“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.