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Report Essay Story Letter Torrents

When Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery” was first published, in the June 26, 1948, issue of this magazine, Miriam Friend was a young mother living in Roselle, New Jersey, with her husband, a chemical engineer who worked on the Manhattan Project. An exact contemporary of Jackson’s—both women were born in 1916—she had recently left her job as a corporate librarian to care for her infant son, and she was a faithful reader of The New Yorker. “I frankly confess to being completely baffled by Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery,’ ” she wrote in a letter to the editor after reading the story. “Will you please send us a brief explanation before my husband and I scratch right through our scalps trying to fathom it?”

Friend’s note was among the first of the torrent of letters that arrived at The New Yorker in the wake of “The Lottery”—the most mail the magazine had ever received in response to a work of fiction. Jackson’s story, in which the residents of an unidentified American village participate in an annual rite of stoning to death a person chosen among them by drawing lots, would quickly become one of the best known and most frequently anthologized short stories in English. “The Lottery” has been adapted for stage, television, opera, and ballet; it was even featured in an episode of “The Simpsons.” By now it is so familiar that it is hard to remember how shocking it originally seemed: “outrageous,” “gruesome,” or just “utterly pointless,” in the words of some of the readers who were moved to write. When I spoke to Friend recently—she is the only one of the letter writers I could track down who is still alive—she still remembered how upsetting she had found “The Lottery.” “I don’t know how anyone approved of that story,” she told me.

In a lecture Jackson often gave about the story’s creation and its aftermath, which was published posthumously under the title “Biography of a Story,” she said that of all the letters that came in that summer—they eventually numbered more than three hundred, by her count—only thirteen were kind, “and they were mostly from friends.” The rest, she wrote with mordant humor, were dominated by three main themes: “bewilderment, speculation, and plain old-fashioned abuse.” Readers wanted to know where such lotteries were held, and whether they could go and watch; they threatened to cancel their New Yorker subscriptions; they declared the story a piece of trash. If the letters “could be considered to give any accurate cross section of the reading public … I would stop writing now,” she concluded.

As Jackson’s biographer, I’ve pored over more than a hundred of these letters, which she kept in a giant scrapbook that is now in her archive at the Library of Congress. There were indeed some cancelled subscriptions, as well as a fair share of name-calling—Jackson was said to be “perverted” and “gratuitously disagreeable,” with “incredibly bad taste.” But the vast majority of the letter writers were not angry or abusive but simply confused. More than anything else, they wanted to understand what the story meant. The response of Carolyn Green, of New Milford, Connecticut, was typical. “Gentlemen,” she wrote, “I have read ‘The Lottery’ three times with increasing shock and horror.… Cannot decide whether [Jackson] is a genius or a female and more subtle version of Orson Welles.”

One of the many who took the story for a factual report was Stirling Silliphant, a producer at Twentieth Century-Fox: “All of us here have been grimly moved by Shirley Jackson’s story.… Was it purely an imaginative flight, or do such tribunal rituals still exist and, if so, where?” Andree L. Eilert, a fiction writer who once had her own byline in The New Yorker, wondered if “mass sadism” was still a part of ordinary life in New England, “or in equally enlightened regions.” Nahum Medalia, a professor of sociology at Harvard, also assumed the story was based in fact, though he was more admiring: “It is a wonderful story, and it kept me very cold on the hot morning when I read it.” The fact that so many readers accepted “The Lottery” as truthful is less astonishing than it now seems, since at the time The New Yorker did not designate its stories as fact or fiction, and the “casuals,” or humorous essays, were generally understood as falling somewhere in between.

Among those who were confused about Jackson’s intentions was Alfred L. Kroeber, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “If Shirley Jackson’s intent was to symbolize into complete mystification, and at the same time be gratuitously disagreeable, she certainly succeeded,” he wrote. In an e-mail to me, Kroeber’s daughter, the novelist Ursula Le Guin, who was nineteen years old when “The Lottery” appeared, recalled her father’s reaction: “My memory is that my father was indignant at Shirley Jackson’s story because as a social anthropologist he felt that she didn’t, and couldn’t, tell us how the lottery could come to be an accepted social institution.” Since Jackson presented her fantasy “with all the trappings of contemporary realism,” Le Guin said, her father felt that she was “pulling a fast one” on the reader.

There were some outlandish theories. Marion Trout, of Lakewood, Ohio, suspected that the editorial staff had become “tools of Stalin.” Another reader wondered if it was a publicity stunt, while several more speculated that a concluding paragraph must have been accidentally cut by the printer. 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,” wrote Camilla Ballou, of St. Paul.

Even the New Yorker staff could not agree about “The Lottery.” The editors accepted it almost unanimously, the sole dissenter being William Maxwell, who found it “contrived” and “heavy-handed.” Brendan Gill, then a young staffer, told Jackson that the fiction editor Gus Lobrano, unsurprisingly, loved it, but reporters Joseph Mitchell, A. J. Liebling, and others were less impressed. (Gill thought it was “one of the best stories—two or three or four best—that the magazine ever printed.”) Harold Ross, the magazine’s editor at the time, never went on record with his personal opinion. But he wrote to Jackson’s husband, the literary critic and New Yorker staff writer Stanley Edgar Hyman, the following month that “the story has certainly been a great success from our standpoint.… [The cartoonist] Gluyas Williams said it is the best American horror story. I don’t know whether it’s that or not, or quite what it is, but it was a terrifically effective thing, and will become a classic in some category.”

The largest proportion of the respondents admired “The Lottery,&#8221 even if they did not believe they understood it. Arthur Wang, then at Viking Press and later to found the publishing house Hill and Wang, wrote to Hyman: “We discussed the story for almost an hour the other evening. It’s damned good but I haven’t met anyone who is sure that they … know what it’s about.” Nelson Olmsted, a producer at NBC, wrote to Jackson that he was interested in using the story on television. “I deal with hundreds of stories every year, but it has been a long time since I have seen one create as much interest and discussion as ‘The Lottery,’ ” he wrote. His own interpretation was that “humanity is normally opposed to progress; instead, it clutches with tenacity to the customs and fetishes of its ancestors.” (NBC ended up adapting “The Lottery” for two programs in the early nineteen-fifties.)

For the rest of her life, Jackson would receive letters demanding an explanation for “The Lottery.” She reportedly told one friend that it was based in anti-Semitism, and another that all the characters were modeled on actual people in North Bennington. After receiving a letter of praise from her college professor H. W. Herrington, she replied that the idea had originated in his folklore course. The best explanation for it is probably the most general, something like what she wrote in response to Joseph Henry Jackson, the literary editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, who confessed in his column that he was “stumped” by the story. “I suppose I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives,” she replied. The New Yorkers Kip Orr, who was charged with responding to all the letters on Jackson’s behalf, echoed this position in his standard formulation: “Miss Jackson’s story can be interpreted in half a dozen different ways. It’s just a fable.… She has chosen a nameless little village to show, in microcosm, how the forces of belligerence, persecution, and vindictiveness are, in mankind, endless and traditional and that their targets are chosen without reason.”

“The Lottery” takes the classic theme of man’s inhumanity to man and gives it an additional twist: the randomness inherent in brutality. It anticipates the way we would come to understand the twentieth century’s unique lessons about the capacity of ordinary citizens to do evil—from the Nazi camp bureaucracy, to the Communist societies that depended on the betrayal of neighbor by neighbor and the experiments by the psychologists Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo demonstrating how little is required to induce strangers to turn against each other. In 1948, with the fresh horrors of the Second World War barely receding into memory and the Red Scare just beginning, it is no wonder that the story’s first readers reacted so vehemently to this ugly glimpse of their own faces in the mirror, even if they did not realize exactly what they were looking at.

Recalling “The Lottery” in our conversation, Miriam Friend was no less disturbed by it than she had been upon her first reading, nor had she changed her mind about it in the last sixty-five years. “Such a harsh story,” she said.

Ruth Franklin is a book critic and author of “A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction.” She is at work on a biography of Shirley Jackson. Allison Bulger assisted with the research for this article.

Illustration by Victor Kerlow.

Our first letter was from Magnus Mills. It came in a plain brown envelope, and was handwritten on a plain sheet of white A4. “Dear J,” it began. “Thanks for asking and I’m really very flattered, but I don’t think I’ll be able to supply a handwritten letter.” It went on to explain the ways his time was taken up with work or with thinking about work. It was thoughtful and well-written, and concluded with: “Therefore, I’m sorry but there’ll be no letter.” Uncertain whether the irony was deliberate (but assuming, coming from the author of the deadpan The Restraint Of Beasts, that it probably was), we went ahead and published his letter-that-wasn’t-a-letter anyway.

The starting point for the Letters Page was a simple one. I was taking up a job teaching creative writing at the University of Nottingham, and I wanted to encourage the students to think about writing in ways that didn’t involve blank sheets of paper or screens. I wanted them to think about other people’s writing before they started to think about their own, and decided that a good way of doing this would be to set up a literary journal and have the students produce it; reading the submissions, making selections, putting each issue together.

But I wanted it to be a literary journal that could find an underhand way of being literary; to take the self-consciousness out of being literary. I’ve always been interested in the kinds of writing people do when they don’t think they’re being asked To Write, and I’d been thinking about letters as a form; wondering about the differences between letters-on-paper and emails, reflecting on my own letter-writing history, noticing the democracy of correspondence as a literary practice. So the idea was born.

Tell us about the letter or conversation that changed your life

I asked people to send us letters; real letters, written by hand and sent through the post. I sat in the office with my student assistants and waited for the letters to arrive. There was something exciting about sorting through the pile, letters from Canada and the US, from Spain and Germany and France, from Donegal and Dublin and Brighton and Tring. We set to work with the letter knives and started to read. I was hoping that they would, while still being framed as letters, take the form of stories, essays, poems, memoir, criticism. What actually happened was that almost everyone wrote about the nostalgic and rare pleasure of sitting down to write a letter at all.

I grew up writing letters. They were a big part of making me the writer I am today, I think. As a child there were thank you letters, of course, ruining the long weeks after Christmases and birthdays. And postcards. Letters to the Beano, and Blue Peter, and – now tainted – letters to Jim’ll Fix It. (I wanted to drive a combine harvester, thanks for asking.)

As I grew older, I seemed to accumulate penpals the way other people collected football stickers, and by my late teens I was sending and receiving two or three letters a day. Much of what I wrote then would have been standard teenage diary stuff, about how terrible my life was and how brilliant the Smiths were; but over time, much more of what I wrote became about storytelling.

I was commuting 30 miles a day to college, and spent the time writing about the people I saw on those journeys; and what I didn’t know, I made up. Without really thinking about it, I was experimenting with ways of telling a story, ways of holding a reader’s attention, playing with voice and form and technique; and the friends writing back were doing the same. The boundary between fact and fiction was blurred, but in truth we were only asking about each other’s lives. Through these letters, I was learning about the small corners of the world my friends inhabited: in towns in Dorset and Devon, in south Wales, in north London, in the West Midlands, in Kent. These letters were making physical journeys from places I’d never been, bringing news from elsewhere.

I kept writing letters throughout my time at university. The first time someone gave me their email address, I looked at it as though it had no more relevance to my life than someone’s CB radio handle. But, of course, email crept gradually into my life, initially as a sort of proto-text-messaging, for occasions when quick and simple communication was required. And there was a long period of overlap where I would email someone to let them know I was writing a letter and would soon be posting it. But at some point the balance tilted, and letter-writing became something that happened by choice rather than by default; something a little self-conscious or mannered, something that started to feel like a duty or a task, and so was never quite done; until I moved house a few years later and realised there was no one I needed to tell. My email address wasn’t changing, and my physical address no longer counted. My letter-writing days were over.

They were often remarkably self-conscious about sitting down to write. There were many apologies for poor handwriting

It’s been boom time for nostalgia about letter-writing lately. You can always tell that a cultural form is dying when people start making a point of celebrating it. (See also: typewriters, Polaroid photographs, vinyl records.) There have been the excellent Letters Of Note books edited by Shaun Usher, with its accompanying Letters Live stage shows; the Letters In The Mail subscription service run by rumpus.net, where you get a letter from an interesting writer every two weeks; and a whole series of books and articles either celebrating letters, or decrying email, or both.

The letters that started arriving in Nottingham were, on the whole, addressing themselves to this idea of the loss of letter-writing. They were often remarkably self-conscious about the process of sitting down to write. There were many apologies for poor handwriting, and sometimes these were justified. There were references, towards the end of letters, to aching hands. There was some confusion about the cost of stamps. And there was a lot of talk about the letters people had written in the past – about penpals, and relationships maintained across distances, about letters written from the army or from prison or from school – and a lot of talk about when exactly the habit had fallen away.

The Irish novelist Colum McCann wrote fondly to us of his own letter-writing history, and of the letters he has received. “I don’t stack them away in neat little piles,” he wrote, “but sometimes I do leave them lying around my office, so that I can open them and let them surprise me.” He referred also, as many people did, to collections of letters as personal archive material, mentioning a crate of letters his father kept in a shed. “He has told me that I can read the letters at any time. I have told him that I will wait until he is gone. And he tells me that in that crate, those letters, he will never be gone.”

It feels just a little warmer believing there’s somebody out there, somewhere, who knows you’re still alive

McCann’s letter took a little deciphering, because, while the handwriting itself was immaculate, there were all manner of sidenotes and endnotes tucked into the margins and arrowed between paragraphs. This was quite a theme in many of the letters we received; just how disorderly a handwritten text can be, compared with the linearity of a document on a screen. There were crossings out and rewritings, marginalia, diagrams and doodles, cover notes and Post-it notes and extra scraps tucked into the envelopes. There were pressed flowers, and bookmarks, and even a lock of hair. At least two letters arrived stuffed into plastic bottles, the stamps held on with sellotape and hope. Selma Dabbagh wrote us an abandoned love letter, retrieved from a hotel waste basket and sent as a scrumpled ball. Ruth Gilligan wrote a letter to God, folded into a tightly wedged note as though ready to be pushed into a crack in the Western Wall. Some of the letters were scented, and not always deliberately. Some were torn, and stained, and all of them bore the traces of the journey they had made from the place where they were written. They were physical objects, with all the tactility and uniqueness and marks of time which that implies, and it became more apparent than ever that these marks of time are what distinguish letters from emails and other forms of digital correspondence.

The wonderful thing about email is its immediacy. A conversation can be had – a decision made, a plan refined – in a matter of minutes, no matter where in the world the two parties happen to be. A letter, by contrast, always arrives from the past. There is a waiting – a forced patience – built into the mechanics. You wait for a letter to arrive. You wait for a reply. In the time it takes for the letter to reach its destination, anything can happen: minds be changed, lives lost, loves discovered.

This sense of duration was also borne out by how many of the letters we read wanted to give a sense of where they were, in both space and time: I am sitting at the kitchen table; I am in the garden, under the apple tree; I can hear the children in the bath upstairs and will soon have to fetch them. In that sense, a letter is more “composed” than an email.

But these differences between letters and emails are just that: differences. One is not better or worse than the other. In many ways, the differences hold in microcosm the wider cultural shift away from reading in print to reading on screen. For some people, there will always be something more transient about the latter. There is an astonishing wealth of information on the devices we carry around with us – a wealth that should be celebrated – but it can be difficult to concentrate on one piece of information at a time; to read a single article or book with the kind of deep, measured concentration that seems to come more naturally with print. A printed book stays on your shelf, and can be bookmarked, annotated, flicked through, shared. I know, I know: these things are all possible with digital devices, and they may come naturally to some people. This might just be me. But you don’t have to be an ink-sniffing stationery fetishist to think that perhaps the technology of the printed book is more durable and user-friendly than some people have started to give it credit for.

If I write: 'first kiss'... and you feel something... suddenly we are in direct connection, mind to mind

Because here’s something I’ve noticed: people really do like having something to hold. I should have mentioned that, despite setting out to celebrate the physicality of the handwritten letter, until this month we published only online, relying on our readers either to print out and savour each issue, or to read it on a screen of their choice. And it’s become clear that, even as the number of our subscribers continues to grow, there has been less engagement with each issue; fewer downloads, fewer responses. It seems as though the format is too ephemeral, too transient; the very opposite of the letters that continue to arrive through our letterbox.

Which is why, because I am an actual ink-sniffing stationery fetishist, we’ve now published them in print. There are letters from the novelists Naomi Alderman, Andrey Kurkov, Joanna Walsh, Kevin Barry and others. But the closing letter, fittingly, is from a retired postal worker in Alberta, Canada – Ken Sears. He writes about the letters he sorted during his career, and how he learned to spot the ones from prison, from lovers, from the person with hypergraphia, or people behaviourally compelled to write; and about how now, in retirement, despite a lifetime of seeing most of the mail he sorted as just so much landfill, he continues to write letters, “Because it’s a big, cold universe, and it feels just a little warmer believing there’s somebody out there, somewhere, who knows you’re still alive. I’ll keep on writing them, and the brothers and sisters down at the local PO will keep shoving them along. They make a few bucks. I draw my pension. I learn a few things and everybody’s happy.”

A letter from George Saunders, author of Pastoralia and Tenth Of December

September 30, 2013
Oneonta, NY, USA

Dear Reader,

Interesting to think that words on a page can create a disturbance in a brain thousands of miles or hundreds of years away. How does that work? If I write: “first kiss; please pause to remember the taste/smell phenomenon associated with that event, especially the pleasant ones that still have the power to make you happy,” and you do pause & remember – why does that work? Or maybe I say: “fresh-cut grass on a summer day.” If you feel something, then it is my brain activity (over here, in the US) that caused it. Suddenly we are in direct connection, mind to mind. We have just established, by implication, that both of us (you, there, in England, say) & me here in my writing shed in Oneonta, New York (door open, dog at my feet, on a clear fall day on which the quality of light is so clean that it has all day been landing on the autumnal woods in a way that makes a person just want to stand there & stare), have each, at one time, experienced a first kiss. And that the effects of those two experiences were not so very different. And that my experience (which occurred in 1974!, in a 1969 Camaro, parked at the edge of a golf course in Midlothian, Illinois, USA) was similar enough to yours (and how about yours, by the way?) to evoke what us New Agers might call a “shared emotional space”. No matter how old you are, or how old I was at the time of writing (54, & thanks for asking), or how alive you are, or how dead I am, and even if that phrase re the kiss or the grass had to be translated before you could read it – there we were just now, lovingly regarding the same human experience, our brains encouraged, by words, to jump through roughly the same hoop. And we were somehow expanded by that. You now believe more fully in my existence and I in yours. We think more highly of one another. And we think better of everyone else, too. It seems more likely to us now that other people actually exist. We have experienced a brief elimination of what we might call the “I/Other” boundary. Soon enough (yes, yes) that boundary springs back into place, and we are merely ourselves again, believing ourselves separate from everything else. But for that brief moment, our understanding of our relation to the greater world was correct.

All the best,

George Saunders

Jon McGregor is the author of If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things; his new novel, Reservoir 13, will be published next April by Fourth Estate. The Letters Page, Volume 1 is published (as a letter-filled box) by Book Ex Machina at £25.75.

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