LETTER FROM LONDON
LEGENDARY MAXWELL PERKINS
The young Maxwell Perkins
What editor Perkins really
did for Hem, Wolfe and Fitz
By MICHAEL JOHNSON
No one likes to admit it, but we all get a secret kick out of reading other peoples mail. The fascination comes from learning opinions and truths we are not supposed to be aware of. For these and other reasons I have always liked book-length collections of letters from my favorite authors, especially the ones to their editors and publishers. Buried in there somewhere, I like to think, are the secrets of how those books got written and financed.
I couldnt ask for a more riveting book than the new collection of letters between Scribners editor Maxwell Perkins and his three star writers--Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The Sons of Maxwell Perkins (University of South Carolina Press, $29.95) is a treasure of earthy detail that both illuminates the creative process and brings all three of our heroes down to earth as human beings full of envy, ambition, paranoia and frustration.
Edited by Matthew Bruccoli with Judith S. Baughman, this book reveals high-minded men expressing the raw emotions of their daily lives while producing the masterworks we all grew up with. The contrast is striking and disappointing.
Only Perkins comes off well, not as a drudge with a green eyeshade but as a sensitive arbiter of fine writing with the self-confidence to steer talented men toward publishable work. He did it mostly in personal letters and extended chats, and they all bowed to his judgment.
Several other books on Maxwell Perkins have been produced over the past few decades but this one stands out for its unadulterated authenticity. The compilers have also added an excellent introduction and useful footnotes.
Much of Perkins advice on structure and characterization is captured in these letters, as are the grateful reactions of his star novelists. What may surprise the modern reader is the alacrity with which they went back to the typewriter to implement changes of a very basic nature, especially Wolfe and Fitzgerald.
We are also reminded in these exchanges how the world has lost any trace of innocence. Coarse language such as bitch and balls were unacceptable to readers in that age. Thus Hemingway agreed that a reference to a bull having no balls be amended to read no horns. But Brett in For Whom the Bell Tolls goes to print saying bitch. Hemingway had his principles.
Poor Perkins took a beating on bad days. I grew up thinking--didnt we all?--that Wolfe was indebted to him for selfless plowing through trunks of rough scribblings and turning them into Of Time and the River, Look Homeward, Angel and the other two books published under Wolfes name. But Wolfe says this is nothing but a pack of lies from his enemies, whom he describes as malevolent curs.
One of Wolfes most interesting letters runs to 11,000 words and amounts to a neurotic courtroom defense against remarks by prominent critics on his garrulous style. Bernard de Voto triggered it by writing that one indispensable part of the artist has existed not in Mr. Wolfe but in Maxwell Perkins.
This and other comments sent Wolfe screaming to his famous icebox, on top of which he produced much of his prose standing up. His long letter pleads that his public acknowledgements to Perkins had been misinterpreted. He meant to show his gratitude not for technical and professional service but for fatherly advice. Critics, he complained, had wrongly decided that he was incapable of projecting and accomplishing my own purpose without your editorial help, which is untrue.
Perkins didnt actually edit his manuscript at all, Wolfe insists. Whatever changes were finally made were almost entirely changes in the form of omission and of cuts in view of bringing the book down to a more publishable and condensed form, he writes in a letter to his esteemed editor.
Wolfe was happy to credit Perkins for his expressions of spiritual sustenance, of personal faith, of high purpose, of profound and sensitive understanding, of utter loyalty and staunch support, at a time when many people had no belief at all I me. But that was all.
I have resented the contemptible insinuations of my enemies that I have to have you to help me write my books. As you know, I dont have to have you or any other man alive to help me with my books.
Perkins responded somewhat defensively to Wolfe: But my impression was that you asked my help, that you wanted it. And it is my impression, too, that changes were not forced upon you (youre not very forcible, Tom, nor I very forceful) but were argued over, often for hours. I believe the writer, anyway, should always be the final judge, and I meant you to be so.
In fact, Wolfe seems to have a point. Perkins made stacks of notes as he read through Wolfes rambling stories but never put pencil to his paper. He then talked to Wolfe about changes, in effect saying take it or leave it. Some examples of his suggestions are revealing in their precision. They read like comments from a teacher of Creative Writing 101:
-- Make rich man in open scene older or more middle-aged.
-- Complete all scenes wherever possible with dialogue.
-- Intersperse jealousy and madness scenes with more scenes of dialogue with woman.
-- Cut out references to previous book and success.
It is not news that Hemingway was also hypersensitive to critics. Some were downgrading his writing as mere reporting, always reminding readers that he started out as a newspaperman. This kind of remark sent Hemingway right up the wall.
Already at age 35, he was on the offensive against critics. A fool like (Henry Seidel) Canby thinks I am a reporter. Im a reporter and an imaginative writer. And I can still imagine plenty, and there will be stories to write as they happened as long as I live.
He went on: The point is I want them to all sound as if they really happened. Then when I succeed those poor dumb pricks say they are all just skilful reporting. I invented every word and every incident of A Farewell to Arms except possibly 3 or 4 incidents. All the best part is invented.
Hemingway and the others knew that they were Perkins sons at the same time, and they discussed each others problems in letters to him. As Hemingway wrote about Fitzgerald: But the hell of it is that you cant write prose after you are thirty unless you can think straight. And it is the flashes where he does think straight that carry this book in spite of all the worn Christmas tree ornaments that are Scotts idea of literature.
Perkins in turn complained to Hemingway about Wolfe. He wanted severe cuts in Wolfes furious output. Literally we sat here for an hour thereafter without saying a word, while Tom glowered and pondered and fidgeted in his chair. Then he said, Well then, you will have to take the responsibility. Perkans was happy to, and the cuts were made.
Perhaps the high point of this book is Perkins detailed account of a famous Hemingway outburst in his Scribners office. Critic Max Eastman had labeled Death in the Afternoon as Bull in the Afternoon.
Writing to Fitzgerald, Hemingway is described as ripping open his shirt and exposing a great hairy chest, then ripping open Eastmans shirt to expose a hairless chest. Hemingway then attacked Eastman physically. As Perkins described it: Hemingway flushed up and got his head down, and turned and smack--he hit Eastman with the open book. They grappled, all the books and everything on my desk fell on the floor, and by the time I got around, both men were on the ground.
In a patrician environment like Scribners, this just wasnt done. When both Eastman and Hemingway had gone, I spoke to several people who had seen or heard, and all agreed nothing would be said, Perkins confided to Fitzgerald. Of course all of New York knew about the fight within hours.
Fitzgerald wrote to Perkins that Hemingway was beyond help. He is living at present in a world so entirely his own that it is impossible to help him, even if I felt close to him at the moment, which I dont.
This book is a reminder of better days when a prestigious family-owned firm such as Charles Scribners & Sons was willing to nurture feisty young authors. Scribners is now an imprint of Simon & Schuster, in turn owned by Viacom and probably overseen by some quant with an MBA.
A golden era has passed, and were still reading the work of its best writers, ably herded along by Maxwell Perkins.
©2005 by Michael Johnson. This column was first posted on Jan. 31, 2005.
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