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Casey N. Cep

Write What You Know?

Charles Jackson, rediscovered.

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.

Jackson was only thirteen, and if the tragedy itself were not stark enough to shape his psyche, its aftermath certainly defined the contours of his life. Stricken by grief, his father, Fred, abandoned the family, starting another in New York, leading his mother, Sarah, to obtain a divorce. Jackson came to blame his mother for the two most problematic aspects of his personhood: his alcoholism and his homosexuality.

Jackson spent his life struggling to accept that the one was not a disorder while the other was in fact a disease. His struggles came at a critical stage in the evolution of social attitudes toward both: discussions of alcoholism were only beginning to shift from moral to medical terms, with Bill Wilson founding Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, less than a decade before the publication of The Lost Weekend; while by Jackson's death in 1968, he was living openly with a male lover in New York.

Blake Bailey's assiduous biography scours drafts, letters, and manuscripts to plot the twists and turns of Jackson's search for personal acceptance and public recognition. Jackson's first job as a writer came in high school, when he wrote obituaries, wedding announcements, and a column for the Newark Courier; within a year, he had saved enough to cover the tuition costs at Syracuse University.

Despite success in his coursework and creative writing, Jackson's freshman year was wrecked by a sexual encounter with an older student in a fraternity he was pledging. An episode of what he later described in The Lost Weekend as "passionate hero-worship of an upperclassmen" got him blacklisted from the fraternity. Jackson left Syracuse in disgrace, returning to Newark, where he went back to work at the Courier.

A few more years at home left Jackson eager for the escape he had always imagined, so he left for Chicago and then New York. After he and his brother both came down with tuberculosis, they took off for Davos, Switzerland, where they were routinely mistaken for a couple. They lived the pages of The Magic Mountain for over a year, and then Jackson returned to New York while his brother stayed abroad.

In the garden of forking paths, Jackson was haunted by any number of unlived lives: what if his siblings had not died and his father had not left, what if he had controlled his urges at Syracuse, and what if he had delayed returning to America? His brother came home and settled with a male partner; Jackson returned and in 1938 married a woman with whom he had two children.

The marriage provided some stability: it was Rhoda who first encouraged Jackson's so-briety, and in the first ten years they were together he finished three novels. The Lost Weekend arrived first, and within a year Paramount had paid $35,000 for the film rights; The Fall of Valor was published in 1946, further exposing Jackson's homosexuality in the story of an older college professor who falls for a young Marine; the third, in 1948, was a crime novel based on a grisly double murder in Westchester County.

But none of the subsequent novels did as well as the first, and rather than gaining a reputation as a crime writer or a gay author, Jackson was forever pigeonholed as a confessional chronicler of alcoholism. He went on the AA speaking circuit, was courted by the liquor industry as an anti-prohibition spokesman, and saw his novel ensconced on reading lists at medical schools and health clinics around the country.

Jackson's failure to produce another bestseller bedeviled him, along with financial difficulties and familial obligations he struggled to bear, and he returned to the sort of benders that had made his literary reputation. The last two decades of his life were marred by bouts of drinking, drug use, and suicide attempts, until finally he died after overdosing on the barbiturate Seconal in 1968. Having repeated his father's desertion, Jackson's body was found not by his wife or daughters but by the male companion he had been living with in New York.

Bailey's biography takes seriously the possibility that Jackson might have produced a second masterpiece. Once Bailey concedes that Jackson failed to do so, he considers why The Lost Weekend was such a stunning yet unrepeated success. The explanation can be found in the praise that Jackson's Don Birnam heaps on Fitzgerald: "Don't write about anything you don't know anything about." The novel is a transcription of everything that Jackson knew so well: alcoholism, depression, and the anxiety caused by same-sex attraction.

The ending of the novel is sorrowful, with Don poised for another bender; the ending of the Oscar-winning adaptation is hopeful, with Don perched at his typewriter, preparing to redeem himself by writing a novel called The Bottle. Jackson was furious over the Hollywood ending, raging at the screenwriters and begging Billy Wilder to alter it, lest the whole project seem too crudely autobiographical, with the character Don Birnam sitting down to write the author Charles Jackson's bestseller. Jackson relished the fame that came from The Lost Weekend but loathed the reality that it was read as anything but fiction.

Yet, Jackson's own life proceeded in accordance with the melancholic ending of the novel. Had he only surrendered to the idealized fiction of the film, he might have continued sitting down at his typewriter, producing more bestsellers. Some writers succeed in creating imaginative realities, others by chronicling the reality they know. Jackson aspired to be a writer of the first kind, but he was successful only when he drew heavily on autobiography. The anxiety to invent rather than document and shape ruined his fiction, and his failure to write ruined his life. At the time of his death, Jackson was at work on a sequel to The Lost Weekend to be called Farther and Wilder. Borrowing the title of this last, unfinished book, Bailey's biography succeeds in crafting and completing the story of Charles Jackson in a way that is more compelling than anything the author himself produced after his memorable first book.

Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She has written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many other publications.

Books discussed in this essay:

Blake Bailey, Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson (Knopf, 2013).

Charles Jackson, The Lost Weekend (Vintage, 2013).

Charles Jackson, The Sunnier Side and Other Stories (Vintage, 2013).

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