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Authors: Charles Jackson

The Lost Weekend


Charles Jackson was born in 1903 and raised in the township of Arcadia, New York, in the Finger Lakes region, where much of his fiction is set. After a youth marred by tuberculosis and alcoholism, Jackson achieved international fame with his first novel,
The Lost Weekend
(1944), which was adapted into a classic movie by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. Over the next nine years, Jackson published two more novels and two story collections, while continuing to struggle with alcohol and drug addiction. In 1967, after a fourteen-year silence, he returned to the best-seller lists with a novel about a nymphomaniac,
A Second-Hand Life
, but the following year he died of an overdose at the Hotel Chelsea in Manhattan.

Blake Bailey is the author of
Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson
. His other books include
A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates
, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and
Cheever: A Life
, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Francis Parkman Prize, and finalist for the Pulitzer and James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He edited a two-volume edition of Cheever’s work for The Library of America, and in 2010 received an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Virginia with his wife and daughter.


The Fall of Valor

The Outer Edges

The Sunnier Side: Twelve Arcadian Tales

Earthly Creatures

A Second-Hand Life


Copyright © 1944 by Charles R. Jackson. Copyright renewed 1971 by Rhoda Jackson Introduction copyright © 2013 by Blake Bailey

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in slightly different form by Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., New York, in 1944.

Vintage and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The Cataloging-in-Publication data is available at the Library of Congress.

eISBN: 978-0-307-94873-1

Cover design by Megan Wilson
Cover photograph First Reflection, New York, c. 1939-October 1940, by Lisette Model © The Lisette Model Foundation, Inc. (1983). Used by permission. Photograph © National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa


To My Wife

And can you, by no drift of circumstance,

Get from him why he puts on this confusion,

Grating so harshly all his days of quiet

With turbulent and dangerous lunacy?

, III, 1.


Blake Bailey

The Lost Weekend
—a novel about five disastrous days in the life of Don Birnam—was written in the early 1940s, a time when alcoholism was widely regarded as a moral failing rather than a disease. The publisher, Stanley Rinehart, realized the book would need all the clinical validation it could get, and sent advance copies to medical schools around the country. Dr. Morris Fishbein, editor of
The Journal of the American Medical Association
, claimed that the novel captured “the very soul of the dipsomaniac” (“I found myself at the end … full of sympathy and a desire to help”), while another specialist, Dr. Herbert L. Nossen, called it “expert and wonderful—the work of a courageous man.”

Fiction writers also tended to be enthusiastic. Sinclair Lewis, who knew whereof he spoke, found
The Lost Weekend
brilliant on every level—“the only unflinching story of an alcoholic that I have ever read”—and subsequently made a point of mentioning Charles Jackson as one of the few American writers who showed promise of greatness. Another alcoholic writer, however, seemed almost traumatized by the novel: William Seabrook, nowadays forgotten, was then well known as the author of
(1935), the record of his incarceration at a mental hospital in Westchester County. “Here’s my honest reaction to
The Lost Weekend
by Charles Jackson which I read word by word to the end with increasing pain and anguish,” he wrote Jackson’s publisher.

I hate the goddam book almost as much as I hate my own inflamed conscience. “There go I but for the grace of God” and all that stuff, in that horrible, hopeless, cumulative nightmare this guy’s devil-guided pen (or portable) has envoked [

I’ve suffered as a drunk but not like that and hope to Christ I never will. It’s the only book that ever scared me. It should be soberly read by every white-collar souse in America. If it doesn’t scare the liver, lights and daylights out of him as it did me, it means the poor bastard has softening of the brain and is already sunk.…

As it happened, Seabrook was then in the midst of a final alcoholic relapse; twenty months later he’d kill himself with an overdose of sleeping pills, though friends claimed it wasn’t a matter of deliberate suicide so much as “another drastic attempt to accomplish what he had tried, vainly, all his life to do—to get away from himself.” Jackson would have understood only too well.

Nor was Jackson surprised by his novel’s stunning success, since, as he put it, “Almost everybody has somebody in their family who’s a drunk but who’s worth worrying about.” Within five years,
The Lost Weekend
sold almost half a million copies in various editions and was translated into fourteen languages, syndicated by King Features as a comic strip, and added to the prestigious Modern Library. Its critical reception was no less impressive: “Charles Jackson has made the most compelling gift to the literature of addiction since De Quincey,” Philip Wylie wrote in
The New York Times
. The trailer for the classic movie summarized the matter nicely: “Famous critics called it … ‘Powerful …’ ‘Terrifying …’ ‘Unforgettable …’ ‘Superb …’ ‘Brilliant …’ AND NOW PARAMOUNT DARES TO OPEN … THE STRANGE AND SAVAGE PAGES OF … 
The Lost Weekend

The movie, released less than two years after the novel, almost swept the Oscars—winning Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay, as well as Best Actor for Ray Milland, a Welshman hitherto
known as a competent light comedian for supporting roles. A near teetotaler, Milland had been coached in the ways of drunkenness by the novel’s author—a balding, impeccably groomed middle-aged man whose weird combination of wistfulness and zest put the actor in mind of “a bright, erratic problem child.” At the time, Jackson was working at MGM on a screenwriting assignment and was bemused to find himself the most popular man in Hollywood. Everyone, it seemed, had read his book and experienced an almost Seabrook-like shock of recognition, regarding Jackson (as one journalist put it) “in the manner of a returned war hero … of a man who had been through hellfire and emerged bloodshot but unbowed.” By then Jackson had been sober for almost a decade and was appalled by how readily people identified him with his narcissistic, crypto-homosexual, writer-manqué protagonist. “One third of the history is based on what I have experienced myself,” he told Louella Parsons and others, “about one third on the experiences of a very good friend whose drinking career I followed very closely, and the other third is pure invention.”

In fact,
The Lost Weekend
is autobiographical in almost every particular, though ultimately it’s a little misleading to confuse Don Birnam with his creator. Whereas it’s Don’s curse to see his own alcoholic self-deceptions objectively, before he can quite enjoy them, Jackson the novelist had managed to remove himself once further—that is, by objectifying both the deluded
self-knowing Don. The first is the artist-hero of Don’s never-to-be-written masterpiece, “In a Glass”—the brooding, dissolute apotheosis of the boy who, twenty years before, had stared into his bathroom mirror in hope that poetry-writing had wrought some telltale change, some outward sign of his cherished superiority (“Clods”), now preserved only by alcohol: “Suppose the clear vision in the bathroom mirror could fade (as in some trick movie) and be replaced by this image over the bar. Suppose that lad— Suppose time could be all mixed up so that the child of twenty years ago could look into the bathroom mirror and see himself
reflected at thirty-three, as he saw himself now. What would he think, that boy?” As Don excitedly considers the possibilities—gloating over the clever multivalence of his title, “In a Glass” (the whiskey glass, the mirrors past and present)—for a moment he becomes not only the hero but the author, too, of this “classic of form and content,” a kindred of Poe and Keats and Chatterton at whom his boy-self would have “nodded in happy recognition.”

But of course the book doesn’t exist, could
exist, and Don catches himself yet again—smiling tipsily, fatuously, into a barroom mirror. This, again, is the Don who is both tragic clown and audience (“staring back at the performer in silent contempt and ridicule”), while hovering above is the triumphant novelist—Jackson—and hence the implicit irony of Don’s self-loathing diatribe:

“In a Glass”—who would ever want to read a novel about a punk and a drunk! Everybody knew a couple or a dozen; they were not to be taken seriously; nuisances and trouble-makers, nothing more; like queers and fairies, people were belly-sick of them; whatever ailed them, that was
funeral; who cared?—life presented a thousand things more important to be written about than misfits and failures.… Like all his attempts at fiction it would be as personal as a letter—painful to those who knew him, of no interest to those who didn’t; … so narcissistic that its final effect would be that of the mirrored room which gives back the same image times without count, or the old Post Toastie box of his boyhood with the fascinating picture of a woman and child holding a Post Toastie box with a picture of a woman and child holding a Post Toastie box with a picture of a woman and child holding …

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