On Max Perkins, One of America’s Greatest Editors
The Genius Behind the Genius of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe, and More
Shortly after six o’clock on a rainy March evening in 1946, a slender, gray-haired man sat in his favorite bar, the Ritz, finishing the last of several martinis. Finding himself adequately fortified for the ordeal ahead, he paid the check, got up, and pulled on his coat and hat. A well-stuffed briefcase in one hand and an umbrella in the other, he left the bar and ventured into the downpour drenching mid-Manhattan. He headed west toward a small storefront on 43rd Street, several blocks away.
Inside the storefront, 30 young men and women were awaiting him. They were students in an extension course on book publishing which New York University had asked Kenneth D. McCormick, editor-in-chief of Doubleday & Company, to conduct. All were eager to find a foothold in publishing and were attending the weekly seminars to increase their chances. On most evenings there were a few latecomers, but tonight, McCormick noted, every student was on hand and seated by the stroke of six. McCormick knew why. This evening’s lecture was on book editing, and he had persuaded the most respected, most influential book editor in America to “give a few words on the subject.”
Maxwell Evarts Perkins was unknown to the general public, but to people in the world of books he was a major figure, a kind of hero. For he was the consummate editor. As a young man he had discovered great new talents—such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe—and had staked his career on them, defying the established tastes of the earlier generation and revolutionizing American literature. He had been associated with one firm, Charles Scribner’s Sons, for 36 years, and during this time, no editor at any house even approached his record for finding gifted authors and getting them into print. Several of McCormick’s students had confessed to him that it was the brilliant example of Perkins that had attracted them to publishing.
McCormick called the class to order, thumping the collapsible card table in front of him with the palm of his hand, and began the session by describing the job of editor. It was not, he said, as it once had been, confined mainly to correcting spelling and punctuation. Rather, it was to know what to publish, how to get it, and what to do to help it achieve the largest readership. At all this, said McCormick, Max Perkins was unsurpassed. His literary judgement was original and exceedingly astute, and he was famous for his ability to inspire an author to produce the best that was in him or her. More a friend to his authors than a taskmaster, he aided them in every way. He helped them structure their books, if help was needed; thought up titles, invented plots; he served as psychoanalyst, lovelorn advisor, marriage counselor, career manager, money-lender. Few editors before him had done so much work on manuscripts, yet he was always faithful to his credo, “The book belongs to the author.”
In some ways, McCormick suggested, Perkins was unlikely for his profession: He was a terrible speller, his punctuation was idiosyncratic, and when it came to reading, he was by his own admission “slow as an ox.” But he treated literature as a matter of life and death. He once wrote Thomas Wolfe: “There could be nothing so important as a book can be.”
Partly because Perkins was the preeminent editor of his day, partly because many of his authors were celebrities, and partly because Perkins himself was somewhat eccentric, innumerable legends had sprung up about him, most of them rooted in truth. Everyone in Kenneth McCormick’s class had heard at least one breathless version of how Perkins had discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald; or how Scott’s wife, Zelda, at the wheel of Scott’s automobile, had once driven the editor into the Long Island Sound; or how Perkins had made Scribners lend Fitzgerald many thousands of dollars and rescued him from his breakdown. It was said that Perkins had agreed to publish Ernest Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, sight unseen, then had to fight to keep his job when the manuscript arrived because it contained off-color language. Another favorite Perkins story concerned his confrontation with his ultraconservative publisher, Charles Scribner, over the four-letter words in Hemingway’s second novel, A Farewell to Arms. Perkins was said to have jotted the troublesome words he wanted to discuss—shit, fuck, and piss—on his desk calendar, without regard to the calendar’s heading: “Things to Do Today.” Old Scribner purportedly noticed the list and remarked to Perkins that he was in great trouble if he needed to remind himself to do those things.
Many stories about Perkins dealt with the untamed writing and temperament of Thomas Wolfe. It was said that as Wolfe wrote Of Time and the River he leaned his six-and-a-half foot frame against his refrigerator and used the appliance’s top for a desk, casting each completed page into a wooden crate without even rereading it. Eventually, it was said, three husky men carted the heavily laden box to Perkins, who somehow shaped the outpouring into books. Everyone in McCormick’s class had also heard about Maxwell Perkins’s hat, a battered fedora, which he was reputed to wear all day long, indoors and out, removing it from his head only before going to bed.
As McCormick talked, the legend himself approached the shop on 43rd Street and quietly entered. McCormick looked up, and seeing a stooped figure in the door at the rear, cut himself off in mid-sentence to welcome the visitor. The class turned to get their first glimpse of America’s greatest editor.
He was 61 years old, stood five feet ten inches, and weighed 150 pounds. The umbrella he carried seemed to have offered him little protection—he was dripping wet, and his hat drooped over his ears. A pinkish glow suffused Perkins’s long, narrow face, softening the prominences. The face was aligned upon a strong, rubicund nose, straight almost to the end, where it curved down like a beak. His eyes were a blue pastel. Wolfe had once written that they were “full of a strange misty light, a kind of far weather of the sea in them, eyes of a New England sailor long months outbound for China on a clipper ship, with something drowned, sea-sunken in them.”
Perkins took off his sopping raincoat and revealed an unpressed, pepper-and-salt, three-piece suit. Then his eyes shot upward and he removed his hat, under which a full head of metallic-gray hair was combed straight back from a V in the center of his forehead. Max Perkins did not care much about the impression he gave, which was just as well, for the first one he made on this particular evening was of some Vermont feed-and-grain merchant who had come to the city in his Sunday clothes and got caught in the rain. As he walked to the front of the room, he seemed slightly bewildered, and more so as Kenneth McCormick introduced him as “the dean of American editors.”
Perkins had never spoken to a group like this before. Every year he received dozens of invitations, but he turned them all down. For one thing, he had become somewhat deaf and tended to avoid groups. For another, he believed that book editors should remain invisible; public recognition of them, he felt, might undermine readers’ faith in writers, and writers’ confidence in themselves. Moreover, Perkins had never seen any point in discussing his career—until McCormick’s invitation. Kenneth McCormick, one of the most able and best-liked people in publishing, who himself practiced Perkins’s philosophy of editorial self-effacement, was a hard man to refuse. Or perhaps Perkins sensed how much fatigue and sorrow had subtracted from his own longevity and felt he had better pass along what he knew before it was too late.
Hooking his thumbs comfortably into the armholes of his waistcoat, speaking in his slightly rasping, well-bred voice, Perkins began. “The first thing you must remember,” he said, without quite facing his audience: “An editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as a handmaiden to an author. Don’t ever get to feeling important about yourself, because an editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing.” Perkins admitted that he had suggested books to authors who had no ideas of their own at the moment, but he maintained that such works were usually below their best, even though they were sometimes financially and even critically successful. “A writer’s best work,” he said, “comes entirely from himself.” He warned the students against any efforts by an editor to inject his own point of view into a writer’s work to try to make him something other than what he is. “The process is so simple,” he said. “If you have Mark Twain, don’t try to make him into a Shakespeare or make a Shakespeare into a Mark Twain. Because in the end an editor can only get as much out of an author as the author has in him.”
Perkins spoke carefully, with that hollow timbre of the hard-of-hearing, as if he were surprised at the sound of his own voice. At first the audience had to strain to hear him, but within minutes they had become so still that his every syllable was quite audible. They sat listening intently to the diffident editor talking about the electrifying challenges of his work—the search for what he kept calling “the real thing.”
Once Perkins had concluded his prepared remarks, Kenneth McCormick asked the class for questions. “What was it like to work with F. Scott Fitzgerald?” was the first.
A fragile smile floated across Perkins’s face as he thought for a moment. Then he replied, “Scott was always the gentleman. Sometimes he needed extra support—and sobering up—but the writing was so rich it was worth it.” Perkins went on to say that Fitzgerald was comparatively simple to edit because he was a perfectionist about his work and wanted it to be right. However, Perkins had added, “Scott was especially sensitive to criticism. He could accept it, but as his editor you had to be sure of everything you suggested.”
The discussion turned to Ernest Hemingway. Perkins said Hemingway needed backing in the beginning of his career, and even more later, “because he wrote as daringly as he lived.” Perkins believed Hemingway’s writing displayed that virtue of his heroes, “grace under pressure.” Hemingway, he said, was susceptible to overcorrecting himself. “He once told me that he had written parts of A Farewell to Arms fifty times,” Perkins said. “Before an author destroys the natural qualities of his writing—that’s when an editor has to step in. But not a moment sooner.”
Perkins shared stories about working with Erskine Caldwell, then commented on several of his best-selling women novelists, including Taylor Caldwell, Marcia Davenport, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. At last, as though the class had been reluctant to raise a tender subject, came questions about the late Thomas Wolfe, from whom Perkins had become estranged. Most of the inquires for the rest of the evening concerned Perkins’s intense involvement with Wolfe, the most arduous endeavor of his career. For years it had been widely rumored that Wolfe and Perkins had been equal partners in producing Wolfe’s sprawling novels. “Tom,” he said, “was a man of enormous talent, genius. That talent, like his view of America, was so vast that neither one book nor a single lifetime could contain all that he had to say.” As Wolfe transposed his world into fiction, Perkins had felt it was his responsibility to create certain boundaries—of length and form. He said, “These were practical conventions that Wolfe couldn’t stop to think about for himself.”
“But did Wolfe take your suggestions gracefully?” someone asked.
Perkins laughed for the first time that evening. He told of the time, at the midpoint of their relationship, when he tried to get Wolfe to delete a big section of Of Time and the River. “It was late on a hot night, and we were working at the office. I put my case to him and then sat in silence, reading on in the manuscript.” Perkins had known Wolfe would eventually agree to the deletion because the reasons for it were artistically sound. But Wolfe would not give in easily. He tossed his head about and swayed in his chair, while his eyes roved over Perkins’s sparsely furnished office. “I went on reading in the manuscript for not less than fifteen minutes,” Max continued, “but I was aware of Tom’s movements—aware at last that he was looking fixedly at one corner of the office. In that corner hung my hat and overcoat, and down from under the hat, along the coat, hung a sinister rattlesnake skin with seven rattles.” It was a present from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Max looked at Tom, who was glaring at the hat, coat, and serpent. “Aha!” Wolfe exclaimed. “The portrait of an editor!” Having had his little joke, Wolfe then agreed to the deletion.
A few of the questions from the would-be-publishers that evening had to be repeated so that Perkins could hear them. There were long, puzzling silences in his speech. He answered the questions eloquently, but in between them his mind seemed to wander among a thousand different remembrances. “Max seemed to be going into a private world of his own thoughts,” McCormick said years later, “making interior, private associations, as though he had entered a little room and closed the door behind him.” All in all it was a memorable performance, and the class sat mesmerized. The rural Yankee who had stumbled in out of the rain hours earlier had transformed himself before them into the very legend of their imaginings.
Shortly after nine o’ clock, McCormick notified Perkins of the time so that Max could catch his train. It seemed a shame to stop. He had not even mentioned his experiences with novelists Sherwood Anderson, J. P. Marquand, Morley Callaghan, Hamilton Basso; he had not spoken of the biographer Douglas Southall Freeman, or Edmund Wilson, or Allen Tate, or Alice Roosevelt Longworth or Nancy Hale. It was too late to talk about Joseph Stanley Pennell, whose Rome Hanks Perkins considered the most exciting novel he had edited in recent years. There was no time to talk about new writers—Alan Paton and James Jones, for example, two authors whose promising manuscripts he was presently editing. Perkins, however, undoubtedly felt he had said more than enough. He picked up his hat and tugged it down over his head, put on his raincoat, turned his back on the standing ovation of his audience, and slipped out as unobtrusively as he had entered.
It was still raining hard. Under his black umbrella he trudged to Grand Central Station. He had never talked so much about himself so publicly in his life.
When he arrived at his home in New Canaan, Connecticut, late that night, Perkins found that the eldest of his five daughters had come over for the evening and was waiting up for him. She noticed that her father seemed melancholy, and she asked why.
“I gave a speech tonight and they called me ‘the dean of American editors,’” he explained. “When they call you the dean, that means you’re through.”
“Oh, Daddy, that doesn’t mean you’re through,” she objected. “It just means you’ve reached the top.”
“No,” Perkins said flatly. “It means you’re through.”
It was the 26th of March. On March 26th, 26 years earlier, there had been a great beginning for Maxwell Perkins—the publication of a book that changed his life, and a great deal more.
From MAX PERKINS: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg. Reprinted by arrangement with New American Library, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 1978 by A. Scott Berg.