An earnest but flawed biography of the man Aldous Huxley described as “the greatest social architect of the twentieth century.”
A vast Alcoholics Anonymous archive, including hundreds of letters, helps novelist and memoirist Cheever (As Good As I Could Be, 2001, etc.) plumb the lifelong drive, intelligence, and self-doubt of AA cofounder Bill Wilson (1895–1971). Growing up in rural Vermont, Wilson witnessed principles of service and egalitarianism in action that he later embodied in AA’s famous “Twelve Traditions.” But he also felt unmoored when his parents divorced and his mother left him in the care of her father as she pursued a medical degree. Marriage to an educated older socialite fed his insecurity, eased only when he took his first drink while serving in WWI. Over the next 18 years, his growing addiction resulted in countless jobs lost or never pursued. Cheever is at her best in detailing the creation of AA, in 1935, by Dr. Bob Smith and Wilson, who recognized that alcoholism was a disease that could only be countered by a “Power greater than ourselves.” The synthesis of ideas drawn from medicine, psychology, and moral reformers such as the Oxford Group and the Washington Temperance Movement provided a flexibility that enabled AA to grow to 30,000 members by 1946. Cheever acknowledges that Wilson was “not the stuff of saints,” particularly after turning over AA to elected representatives in 1956. (He used his newfound freedom to experiment with LSD, Oujia boards, and extramarital relationships.) Her own experiences as a recovering alcoholic (see Note Found in a Bottle, 1999) deepen the author’s insight into AA’s philosophy and Wilson’s struggles, and she writes lyrically about the environments in which her subject sometimes took refuge from his fame. But Cheever settles too often for clichés (“We are the most puritanical country on earth, and the most profligate”), and although she tells readers about Wilson’s charisma, she does not make us feel it.
Takes the measure of Wilson’s achievement, but not his mesmeric personality. (b&w illustrations, not seen)