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11 Facts About Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"

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On June 26, 1948, subscribers to The New Yorker received a new issue of the magazine in the mail. There was nothing to outwardly indicate that it would be any different, or any more special, than any other issue. But inside was a story that editors at the magazine would, more than half a century later, call “perhaps the most controversial short story The New Yorker has ever published”: Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”

Though now a classic, the story—about a small New England village whose residents follow an annual rite in which they draw slips of paper until, finally, one of them is selected to be stoned to death—caused an immediate outcry when it was published, and gave Jackson literary notoriety. “It was not my first published story, nor my last,” the writer recounted in a 1960 lecture, “but I have been assured over and over that if it had been the only story I ever wrote and published, there would still be people who would not forget my name.” Here are a few things you might not have known about the story.

1. WRITING IT WAS A SNAP.

Jackson, who lived in North Bennington, Vermont, wrote the story on a warm June day after running errands. She remembered later that the idea “had come to me while I was pushing my daughter up the hill in her stroller—it was, as I say, a warm morning, and the hill was steep, and beside my daughter, the stroller held the day’s groceries—and perhaps the effort of that last 50 yards up the hill put an edge to the story.”

The writing came easily; Jackson dashed out the story in under two hours, making only “two minor corrections” when she read it later—“I felt strongly that I didn’t want to fuss with it”—and sent it to her agent the next day. Though her agent didn’t care for "The Lottery," she sent it off to The New Yorker anyway, telling Jackson in a note that it was her job to sell it, not like it.

2. WHEN THE STORY CAME IN, THE DECISION TO PUBLISH IT WAS NEARLY UNANIMOUS.

According to Ruth Franklin, who is writing a new biography about Jackson, there was only one exception—editor William Maxwell, who said the story was “contrived” and “heavy-handed.” The rest, though, were in agreement. Brendan Gill, a young staffer at the time, would later say that "The Lottery" was “one of the best stories—two or three or four best—that the magazine ever printed.”

3. BUT THEY WERE PUZZLED BY THE STORY.

Even Harold Ross, editor of the magazine at the time, copped to not understanding it. Jackson later recalled that the magazine’s fiction editor asked if she had an interpretation of the story, telling her that Ross “was not altogether sure that he understood the story, and asked if I cared to enlarge about its meaning. I said no.” When the editor asked if there was something the magazine should tell people who might write in or call, Jackson again responded in the negative, saying, “It was just a story that I wrote.” 

4. THE EDITORS ASKED TO MAKE A MINOR TWEAK.

The editors did ask for permission to make one small change: They wanted to alter the date in the story’s opening so it coincided with the date on the new issue—June 27. Jackson said that was fine.

5. THE BACKLASH WAS INSTANT.

“The Lottery” appeared three weeks after Jackson’s agent had submitted it, and there was instant controversy: Hundreds of readers cancelled their subscriptions and wrote letters expressing their rage and confusion about the story. In one such letter, Miriam Friend, a librarian-turned-housewife, wrote “I frankly confess to being completely baffled by Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery.’ Will you please send us a brief explanation before my husband and I scratch right through our scalps trying to fathom it?” Others called the story “outrageous,” “gruesome,” and “utterly pointless.” “I will never buy The New Yorker again,” one reader from Massachusetts wrote. “I resent being tricked into reading perverted stories like ‘The Lottery.’” There were phone calls, too, though The New Yorker didn’t keep a record of what was said, or how many calls came in.

6. JACKSON GOT A LOT OF HATE MAIL...

Jackson later said that June 26, 1948 was “the last time for months I was to pick up the mail without an active feeling of panic.” The New Yorker forwarded the mail they received about her story—sometimes as many as 10 to 12 letters a day—which, according to Jackson, came in three main flavors: “bewilderment, speculation, and plain old-fashioned abuse.” Jackson was forced to switch to the biggest possible post office box; she could no longer make conversation with the postmaster, who wouldn’t speak to her.

Shortly after the story was published, a friend sent Jackson a note, saying, “Heard a man talking about a story of yours on the bus this morning. Very exciting. I wanted to tell him I knew the author, but after I heard what he was saying, I decided I’d better not.”

7. … EVEN FROM HER PARENTS.

Her mother wrote to her that “Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker … [I]t does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don't you write something to cheer people up?”

“It had simply never occurred to me that these millions and millions of people might be so far from being uplifted that they would sit down and write me letters I was downright scared to open,” Jackson said later. “[O]f the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends.”

Jackson kept all of the letters, kind and not-so-kind, and they’re currently among her papers at the Library of Congress.

8. SOME PEOPLE THOUGHT THE STORY WAS NON-FICTION.

Jackson received a number of letters asking her where these rituals took place—and if they could go watch them. “I have read of some queer cults in my time, but this one bothers me,” wrote one person from Los Angeles. “Was this group of people perhaps a settlement descended from early English colonists? And were they continuing a Druid rite to assure good crops?” a reader from Texas asked. “I’m hoping you’ll find time to give me further details about the bizarre custom the story describes, where it occurs, who practices it, and why,” someone from Georgia requested.

Franklin noted that among those fooled were 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?”), and Harvard sociology professor Nahum Medalia (“It is a wonderful story, and it kept me very cold on the hot morning when I read it.”).

It might seem strange that so many people thought the story was factual, but, as Franklin notes, “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.”

9. THE NEW YORKER HAD A BOILERPLATE RESPONSE TO LETTERS ABOUT "THE LOTTERY."

It went something like this: “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.”

10. JACKSON DID WEIGH IN ON THE LOTTERY’S MEANING.

“Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult,” she wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle in July 1948. “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.”

11. THE STORY HAS BEEN ADAPTED MANY TIMES.

Though it's most famous for its place on high school reading lists, “The Lottery” has also been adapted into a number of formats, including a radio broadcast in 1951, a ballet in 1953, a short film in 1969, and a 1996 TV movie starring Keri Russel that followed the son of the story’s murdered character. "The Lottery" has also been featured on The Simpsons.

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This Harry Potter Candle Melts to Reveal Your Hogwarts House—and Smells Amazing
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As it gets darker and colder outside, the thought of lighting a candle in your room and curling up with a good book becomes more appealing. A sorting hat candle from the Muggle Library Candles Etsy store makes the perfect companion to whatever Harry Potter book you happen to be re-reading for the hundredth time this season. According to the Cleveland news outlet WKYC, the candle slowly reveals your Hogwarts house as it burns.

From the outside, the item looks like a normal white candle. But when lit, the outer layer of plain wax melts away, allowing the colorful interior to poke through. The candles come in one of four concealed colors: red for Gryffindor, blue for Ravenclaw, yellow for Hufflepuff, and green for Slytherin. The only way to know which house you’re destined to match with is by purchasing a candle and putting it to use. According to the label, the scent evokes “excitement, fear, and nervousness.” The smell can also be described as lemon with sandalwood, vanilla, and patchouli.

Due to its viral popularity, the Fort Worth, Texas-based Etsy store has put all orders on hold while working to get its current batch of shipments out to customers. You can follow Muggle Library Candles on Instagram for updates on the sorting candle, as well as other Harry Potter-themed candles in their repertoire, like parseltongue and free elf.

[h/t WKYC]

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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