Bill W.: A Remembrance and a Review, Part 1

Editor’s Note: Matthew J. Raphael is the author of the biography Bill W. and Mr. Wilson: The Legend and Life of AA’s Co-founder (U. Mass. Press, 2000).  He uses a pen name in deference to AA’s 11th Tradition of anonymity. Recently retired from a long career as a critic and historian of American literature, he here turns his attention to the latest Bill W. bio, Kevin Hanlon’s documentary film of that name.

The first and only time I was lunched by a literary agent, he offered to get me a 50K advance for a trade book biography of Bill Wilson.

The Setting was Something Like This

At the time, little in this vein existed beyond Robert Thomsen’s novelistic Bill W. (1975) and the official AA book, “Pass It On” (1984). But soon thereafter, things began to pop. In the same anno mirabilis, 2000, were published: Bill W.: An Autobiography, based on interview tapes he made with Thomsen; Mel Barger’s My Search for Bill Wilson; Francis Hartigan’s Bill W.; and my own Bill W. and Mr. Wilson– all of them soon to be followed by Susan Cheever’s authoritative My Name Is Bill (2004).

Obviously, I demurred about that advance, which might have been just the start of some hefty royalties if the book caught on. The agent knew I could write well enough for the job and also handle the research. My candidacy was enhanced by the AA membership we had in common. I even had a leave coming up, and the advance would have allowed its extension for an additional semester or two. If only I would put my scholarly project aside and take up the biography!

The agent had read the first two chapters of my book in progress, which he liked for what it was: an essentially scholarly study for a limited academic readership – although my publisher hoped for some crossover sales that never developed – in part because no reviews appeared in mainstream venues. The most important notice, in the London Review of Books, was one of those trampoline acts, in which the reviewer ignores the book – coverage of mine was confined to a footnote – in favor of his own ideas. In sum, the book dropped so dead on arrival that the larger than usual hardcover edition was quickly stripped and rebound in paperback in a desperate attempt to save the day. Alas, there are plenty of these copies still available (order through the Johns Hopkins University Press!). Ironically, the hardcover has become a rarity, and I may yet owe something on that advance, which was 49K shy of what the agent promised.

So was I the consummate fool I appear to be? Maybe, but I didn’t think so then, and I have no regrets now. Although I like to approach writers from a biographical perspective, I had confined myself to brief forays into the genre. I knew the limits of my attention span for any topic, and I figured a book on Bill W. could easily take five years or more. I balked at the sustained and exclusive attention it would demand; I feared living vicariously through – or being entrapped by – prolonged identification of myself with another’s life. I knew, moreover, that Bill Wilson’s early years were irrecoverably obscure and that his adult life was inextricably entangled with legends about him as “Bill W.” To sort out the one from the other would require a lot more than archival digging. I would need to travel widely to do interviews, a skill for which I have limited aptitude.

Needed: The Woman’s Touch

I was honest enough to know I was simply not up to the task: a conclusion verified by Cheever’s excellent book, which provided yet another good reason to have declined. I recognized that Bill was best seen from a woman’s point of view, a woman who could deal with his chronic skirt-chasing (as his contemporaries put it) if not with entire sympathy, then at least with compassionate insight. A male biographer would be open to the charge of special pleading, of going too easy on an adulterous brother. He might also have to strain harder to convince female readers that Bill was truly worthy of their esteem. After all, Bill once quipped that under every skirt lies a slip.

At bottom, I just wished to finish what I had started — because I was ultimately more interested in the cultural construction of “Bill W.” than in William G. Wilson’s actual life; and for my purposes, the use of extant published sources would be not only sufficient but also the most pertinent evidence. Whereas the telling of Bill W.’s story had seldom, if ever, strayed very far from his own account in the Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1939) and in the widely-circulated recording of his appearance at an AA meeting during the 1950s (which also adhered closely to the canonical Big Book version), I wished to deconstruct AA’s “bedtime story,” as it’s called. I characterized my book as “by no means a comprehensive biography of its elusive subject,” but rather as a type of life writing in the tradition of A. J. A. Symon’s classic The Quest for Corvo (1934): “the progenitor of the ‘quest biography’ genre in which the life of the biographical subject is linked to the vicissitudes of the biographer.”

With(out) all due humility, I would claim considerable success in meeting my goals, but my deviations from the standard “facts” have had no evident effect on subsequent reiterations of the deeply entrenched narrative. For instance, my book is listed in Cheever’s bibliography, but it never makes the notes; and it is essentially ignored in the text. I say “essentially” because I nonetheless detect here and there some undocumented traces of my ideas.

This account of my own experience with Bill Wilson biography will prove to be relevant, I hope, in placing Bill W., a new film, running an hour and three-quarters, from 124 Productions. To wit: its angle on Bill W. differs both from that of my own book and from that of more orthodox biographies, including Cheever’s.  Bill W. falls in between, such that – I hate to say this — it practically obviates these print sources, at least for anyone seeking a compelling and reliable introduction to AA’s cofounder. Making brilliant use of its visual advantages, the film juxtaposes the “bedtime story” to contextual material that serves to qualify it with appropriate historical rigor.  One commentator credits Bill W. with expressing great depth of insight about “idiotically simple things.” The AA slogan, “Keep It Simple,” certainly applies to this film, which is elegantly simple but never simplistic – and very far from idiotic!  I will have more to say about that tomorrow.