Friday, November 11, 2005

Max Perkins

Several times a year, I open one of my copies of Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins (1950; rpt 1979). Perkins (1884-1947) was the famed Scribner's editor of Taylor Caldwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, S. S. Van Dine, and a host of others and (what I tell younger readers) grandfather of the actor Perry King.

It's always heartening, especially when writing may not be going well, to read the letters of a man "in love with words," as his biographer A. Scott Berg (Max Perkins: Editor of Genius) once put it.
  • Perkins to Rawlings: ". . .when I write to you in that do-as-it-seems-right-to-you way, it is because it has always been my conviction---and I do not see how anyone could dispute the rightness of it---that a book must be done according to the writer's conception of it, as nearly perfectly as possible, and that the publishing problems begin then. That is, the publisher must not try to get a writer to fit the book to the conditions of the trade, etc. It must be the other way around."
  • Perkins to Marcia Davenport: "I really think the great difficulty in bringing The Valley of Decision into final shape is the old one of not being able to see the forest for the trees. There are such a great number of trees. We must somehow bring the underlying scheme or pattern of the book into emphasis, so that the reader will be able to see the forest in spite of the many trees. And that will mean reducing the number of trees, if we can possibly manage it---though, so far, I haven't found that easy."
  • Perkins to Rawlings again: "...the sales department always want a novel. They want to turn everything into a novel. They would have turned the New Testament into one, if it had come to us for publication, and they could have."
  • Perkins to Fitzgerald: "Don't ever defer to my judgment. . .a writer of any account must speak solely for himself."
And I think the 12 Aug 1938 letter from Thomas Wolfe to Perkins (after Wolfe had left Scribner's) just before Wolfe died is one of the most touching and beautifully written pieces that one can ever read:

"... [I] wanted to write you and tell you, no matter what happens or has happened, I shall always think of you and feel about you the way it was that 4th of July day 3 yrs. ago when you met me at the boat, and we went out on the cafe on the river and had a drink and later went on top of the tall building and all the strangeness and the glory and the power of life and of the city was below---"

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