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Et in Arcadia Ego
On November 12, 1916, when Charles Jackson was thirteen, his sixteen-year-old sister, Thelma, and four-year-old brother, Richard, were killed during a Sunday drive with friends, when an express train hit their Overland automobile at a pump-station crossing. Next morning The New York Times reported that the two young people in the front seat, Harold Scarth and Gladys Clark, were likely to survive, but that Gladys’s brother Malbie had “probably” suffered fatal injuries. Indeed, the boy’s back had been broken and he’d died “in terrible agony” a few hours after the collision.
One learned of Malbie’s fate in the much fuller account given five days later in the Union-Gazette, one of two weekly newspapers in the victims’ hometown of Newark, a small village (pop. 6,200) in the township of Arcadia, thirty miles east of Rochester and fifty miles west of Syracuse. “three killed in fatal automobile accident,” read the redundant headline spanning four front-page columns: “Newark Party of Young People Struck by Sunday Empire State Express—Village in Sadness Over the Calamity—Accident at East Palmyra—The Funerals.” Particular attention was paid to Thelma Jackson, who was not only “one of the most beautiful young ladies in the village,” but “winsome” and “sunny,” too—so much so that her mother had often worried about her parlous attractiveness to men, especially older men such as their next-door neighbor on Prospect Street, a notorious reprobate named Barney. Ever since Thelma was twelve (as Charlie would later recall in semi-fictional form), the man had made a habit of undressing in front of his window, with the lights on, for the benefit of the pretty girl whose bedroom was opposite his. But Thelma was nothing if not spirited, and when Barney began (on warm summer nights) to wander across the lawn in his BVDs, peeping into windows, Thelma dumped a pail of water on his head from her upstairs window.
The four-year-old Richard (also described as “winsome” by the Union-Gazette) was devoted to his older sister, and had begun to cry when her friends arrived that Sunday afternoon to take her on a drive to nearby Palmyra. Thelma had a date with Harold, the driver, and Richard would have been a fifth wheel; nevertheless, a few minutes after leaving, Thelma insisted her friends turn the car around to retrieve her little brother. As the Union-Gazette characterized that fateful decision: “In their life, they had spent hours in play and enjoyment and it seemed almost as if Heaven had decreed that in their death they should not be divided.”
Harold let Gladys drive on the way home, though she was relatively inexperienced. A freight train was standing to the right at East Palmyra Pump Station, obscuring the approach of the Empire State Express, and when Gladys pulled onto the tracks the car was struck in the rear. All five passengers were thrown clear and lay scattered about while the train went roaring past. Harold, uninjured save for a few scratches, “proved to be a hero and master of the situation,” as the Union-Gazette reported: “He first picked up Miss Gladys Clark who was not seriously injured, but who was screaming frantically, ‘Where is Jim,’ Jim being a pet family name for Malbie Clark, her brother.” Harold found the others some forty feet away on the Ganargua River bridge: Richard was dead, but Thelma—who’d sat on the near side of the backseat and borne the brunt of the impact—was still breathing, her face bruised on one side; when Harold lifted her, though, he saw she was “terribly mutilated,” her lower trunk crushed.
Meanwhile her brother Charlie was at the library, where he spent most weekend afternoons while other boys his age were playing baseball near the paper mill or sitting quietly on front porches in their Sunday best. The handsome Rew Memorial Library was cause for considerable civic pride, containing almost twelve thousand volumes and presided over by a trained librarian, the formidable Miss Merriman; ladies gathered downstairs for weekly meetings of the Shakespeare Club, the Coterie Club, and the Browning Club, while Nellie Reamer sat at a corner table, day after day, transcribing every word of the King James Bible. As for Charlie, he especially loved the exotic souvenirs lined up around the top of the bookshelves on the main floor—the fruits of founder Henry C. Rew’s travels all over the world: a grass skirt, an Orinoco witch doctor’s mask, a three-foot totem pole, and (Charlie’s favorite) an alabaster model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Near the exit was a large globe that boys would spin on their way out, pointing their fingers tensely near the surface and telling themselves, “Where the globe stops, the spot where my finger is pointing at—that’s where I’m going to die.” At least once, Charlie had discovered (“to his horror”) that he would die in his own home state.
The boy was reading his favorite book—The Red Feathers (1907), by Theodore Goodrich Roberts, about Indians in Newfoundland—when Miss Merriman told him she’d gotten a telephone call and that Charlie needed to go home right away. Rather ominously, she added that he could keep The Red Feathers for good. Turning onto Prospect Street he was hailed by a neighbor, Win Burgess, an affable man who wrote a gag column for the Newark Courier (sample item: “A minister’s son was run down and killed by an automobile in Brooklyn, the other day. You can get most anything on a minister’s son”). Burgess had tears in his eyes, and the front hall of his house was crowded with weeping neighbors. Sitting at the kitchen table, alone, was Charlie’s oldest brother, Herb, sobbing so loudly that Charlie felt embarrassed for him. Burgess explained that Richard and Thelma had been hurt in an accident—nobody knew how badly (“the car was completely smashed, they tell me”)—and their mother had gone to Palmyra; Charlie and his brothers, Herb and Fred, would be staying at the Burgesses’ for the time being.
The Jackson family had already been under a strain, since the father had taken a job as paymaster at the T. A. Gillespie Shell Loading Plant in New Jersey, and was now living almost full time in Manhattan. The village buzzed with rumors of divorce, an awful disgrace among nice people. “No, no, there’s nothing wrong—” Win Burgess was saying over the telephone, while urging Charlie’s father to catch a train back to Newark. The latter was not, apparently, deceived. “Mr. Jackson in New York,” read a subheading in the Union-Gazette, which proceeded to relate a strange encounter at Grand Central Terminal between Fred Jackson and the conductor of the Empire State Express: “The conductor began to talk, not knowing Mr. Jackson, and said he had been having a dreadful experience all the way down, as his train had struck at East Palmyra an automobile containing a number of young people, two of whom had been killed outright and the third of whom would probably die. Mr. Jackson informed him that the two that he had killed were his own children and the conductor fairly quailed.” On meeting his family in Newark, Fred Jackson promptly declared that he would sue the New York Central for “a good ten thousand at least,” then began to cry in a way that struck Charlie as “somehow cheap, or at least false.”
This was a retrospective judgment. In later years, Jackson would dismiss his father as a “trivial, vain man” who had no business raising children in the first place. Charlie remembered how his father (“nostrils distended”) would unfailingly pinch the bottoms of Thelma’s friends, or otherwise contrive to grope them, until she stopped bringing them home altogether. When he took the job in New Jersey, and his absences became longer and longer, the vulturous Mrs. Van Benschoten would coax Charlie into her house with a cookie and cross-question him: Why is Mr. Jackson away from home so much? Is he coming home for Thanksgiving? Is he coming for Christmas? Such neighbors were also careful to let the boy know, with a word here and there, that they were hardly alone in suspecting his father of scandalous behavior. But Charlie and his father were a pair: not only did they look the same (in Fred’s childhood photos, he might have passed for his middle son’s twin), but even in later years Charlie would concede, dismally, that his father and he were fundamentally alike. “You even blow your nose like your father!” his mother had accused him, sobbing, during an argument (though her mixed feelings were such that she enjoyed Ronald Colman movies, because the actor reminded her of both Charlie and her errant husband).
The fact was, Fred Jackson had shown a particular interest in the child he most resembled, avidly reading the boy’s poetry and giving him the cardboards from his laundered shirts to draw pictures on. “Papa was proud” of his poems and pictures, the son remembered, and “showed them to the neighbors, complimented me, and himself sent them off to the Children’s Page of the New York Sunday World. . . . He used to buy fifteen or twenty copies of the Sunday World when one of my poems appeared in it, cut them out, sent them to relatives . . .” Once his father had gone, however, Charlie lost interest in writing and drawing for a while, and whatever praise he later got was never enough, since the person he most wanted to please had long ceased to pay attention. Perhaps the blackest day of his childhood—among many black days—was the day his mother received a letter from Fred definitely announcing he wasn’t coming home anymore. In The Lost Weekend, Don Birnam remembers how he “had run upstairs then and flung himself down on the bed and cried his eyes out”: “How could your admiring father do that to you, go away and leave you forever, did he really not care for you any more, was it possible? And though he sobbed and sobbed on the bed in shame and anguish, he realized too the awful importance of that letter, and he glanced up into the mirror of the bureau to see what a moment of crisis looked like.”
that ghastly year—the year of his siblings’ death and his father’s desertion—Charlie had missed eighty days of school, though he was eager to return and be noticed as a tragic hero of sorts. He’d practiced the role with more long looks in the mirror, and besides, he’d gotten used to a certain amount of attention as a little boy who often seemed almost a prodigy, or at any rate eager to please. “At school Jackson stood invariably at the head of his class,” a journalist later wrote, reflecting Jackson’s own wistfulness on the subject. After all, his beloved second-grade teacher, Miss Anna Dalton, had been moved to write a letter on the occasion of his eighth birthday, congratulating Mrs. Jackson for having such a “perfect child,” or almost: on his report card that year he got straight A’s except for a single B in writing, oddly enough.
Since then his grades had steadily declined, perhaps because Miss Dalton was no longer his immediate audience. Instead he ran home (avoiding baseball) and wrote those stories and poems for his father—until, at last, he mostly occupied his solitude with reading about Indians and concocting elaborate fantasies that he would someday, perhaps, commit to paper. The year he turned eleven was consumed by an incipient romance titled “The Story of Strongheart, an Indian Brave,” which he talked (versus wrote) about incessantly; almost every day he’d regale his exasperated mother with another Strongheart yarn, then rush upstairs and write in big, ornate letters on a fresh page of his notebook: “the story of strongheart, an indian brave, By Charles Jackson, Aged Eleven (11).” He was so obsessed with the subject that a neighbor, Mrs. Coykendall, warned him that he might turn into an Indian if he kept going on like that. “I am already,” Charlie lied. “My uncle is an Indian.” This became a signature episode of his childhood. From then on, whenever he told a story that seemed the least bit fanciful, his family was apt to remark, “Oh, that’s just another one of your Indian uncles.” (En route to Hollywood aboard the Super Chief in 1944, he spotted an ersatz Indian hawking souvenirs in the club car. “He pretended not to recognize his nephew,” Charlie wrote his brother Fred, “but I knew he knew.”) As he later summarized this epoch, “These, then, were the things which occupied me, not only . . . after school, but all day long too in the classroom: a never-ending daydream that made me deficient in my studies, a stranger to my classmates, a nuisance to my mother, and forever restless and dissatisfied with myself.”
Things took a turn for the better when Charlie, age twelve, discovered Shakespeare, which would lead, in time, to a voracious idolatry of Whitman, Melville, James, Mann, the great Russians, of Mozart and Beethoven and Mussorgsky, of Courbet and Monet and Goya—a cultivation that was all the richer for being self-imposed. “I’m just a fan,” said Jackson, happily admitting his lack of formal education. “But a fan to my fingertips!” Still, his greatest love would forever be Shakespeare, whose likeness was featured on his bookplate (“ex libris / c. r. jackson”), the better for friends to notice the startling resemblance between Charlie and Bard, what with the noble forehead, long nose, and little mustache. “Can you do this sort of thing at the drop of any reasonably sized hat, Mr. Jackson?” said an astonished Clifton Fadiman—host of the popular radio show Information, Please!—when his guest had demonstrated, yet again, an all but infallible knack for completing any Shakespeare quotation given a key word or two. It became a kind of compulsion, in life as in art. Don Birnam (named for the “Great Birnam Wood” in Macbeth) drowns in the Bard’s poetry almost as much as in drink, musing that any novel he ever managed to write would be “so packed with Shakespeare that it [would look] as if he worked with a concordance in his lap . . .”
But this was a charming mania in a child, at least to the ladies of the Newark Shakespeare Club, who made a point of taking Charlie along to lectures given by an expert at the annual Chautauqua—a weeklong event that Jackson would (for the most part) remember fondly, as it brought the great world of culture to an otherwise benighted place: concerts, a Broadway show, a Shakespearean comedy by the Ben Greet Players, and lectures by world-renowned luminaries such as William Jennings Bryan, Thomas Mott Osborne, and (as Jackson put it) “whoever it was who was the author of a famous lecture called ‘Acres of Diamonds’ (the diamonds were to be found in our own backyard, of course, if we’d only look).” The young Charlie would have no part of the insipid Children’s Program, even if he hadn’t been taken up by the Shakespeare Club, whose president (Mrs. Coykendall again) hustled him up to the dais when the lecturer had finished and announced that here was a child “who reads Shakespeare like other boys read Tom Swift!” “Indeed,” said the man, and asked Charlie to name his favorite play. “Tempest,” said the latter without thinking, and the expert looked pleased: “Now you’re talking, young man!” As an adult, Jackson was relieved (if a bit puzzled) to learn that there was, in fact, a real consensus as to the supremacy of The Tempest—but on the whole the memory rankled. “I shudder to think what a horrible child I must have been,” he wrote the novelist Mary McCarthy, recounting his Chautauqua triumph thirty years later.