June 2013

Josh Zajdman

nonfiction

Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson by Blake Bailey

If you thought that Blake Bailey wrote biographies solely to champion forgotten writers and issue companion editions of their best work, you'd be myopic. He isn't picking out the most obscure twentieth-century writer and tirelessly working to resurrect his reputation. Instead, Bailey is Edelian in his nature, approaching his subject so comprehensively it's as if his appraisal is the last hope for getting it right. This would bode well for any of the subjects that have made their way off of Bailey's "roster of literary losers," and any that still might. Bailey's biographies are beautifully constructed reassessments of talents that just didn't take at first, or maintain as times and literary movements marched on.

He's written some of the most objective and definitive biographies, literary or otherwise. The previous two, on Richard Yates, A Tragic Honesty, and on John Cheever, Cheever: A Life, were nothing short of astounding. They restored undeniably great writers to the cultural conversation and allowed for a truly special degree of depth and detail to form a portrait of these men in today's age. Now, in the midst of the Rothian fervor surrounding Bailey's next project, comes his most recent, a biography of a man lost to our time. In fact, and even more depressing, lost to the larger part of his own. Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson is full of moments Jackson spent in sanatoriums drying out, combatting homosexual urges, giving into homosexual urges, fighting with his wife, sending out scathing retorts by afternoon post and adding blindly to a mountain of debt. These are interspersed with the occasional success and drug-addled spree of writing.

The creative struggle, its scant rewards and seemingly endless deficits, make for the larger part of the work. The chapters focusing on Jackson's time in Hollywood are especially heartrending. His talk of Gershwins, Spencer and Tracy, and his love affair with Garland all augmented his obsession with presentation and legacy. Ironically, Jackson's legacy isn't tied to any of the books he wrote as much as it is to a film based on one, his 1944 novel The Lost Weekend. In fact, a film that has lost its sheen and affect, too. At the time, it made him someone worth talking to, the success of which gave him the much-desired touch of celebrity, which he thirsted for throughout his life. So much of Jackson's life was spent on fixating. He felt that he should be a paterfamilias, a celebrated writer, a poet, and so much more. All of this was so much more beautiful than the larger actuality of his life. He tried to will an entirely different existence into being.

The constants in the life of Charles Jackson were debt, disease, and death; that order is unfortunately more common than not. From Jackson's childhood onward, the family was wracked by tragedy. When he was thirteen, two of his siblings, one older and the youngest, died in a horrific accident, when a train hit their car not far from the house. The father, Fred, in a strange coincidence, boarded the train which led to his children's death after being requested home via urgent message. Shortly after, Fred left his family in favor of another family, complete with a baby Fred, he'd started in New York City. It was 1916.

That ghastly year -- the year of his siblings' death and his father's desertion -- Charlie had missed eighty days of school, though he was eager to return and be noticed as a tragic hero of sorts. He'd practiced the role with more long looks in the mirror, and besides he'd gotten used to a certain amount of attention as a little boy who often seemed almost a prodigy, or at any rate eager to please.

This is a perfect snapshot of Charles Jackson and the ways in which he was shaped by this tragedy and would respond to those that came after. He often considered these to be a form of fodder, or a means of gaining mileage at parties, sympathy from others, or, even occasionally, a pitying touch. His "almost" being a prodigy is especially poignant. Regardless of the success he experienced in life, it was never enough.

"In many ways my life has been a failure. I never husbanded my luck, I didn't guard and protect my talent, I let things slide, I hadn't the least thought ever of discipline or self-preservation." Bailey's biography is fairly brimming with these self-assessments. For someone who refused to acknowledge sexual leanings and rarely acknowledged his alcoholic tendencies, Jackson could assess his legacy better than anyone, as demonstrated from a young age. It was foremost on his mind.

Jackson's greatest works, The Lost Weekend and 1950's story collection, The Sunnier Side, have been reissued in handsome new editions by Vintage, complete with Bailey's introductions. This was during a period of "ghastly collapses and domestic tumult," but one in which he published five books, almost the entirety of his literary output. The former, a searing look at alcoholism, complete with Oscar-winning adaptation directed by Billy Wilder, is far more impressive a novel than a film. Moreover, Jackson, as he was writing, knew it and referred to it as "probably the most talked-about unpublished novel in New York." Upon the book's release, there was anxiety about whether to present it as fiction or a fictionalized case history. Seeking medical endorsement, Jackson's publishers received deafening praise. "The author of this extraordinary tract on the secret passageways of the alcoholic mentality has taken clinical experience and raised it to the level of high poetry." This wasn't lost on Jackson himself. Years later, when rereading it, he was blown away by its power, appreciating it as if someone else had written it.

It was absolutely honest, syllable for syllable... it was a writer really on the beam, telling nothing but the universal truth, and again and again I could hardly believe my eyes (it made me know how much I had forgotten of myself.) There are details and insights in that book that I have never been up to since; and to me the most revealing thing of all was that The Lost Weekend was the only book, out of five books, that I wrote sober, without stimulus or sedative.

One reads the entirety of this biography with an unwavering, and increasing, tinge of sadness. This doesn't abate whatsoever by the time Jackson's death is reached. He died of a Seconal overdose, plagued by addiction to the very end. At the time he was living with a man in the Hotel Chelsea. Jackson's work slowly went out of print, to be bolstered only by university presses and writers who like to drink. These were hardly forums for promoting his talent. "To be sure, Jackson would have been crushed by his later obscurity." For a man who so revered Shakespeare, Lear's "O untimely death!" seemed sadly appropriate. That's until Blake Bailey came along. As a result of this tremendous book, the rest isn't silence.

Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson by Blake Bailey
Knopf
ISBN: 978-0307273581
496 pages