Max Perkins

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Maxwell Perkins, though not a household name, was certainly the most famous editor of our time, discovering and helping to shape the careers of such famous writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, as well as notables such as Ring Lardner, Edmund Wilson, John Marquand, and, his last find, James Jones. A. Scott Berg began his work on Perkins at Princeton as an honors thesis under the direction of Carlos Baker, and he has pursued every possible lead for eight years. Now, thirty years after Perkins’ death, the editor stands revealed in a book of nearly five hundred pages and a series of helpful photographs.

The first point to be made is that Max Perkins would have been horrified by this biography. All of his life he chose to remain in the shadows; a shy and intensely private man, he always avoided publicity. He once said he wanted to be “a little dwarf on the shoulder of a great general advising him about what to do . . . , without anyone’s noticing,” and one recalls that he threatened to resign his job at Scribner’s if Thomas Wolfe included him and his editorial colleagues in his fiction. Especially would he be shocked at the revelation of his drinking problem, his secret “love letters,” and his daughter’s struggle with mental illness.

If the biography had to be written, perhaps Berg is the man for the job. This is patently a young man’s book, with the virtues and flaws the term implies. Berg unquestionably admires his subject, treating him with all possible kindness—even at the risk of turning Thomas Wolfe into something of a villain. Although he had Malcolm Cowley’s New Yorker profile and Perkins’ published letters, Editor to Author, to begin with, he has made excellent use of the Scribner’s files, interviewed everyone who knew and worked with the editor, including his platonic love, Elizabeth Lemmon, who turned over her letters to him. (Apparently without irony she referred to them as her “Aspern papers.”) The author has also had the cooperation of Perkins’ five daughters.

Berg has aimed, obviously, at a popular biography. Instead of dwelling at length on Perkins’ New England village background and education, or his early life as a journalist, he moves rapidly to his rise as a young editor at Scribner’s. Much of the bulk of the book is devoted to Perkins’ most famous writers; in fact, often more space is devoted to Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wolfe than to the editor himself. Although the publishers (and one notes that Scribner’s did not publish this book) lay claim to presenting new facts, anyone who has read a biography of these three novelists will soon grow weary of the stale gossip about them. Here we are treated again to the story of Hemingway’s fight with Max Eastman, Wolfe’s troubles with his aging mistress, Aline Bernstein, and Fitzgerald’s reaction when he discovered that Zelda had stolen his material in her novel Save Me the Waltz.

To be fair, however, Berg is capable of more than purveying the gossip one expects in a biography of a Hollywood queen. He does trace the gradual rise of Maxwell Perkins in the staid house of Scribner’s. The workings of the publishing firm are clearly sketched, and a number of his colleagues are admirably drawn, most notably the poet-editor John Hall Wheelock. Well handled, too, is Perkins’ friendship through the years with Van Wyck Brooks, who suffered a series of breakdowns while working with the patient and loyal editor.

Was Perkins an editor of genius? Clearly Berg thinks so, and there is no question that Perkins could recognize new talent when he encountered it. Certainly he was right to follow his hunch and argue for Fitzgerald’s first novel—after the Scribner’s board had twice rejected it. More important, he was able to see the genius in O Lost, the huge manuscript that became Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. And there are numerous other such examples: his judgment of Ring Lardner’s stories and his encouragement of John Marquand. Moreover, he was often helpful in revising individual books, in selecting titles, and in organizing stories for anthologies—as in the case of Wolfe, Fitzgerald, Lardner, and Hemingway. This was a task which he thoroughly enjoyed, whereas he had to work against the grain on many books of nonfiction.

On the other hand, it needs to be stressed that, in spite of his intuitive powers, Perkins was often wrong. He had curious blind spots as a reader and editor. For example, he thought Faulkner’s Sanctuary a “horrible book”; he believed that Hemingway’s Fifth Column was a great play and that Caldwell’s Maine stories were better than his Georgia tales. His background in literature was not especially strong; he majored in economics at Harvard and had worked first as a journalist. Consequently, he felt out of his depth with many great works of the past. More germane here, he was a slow reader, a very poor speller (as his letters indicate), and a slipshod proofreader. As a consequence, there were scores of serious errors in Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, and Thomas Wolfe was mortified at the numerous errors in Of Time and the River—many of them resulting from Wolfe’s difficult handwriting and Perkins’ refusal to allow him to correct the galleys. As Perkins grew older and his health deteriorated, he realized that his judgments were often dubious, and he came to be far less demanding in asking for revisions, as was the case with Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country.

It should be noted, too, that Perkins was limited and conservative in his tastes—although not nearly as conservative as the men at Scribner’s who set the company’s policy in the 1920’s. It is painful today to read how much of...

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