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


Read an excerpt from the March 2013 issue of Vanity Fair.

A GREAT AMERICAN BIOGRAPHY … brilliant and gripping … Mr. Bailey has made an author come alive in a way that is truly novelistic, has made him submit to becoming a character in a story. … a Greek myth crossed with a Sherwood Anderson tale. … That Blake Bailey should come along 45 years later and grant [fame to Charles Jackson] is a kind of miracle, one that we can all be grateful for.”

-Adam Kirsch, Wall Street Journal

 

Charles Jackson’s life and work encapsulated what it meant to be an addict and a closeted gay man in mid-century America, and what one had to do with the other.

Charles Jackson’s novel The Lost Weekend—the story of five disastrous days in the life of alcoholic Don Birnam—was published in 1944 to triumphant success. Within five years it had sold nearly half a million copies in various editions, and was added to the prestigious Modern Library. The actor Ray Milland, who would win an Oscar for his portrayal of Birnam, was coached in the ways of drunkenness by the novel’s author—a balding, impeccably groomed middle-aged man who had been sober since 1936 and had no intention of going down in history as the author of a thinly veiled autobiography about a crypto-homosexual drunk.

But The Lost Weekend was all but entirely based on Jackson’s own experiences, and Jackson’s valiant struggles fill these pages. He and his handsome gay brother, Fred (“Boom”), grew up in the scandal-plagued village of Newark, New York, and later lived in Europe as TB patients, consorting with aristocratic café society. Jackson went on to work in radio and Hollywood, was published widely, lived in the Hotel Chelsea in New York City, and knew everyone from Judy Garland and Billy Wilder to Thomas Mann and Mary McCarthy. A doting family man with two daughters, Jackson was often industrious and sober; he even became a celebrated spokesman for Alcoholics Anonymous. Yet he ultimately found it nearly impossible to write without the stimulus of pills or alcohol and felt his devotion to his work was worth the price. Rich with incident and character, Farther & Wilder is the moving story of an artist whose commitment to bringing forbidden subjects into the popular discourse was far ahead of his time.

 

Praise for FARTHER & WILDER: THE LOST WEEKENDS AND LITERARY DREAMS OF CHARLES JACKSON

 

“Arresting … Bailey is the literary biographer of our generation. … [his] biography shows us the artfulness of Jackson’s life and work: the self-consciouness, the refusal to take anything for granted. … The publication of this new biography and the reprinting of the books themselves ignite the excitement once again, and Bailey has given us a writer who can, on every page, throw us out of our chairs.”

-Seth Lerer, San Francisco Chronicle

 

“Scrupulous and compassionate … As a portrait of the artist as a ruined man, Bailey’s account is a chilling addition to the museum of literary failure, to be mounted somewhere in the long hall between ‘The Crack-Up’ and ‘The Shining.’”

-Donna Rifkind, New York Times Book Review

 

“Meticulous and sensitive … Bailey makes a persuasive case that [Jackson's work] deserves recognition for its uncommonly empathetic focus on subjects that were then transgressive. A clear-eyed portrait of a man for whom success was ‘as difficult and dangerous as failure,’ this biography offers a reminder that the urge to create is too often accompanied by a tendency toward self-destruction.”

-The New Yorker

 

“The novelist Charles Jackson may not be as well known as subjects of Blake Bailey’s previous biographies … but he is no less fascinating. In Farther & Wilder … Mr. Bailey portrays his life with the same dogged attention to detail, literary panache and brilliant storytelling that he brought to those other subjects … Mr. Bailey’s triumph is in fleshing out both Jackson’s literary legacy and the man himself.”

-Sarah Douglas, New York Observer

 

“Blake Bailey’s impressive new biography … 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 … Bailey’s achievement is staggering.”

-Leslie Jamison, Los Angeles Review of Books

 

“A fascinating anatomy of failure.”

-Carl Rollyson, The Star Tribune

 

“A once-celebrated American novelist wrestles with the Big Three writerly adversaries—substance abuse, repressed homosexuality, and social conformity—in this rich, probing biography… The author shrewdly analyzes Jackson’s sometimes crippling, sometimes fertile contradictions … [and] offers clear-eyed, tart-tongued interpretations of Jackson’s uneven oeuvre, setting them in a thorough, well-paced, entertaining narrative that features movie stars and intellectuals, evocative scenes of mid-20th-century literary life, and relationships that unfold with novelistic complexity. The result is another compelling portrait of a conflicted writer whose genius emerges in dubious battle with his demons.”

Publishers Weekly

 

“Bailey makes a rather surprising case for the resurrection of this deeply prescient and problematic novelist, who broke open taboos about alcoholics and homosexuals well before it was cool and championed F. Scott Fitzgerald when he was in the process of being remaindered… Bailey urges a revisiting of the work of this fascinating novelist of keen psychological depth. Eloquent, poignant portrait of the artist as outsider and misfit.

Kirkus (starred review)

 

“A richly detailed, well-documented look at Jackson’s troubled life… Bailey’s absorbing biography will interest literary scholars as well as general readers. In conjunction with Vintage’s reissue of The Lost Weekend as well as The Sunnier Side, a collection of Jackson’s stories, this promises to generate fresh interest in his work.”

Library Journal