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

Image of Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson
Release Date: 
March 18, 2013
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“. . . the best literary biography to see print thus far this year. Period.”

Who would have thought that a biography of Charles Jackson, author of the novel The Lost Weekend, would turn out to be essential reading?

Indeed, who would have thought that the film The Lost Weekend—the story of an alcoholic named Don Birnam hitting rock bottom directed by cinema great Billy Wilder—even had a novel as its source material? Or that the novel, published in 1944 had once been both a commercial and artistic triumph:

The Lost Weekend sold almost half a million copies in various editions and was translated into fourteen languages, syndicated by King Features as a comic strip, and added to the prestigious Modern Library. It’s critical reception was not less impressive: ‘Charles Jackson has made the most compelling gift to the literature of addiction since De Quincey,’ Philip Wylie wrote in the New York Times. ‘His character is a masterpiece of psychological precision. His narrative method . . . transmutes medical case history into art.’”

And yet the simple truth is that Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson written by Blake Bailey is the best literary biography to see print thus far this year. Period.

A great deal of the credit, of course, goes to author Blake Bailey, author of previous works on the lives of John Cheever and Richard Yates, whose extensive research leaves no detail of any of Jackson’s many, many lost weekends out of the narrative. But Jackson himself merits credit, and attention, in that his is both a complex and compelling life story.

Jackson for many years insisted that The Lost Weekend was a work of fiction and that he was merely an author writing on the subject of alcoholism. (“I am a writer first and a non-drinker second.”)

It was decades, in fact, before he fully acknowledged that the work was largely autobiographical. And by then the reality of his various addictions (to say nothing of the weight of his deeply closeted homosexuality) had cost him his fortune, his literary reputation, his family, and his health.

Heady stuff.

And it’s a tale that, unlike the hopeful rewrite Billy Wilder gave Jackson’s novel when adapting it to the screen, has a downward trajectory and a tragic conclusion:

“His appointment diary for 1956 is pristinely free of a single entry, a single stroke of the pencil. ‘He was a forgotten, sad man when I knew him,’ said a friend from this time. ‘Nobody was talking about him anymore.’ That is to say, nobody was talking about him except as the (washed-up) author of The Lost Weekend, as if he hadn’t published a word before or since. In 1958, when one of his daughters’ friends (later [his daughter] Kate’s husband) mentioned reading some of Jackson’s stories for an English class at Goddard College, Charlie [Jackson] wrote [his daughter] Sarah with a mixture of bitterness and pathetic pride: ‘John said “Gosh, I didn’t know he was that good!” And I say, a prophet is not only without honor in his own country but even in his own family.’”

Farther and Wilder keys in on the many lives of Charles Jackson, who bounced from young aesthete to acclaimed novelist (who once had a flirtation with an a particular affection for the young Judy Garland) to family man (including a long-suffering wife named Rhoda and a gay younger brother called “Boom”) to alcoholic and drug addict to reformed AA member (visiting an AA meeting with him was said to be “like visiting a birth control clinic with Margaret Sanger”) to obscure and forgotten author in search of a new beginning to the sick, broke little man who in 1967 ends up dying of a drug overdose in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, where he was living with a male companion named Stanley.

Time magazine in their obituary summed it up this way:

“Died. Charles Jackson, 65, melancholy novelist of guilt and frustration. In Manhattan.”

In their selection of words for the dead, the writers at Time were particularly on target; as Mr. Bailey’s book attests, no two words could better sum up the life of Charles Jackson than these: guilt and frustration.

Particularly poignant is Jackson’s lifelong affection for author F. Scott Fitzgerald, and for his novel The Great Gatsby, his opinion about which he placed in the mouth of his protagonist Don Birnam:

“’There’s no such thing,’ he said aloud, ‘as a flawless novel. But if there is, this is it.’”

The parallels, of course, astound:

—Two young authors attain sudden fame and fortune. Both fail in the end to achieve greater success with age.

—Both struggle with addiction to alcohol.

—Both marry, with mixed results.

—Both lose nearly everything, and survive financially by borrowing and by producing short stories for magazines.

—Both die with the promise of success still just outside their grasp: Fitzgerald with his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, Jackson with a sequel to The Lost Weekend, a second Don Birnam (name taken from Macbeth’s Birnam Wood, by the way) novel named Farther and Wilder supposedly partially written.

The difference between the two is apparent: Today Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is nearly universally hailed as the Great American Novel and has recently been made into a movie for the third time.

The Lost Weekend, on the other hand, has only recently come back into print. (Thanks, no doubt, to the renewed interest in the novel and in the man that wrote it due to the publication of Farther and Wilder.)

And the author and his works (he went on to write other novels and short story collections, including The Fall of Valor, which is considered by some to be the first serious novel about homosexuality, although Gore Vidal and Thomas Mann might disagree, and A Second-Hand Life, a novel on nymphomania, which had only just hit the bestseller list—his first success in 20 years—at the time of Jackson’s death in 1967) have languished in obscurity for the past 40 years.

That is, Mr. Bailey tells his readers, except for one small but important slice of the population:

“Among fiction writers—especially writers who drink—his achievement is well known. In 1988, Barry Hannah praised The Lost Weekend as ‘a miracle, handed down to Mr. Jackson by a higher power,’ and a decade later the novel was canonized by the supreme authority in such matters, Kingsley Amis: “Marvelous and horrifying . . . the best fictional account of alcoholism I have read.’”

What Blake Bailey accomplishes in the pages of Farther and Wilder is no small thing. With this biography, he gives author Charles Jackson back to the American reading public, allowing us once more to celebrate both the life and the accomplishments of this fine writer.