Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

New World Miniatures: Shirley Jackson's the Sundial and Postwar American Society

Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

New World Miniatures: Shirley Jackson's the Sundial and Postwar American Society

Article excerpt

[The American home] must be a home built and loved upon new world, and not the old world, ideas and principles.

A.J. Downing, The Architecture of Country Houses, 1850

" `We are in a pocket of time,"' claims a character in Shirley Jackson's 1958 novel The Sundial, "'a tiny segment of time suddenly pinpointed by a celestial eye"' (45). It is a preposterously oracular utterance delivered by a dithery and slightly deranged figure, yet it hints at an aspect of Jackson's undervalued text that has hitherto escaped the notice of even those few commentators who have directed their attention towards it.' The Sundial, which focuses upon a handful of people who wait together at a country estate in expectation of a prophesied new world to be born from the destruction of the old, aspires to be that celestial eye, pinpointing sociocultural features of its own postwar "pocket of time," calling attention to their origins in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and locating them within the even older historical context of one of America's foundation myths. Like most of Jackson's fictions, it is a narrative that adheres tenuously to basic conventions of naturalistic realism, deploying contrariwise just enough traces of uncanniness to caution against complete skepticism about the intrusion of the paranormal into the domain of the ordinary. Unlike most, however, it openly essays to comment upon contemporary social issues and delusions and to pronounce upon their implications for the nation.

In this sense the novel is, to borrow Sacvan Bercovitch's famous phrase, Shirley Jackson's American Jeremiad, and in one obvious way, it announces itself as such: the "celestial eye" is also a stentorian voice from the heavens that speaks its displeasure with what it has descried.2 The narrative voice, though generally more satirically speculative than authoritative, is similarly condemnatory and portentous with regard to contemporary social arrangements. The text's critique, however, is grounded in historical particularity, and encompasses several closely related aspects of American social life in the postwar period: (1) the accelerated relocation of the middle class segments of the population from urban centers to smaller, neo-traditional communities; (2) anxieties about challenges to the dominant patriarchal ideologies of domesticity and gender; (3) disruptive effects of self-seeking individualism within the nuclear family; and most broadly, (4) the imminent prospect of a society fissured by the triumph of childish solipsism as a national ideal. As is consonant with one of the predominant social obsessions of the initial phase of the post-nuclear era, the prospect of widespread annihilation, possibly to be followed by utopian renewal, precipitates all of the action in The Sundial and dominates the minds of the characters. Yet even though its shadow is all but palpable throughout, the bomb is never mentioned, a decisive indication that atomic anxiety is not the basic source of the apocalyptic mentality that pervades the characters' thoughts. That obsession is traced, rather, to two venerable American traditions: the socially sanctioned impulse to retreat to "American miniatures," or small, exclusive enclaves of communal, familial, and individual sanctuary from the claims of the larger social universe; and the nation's perennial fascination with the promise of some vague but fervently dreamt of communal fulfillment implicit in its originating image of itself as a New World. The former, as the text in various ways implies, began to gain hold.in the nineteenth century and has accelerated in the 1950s; and the latter, it suggests, is a construct that derives from Elizabethan imperial aspirations which supplanted a still older, and less holistic, European notion of "world." Miniaturist projects are linked with (even as they are dissociated from) utopian New World imaginings in that they represent, ostensibly, attainable scaled down versions of what was originally a dream of global magnitude and comprehensiveness. …

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