Another June 27th arrives this weekend, evoking the spookiest date in the American literary imagination – scarier, even, than October 31.
That’s because June 27, in Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery,” is the date when residents of a seemingly quaint small town gather to participate in a ritual act of violence – a development only revealed in the story’s final passages. There’s not much risk of spoiling the surprise here, since “The Lottery” has been so widely anthologized that most readers have probably learned about its O. Henry ending.
But when “The Lottery” was first published in The New Yorker in 1948, it created a sensation, prompting more letters to the magazine than anything other work of fiction in The New Yorker’s history. Even today, although Jackson’s story has been reprinted far and wide, it continues to raise goosebumps. Part of its power comes in the way that Jackson introduces an appalling act of terror with such blithe calm. Here’s how she starts “The Lottery”:
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. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th ....”
Much of The New Yorker’s mail about “The Lottery” eventually got sent to the post office in the little Vermont town where Jackson lived. A week after the story’s publication, Jackson had to switch her mailbox to the biggest kind to accommodate all the letters. Most of the letters were notes of complaint from readers who had been offended by the story’s dark turn. “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 that I was scared to open; of the three-hundred-odd-letters I received that summer I can count only 13 that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends,” Jackson recalled, her reference to “millions” of disgruntled readers a bit of an exaggeration.
Jackson died in 1965, but interest in her work remains strong. Later this summer, Random House will publish “Let Me Tell You,” a collection of Jackson’s prose that includes lots of work not published before.
None of it, though, is likely to top “The Lottery,” first published on June 26, 1948. In the midst of summer, it managed to chill readers to the bone, and all these years later, it still does.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”