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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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.