Biography

The rise and fall of author Charles Jackson, a one-hit wonder of the ’40s, is downright depressing

 

“The writer knows his own worth,” Charles Jackson warned, “and to be overvalued can confuse and destroy him as an artist.” Jackson spoke from experience. For one shining moment he was the most celebrated novelist in America. But his demons sapped his promise and consigned him to obscurity.

Happily for his legacy, Blake Bailey has added him to his “roster of literary losers,” as he puts it in the acknowledgements of his latest biography, Farther and Wilder. In his last two books, Bailey brought renewed attention to Richard Yates and John Cheever, troubled yet talented writers who had faded from view. Like these men, Jackson struggled to cope with any world outside his imagination. Friends and loved ones suffered as a result.

The reader may do likewise. Farther and Wilder does not amuse or uplift; in fact, the second half is downright depressing. Bailey’s scholarship and prose style are foolproof, but for the first time he fails to convince us that a subject is worthy of our time. For all their bad behavior, Yates and Cheever were redeemed by the quality and sustainability of their work. Jackson, however, was more molehill than mountain, a one-hit wonder with delusions of grandeur that kept him from properly marshalling his creative energy. Bailey had planned to follow his Cheever magnum opus with a slim volume. Somewhere along the way he changed his mind, leaving us with an overstuffed narrative that eventually wears out its welcome.

The Lost Weekend put Jackson on the map. This autobiographical novel tells the story of Don Birnam, a literary-minded alcoholic who goes on a five-day bender. When it was published in 1944, Jackson had been sober for eight years. A not-so-closeted homosexual, he drank to numb the pain of alienation and loneliness. He went cold turkey, however, with the help of an unlicensed therapist who later died after swallowing glass from a broken whiskey bottle. For a while Jackson feigned straightness; he got married and had two daughters. He also threw himself into his fiction. The Lost Weekend was completed in a year, the only one of his books, he admitted, written “without stimulus or sedative.”

It generated instant buzz. Walter Winchell called it “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of alcoholism.” The Modern Library granted its imprimatur. Money and accolades flooded in. Hollywood beckoned. Jackson churned out scripts for MGM while hobnobbing with stars such as Spencer Tracy, Gregory Peck and Julie Andrews. Billy Wilder directed the film version of The Lost Weekend, which went on to win four Oscars, including Best Picture. Jackson’s future seemed boundless.

And then gravity reasserted itself. Jackson’s eagerly awaited second novel, a disjointed melodrama about a married professor’s repressed homosexual urges, received lukewarm reviews. Blocked, he turned to pills. A “high liver,” he indulged in lavish spending. He bought a beautiful Federal-style home in a restricted New Hampshire community (no Jews or blacks allowed), populated by Republicans who welcomed FDR’s death. Jackson was politically liberal, but he craved status and respectability. Although he did not want to be known as the “Alcoholism Guru,” he would bring up The Lost Weekend at every opportunity. He had fallen in love with the limelight; “he clung like grim death to his fraying cloak of fame,” Bailey notes.

In 1951, he fell off the wagon. The remaining 17 years of his life were dedicated to fighting or succumbing to his addictions (sadly, more often the latter than the former). His wife left him, his finances dried up. He was stymied by a “Proustian saga,” titled What Happened. What happened, indeed? He had options. He could have gotten a teaching job, his short stories were superb. If he had set his sights lower, if he had embraced his sexuality earlier, perhaps . . . But this is speculation. Jackson committed suicide at the Chelsea Hotel in 1968.

Recently, Bailey agreed to be Philip Roth’s official biographer. This job poses a challenge for him. Roth is alive and extremely successful. His reputation is no need of revitalization. Jackson, on the other hand, is already benefiting from Bailey’s generous regard. The Lost Weekend and The Sunnier Side, his short story collection, are available again. Whether this will raise his critical standing is a question for others to answer.

Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.

Read more Books stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
 <span class="cutline_leadin">One Plus One.</span> Jojo Moyes. Pamela Dorman Books/Viking. 368 pages. 27.95.

    Fiction

    A single mom, her kids and a tech millionaire in trouble hit the road in Jojo Moyes’ comic ‘One Plus One’

    An offbeat family hits the road to the Math Olympiad.

  •  
 <span class="cutline_leadin">THE BOOK OF LIFE.</span> Deborah Harkness. Viking. 559 pages. $28.95.

    Fantasy

    Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy comes to a satisfying conclusion

    A witch in love with a vampire comes into her full powers in the final satisfying installment of the All Souls trilogy.

  •  
 <span class="bold">Courtney Maum</span>

    What are you reading now?

    “I’m reading Brando Skyhorse’s Take This Man. Several years ago, I applied for a scholarship at the Can Serrat residency program in Spain and got a letter back saying that the stipend had gone to a writer named Brando Skyhorse. I remember pacing around the house yelling, ‘Who the hell is this Brando Skyhorse?!’ I’ve calmed down in the years since and am glad that the scholarship went to a writer as fearless and funny as Skyhorse. The things his mother put him through as a child could have destroyed a man’s integrity, but Skyhorse saved himself through writing, and in that, he is a role model for me.”

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category