"The Lottery" is a short story by Shirley Jackson, first published in the June 26, 1948, issue of The New Yorker. Written the same month it was published, it is ranked today as "one of the most famous short stories in the history of American literature".
Response to the story was negative, surprising Jackson and The New Yorker. Readers canceled subscriptions and sent hate mail throughout the summer. The story was banned in the Union of South Africa. Since then, it has been accepted as a classic American short story, subject to critical interpretations and media adaptations, and it has been taught in middle schools and high schools for decades.
Many readers demanded an explanation of the situation described in the story, and a month after the initial publication, Shirley Jackson responded in the San Francisco Chronicle (July 22, 1948):
Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.
Jackson lived in North Bennington, Vermont, and her comment reveals that she had Bennington in mind when she wrote "The Lottery". In a 1960 lecture (printed in her 1968 collection, Come Along with Me), Jackson recalled the hate mail she received in 1948:
One of the most terrifying aspects of publishing stories and books is the realization that they are going to be read, and read by strangers. I had never fully realized this before, although I had of course in my imagination dwelt lovingly upon the thought of the millions and millions of people who were going to be uplifted and enriched and delighted by the stories I wrote. 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 I was downright scared to open; of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: "Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker," she wrote sternly; "it 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?"
The New Yorker kept no records of the phone calls, but letters addressed to Jackson were forwarded to her. That summer she regularly took home 10 to 12 forwarded letters each day. She also received weekly packages from The New Yorker containing letters and questions addressed to the magazine or editor Harold Ross, plus carbons of the magazine's responses mailed to letter writers.
Curiously, there are three main themes which dominate the letters of that first summer—three themes which might be identified as bewilderment, speculation and plain old-fashioned abuse. In the years since then, during which the story has been anthologized, dramatized, televised, and even—in one completely mystifying transformation—made into a ballet, the tenor of letters I receive has changed. I am addressed more politely, as a rule, and the letters largely confine themselves to questions like what does this story mean? The general tone of the early letters, however, was a kind of wide-eyed, shocked innocence. People at first were not so much concerned with what the story meant; what they wanted to know was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch.
Larry Yust's short film, The Lottery (1969), produced as part of Encyclopædia Britannica's 'Short Story Showcase' series, was ranked by the Academic Film Archive "as one of the two bestselling educational films ever". It has an accompanying ten-minute commentary film, Discussion of "The Lottery" by University of Southern California English professor Dr. James Durbin. Featuring the film debut of Ed Begley, Jr., Yust's adaptation has an atmosphere of naturalism and small town authenticity with its shots of pick-up trucks and townspeople in Fellows, California.