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Blake Bailey’s fascinating new biography, Farther and Wilder: the Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson (Knopf), begins and ends with a fatal crash. The first is unexpected: on a leisurely ride in 1916, Jackson’s older sister and younger brother are killed when a train strikes their car. Thirteen-year-old Charlie is spared, having holed up in the library that Sunday afternoon. The second crash–Jackson’s long decline into substance abuse and depression that leads to his suicide – is anything but surprising. Indeed, one finishes Bailey’s biography wondering how Jackson survived as long as he did.
Blake Bailey has dissected complex, self-destructive literary lives in his biographies of Richard Yates and John Cheever, and Farther and Wilder will no doubt add to his reputation as the premiere chronicler of tormented American writers. While Jackson saw his share of success–most notably with his novel The Lost Weekend and its Academy Award winning adaptation–by any measure, he led an anguished life. Not only did his two siblings die when he was young, he also lost a lung to tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five. Jackson struggled with his sexual orientation throughout much of his life, as did many homosexual and bisexual men of the era. And then, of course, there were Jackson’s addictions to booze and pills, especially Seconal.
Jackson’s depiction of an alcoholic in The Lost Weekend was so convincing that Farrar & Reinhart considered publishing the book not as a novel but as a case study in what was then called dipsomania. In his uncompromising portrayal of Don Birnam (a thinly veiled version of the author), Jackson broke new ground. Sinclair Lewis called the novel “the only unflinching story of an alcoholic I have ever read,” while Philip Wylie of the New York Times Book Review called the work, “the most compelling gift to the literature of addiction since De Quincey” and a “textbook for organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous.”
As is true of the best biographers, Bailey illuminates not only his subject but also the socio-cultural norms of the times. His rendering of the shifts in the understanding of alcoholism serves as a fifty-year history of addiction treatment in the United States, and his portrayal of mid-century Hollywood is wonderfully anecdotal without being gossipy: We always learn something about Jackson through these stories. When the author meets Judy Garland and writes to his wife that he nearly fell in love with her, Bailey probes deeper, examining how older bisexual men were often seduced by Garland “not just for (her) vulnerable fawn-like quality…but also for her androgynous looks…and a well-known tendency, fragility withal, for seducing such men.”
First and foremost, Farther and Wilder is a literary biography, and it is in this light that Bailey succeeds magnificently. Bailey is both a superb writer and a superb reader. His perceptive analysis of Jackson’s work is praiseworthy in its own right, but it’s his weaving of Jackson’s texts into his life’s narrative that is the major strength of the biography. To be sure, Jackson sometimes made connecting his life to his work easy. His fictional characters so often had real-life alter egos that he kept a “who is who” list in a notebook. Bailey, however, doesn’t treat Jackson’s work as merely having elements of the roman-a-clef. To Philip Rahv’s (of the Partisan Review) assertion that there was little separation between Don Birman’s narcissism and that of the author, Bailey wisely writes that the critic was “wrong to confuse Don’s narcissism with that of his creator, who transcends narcissism by exposing it so thoroughly.”
That the lost weekends and literary dreams of the biography’s subtitle are an apt description of Jackson’s life is beyond question. When Bailey tells us that The Lost Weekend was the only book that Jackson wrote sober, it’s hard to imagine a greater irony. As for Jackson’s literary dreams, his sometimes inflated sense of self and his work – he never did complete What Happened, a novel he compared to the work of Proust and Mann—was, perhaps, a symptom of his bipolar disorder. But all was not lost in Jackson’s life. Although he never again saw the success of his first novel, he did produce some fine work later in his career, such as a well-received collection of short stories that some scholars and critics compared to Borges, Nabokov and Sherwood Anderson. Jackson also found great joy as a teacher as well as a father to his two girls. Near the end of his life, he even lived fairly openly with his Czechoslovakian lover, Stanley Zednik, a forty-year-old man who seemed to make Jackson happy.
Jackson’s addictions, however, made it impossible for him to appreciate this new stage in his life. Before a failed suicide attempt, he addressed a note to his daughters and his lover, telling them that the physical pain had become too unbearable. He ended with the underlined words, “There is no other reason.” Less than two months later Jackson succeeded in taking his own life. Stanley sent Jackson’s wife a sympathy card, then met with her and her daughters about the estate. All he wanted was an identification bracelet that Jackson always wore.
Father and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson
By Blake Bailey
Hardcover, 9780307273581, pp. 494