The Magazine

Rage for Fame

Charles Jackson’s saddest story was his own.

Nov 18, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 10 • By STEFAN BECK
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The line that opens Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend (1944), a minor novel but a masterpiece of addiction literature, is bracing and unforgettable: “The barometer of his emotional nature was set for a spell of riot.” That the line is not Jackson’s own—his protagonist and surrogate, Don Birnam, reads it in James Joyce’s Dubliners—tells us plenty about Jackson as author. It is a symptom of his obsessive wish to achieve literary greatness that he contrived to make the reader’s first encounter with his prose an encounter, in fact, with that of a confirmed genius. Charles Jackson spent his entire life trotting along in the dust of titans to whom he never had a prayer of catching up.

Ray Milland, Howard Da Silva in ‘The Lost Weekend’ (1945)

Ray Milland, Howard Da Silva in ‘The Lost Weekend’ (1945)

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At least you can’t say he lacked taste. It’s a long way from “set for a spell of riot” to Lindsay Lohan’s confession to Oprah Winfrey that she is “addicted to chaos.” The alcoholic’s solipsism and self-justification may be a constant, but that does not mean, as Blake Bailey’s biography makes plain, that all addicts are equally tiresome. The man on display in Farther and Wilder is more fascinating and tragic than the besotted self-promoters of our time. He even had the self-respect to cast his personal nightmare as a novel, not a memoir, and to insist for a long time that it was a work of imagination.

With nothing but his bibliography to go on, one might suspect Blake Bailey of harboring an undergraduate preoccupation with boozing novelists: He has previously written biographies, each heavy on gory detail, of Richard Yates and John Cheever. But Bailey anticipates the reader’s skepticism: “Insofar as my books have an aim,” he has said, “it’s to reconcile the paradox of a highly compartmentalized personality, and ruinously alcoholic midcentury American writers seem to fill that bill nicely.” Bailey’s ability to give a biography an essentially novelistic feel means one can read happily and profitably about even a figure as trivial as Jackson.

The modern landscape is strewn with tragic figures whose flaw was to crave fame (or mere notoriety) above all else. Jackson wanted to create high art, though he frequently and masochistically questioned his own motives. Thus, in a daydream, Don Birnam thinks: “Oh to feel the power of giving such a performance, or the power of swaying others in any medium, the power of accomplishment. Would it ever be his?” But elsewhere in The Lost Weekend, the character lashes himself: “He only wanted to be The Artist, anyhow, with no thought of the meaning or content of the work which would win him such a title.”

The trouble, as anyone who has read The Lost Weekend, or seen Billy Wilder’s harrowing 1945 film adaptation knows, is that the content chose Jackson, not the other way around. The teaser “Five shocking days in the life of an alcoholic” on the lurid cover of one Signet edition could hardly have prepared readers for how hopeless a case was in store for them. Birnam’s alcoholism is so advanced that few but doctors would have seen anything like it. Indeed, Ray Milland, who in Bailey’s telling “hardly ever took a drink himself,” prepared for the role of Don Birnam in part by “spending a night, incognito, in the alcoholic ward of Bellevue.” That Jackson’s story would be a sensation, as a book or  movie, was inevitable.

Of course, like a rich man who wonders whether women love  him or his money, Jackson could never be sure which merits the book had succeeded on. It tortured him. Part of his appeal as an artist is that he wanted badly not to take shortcuts—unlike those memoirists of today who deliberately pique morbid curiosity and then conflate sales figures with proof of genius. Alas, Jackson’s successes and failures were often outside his control. Just as The Lost Weekend is a cautionary tale about alcoholism, Farther and Wilder is a warning to writers about the limitations and perils of the inward gaze.

Certainly Jackson had much in his past worth working out in fiction. (The Working Out, incidentally, was his proposed title for a Lost Weekend sequel.) His childhood was blackened by twin tragedies: His father abandoned the family shortly after two of Charles’s siblings died in an accident. Yet it would be a mistake to suppose that Jackson’s artistic impulses issued from a desire for therapy. He was creative, and appreciated for it, from an early age. The Lost Weekend alludes to this in the very moment when Don Birnam recalls his own father’s cruel departure: 

He had run upstairs then and flung himself down on the bed and cried his eyes out, weeping for the father who would no longer be giving him the cardboards from his laundered shirts to draw beautiful pictures on, pictures his father always admired and showed to all his friends and sent off to the Children’s Page of a New York newspaper.

Jackson’s father had taken pride not only in Charles’s shirt-cardboard masterworks but also in productions more unusual for a young boy—poems. It was, perhaps, this early surfeit of praise, and consequent addiction to it, that made Jackson’s life so difficult. His mother was certainly no great source of encouragement. Of the now-dated underbelly-of-suburbia stories in The Sunnier Side, in which Jackson recast his Newark, New York, hometown as “Arcadia,” his mother said: “This is a small town, and my home, and I want them to say and think only the best of you.” 

Jackson had, in fact, addressed what he saw as this kind of squeamishness, or philistinism, in his introduction to The Sunnier Side, a letter to a “fan” who has complained that “it sometimes does seem a pity that a man with your gifts should dwell so much on the morbid & sordid. .  .  . Life is often unpleasant enough without having to come across the unpleasant in books.” Jackson’s reply, though illuminating at times, reads a bit like a freshman lecturing his parents over Thanksgiving dinner. But it does nothing to address another of his mother’s problems with Jackson’s penchant for drawing from life: “[I]t all happened, all you had to do is write it down.”

A stab, then, at addressing that problem. Bailey’s exhaustively detailed account shows us a life that did not simply happen, but which had at every turn to be endured. To his childhood tragedies one must add Jackson’s fish-out-of-water adolescence; his repressed homosexuality and humiliation for it while a freshman at Syracuse; his long bout of tuberculosis; his marriage, an ill-fated attempt at both companionship and bourgeois respectability. Not even his Lost Weekend celebrity was fun for long: The thrill of rubbing elbows with stars like Judy Garland only made the years of Jackson’s decline darker by contrast. Though Alcoholics Anonymous, for which Jackson became a star speaker, forestalled the inevitable, it also perpetuated the sense that he had only one subject. No one could have been surprised when Jackson succumbed, at last, to alcohol, Seconal, and suicide. 

Jackson had only one subject, and it was neither his alcoholism nor his biography but, rather, his pain. He was not a great writer. Posterity may render the strange judgment that his novels and stories are most important for how they inform our engagement with Bailey’s biography. All the same, Jackson’s mother was far too dismissive: Nothing could have been more difficult or more important for Jackson than to “write it down.” His late-life artistic impotence, his ever-more-frantic obsession with writing a Proustian epic, must have come from the belief that his pain was only worth surviving if he could make it bear fruit. 

The why of Jackson’s failure is what Bailey, through his faithful stewardship of Jackson’s private history, has shown us most vividly. Jackson never bothered to cultivate the tools a writer needs most: curiosity and imagination about the lives of others. And Bailey, who has those tools in spades, has given us in Farther & Wilder a crash course in their use. 

Stefan Beck writes about fiction for the New Criterion and elsewhere.