Hero Without a Sequel: Charles Jackson Revisited
By Leslie JamisonApril 29, 2013
Farther and Wilder by Blake Bailey
“I’M ABSOLUTELY HOPELESS,” Charles Jackson told an AA meeting in 1959. “I’ve written a book that’s been called the definitive picture of the alcoholic, and it did me no good.” It had been 15 years since Jackson published The Lost Weekend, 14 years since the novel had been turned into an Oscar-winning film, and about five years since Jackson had become a regular (if perpetually relapsing) member of AA.
His “definitive picture” had been a success in almost every way imaginable. Published eight years after Jackson got sober for the first time in 1936, The Lost Weekend offered a merciless (largely autobiographical) account of one bender in the life of an alcoholic named Don Birnam. It sold more than 800,000 copies over the course of Jackson’s lifetime. The New York Times praised it as “the most compelling gift to the literature of addiction since De Quincey.” Sinclair Lewis called it “the only unflinching story of an alcoholic that I have ever read.” Doctors loved it; drinkers loved it; teetotalers loved it (though Jackson didn’t love that they loved it); even the liquor industry loved it. Their trade magazine The Beverage Times ran a lengthy interview with Jackson in which he affirmed the possibility of healthy social drinking — labeling “drunks” as people with a disease effectively sanctioned drinking for everyone who wasn’t one.
The Lost Weekend’s vision of alcoholism isn’t like the mythic modernist portraits that preceded it: Hemingway’s drunken specimens of masculinity, Faulkner’s wasted Southern patriarchs, Fitzgerald’s patrician dysfunction. Stripped of metaphoric significance, Don’s alcoholism is simply itself — unromantic and unrelenting. Don isn’t broken by an indifferent world, or the horrors of war, or the cruelties of love; he is simply dependant upon a particular physical substance. His drinking doesn’t deliver him into any metaphysical quandary; it just means he makes a fool of himself all over Midtown.
The book earned Jackson all the fame and accolades he’d ever wanted, but it didn’t manage to keep him sober. After his relapse in 1947, his wife Rhoda wrote in desperation to his brother Frederick (“Boom”):
He’s a terrible addict. I don’t know how or when something will help him … I realized yesterday … how he managed to stop drinking. He held on to the fact that he was a great writer and he’d show everybody. When he got fame, that thing that sustained him all the time was gone — and he has nothing yet to replace it.
The Möbius strip of Jackson’s story is common amongst addicts: he stopped, then started again, kept battling in and out, relapsing on pills as well as booze until he finally killed himself with an overdose of barbiturates in 1968. But Jackson’s particular trajectory — the ineffectuality of his literary self-awareness: "I’ve written the definitive portrait of the alcoholic, and it did me no good" — challenges several well-worn articles of cultural faith: that self-understanding always catalyzes self-betterment, that addiction is dissolved by its own narration, and that telling the story of self-destruction will necessarily loosen its grip. Even The Lost Weekend itself calls these truisms into question, offering a struggling writer (Don) who wants to turn his addiction into brilliance but can’t stop pawning his typewriter for booze money. Instead of writing his book, he gives it hypothetical titles: Total Recall, Why Am I Telling You All This?, or Don Birnam: Hero Without a Novel. The only novel we actually get — The Lost Weekend — ends without much hope. Don’s bender is coming to a close, but it seems inevitable another will follow.
Jackson was so committed to this lack of resolution that he fought the altered ending of the movie, which shows a sober Ray Milland sitting down at a typewriter to begin composing the story we’ve just watched. Jackson wrote angry letters to director Billy Wilder and screenwriter Charlie Brackett, calling this ending “an out and out Judas Kiss” not only because it implicated Jackson’s life as the source of the story, but also because “it’s false & untrue at that, for the implication is that I overcame my drink-problem by writing a book about it & thus getting it out of my system.” The ending was too much truth, and not enough truth, at once.
Ultimately, this parting vision of a newly sober writer at his typewriter would outlast not only Jackson’s protests but his reputation entirely. Today, if people have heard of The Lost Weekend, they know it mainly as a movie: the flick where Ray Milland hangs whiskey bottles from his windows and looks dapper getting trashed.
Into this purgatory of cultural obsolescence enters Blake Bailey’s impressive new biography, Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson. Bailey has built his reputation on major biographies of John Cheever and Richard Yates, two iconic alcoholic writers, and his book on Jackson offers a variation on this theme: an alcoholic writer who never became iconic. Bailey’s book reminds us not only how biography can be good, but also why the genre matters — how it can excavate importance from histories that might otherwise be forgotten.
In a poignant footnote, Bailey quotes Jackson on why he made carbon copies of all his letters: “Vain creature that I am,” he starts explaining, but then changes course: “I only do it so I won’t repeat myself.” Bailey gently suggests an alternate hypothesis: “One suspects, too, that he hoped a biographer would come along someday.” For a life like Jackson’s, the biographer doesn’t appear in order to recount the finished story; he appears in order to complete it.
Reading about Jackson inverts the standard biographical experience: instead of seeing a famous man when he was unknown, we see an unknown man when he was famous. But this kind of recuperative biography offers its readers a certain sense of importance. We’re visiting a tombstone that doesn’t get much traffic. We get to be fans of the underdog. We get to feel like even the simple act of paying attention is giving Jackson what he always wanted, even though he’s not around to see it.
It’s easy to imagine how much Jackson would have loved watching us survey the wreckage of his decline — how much he would have loved studying our faces as we pore over his letters, as we excavate his life from his books and his books from his life.
Jackson’s own fiction imagines this posthumous vantage point as a kind of fantasy. His story “The Problem Child” tracks the thwarted suicide attempt of a middle-aged alcoholic who considers taking a bottle of pills but ultimately decides against it — realizing that if she actually dies, she won’t be able to watch her lover find her dead body. So she ends up leaving an empty pill bottle in plain sight and collapsing onto the couch instead. Which is to say: she figures out a way to play spectator to someone playing spectator to the tragedy of her death.
Jacques Derrida defines “archive fever” as a “compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement.” The archive is a home, stemming from the Greek arkheion, “a house, a domicile, an address,” but it’s also a tomb — the legible tracings of a lost life. The archive is “muddied,” Derrida writes. It’s full of ghosts.
The archive’s constant betrayal is that it promises a kind of comprehensive access it will never deliver: a return, in the case of biography, to the origins and contours of a self. The archive holds the possibility of a missing key, the decoder ring of a grand confessional letter. Resolution hangs like a whiskey bottle from a window — just past the ledge of vision, never close enough to drink.
I spent some time with Jackson’s papers last fall at Dartmouth Rausner Library. It’s an archive electric with the buzz of unfinished business. There were boxes of drafts and letters that hadn’t yet been catalogued. The hard New Hampshire sunlight illuminated every one of his transgressions with bright neutrality — without hesitation or condemnation, reparation or forgiveness. It felt fitting that Jackson’s life wasn’t organized; it was a mess of days piled inside cardboard boxes that made no claims to order. I left with an enormous respect for the work Bailey had done, assembling these fragments of an incoherent life into a coherent story, and with the uneasy knowledge that all coherence necessitates a certain kind of narrative violence.
“Coherent” derives from the Latin preposition com (“together”) and the verb haerere (“to stick”) and it’s related to haesitare, to stick fast, or remain fixed, or stammer in speech. This linked verb calls to mind resistance, those parts of the subject that stick in the throat, stick in the past, duck out of view. How do we honor this resistance? Making the pieces stick in one story (the biographer’s) also means dislodging them from another story — the unknown and unknowable story of the past. Perhaps the hunger for coherence — comprehensibility or explanation — is particularly ferocious when it comes to lives defined by dysfunction. We have an urgent need to know why everything went wrong.
The work of a biographer is staggering. This is what the archives teach. Bailey’s achievement is staggering. It’s staggering not just for its intellectual labor but also for the psychic flexibility it must have required. A biographer must constantly give up the story he’s been crafting once some new piece of information comes along to disrupt it. He has to surrender his narrative constantly because the life he is narrating isn’t under his control. It already happened; he is simply illuminating its trajectory. The life of his subject offers a series of moments to which he must hold himself accountable. How does the biographer manage not to resent his subject for this unreciprocal affair, this one-sided infatuation, this tidal flow of seeking and recession?
It would have been easy for Bailey to turn Jackson’s life into an annotated laundry list of dysfunctional anecdotes: decades spent smoking four packs of cigarettes a day on two post-tubercular lungs (ultimately, only one); a slew of epic benders and hospitalizations; a growing catalogue of alienated friends and unpaid debts; so many suicide attempts they become, if not casual, at least horribly familiar. Jackson’s finances were unsurprisingly disastrous, vacillating constantly between extravagance and poverty: he sold mink coats to pay the coal bill. He was homosexual but in the closet for most of his life, close to an openly gay brother (Boom) who was the darling of various bohemian communities; even when Jackson was able to live an openly gay lifestyle, during his final months at the Chelsea Hotel, he was too deeply destroyed by his addictions to enjoy it. His suicide felt the culmination of a self-destructive life, rather than its truncation — though of course, undeniably, it was both.
Jackson lived large, for a time, before he started destroying his life in earnest. He palled around with Judy Garland and Mary McCarthy. He once gossiped with the mistress of F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of his literary heroes, “and she poured it all out, poor girl: what he was like in bed, how big, how many times, and you’d be surprised.” He was a darling of Hollywood. He owned a jockstrap covered in bells. (It’s for these details, after all, that we read biographies in the first place.) In certain moments, from certain angles, in the dim lighting of certain midtown bars, his drinking carried the gloss and polish of legend. His archives include a bar tab four pages long. A fellow patient at Davos, where Jackson and Boom were treated for their tuberculosis, remembers waking one morning to find Jackson’s footprint outlined in a dried puddle of wine.
That footprint extracts a neatly lyric symbolism from a lifetime of messy dysfunction: an identity simultaneously contoured and destroyed by booze. Bailey offers the double-bind with painful candor: liquor granted Jackson his literary niche (the footprint) but it also kept him pigeonholed, and ultimately kept him from doing more literary work. He was always either battling his cravings or surrendering himself to their satisfaction.
Bailey’s biography suggests that one of the great tragedies of Jackson’s life was the novel he never wrote: a sequel to The Lost Weekend. For much of his career, Bailey writes, it seemed “he was working on every conceivable thing but [this] novel,” though “the more Jackson became blocked on [it], the more he liked expounding on how great it would be.”
Jackson wasn’t the only one with high hopes. As early as 1944, his editor was encouraging him to start working on the second of “the two parts of your famous novel about Don Birnam.” While the “first part” had been all drinking, everyone imagined the second part might offer some hope of recovery. As the years progressed, Jackson’s own recovery — an enduring binary code of dry spells and relapses — would become inescapably linked to this project. He was trying to write a novel about sobriety when he couldn’t stay sober himself.
This was part of a larger dilemma for Jackson: he spent most of his career worrying about his inability to write convincingly about things he hadn’t lived. “I find it increasingly hard to write make believe,” he wrote a friend, “in that sense, perhaps I am not a real writer.” He felt like a literary failure because his writing was too self-involved, and he felt like a failure at sobriety because his self-involvement kept getting him drunk. “I couldn’t get outside of myself,” he once explained, “I was too self-absorbed, too self-infatuated, and I drank.”
For Jackson, everything came back to this desire to “get outside of himself.” It fueled his drinking and his attempts to stop drinking; it also fueled — had always fueled — his desire to write about things he hadn’t lived, including a lifestyle he couldn’t manage to keep living — sobriety itself.
There was something intrinsically self-sabotaging in Jackson’s attempt to turn his addiction into literature — he was simply replacing one symptom of self-obsession (drinking) with another (autobiographical writing). As Rhoda observed, fame never offered Jackson the self-escape he craved; it only delivered him deeper into himself. Even in recovery, Jackson felt his own storytelling ego as a dangerous force. “It has always been a hazard for me to speak at an AA meeting,” he said once (while speaking at an AA meeting), “because I knew that I could do better than other people. I really had a story to tell. I was more articulate. I could dramatize it.” He indulged his ego even as he disavowed it. In AA he sought the possibility of another kind of self-relation. “I think,” he said once, “I got tired of being my own hero.” He thought that AA philosophy might offer an aesthetic sensibility that could finally bring his sequel into focus:
The [sequel] is called […] FARTHER AND WILDER, and really it’s far & away the best thing I’ve done, simpler, more honest, and, for the first time, out of myself — that is, not self-tortured or –absorbed or –eviscerated. No, it’s about people — life, if I may say so, with scarcely any “plot” but much character … I’m proud to be so objective and detached, finally … And (please don’t squirm at this) my stopping-drinking and my enormous interest in AA, if you’ll pardon the expression, have a lot to do with this new attitude — well, everything to do with it, I think.
It’s a curious claim for Jackson to make about his sequel — "out of myself" — when the book was another quasi-autobiographical novel about Don Birnam. But somehow the AA ethos was key to this paradoxical hope: he could write from his life in a way that wasn’t limited to its scope; his prose could transcend ego; his gaze could see around the claustrophobic bounds of his former solipsism.
Rhoda — who arguably had greater reason to celebrate her husband’s sobriety than Jackson himself — surveyed his AA life with a gimlet eye:
It’s all so easy and natural and no posing or anything. Everyone likes Charlie, but it’s all on an even footing and he responds to that very happily […] He has no resentment of the fact that he really couldn’t meet many of the members on any other terms — that they’re not very bright or interesting or anything.
The implicit opposition Rhoda constructed — between “no posing” and “interesting” — echoed Jackson’s own hope that recovery could make his art compelling in a new way: perhaps recovery could replace “interesting” with another kind of truth. But Rhoda’s concession (“they’re not very bright”) also echoed the social anxiety beneath Jackson’s parenthetical aside: "please don’t squirm at this." He feared that AA would make him terrible company at cocktail parties (for reasons obvious and less so), that it would leave him lusterless where he had once sparkled, a “vegetable brain” where he’d once been charged and electric.
Jackson’s relationship to recovery had been vexed and volatile for years: he dismissed AA in its salad days — the early 1940s — calling it a group for “simple souls” and “weaklings” founded on a bunch of “mystical blah blah.” But by September 1954, he was praising its virtues in a letter to Charlie Brackett: “I tell you, boy,” he wrote, “there is much, much more to AA than mere sobriety; there is happiness and whole new way of life.” Through his sponsor, he grew increasingly enamored with G.K. Chesterton, who, also wrestling with the dilemma of self-absorption, wrote, “How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it […] you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.” One can’t help picturing those strangers as the men and women sitting on folding chairs in New Hampshire church basements, swapping stories, trading drunken abandon for another kind of liberty.
The part of Jackson that grew excited about AA was the same part of him that started to dismiss modernist mythologies of the tormented artist. “Are we really that tormented?” he asked in a review of Malcolm Lowry’s Selected Letters. Bailey summarizes his answer: he “primly deplored” that archetype “as little more than a pretext for self-destructive behavior.” Jackson wanted to resist the myth that dysfunction would always be more interesting than wellness, and one of the projects of his unwritten magnum opus was showing that getting better could be as powerful as falling apart.
But during his relapses, Jackson slipped back into the old mythology of dysfunction. In an unpublished essay called “The Sleeping Brain,” he equates dysfunction with creativity:
Did I want to prolong my life and keep my health and remain that sad thing, a writer who did not write, one whose reputation was all in the past; or should I say the hell with it and return to my former indulgence in what Scott Fitzgerald called "the subtler poisons"? — and thus be freed from my healthy prison, free once more from fear, able to function as a writer again.
Bailey sometimes corroborates Jackson’s own narrative of recovery as a flattening force, describing the “tediously even keel” of his sobriety and the “prim” quality of his critique of artistic torment; he cites a literati friend who described Jackson sober as “a being I had not met before” — provincial and tedious where he’d once been witty and worldly. When Bailey writes a sentence like “Charlie was getting dull, all right, and knew it better than anyone,” he is performing, perhaps unwittingly, a vocal feat trickier than its seamless texture suggests: partially channeling Jackson’s voice, partially channeling the voice of his friend, and partially — by embedding the statement in his own biographical narrative — endorsing the view as his own.
Theorist Gérard Genette describes “free indirect discourse” as a formal strategy in which “the narrator takes on the speech of the character, or, if one prefers, the character speaks through the voice of the narrator, and the two instances then are merged.” Critics typically think of free indirect discourse in terms of fiction, but it formally embodies one of the central dilemmas of biography: how much will the biographer recount the subject’s own narrative of himself? How much will he dispute? How will he break the merging of their voices? Interrogate a dead man?
When Bailey describes the “tediously even keel” of Jackson’s sobriety, I miss the biographical voice that’s willing to see past the limits of Jackson’s own self-perception — to question his motives, for example, in making carbon copies of his letters. I wish Bailey could depict Jackson’s sobriety — its fallow periods, its stuttering — without summoning all of Jackson’s pessimism. Jackson was an addict, after all — still caught under the spell of his own craving. But Bailey’s account of “tedious” sobriety only nods at a Janus-faced mythos of artistic self-destruction — dysfunction is fruitful, wellness is bland — that threatens to ratify the logic of addiction itself.
Perhaps free indirect discourse is simply a formal symptom of archive fever — a kind of intimate ventriloquism — in its desire to vocalize the truth of a subject who can no longer speak. But the truth of biography is that it will always be an act of speaking for, on behalf of — always an act of speculation and re-interpretation, never an act of channeling. Biography will never be autobiography, that genre Jackson spent his whole life fleeing; it will always turn the life of its subject into a set of possible extrapolations. Derrida considers the archive as “an institutional passage from the private to the public,” and we fantasize about following archives back into privacy while at the same time making them into public servants. We ask them to support external theories of our own devising; we bend them to our will.
We want Jackson to remain simultaneously particular and exportable. We want to read his demons for the ways in which their relevance outlives him. We want him to explain what it was like to be gay in the middle of the century, to be an alcoholic in the middle of the century, changing the midcentury public conception of his own disease. We want to cry at the TV movie we are writing about his life. We want to feel our hearts broken by the disconnect between his public impact and his private failures.
Jackson broke his own heart, too. He wasn’t just the first curator of his archives — with his carbon-copied letters — he was also one of their first visitors. He describes rereading The Lost Weekend in the wake of a devastating relapse in 1954:
Last night, for the first time in six or seven years, I took down my copy of The Lost Weekend and began to read it […] I am so detached from it, it was all so long ago, that I know you will not misunderstand me when I say that I was thunderstruck. It was absolutely honest, syllable for syllable, as far as I read; it was a writer really on the beam, telling nothing but universal truth […] I was most of all impressed by the sense that, in spite of the hero’s utter self-absorption, it is a picture of a man groping for God, or at least trying to find out who he is.
Jackson was eventually able to read his own book as if it had been written by someone else — “a writer really on the beam,” perhaps one of those Al-Anon church-basement strangers — and this sense of estrangement was essential to the ways he felt consoled by it. Jackson had finally become foreign to himself — a realization of this “out of himself” he’d been seeking all his life. He was simultaneously peering into a house and living in it. He could be nostalgic for his long-fled literary voice, but also glad for the sense of camaraderie its otherness offered him.
Everyone brings baggage to the archives. You leave some in lockers outside the door, and you bring the rest inside: your particular obsession with an author’s childhood, or his absentee father, his last gay lover, his openly gay brother. You want the dead man to play keystone to some theory. You can’t accept that your own preoccupations play the role of sieve: these are the boundaries of my focused attention. You try to fight the siren call of that sieve. You try to pay attention to everything.
My sieve had to do with sobriety. I wanted to believe that sobriety could have made Jackson a better artist, not a flatter one — that sobriety could have worked against the shame of his solipsism. There should be a special kind of Al-Anon for readers who want to save their most dysfunctional literary heroes — or, even worse, those who want to keep their heroes broken. I got angry at the suggestion — from Jackson, or from anyone — that getting sober parched his intellect or sucked him dry. I got angry, flat-out, that he couldn’t stay sober long enough to give sobriety a chance.
I started wondering if others had come to Jackson’s papers and left with impossible counterfactual desires; if others had wanted him to treat his wife better, to fight his ego better; if others had scoured his letters for glimpses of those moments, however fleeting, when he seemed to have found a way out of his own life. I didn’t just get archive fever, I got a kind of secondary archive fever. I wanted to get close to all the other hands that had rummaged through those cardboard boxes full of yearning. I wanted to ask Bailey if he’d gotten angry at Jackson for failing to fill that empty margin addiction always carves: the negative space of what could have been.
This unlived life is the archive that will never make itself available. It holds the footprint that stepped out of the wine puddle, the mystical blah blah clarified into focus; it holds 20 more years, a life out of the closet, out of the pill bottle, the whiskey bottle, every bottle — a life spent on a street full of splendid strangers, Jackson nothing more or less than one of them.
Leslie Jamison's first novel, The Gin Closet, was a finalist for the 2010 Los Angeles Times First Fiction Prize. Her second book, a collection of essays called The Empathy Exams, will be published by Graywolf in early 2014.
Follow her on twitter @lsjamison
LARB Staff Recommendations
IN THE INTRODUCTION to his novel Bend Sinister (1947), Vladimir Nabokov writes the following: I am not “sincere,” I am not &ldquo...
THE POSTHUMOUSLY PUBLISHED MEMOIR of poet, musician, and activist Gil Scott-Heron is a body of bright stars that makes up a beautiful constellation...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!