American letters there have been
figures who nurtured the writers who became the voices of their generations. There was the Sage of Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson himself and his circle of acolytes and admirers.
William Dean Howells presided at The Atlantic and
hobnobbed with Mark Twain and
fostered the realist novelists who
lifted the genre from genteel diversions for ladies and epic adventure yarns to a mirror
of American life. Ezra
Pound in London and Paris and Harriet Monroe in Chicago nurtured
a brood of modern poets. These folks were writers themselves who mentored and encouraged other writers, most
often through periodicals that they edited or controlled.
the man who revolutionized the American novel and made it the preeminent literary force of the first
half of the 20th Century was not himself a writer. He held a previously obscure position—manuscript
editor for a publishing house—and
transformed it into a discoverer of
new talent and an active partner with authors in shaping their books for the public eye. In
the process he became the most famous
editor of all time—Maxwell Perkins.
was born into the perfectly respectable WASP
upper middle class on September 20, 1884, in New York City but was raised in the leafy bedroom suburb of Plainfield,
New Jersey, a place of large homes and expansive lawns. His parents
could afford to send him to a prestigious prep
school, St. Paul’s in Concord, New Hampshire and on to Harvard where he studied economics in preparation for an expected career in banking or a brokerage
at Harvard Perkins fell under the sway of Charles
Townsend Copeland, a famous teacher of literature who ignited a passion for reading.
graduation Perkins worked briefly as a reporter
on the New York Times perhaps dreaming that it might be a stepping stone for a career as a writer. But it was not a good fit. In 1910 at age 26 he joined the
distinguished—and stuffy—publishing house of Charles Scribner’s Sons as an advertising
manager. Scribner’s was the home of genteel giants of American fiction—Edith Warton, Henry James, and John Galsworthy who chronicled the lives of the American elite.
took Perkins four years to reach his goal—moving to the editorial department where he became a manuscript reader and junior
editor. It was here that his talents shone, particularly what came
to be described as his exquisite taste
and his eagerness to discover new
talent that would break the bonds of convention. That did not
always make him popular with his superiors, but he shepherded enough
good work to profitable publication
that he could keep his job.
breakthrough came in 1919 when a
manuscript landed on his desk that had been rejected with scathing
comments by all of the company’s other readers. The Romantic Egotist by a very young
writer named F. Scott Fitzgerald was
indeed rough. But Perkins discerned talent. For nearly
two years he worked closely with the writer, guiding him through two complete revisions while continually advocating for the book with his
approach would set a pattern. He became
not just a proof reader and style critic, but a friend and mentor to the young author, encouraging him, listening to his self-doubts, advising him on his tempestuous romance with a wealthy belle named Zelda, lending him money, and when necessary sobering him up. Much later Roger Burlingame, a writer who came under his tutelage described
Perkins’s unique approach, “He never tells you what to do. Instead, he suggests to you, in an
extraordinarily inarticulate fashion, what you want to do yourself.”
all of his work, it looked like Scribner’s would finally reject the book. At a last,
desperate conference, Perkins appealed to the company’s sense of self-preservation, warning that if a
talented writer like Fitzgerald was lost to them, he would find a publisher
elsewhere, have a great success, and
other promising young writers would follow him, “Then we might as well go out
held its own and published the re-titled This Side of Paradise was published
in 1920 with the boast that the
author was the youngest ever issued
by the house. It became a best seller,
a popular sensation, and the
company’s biggest seller of the year.
continued to work with his wunderkind, bringing to publication
the even bigger success of the Great Gatsby and then holding his hand through years of writer’s block, self-doubt, and heavy
drinking, extracting from the
wreckage what he could. They remained
personally and professionally close right up to the writer’s death.
helped Perkins find his next discovery, when he wrote from Paris in 1924 recommending his friend
and drinking companion Ernest Hemingway. The short novel the expatriate writer sent to New York with its terse language and shocking
themes, required less editorial tinkering than Fitzgerald’s but did take a
lot of cajoling to get his bosses,
who were shocked by the use of curse words and sexual tension, to get the company to release A Sun Also Rises.
also became a close friend to his editor—and often had him attend to various business aspects of his sometimes messy life in addition to work on his
manuscripts, even seeking his help in securing his house in Key West. It was said that the first person Hemingway
visited each time he was in New York was Maxwell Perkins. After Perkins died his old friend dedicated The
Old Man and the Sea to him—just one of 68 books dedicated to him by
Fitzgerald, and Perkins together remade the image of Scribner’s elevating it to undisputed first position among major
American publishing houses. And they
were just getting started.
1927 Perkins came upon the greatest challenge of his career—the wildly talented and prolific Thomas Wolfe who presented him with thousands of typewritten manuscript pages. Wolfe was everything Hemmingway was not—lush in his language, devoted to detailed
and evocative description of
scene and place, sprawling, undisciplined, and deeply emotionally attached to every sentence he wrote.
with Wolfe fighting him every inch
of the way, the two extracted a long memoir novel, Look Homeward Angel from
the original submission. The book was
published in 1929 to huge popular and critical acclaim. And there was more than enough material left over to seed a second
novel. As Perkins struggled to keep a
limit on the new book, Wolfe kept sending him more and more new pages. Eventually the editor prevailed and Of
Time and the River was published in 1935.
that time Perkins was a publishing legend
and probably the only book editor who was a public figure in his own right.
The epic struggles of getting Wolfe’s latest book to publication had
become the stuff of New York literary circle gossip and critics were beginning to give Perkins as much credit for the book as the
author. It was a bitter pill for any writer, particularly one as insecure as Wolfe. He broke with Perkins and Scribner’s to prove
that he could do without them. Wolfe’s next
two novels, The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again were
published posthumously. They were fine
work, but Perkins’s disciplined hand
was obviously missing.
the rupture of their professional
relationship, Perkins and Wolfe remained personally close. Wolfe, descending deeper into alcoholism,
still considered his old editor his best
together those three literary giants have come to define Perkins in the public
mind. And they would be a sufficient
career achievement for anyone. But the
editor discovered, nurtured, and refined the works of many others. In fact the list is staggering.
Ring Lardner. He was already a popular sports writer whose baseball
yarns had a fallowing. But previous collections of columns had failed and Lardner did not consider himself a serious
or literary writer. Perkins urged him to
rework his stories and arranged them.
Then he came up with an intriguing title
that virtually announced confidence, How to Write Short Stories. The collection was published in 1924 and
cemented Lardner’s reputation.
1938 Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote
the Pulitzer Prize winning The
Yearling based on a story idea suggested by Perkins. In the post
war years he discovered the South
African novelist Alan Paton and Cry
the Beloved Country became an international
the late 40’s with his health failing,
Perkins continued to turn up new talent.
He uncovered James Jones, one
of the first important novelists of the World
War II generation. Rejecting his first
submission, Perkins suggested the idea for From Here to Eternity based on his conversations with the author. He worked on the early drafts of the
manuscript but died before its publication and huge success.
fruit of his final discovery did not ripen for nearly 20 years. He signed Marguerite Young to a publishing contract in 1947 on the basis of a
40 page extract. She did not finish her
massive novel, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling until 1964 when it was published to
huge critical acclaim.
writers Perkins edited include Sherwood
Anderson, Erskine Caldwell, Taylor Caldwell, Marcia Davenport, Martha
Gellhorn, J. P. Marquand, and Edmund Wilson.
died on June 17, 1947 in Stamford, Connecticut. Scribner’s was never the same without him.
Perkins: Editor of Genius by A.
Scott Berg became a best seller and made Perkins, the publishing industry
legend, something of a popular hero. Other appreciations have been published since
as well as several volumes of his
correspondence including books dedicated to the letters to and from
Fitzgerald and Hemingway.
Colin Firth as Perkins and Jude Law as Wolfe in Genius.
2016 the film Genius focused on the relationship of Perkins and Wolfe with Colin Firth as the editor and Jude Law as the tortured writer. It also featured Nichole Kidman as Wolfe’s lover Aline Bernstein and Laura
Linley as Perkins’ wife. Although well reviewed, the cerebral film sank in
the multiplexes where superheroes and sci-fi epics dominated the screens.