“Call Me Ishmael,” an early story by Shirley Jackson which is published in this summer’s Fiction Issue, first appeared in 1939, when Jackson was an undergraduate at Syracuse University. The story was included in the inaugural issue of Spectre, “the official magazine of the Syracuse University English Club,” which she founded with a fellow-student, Stanley Hyman. She and Hyman put out four issues of the journal, with Jackson as editor and Hyman the managing editor. They married in 1940. Here, Laurence Jackson Hyman discusses his mother’s story.
“Call Me Ishmael” is a very short, enigmatic piece of writing. It’s told from the perspective of a daughter who is watching her mother watch a woman on the corner of a street. We know almost nothing about the three characters in the story. How typical is this early story of your mother’s short fiction over her career?
This piece is fairly typical for Shirley, at least in tone. She wrote in a sparse style, and often relies on the reader to add personal details to the picture, and these complicated vignettes were of the sort that Shirley liked to write, with few words magically evoking far more. Shirley can often instill tension by introducing separate characters somehow randomly encountering others. Here she seems to add a dimension by allowing the daughter to analyze the structures of language and speech, the weather, and indeed her mother.
The daughter considers the way that everything has to have a precedent: “nothing exists, she thought, unless it depends on something previous.” One precedent for this story seems as though it could be the daughter’s habit of analyzing her mother (the weather of the daughter’s life, in a way). Do you think the mother has any idea that she’s under this kind of scrutiny?
The mother shows little interest in her daughter or her scrutinizing habits; she probably has no idea. Both the mother and the daughter seem poised, formal, almost onstage and waiting for their cues. The mother’s voice and mannerisms are her armor. She is ill-tempered and spiteful underneath, and the daughter seems not to question it.
The mother had suggested to the landlord that he evict the woman who’s now standing on the corner. Is she aware of the cruelty of her behavior? How hard is it for the daughter to assess the woman on her own terms, beyond her mother’s interpretation of her?
No, I don’t think the mother is aware of her own cruelty; she feels righteously that she has done the only reasonable thing, given her status and power. Perhaps the mother’s blinding dislike of the woman comes from her fear of somehow being like the woman, stripped of all her comforts and luxury.
What do you think of the title, “Call Me Ishmael”?
Shirley wrote many descriptive titles for her stories and others that may leave the reader doing some head-scratching. Ruth Franklin, in her biography of my mother, “Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life,” reports that Stanley also came up with some of the titles, including this one. Here, by repeating the iconic beginning of “Moby-Dick,” the title evokes Ahab’s obsessive search for the whale that has consumed his leg, and suggests, perhaps, an obvious theme of fruitless obsessive-compulsive pursuit for no personal gain, but rather revenge. The mother has made the woman a scapegoat.
You’ve mentioned in the past that Shirley didn’t like to interpret her own fiction. Do you think she would have had any patience for these kinds of questions?
Shirley usually declined interpreting her own work, and likely would have waved off these questions; she always said that her work spoke for itself. But she also liked to be playful, and, in the proper mood, she might have allowed herself to join such a discussion about the business of writing, or the building of plots. ♦