Max Perkins, Editor Extraordinaire

When we think of authors and their books, we generally think of them writing alone, handing a manuscript to a publisher who either accepts or rejects it.  In fact, the book publishing business is seldom that simple.  Harper Lee, for instance, handed her editor a bunch of short stories that were loosely related.  Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, worked with Lee for two and a half years before they came up with the Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird.  At one point Lee was so upset that she threw the manuscript out of her apartment window.  Yet, thanks to her editor, she kept going.

The fact that editors work with writers in order to perfect manuscripts does not take away from the work of the author, but it reminds us that great books are often a long, sometimes unpleasant collaboration between authors and their editors.  So when you look into the history of book publishing and find an editor who worked tirelessly with a bunch of egotistical authors who didn’t want any advice, you have to appreciate him or her.

Max Perkins

Max Perkins is the perfect example of one such editor.  Imagine working for years with an alcoholic like F. Scott Fitzgerald, a supremely egotistical bully like Ernest Hemingway, and a verbose, hard-headed writer like Thomas Wolfe.  And imagine also that he earned the respect of all three of them plus a number of other writers.  In fact, at the time of his death, 68 books had been dedicated to Perkins by their authors.

Perkins had to be not only their editor, but also their marriage counselor, their confidante, and their consoling friend when someone bruised their tender egos.  He even had to loan them money when they spent more than they made – as Fitzgerald did on a regular basis.  In some ways he was a mother figure as well as an editor.  Yet somehow he handled it with grace, and humility.  He was a shy man who did not like to be in the spotlight.  He left that to his authors.

William Maxwell Evarts Perkins was born in New York City on September 20, 1884, but grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey and majored in Economics at Harvard.  Despite his Economics background, he got a job as a reporter for the New York Times.  From there he became an advertising manager for the revered publishing firm Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1910.  Within five years he became an editor, and four years after that his career really took off.

Scribner’s made its money by publishing works by older writers like John Galsworthy, Henry James, and Edith Wharton, and shied away from new writers.  Scribner’s did not believe in editing a writer’s work.  The editors felt that the writers should decide what to write and how to write it, and that philosophy worked well for them – every year the company made money.  They had a strict code that kept them from considering new, daring authors who used obscene language, and wrote about topics that might offend some readers.  So when one of Perkins’ clients sent him a manuscript written by an unpublished author named F. Scott Fitzgerald, Perkins felt duty-bound to read it and pass it along though he felt that it had little chance of ever being published by his firm.  None of the editors who read it thought it worth considering for publication except Perkins.  They didn’t like the new style, and were certain that it would not sell.

Perkins, completely on his own, returned the manuscript of The Romantic Egotist to Fitzgerald and said that “we” would be glad to reconsider it after revisions knowing well that only he would be interested in seeing it again.  After Perkins and Fitzgerald worked through two revisions and a title change, Perkins presented This Side of Paradise to the editorial board.  At first the novel was rejected, but Perkins fought for it, in part telling other in the company that if they refused to publish this promising young author, then he and other young authors would go to their competition and Scribner’s would go out of business.  Eventually he won and Scribner’s published This Side of Paradise in 1920.  It was a tremendous success, and suddenly everyone at Scribner’s thought that Perkins was wonderful.

Fitzgerald, by the way, used its publication to convince Zelda Sayre of Montgomery, Alabama to marry him.  She had rejected him because she felt that he had no future, but after the novel’s publication she reconsidered thinking that he would, after all, be able to provide all the finer things in life that she and he desired.  Scott Fitzgerald was on his way, and so was Max Perkins.

A few years later Fitzgerald told Perkins about another young writer named Ernest Hemingway who was living in Paris.  Perkins and Hemingway met, and Scribner’s ended up publishing The Sun Also Rises in 1926.  However, once again Perkins and the other editors were at odds.  This time the problem was the obscenities that Hemingway used.  And once again Perkins won out.

Perkins’ other big find was Thomas Wolfe.  Unlike some other writers, Wolfe had no problem with “writer’s block.”  His problem was that he didn’t know when to stop writing.  Even as Perkins was editing a manuscript Wolfe would show up with additional pages.  Furthermore, he fought for every sentence, but the ever-patient, ever-persistent Perkins finally wore Wolfe down, and Scribner’s published Look Homeward, Angel in 1929 – just 11 days before the big stock market crash.  Perkins and Wolfe continued to disagree about Wolfe’s writings, and Wolfe finally left Scribner’s after the publication of his novel Of Time and the River in 1935.  In part Wolfe was sensitive to the charge that he owed his success to Max Perkins’ editing rather than to his own talent.  Despite his defection to Harper Bros., Wolfe still considered Perkins to be his best friend, and Perkins became the executor of Wolfe’s estate when the writer died in 1938 at the age of 37.

Compare the book dedications of Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe to Max Perkins.

In 1952 Hemingway dedicated The Old Man and the Sea to two people and only used eleven words:

This book is dedicated

to

CHARLES SCRIBNER

and to

MAX PERKINS

In 1935 Wolfe dedicated Of Time and the River to Max Perkins alone and used 96 words:

To

MAXWELL EVARTS PERKINS

A GREAT EDITOR AND A BRAVE AND HONEST MAN, WHO STUCK TO THE WRITER OF THIS BOOK THROUGH TIMES OF BITTER HOPELESSNESS AND DOUBT AND WOULD NOT LET HIM GIVE IN TO HIS OWN DESPAIR, A WORK TO BE KNOWN AS “OF TIME AND THE RIVER” IS DEDICATED WITH THE HOPE THAT ALL OF IT MAY BE IN SOME WAY WORTHY OF THE LOYAL DEVOTION AND THE PATIENT CARE WHICH A DAUNTLESS AND UNSHAKEN FRIEND HAS GIVEN TO EACH PART OF IT, AND WITHOUT WHICH NONE OF IT COULD HAVE BEEN WRITTEN

Perkins is most remembered for the three authors mentioned above, but he was also the editor for Sherwood Anderson, Erskine Caldwell, Taylor Caldwell, Marcia Davenport, Martha Gellhorn (ex-wife of Ernest Hemingway), Ring Lardner, J. P. Marquand, Alan Paton, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Edmund Wilson, and James Jones.  In fact, Perkins convinced Jones to drop a project he was working on in order to write the book that would become From Here to Eternity in 1951.  Unfortunately, Max Perkins died before the book was published.  He died on June 17, 1947 at the age of 62.

In 1978 author A. Scott Berg wrote Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.  It is the definitive biographical work on Perkins.

In 2005 the Maxwell E. Perkins Award was established by the Center for Fiction “to honor the work of an editor, publisher, or agent who over the course of his or her career has discovered, nurtured and championed writers of fiction in the United States.  This award is dedicated to Maxwell Perkins in celebration of his legacy as one of the country’s most import editors.”

Max Perkins believed strongly in guiding writers rather than telling them what to write.  He would suggest that a book should be rearranged or that a certain section just didn’t sound right, but he stopped short of rewriting the authors’ works.  “I believe the writer . . . should always be the final judge,” he said. “I have always held to that position and have sometimes seen books hurt thereby, but at least as often helped. The book belongs to the author.”

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