American writer and biographer Blake Bailey at Hotel Palomar in Los Angeles. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
In his new biography, "Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson," Blake Bailey explores the tormented life of the author of "The Lost Weekend" — the once-celebrated 1944 novel that led to the Oscar-winning film — and his plunge into literary obscurity. The Portsmouth, Va.-based biographer has also written extensive books about John Cheever, winning a National Book Critics Circle Award, and of Richard Yates, for which Bailey was a finalist for the honor.
You've called yourself "a chronicler of middle-class chroniclers." What attracts you to them?
I myself am consummately middle class. We grew up in upper-middle-class suburbs in Oklahoma City, and that's very much the same ethos as what Richard Yates and John Cheever wrote about. And my father is from a little town called Vinita, Okla., which I would like to say is the Oklahoman equivalent of Charles Jackson's hometown, Arcadia, in upstate New York — both of them idyllic on the outside and a little sinister under the surface.
So what prompted you to write about Charles Jackson?
I'm a huge fan of "The Lost Weekend." I have this dog-eared copy of the 1963 Time Reading Program edition, which was a series of contemporary classics reprinted as a quality paperback. Anyway, after Cheever, I was really fried, because it was a lot of work, and I wanted to do a less ambitious book. I was going to do a small book of profiles of literary failures — writers who regardless of talent or how prolific they were never amounted to that much. And Charlie was going to be one of those. Because even though he wrote what many literary people regard as a classic, he's totally forgotten.
I reread the editor's preface ... to that 1963 edition I had, and it concludes on a happy note. It says Charles Jackson once denied that he was the model for Don Birnam, the alcoholic in "The Lost Weekend." Many hospitalizations later, he comes clean, and he is now the chairman of the New Brunswick, N. J., Alcoholics Anonymous chapter, and the doting father of two daughters. I thought, "Wow, a redemptive fable." And I Googled him and found out he died of an overdose at the Chelsea Hotel in 1968, living with a man named Stanley. That's quite a reversal of fortune. I just thought, "I've got to get to the bottom of this."
Charlie's work interests me. I think it needs to be rediscovered and he as a human being is, believe me, infinitely interesting.
Why does "The Lost Weekend" need to be rediscovered and how do you think the novel, which is largely forgotten, compares to the movie, which is not?
It is a rare instance of a great movie made from a great book. But it's apples and oranges. If you read the book, it is necessarily far more interior than the movie, and it is the inner landscape of an addict. It remains the definitive portrait of an addict in American literature. Charlie's constant protesting refrain throughout his adult life was, "I can't get outside of myself." The triumph of the novel is that Jackson manages to transcend the narcissism and see it objectively and dramatize it.
When that came out he became one of the most celebrated novelists of the time. How did he go from that to being largely obscure in 2013?
There are basically two reasons: One is that the movie, which seemed like a blessing at the time, turned out to be anything but, where Charlie was concerned. Because it was such a worldwide phenomenon — it swept the Oscars — that it ended up supplanting the novel as a cultural artifact. People don't know the novel even existed ... and they forget the novel itself was an incredible hit, commercially and critically.
The second reason is that Charlie freaked out. He had been sober for eight years. "The Lost Weekend" is the only novel he wrote sober. He was from this little town where he and his brother Fred were the town sissies, and they were roundly bullied as such. And he could never get past this idea that he was a misfit from the sticks. How had he managed to write this world-acclaimed masterpiece, and how was he going to do it again?
The way he found to keep writing was to take Seconal, and he became a hopeless Seconal addict. The upside was he was quite prolific. While taking Seconal, he wrote in 1946, two years after "The Lost Weekend," "The Fall of Valor," which is the first mainstream American novel about homosexuality. It's two years in advance of Gore Vidal's "The City and the Pillar." And he wrote a wonderful short-story collection. Because he wrote everything stoned out of his gourd, it's obviously not of the same quality as "The Lost Weekend."
Seconal is a barbiturate. Was it because of his bipolar biochemistry that it stimulated him instead of sedating him?