NONFICTION: The life of writer Charles Jackson peaked early, then crashed.
Mention “The Lost Weekend” (1945) to a Hollywood-classic-film buff, and you may be treated to a recap of that memorable scene in which the alcoholic writer Don Birnam (played by Ray Milland), after struggling for years to write his masterpiece, has sunk so low that we see him trudging through the streets of Manhattan, typewriter in hand, looking for a pawnshop. His monumental literary ambitions dissolve as he searches for the cash that will buy him another drink.
Who reads Charles Jackson’s novel now? Jackson himself believed that Billy Wilder and his writing partner, Charles Brackett, actually improved on its prose when they transferred it to the screen — although they did not do justice to the ending, which, in Hollywood terms, had to suggest uplift.
In “Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson,” Blake Bailey believes the novel deserves a revival, although he stops short of calling it a masterpiece.
Jackson wrote other novels, but nothing that received the praise lavished on “The Lost Weekend” by no less than Thomas Mann and several members of the New York intellectual/Partisan Review crowd. But, as Bailey notes, Mary McCarthy realized that Jackson had researched his own sensibility so exhaustively in “The Lost Weekend” that continuing on in that vein could result only in diminishing returns.
Jackson did strike out trying to write with candor and courage about homosexuality at a time when publishers were loath to touch the subject. Hollywood dared to deal with anti-Semitism in “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947) and with racism in “Pinky” (1949), but a serious and sympathetic treatment of gay life was considered beyond the pale. As a result, Jackson had to treat the subject gingerly — indeed, abstractly — to get his work published.
That hamstrung him, and he relapsed into alcoholism, dreaming of making it big once again in Manhattan literary circles and in Hollywood. It was not to be, and he degenerated into a script doctor for television dramas.
If this biography seems a sad story, it is mitigated and enlivened by Bailey’s sensitive prose style in what amounts to a fascinating anatomy of failure. The biography also benefits from its likable subject, a man who was just as happy to pal around with Judy Garland as to engage in tête-à-têtes with Mann.
Jackson seems very much a writer of his period, unable to delve as deeply as he would have liked into his true métier. If only he could have stretched himself somewhere between Andre Gide on one end and Gore Vidal on the other. But he had a wife and family to support, as well as a desire to seem mainstream. Few writers can be daring and conventional — or as endearing and honorable as Charles Jackson.
Carl Rollyson is the author, most recently, of “American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath.”