’s a very interesting subject.

        5. People today often don’t know a whole lot about their family history (see #1 and #2).

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    2. They’re based in a very large part on the ideas of the Schaeffers.

      The good old days were better in a lot of ways though, part of the failure to remember the past is the failure to remember what was good as well as what was bad.

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  2. Cheaper by the Dozen–written by the kids, I still think it belongs on this list.

    In their heydays, they had two servants–a cook (?) and a gardener, but the kids still had a rota of chores, responsibility for younger siblings, and could bid on outdoor projects for spending money.

    (They seem to have been under-insured or uninsured, as after the father died, they immediately had to retrench. So one of the lessons from that book is LIFE INSURANCE.)

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  3. TPC said:

    “One of the anecdotes in her domestic memoirs is about a pregnant woman she meets at the hospital when she has her third baby who is running late on delivering and is relieved and happy to be free of household tasks for what in the anecdote is about two weeks and heading into a third. General audiences of women wouldn’t have wanted to read about stuff like that if it didn’t seem real. They were very quick to write letters where they believed something to be unrealistic in its slicing of life.”

    Yeah.

    That reminds me that in both The Egg and I and Cheaper by the Dozen, it is mentioned that
    the mothers in the books regard their hospital stays to have babies as a sort of vacation. And those were old school hospitals, not the hotel-like amenities that we are used to…

    Mothers of more than one still often feel that way, but the hospital stays are way shorter…

    This is kind of awesome:

    http://www.israel21c.org/israeli-maternity-hotels-pamper-new-moms-2/

    “Virtually unknown outside of Asia, maternity hotels provide postpartum moms the luxuries of a hotel combined with 24-hour medical care, as well as optional classes on baby care, sleeping and feeding.”

    ““Whether it’s her first or fifth birth, every woman should get attention according to her specific needs,” says Inna Batkilin, a breastfeeding consultant and head nurse of the nursery at Hadassah Baby. “I wouldn’t call it pampering, but a ‘must.’”

    “Spouses may join their wives or stay home with older siblings, as they wish. Moms can choose to put their baby in the care of the hotel’s newborn nursery for all or part of the time.”

    And that, ladies, is part of how Israel keeps up that 3 child TFR.

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  4. Speaking of preschool and the difficulty of figuring out how many kids were formally in it, I’ve noticed an interesting fact from my grandma’s stories of life back in the early 50s. Grandma and grandpa have always had a very modest income, but the neighbors next door (living in “the big house”) were a doctor and his family. The doctor’s littlest daughter was about the same age as my grandma’s three very closely spaced children and spent LOTS of time at my grandparents’ house in the preschool years, even napping there.

    I haven’t asked my grandma, but the question does arise, was there some sort of financial consideration or just a neighborly understanding?

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