If you were forced to read Shirley Jackson’s shocking short-story “The Lottery” when you were in high school, your reaction may have been somewhere along the lines of “OMG” to “WTF.” Without giving too much away, the story tells of a small town who gathers every year for “the lottery,” and every townsperson must be present: even the newborn and the elderly. What is the reason for this strange tradition? You’ll have to read the story to find out.
Things haven’t changed much since the story was first published in The New Yorker‘s June 26, 1948 issue. Shortly after the weekly magazine published, letters (and even phone calls) of outrage started pouring in from readers. By the time people had cooled down, The New Yorker had received more than 300 letters in response—more than any other work of fiction the magazine has ever published, Ruth Franklin writes in an essay about “The Lottery” letters.
Franklin, who is hard at work on the first-ever authorized biography of Shirley Jackson, writes that Jackson kept all the letters she received in response to her disturbing story. Not all were hate mail, but, if the letters “could be considered to give any accurate cross section of the reading public … I would stop writing now,” Jackson later said. You can find all 300 letters in Jackson’s papers at The Library of Congress, or read more about the story’s, well, storied history.
For those of you who haven’t read “The Lottery,” what are you waiting for? The story appears in Jackson’s 1949 collection The Lottery and Other Stories. Once you’re done, head on back to this post. We’ve got the 10 stages of reading “The Lottery” as told by the story’s first real-life readers. And we’re here for you.
“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?” —Shirley Jackson’s parents, in a letter to their daughter
“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?”—Regular New Yorker reader and housewife Miriam Friend
“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.”—a reader from Georgia
“I will never buy The New Yorker again. I resent being tricked into reading perverted stories like ‘The Lottery.’”—a reader from Massachusetts
“If Shirley Jackson’s intent was to symbolize into complete mystification, and at the same time be gratuitously disagreeable, she certainly succeeded.”—Alfred L. Kroeber, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley
Marion Trout, of Lakewood, Ohio, suspected that the editorial staff had become “tools of Stalin.”
“It is a wonderful story, and it kept me very cold on the hot morning when I read it.”—Harvard sociology professor Nahum Medalia
“Mr. Harold Ross, then the editor of The New Yorker, was not altogether sure that he understood the story, and wondered if I cared to enlarge upon its meaning. I said no.” —Shirley Jackson
“The Lottery” was “one of the best stories—two or three or four best—that the magazine ever printed.”—Brendan Gill, former staffer at The New Yorker
“I read it while soaking in the tub … and was tempted to put my head underwater and end it all.”—Camilla Ballou of St. Paul, Minnesota