Subscribe to Christianity Today
Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson
496 pp., $30.00
Casey N. Cep
Write What You Know?
In 1944, the protagonist of a bestselling novel had this to say about F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose novels were already out of print: "People will be going back to Fitzgerald one day as they now go back to Henry James." The novel was Charles Jackson's The Lost Weekend.
Jackson adored Fitzgerald and took every opportunity—in novels, but also interviews, lectures, and reviews—to promote the late writer's reputation. Don Birnam, the alcoholic, aspirational writer whose five-day binge is at the center of Jackson's narrative, says that "Fitzgerald never swerves by a hair from the one rule that any writer worth his salt will follow: Don't write about anything you don't know anything about."
Jackson's first novel, The Lost Weekend was a compelling chronicle of alcoholism that hewed to its hero's rule to write what one knows, for which it was rewarded with sales in excess of 500,000 copies and an Academy Award-winning adaptation by director Billy Wilder. A touchstone of sorts for many years, this once celebrated book nevertheless slid into obscurity along with Jackson's other works. He is still awaiting the sort of afterlife enjoyed by his hero F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Blake Bailey's biography of Jackson will help to promote the author's posthumous reputation, as will reissues of The Lost Weekend and The Sunnier Side and Other Stories. Bailey, who wrote definitive biographies of Richard Yates and John Cheever, has found a niche for himself by tackling tortured alcoholic authors with a taste for suburbia.
Charles Jackson has much in common with Yates and Cheever, even if his work does not enjoy their popularity. Born in 1903 in Summit, New Jersey, Jackson spent most of his childhood in Newark, New York. Arcadia, as he called the small village in his fiction, was filled with thick wallets and thin skins. The Jackson children came of age in middle-class comfort until 1916, when Jackson's sixteen-year-old sister and four-year-old brother were killed in a train accident.