How Shirley Jackson Wrote “The Lottery”

Slate's Culture Blog
June 27 2013 5:12 PM

How Shirley Jackson Wrote “The Lottery”

thelottery

Just as June 16 belongs to James Joyce, June 27 belongs to Shirley Jackson: It’s the day on which her classic story “The Lottery” is set. It could have been another day, but, as Jackson recalls in a posthumously published lecture on the story, the New Yorker editor who reviewed the first draft “asked for one change—that the date mentioned in the story be changed to coincide with the date of the issue of the magazine in which the story would appear, and I said of course.” As Ruth Franklin explained yesterday on the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog, the story has emotionally taxed its readers for more than half a century. And yet if we take Jackson’s word for it, writing the story was a breeze, completed in the same set of movements as a walk with her daughter and a trip to the grocery store.

“I had the idea fairly clearly in my mind when I put my daughter in her playpen and the frozen vegetables in the refrigerator,” she recounts in the lecture, “and, writing the story, I found that it went quickly and easily, moving from beginning to end without pause. As a matter of fact, when I read it over later I decided that except for one or two minor corrections, it needed no changes, and the story I finally typed up and sent off to my agent the next day was almost word for word the original draft.”

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“The Lottery” is notoriously steeped in confusion and myth, and Jackson’s account of writing and editing the story is, it turns out, another myth. On June 26, 1948, she claims in the lecture, she went to the post office and retrieved a copy of that week’s New Yorker, which had her story in it. “I had written the story three weeks before, on a bright June morning when the summer seemed to have come at last, with blue skies and warm sun.” Only, that’s not really true. As I recently found during a trip to Jackson’s papers at the Library of Congress, a draft of “The Lottery” she sent to The New Yorker was reviewed by different editors on March 16 and April 12 of that year. A letter from a fiction editor at the magazine, dated April 9, makes reference to a phone call he and Jackson had shared the day before and reiterates a number of suggested changes. “The most important thing is somehow to clarify your intention—that is, the underlying theme of the piece—just a bit more. I suspect that you can do it by amplifying one or two snatches of talk.” The editor, whom Deborah Treisman tells me was probably Gus Lobrano (his signature is difficult to make out), added, “And the weather probably should be normal—not a June 27th with int [sic] of cold still in the air.”

In an early draft of the story, Jackson described the morning as “clear and sunny, with a hint of cold still in the air although the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was almost summer-green.”* Following Lobrano’s suggestion, the final version begins: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.” Though this may seem like a superficial change, Lobrano’s suggestion was astute: The typical warmth of that summer day helps to hide the insidiousness of what follows, and sets up the forceful shock of the story’s ending.

There are other changes and comments throughout the manuscripts in Jackson’s papers, mostly word changes and some additions of dialogue and action. A moment of dialogue in the original story referred to “clans,” but Lobrano told Jackson that the word “threw people off considerably and started them speculating about whether the locale was Scotland.” Jackson replaced the word with “families.”

Perhaps “The Lottery” came more easily to Jackson than other stories, but her account of an editor asking for “one change” and the story going from first idea to print in three weeks sells her own efforts short. Jackson, like most writers, achieved greatness with patient work and the help of others—her editors, her agent, and her literary-critic husband. Drafts were written and rewritten; phone calls with editors were made; galleys were drawn up and edited; and, in the end, the story appeared in print months after it had been conceived. It was all very ordinary, as ordinary a process as the lottery itself—until the surprise, when, like stones, the letters began to come.

* Correction, July 31: This post originally described this draft as Jackson's first. In fact, Jackson's biographer Ruth Franklin informs us that the first draft was lost, so we do not know how it began.

William Brennan is an associate editor at The Atlantic. His work has also appeared online at The New Yorker. You can follow him on Twitter.