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Monday, September 20, 2010

Maxwell Perkins: editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Dawn Powell, and Thomas Wolfe

Today is the 126th birthday of publishing legend Maxwell Perkins. In a career spanning thirty-six years as an editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, Perkins discovered and published three of the giants of twentieth-century literature: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. He inspired a mostly unswerving loyalty in his authors. No editor has ever had more books dedicated to him—68 at the time of his death. In his Pulitzer Prize–winning biography, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, A. Scott Berg explains why:
His literary judgment was original and exceedingly astute, and he was famous for his ability to inspire an author to produce the best that was in him or her. More a friend to his authors than a taskmaster, he aided them in every way. He helped them structure their books, if help was needed; thought up titles, invented plots; he served as psychologist, lovelorn adviser, marriage counselor, career manager, money-lender. Few editors before him had done so much work on manuscripts, yet he was always faithful to his credo, “The book belongs to the author.”
Perkins seemed to have known what he wanted from the start. In 1910, after a short stint as a reporter at The New York Times, the 24-year-old Perkins became an advertising manager at Scribner’s, esteemed publisher of the likes of Edith Wharton, John Galsworthy, and Henry James. Within five years he moved up to editor; four years later he made his first career-making find. A manuscript, The Romantic Egoist, a first novel by a 22-year-old Princeton grad, arrived on his desk with negative comments from every other reader. But Perkins saw something he liked. He had to cajole F. Scott Fitzgerald into rewriting the manuscript twice before he could persuade Scribner’s to publish it. Perkins’s winning argument, as recorded by Berg, resonates with every editor who has ever pushed passionately for a book: “If we aren’t going to publish a talent like this, it is a very serious thing,” Perkins reasoned. Fitzgerald would find another publisher, young authors would follow him and, Perkins warned, “Then we might as well go out of business.”

This Side of Paradise was published on March 26, 1920 with advertising citing Fitzgerald as “the youngest writer for whom Scribner’s has ever published a novel.” It became Scriber’s biggest seller of the season, selling almost 35,000 copies in its first seven months. In The Smart Set H. L. Mencken hailed it as “a truly amazing first novel—original in structure, extremely sophisticated in manner, and adorned with brilliancy that is as rare in American writing as honesty is in American statecraft.”

Perkins was right that other young writers would follow. In 1924 Fitzgerald tipped Perkins off to a “young American living in France who wrote for the transatlantic review” and two years later Perkins would publish 27-year-old Ernest Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises. Two years later Perkins would be the only editor in New York to discern in the hundreds upon hundreds of manuscript pages of O Lost the novel Scribner’s would publish as Look Homeward, Angel by 27-year-old Thomas Wolfe.

Many other authors benefited from the Perkins magic. When acid-penned novelist Dawn Powell left Farrar & Rinehart in 1939, working with Perkins led to her first commercially successful novel, A Time To Be Born, perhaps most notorious because its central character is based loosely on playwright-journalist-socialite Claire Booth Luce. Perkins was prescient about Powell’s staying power: when she died in 1965 nearly all of her books were out of print; then in the 1980s and 1990s she enjoyed a lively rediscovery.

In the course of his career Perkins would edit many other authors of renown: Sherwood Anderson, Erskine Caldwell, Taylor Caldwell, Marcia Davenport, Martha Gellhorn, James Jones, Ring Lardner, J. P. Marquand, Alan Paton, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Edmund Wilson, and more. Writers who worked with Perkins distinguish his approach from editors who rewrite or excise an author’s work. “He never tells you what to do,” Roger Burlingame explained to Malcolm Cowley for a New Yorker profile of Perkins. “Instead, he suggests to you, in an extraordinarily inarticulate fashion, what you want to do yourself.”

Perkins is soon due to return to the public eye in a major way: Sean Penn is slated to portray him in a new biopic based on Berg’s biography. And he continues to be the touchstone figure for what an editor can do for an author. Just last week Joshua Wolf Shenk invoked his example in his essay for Slate about the science of creativity.

Related LOA works: F. Scott Fitzgerald: Novels and Stories 1920-1922; Dawn Powell: Novels 1930-1942


  1. We own Maxwell Perkins former home, which is now an inn and still a wonderfully artistic place. Some recent videos here:

    1. Would love to visit someday! Where exactly is it?


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