Thursday, January 3, 2019

Story Town

     North Bennington is a small Vermont village located near the New York border. It's a few miles from the southeastern corner of Washington County.  Prospect Street starts in the center of town,  crosses Paran Creek with views of a pretty little waterfall and pond, then ascends steeply towards the Bennington College campus at the top of the hill.

     A recent early winter day found me ambling up the sidewalk along Prospect Street. The idea was to get into the mind of a person who often walked this way, to fill my senses with the everyday things she saw in the hope of better understanding her. Unfortunately, like many of my plans, it was not going very well.
     My mind kept wandering. Random thoughts came and went, jostled and shoved. Finally, one thought stuck...'Story Town'...this is the the real 'Story Town'. Right here, North Bennington, Vermont. This is 'Story Town, USA'.
     Now, where did that come from?
     A little background information is clearly in order. My wife's family once owned a tourist attraction called Animal Land. It was on Rt. 9 between Glens Falls and Lake George, N.Y.  - right next to Martha's ice cream stand. It was a small private zoo with various exotic creatures and several shows each day to entertain the guests: duck races, alligator wrestling, Tarzan and Jane type stuff. Animal Land no longer exists, it's gone without a trace. But across the road is the hugely popular Great Escape Amusement Park. What many visitors don't know is that the Great Escape evolved from a theme park once known as Story Town.

All in the family - Mom and friends

     Story Town was the creation of a man named Charles Wood. It was built in 1954, ushering in a golden age of theme parks that came to include Disneyland and many others. The idea was Mother Goose rhymes brought to life. Kids could ride with Cinderella in a pumpkin coach, pet the three little pigs, stand beneath Humpty Dumpty on a wall - that sort of thing. Maybe that seems a little hokey today, but not back in the fifties. I was taken there as a little tyke. So was just about every other kid who lived in or visited the area. Many went on to get their first summer job at the park and eventually bring their own kids to a place that held fond memories. Mr. Wood made a fortune from Story Town and became a generous philanthropist. To this day the Wood Foundation still supports many charitable causes in the region.

Vintage Story Town images from the Web

     I've never been to the Great Escape. I tend to avoid places where more than two or three people congregate. It seems to have evolved into more of a thrill park with death defying rides and such. I don't know if the 'children's stories brought to life' component still exists. But our love of stories is timeless, part of what it is to be human. What child hasn't said "Tell me a story" at bedtime?
     Which brings us back to North Bennington. I had just spent a pleasant few minutes chatting with Jennie at the John G. McCullough Free Library. She filled me in on local lore as we stood surrounded by books. By stories. Then I walked across the tiny village square - actually more of a circle - before starting up Prospect Street. 

The North Bennington Library

     That's when the whole 'Story Town' thing hit me. Stories don't just pop out of the ground like mushrooms after a rain. They come from human imagination and creativity. And there's a lot of that here in North Bennington. This little village has always had more than its share of writers. Of storytellers. That's why I came to think of it as Story Town.
     Bennington College, an exclusive/expensive liberal arts school 
(some would say too liberal) is probably the reason so many authors have called the village home. Bernard Malamud, Jamaica Kincaid, Donna Tartt and others have a college connection. And then there was Shirley Jackson (1916 - 1965). Her husband was a professor at the college. They lived here at 12 Prospect Street for several years.

Bennington College Campus - web image

     In her lectures she used to tell a story about trudging up this very hill. One morning she had been doing errands in the village   - getting the mail and newspapers, shopping at Powers Market. She was pushing her daughter Joanne in a stroller, laboring a bit. A sedentary writers lifestyle combined with an excess of food, alcohol and cigarettes tends to steepen every grade. That is when the idea came to her. Right here, halfway up Prospect Street.

A Story is Born - The Prospect Street hill

     As soon as she walked in her front door the kid and the groceries got parked, the typewriter came out and the words began to flow. By lunch time she had her story. She called it The Lottery. On June 26,1948 it landed in the pages of The New Yorker with something like the impact of an asteroid crashing to Earth. This plainly told story, crafted in a couple of hours, would become her iconic creation. It shook the little town of North Bennington as well as the larger literary world. It is one of the most anthologized and studied works of American fiction and its reverberations are still being felt to this day.

     You've almost certainly read The Lottery. It's not my purpose here to analyze it - Lord knows that has been done enough by others. Let's just say it's told in a straight forward style with simple words. It centers on ritual and tradition in a small rural village. It relates the events of a few hours on a June morning that convey a comforting order and stability, at least up until the last several lines. With the recent ascendancy of radical conservatism you might want to read The Lottery again. Old Man Warner's "There's always been a lottery," speech still sends chills.

The house at 12 Prospect Street

     I stood in front of 12 Prospect Street thinking about The Lottery and about its author. The house is a white Greek Revival with four impressive columns. It looks like a Hellenic temple to lofty thoughts. Jackson and her husband rented it for a few years in the late 1940's. They came with one child and added two more while living here. Life Among the Savages is a rollicking chronicle of Shirley's adventures raising her young family at 12 Prospect Street. Life Among the Savages is as light as The Lottery is dark and it's always been a mystery how the same person could have written both.
     Note: Groucho Marx's daughter was a student at Bennington College. At least she was until getting kicked out for bad behavior. While there she used to babysit for Jackson's kids. What a circus that must have been! 

     Jackson and her husband left Vermont briefly, then came back and shuttled between several temporary residences before buying a house at 66 Main Street in 1953. This is where she lived and wrote  for the rest of her life. It's up beyond the tracks on the opposite side of the street from the train station. It's a big inviting house...two stories, a hip roof and a full width porch with decorative trim.

The house at 66 Main Street

     With twenty rooms it was a house that could contain a lot of life. It was certainly put to the test. Jackson's family had grown to four children - two girls, two boys. There were frequent parties and the house hosted a steady stream of Bennington students and faculty as well as visiting writers and artists. And then there were the cats and dogs. Lot's of them. Shirley was always particularly fond of cats. She (jokingly?) called them her 'familiars'.

One of Shirley Jackson's ceramic cats sits atop the shelves at the local library

        On Sunday, August 8, 1965 Shirley went upstairs for her regular afternoon nap. She never woke up, dying in her sleep of heart related problems. (Stanley Hyman, Shirley's husband, would also die of a heart attach some five years later at The Rainbarrel restaurant just down the street - it's now known as Pangea.) Her years at the 66 Main house were productive and filled with good times although she suffered from anxiety and other health issues towards the end. It's here that she wrote Raising Demons - a sequel to Life Among the Savages - as well as several novels.

Pangaea faces the village green - Jackson's family frequented here when it was The Rainbarrel 

     During my visit I was standing on the sidewalk in front of the house, looking down at my camera and fumbling with the buttons when I heard "Can I help you?" The query can from a friendly woman about to get in her parked car. Feeling a little self-conscious, I explained that I was doing a Shirley Jackson tour and if I could get this #&*!ing camera to work I hoped to snap a photo of the house. 
     To my surprise, she said it was her house and she was accustomed to seeing people on a Jackson pilgrimage to North Bennington. We then spent a few enjoyable minutes exchanging tid-bits about Shirley's time living here. It was a chance encounter that added a nice personal note to my trip. But do be aware that neither of the houses mentioned are open to the public. Both are private residences and while it's fine to view them from the street, please respect the privacy of those who live in them now. 
Shirley, family and a friend - inside the 66 Main Street house? - web image

       The Haunting of Hill House is quintessential Jackson. It's usually placed in the suspense/horror category but it's much more than that. Eleanor is the main character and the novel delves deeply into her psyche, into the things that haunt her. Hill House definitely haunts her.

     There has been much speculation over the years about Jackson's inspiration for Hill House. There are several possibilities in the Bennington area and it's good scary fun to visit them. Jennings Hall is a castle like building, part of Bennington College. It sits atop Bingham Hill with a sweeping view of the campus and Mt. Anthony. You can walk to it from North Bennington or reach it on a driving tour of the college. I believe it houses the music department and there are many stories of it being haunted. Shirley was certainly aware of it but its open, sunny feel doesn't seem forbidding enough to be Hill House.

Who's afraid of Jennings Hall?

     Also frequently mentioned is the Everett Mansion. It is currently used as offices by Southern Vermont College. I walked around it at dusk and it can definitely creep you out. It sprawls beneath the dark slopes of Mount Anthony. The stone building has a fortress like appearance with a maze of arches, walkways and courtyards. The house has a long troubled history and is widely considered to be haunted.

     Finally, although I've never heard it mentioned in relation to Shirley Jackson, no visit to the area is complete without standing in awe before the Walloomsac Inn. It's in what's called Old Bennington. Up the hill from the Museum, in the shadow of the towering Monument, across the road from the Old First Church and the cemetery where Robert Frost is buried.

     The Walloomsac Inn: 2nd cousin to Hill House? - web image

     Darkness was gathering when I pulled up in front of the ramshackle building. I hoped to get a few quick photos. I also hoped it wouldn't fall down while I was standing next to it. In one second story window a feeble light glowed. It seemed to accentuate the Walloomsac's hulking presence. I fumbled around the front seat looking for my camera. Finally found it, but hesitated. Just as I gathered my resolve and prepared to get out, the Inn's front door swung open and two women walked out. They stood just a few feet from my truck, staring at me. 
     Was it possible? Do people actually live here? I had assumed it was empty. Abandoned, maybe condemned. I sat for a moment, frozen, not sure what to do. Suddenly the words of Shirley Jackson came to me: "Am I walking toward something I should be running away from?" With the two woman staring straight at me I dropped the camera, gave a meek little wave and drove quickly away. Definitely way too dark to get a good photo... 

     It had been an interesting afternoon. With an hour's drive to get home I had time to process what I'ld seen. Reading Shirley Jackson is certainly rewarding, and the Bennington area has an appealing old New England feel. But putting the two together rewards with  something greater than the sum of the parts. I've driven thru North Bennington dozens of times in the past, but in looking for Jackson landmarks I felt the thrill of discovery anew. And now, when I read her stories I'll have vivid images of where the events took place, of the town where the words were born.
     A place isn't just hills, streams and forests. It's more than how the land has been used, what's been built. A place is like a living organism, the creation of nature's forces and the collective energies of everyone who has lived there. 
     Imagine how exciting it must have been for little kids to go to Story Town, to be surrounded by the nursery rhymes they loved.  Now imagine that a big kid can feel that same excitement. I thoroughly enjoyed my walk thru North Bennington. And I didn't walk alone. I had the spirit of Shirley Jackson all around me, every step of the way.


     Let me Tell You is the title of a 2015 volume of previously unpublished/uncollected writing by the author. It's the result of two of her children's (Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt) efforts to preserve their mother's legacy. To borrow the phrase, 'let me tell you' about some other Shirley Jackson related items of interest.

     ~ I believe all her books are currently in print. You can buy a copy or find them in local libraries.

     ~ Ruth Franklin's 2016 biography is entitled Shirley Jackson - A Rather Haunted Life. It's an impressive piece of work that I relied on to plan my Bennington tour. There is also an earlier biography by Judy Oppenheimer, Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson.

     ~ Paramount Pictures is working on a feature film adaptation of The Lottery. The story has also been told on TV and in a short film. Jackson did an audio recording. Of further note is a graphic adaptation of the story by Miles Hyman, Shirley's grandson. My advice: just read the story first, then check out the other versions if you're interested. 

     ~ There are also a number of different treatments of The Haunting of Hill House. The current Netflix series has a lot of buzz. The Haunting is a 1963 film version that is available at local libraries. It was directed by Robert Wise ( in between his West Side Story and The Sound of Music!).There's also a classy new print edition from Penguin. Once again, I think simply reading it is the best way to experience the story.

      ~ Shirley: A Novel by Susan Scarf Merrell imagines Jackson's life intertwined with her husband's students and the real life 1946 incident in which Bennington College student Paula Welden went for a hike on the Long Trail and vanished without a trace. The novel is being made into a movie with Elisabeth Moss starring as Shirley Jackson. 

     ~ See Now Then, a novel by Jamaica Kincaid is set in Jackson's Prospect Street house. Kincaid raised her children here and knows the area well.  

     ~ Bennington College Writers Reading events Thursday, January 3 thru Sunday, January 6. Tishman Lecture Hall from 7 to 8pm each evening. More proof: this is Story Town.

     ~ Barry Hyman, Shirley's youngest child, lives up in the hills outside of Cambridge. He's had a long career playing and teaching music thru out the area. He often plays at Kevins in North Bennington, just a few doors down from where he grew up. His next local gig is at the Bennington Farmers Market on Saturday, January 5. Lots more info on his website. 

Barry reading one of his mother's stories at a Shirley Jackson Day event - web image

      ~ That should be enough to keep you busy until the next Shirley Jackson Day, held toward the end of June each year. Don't suppose the opening lines of The Lottery - "The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny..." - have anything to do with the timing? Recently the event has been held at the Left Bank in North Bennington. Sometimes Shirley's kids show up to read. Plan on attending, no stones required.