11 Facts About Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"
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.