I wasn’t very old the first time I read “The Lottery.” Maybe 12 or thereabouts, having stumbled across the story in a University English literature textbook my older brother had left behind and unattended at a time when my family was only just discovering that nothing was safe around me: I’d read anything that wasn’t nailed down.
A fine early summer day. A comely town square. A rich and gorgeous portrait of life in a bucolic American town. And something’s going on. Something mysterious and intense. You can feel it ripple through that clear, middle American summer’s day. It’s gorgeous. The sun touches your shoulder. People know each other and are friendly. Yet you can feel the vibration of fear; faint at first, but getting stronger the more deeply into the story we travel.
Writer’s Almanac tells us that “The Lottery” was published in The New Yorker on this day in 1948. It would take some time before author Shirley Jackson’s life was ever the same.
Hundreds of readers wrote to the magazine, many of them wanting to cancel their subscriptions because they were so upset by the story. Jackson later wrote: “On the morning of June 28, 1948, I walked down to the post office in our little Vermont town to pick up the mail. I was quite casual about it, as I recall — I opened the box, took out a couple of bills and a letter or two, talked to the postmaster for a few minutes, and left, never supposing that it was the last time for months that I was to pick up the mail without an active feeling of panic. By the next week, I had to change my mailbox to the largest one in the post office, and casual conversation with the postmaster was out of the question, because he wasn’t speaking to me.”
Part of the trouble, it appeared, was that she hadn’t taken many pains to hide the fact that, in many ways, the town she’d set the story in was based on her own Vermont burgh. But it was more than that, too. Jackson’s writing was so vivid and the story so calm yet escalatingly awful, it was hard to look away.
A month after the story came out, Jackson answered the outcry with a response in the July 22, 1948 edition of The San Francisco Chronicle. It’s possible it was not her intent to fan the flames with her words, but that isn’t obvious when you read them:
Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. 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.
Jackson was prolific and produced an astonishing body of work considering the fact that she died at just 48. She wrote six novels, a handful of children’s books and scores of short stories. Even so, that relatively early story nudges out all of her other work, though her two last novels — The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) — brought her a fair amount of acclaim. But nothing would have the impact and influence of “The Lottery,” still fresh and breathing all these miles beyond.