Biography of gay, forgotten literary figure gets bogged down with detail

“Farther & Wilder : The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson” by Blake Bailey. Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. $30.

Blake Bailey, whose earlier biographies of Richard Yates (“A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates”) and John Cheever (“Cheever : A Life”) were a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2003 and the 2009 winner of that award, respectively, notes that after finishing those “two big literary biographies,” he “hoped to write something a little quirkier” and ultimately selected Charles Jackson, once famous for his novel “The Lost Weekend,” who has been all but forgotten today.

The publication of this biography follows closely upon the 2011 selection by the Library of Congress of the 1945 Academy Award winning-film based on that novel for preservation in the National Film Registry as a work of cultural, historical or aesthetic significance.

This almost obsessively detailed biography is based upon more than 20 boxes of Jackson’s correspondence and other papers housed in the Dartmouth library, interviews with Jackson’s daughters, a niece and a grandnephew, and visits to Jackson’s childhood home of Newark in upstate New York.

While Bailey achieves his goal of depicting the emotional life of a closeted gay man in that era, exploring the roots of Jackson’s alcoholism, and revealing the connection between the two, the work almost collapses under the sheer weight of detail.

His decision to move back and forth in time in order to make connections between events results in a work that is difficult to follow and a main character with whom it is difficult to empathize.

The cast of characters is large and gets larger as we follow Jackson to Syracuse University, Chicago, New York, Pennsylvania, Europe and back to New York, all before he was 30 years old.

The work is well-documented and Bailey avoids the temptation to draw conclusions about Jackson’s homosexual behavior beyond what can be definitively established; he allows the facts to speak for themselves, with quotes from Jackson’s letters and references to his fictional works. He includes the details of Jackson’s relationships with men and women, his parents, siblings, wife and children, as well as his literary and Hollywood connections.

The intense attention to such details is necessary in understanding Jackson’s works, which were largely autobiographical. Bailey is able to identify the antecedents of most of Jackson’s fictional characters and events. However, Bailey seems unwilling to acknowledge that it is this very lack of objectivity that is responsible for Jackson’s decline in popularity. The works are tied too closely to a particular time and place to resonate with today’s readers.

The one exception, “The Lost Weekend,” rises above Jackson’s other works precisely because it is an honest, unflinching account of addiction as experienced by the addict, and this biography is valuable for establishing that fact. Otherwise, the book is a long, slow trudge through the minutia of what is ultimately the biography of a literary failure who is disappointed in himself.

This book is not for the casual reader, but will be of interest to the right audience, including those seeking to understand addiction, homosexuality, or both. It would be a good selection for a book discussion group, as it contains myriad details about issues that are of continuing interest and debate. It will also be of interest to those who are studying these subjects in an academic setting, as well as anyone interested in the history of American literature and film.