Shortly after six o’clock on a rainy March evening in 1946, a slender, gray-haired man sat in his favorite bar, the Ritz, finishing the last of several martinis. Finding himself adequately fortified for the ordeal ahead, he paid the check, got up, and pulled on his coat and hat. A well-stuffed briefcase in one hand and an umbrella in the other, he left the bar and ventured into the downpour drenching mid-Manhattan. He headed west toward a small storefront on 43rd Street, several blocks away.
Inside the storefront, 30 young men and women were awaiting him. They were students in an extension course on book publishing which New York University had asked Kenneth D. McCormick, editor-in-chief of Doubleday & Company, to conduct. All were eager to find a foothold in publishing and were attending the weekly seminars to increase their chances. On most evenings there were a few latecomers, but tonight, McCormick noted, every student was on hand and seated by the stroke of six. McCormick knew why. This evening’s lecture was on book editing, and he had persuaded the most respected, most influential book editor in America to “give a few words on the subject.”
Maxwell Evarts Perkins was unknown to the general public, but to people in the world of books he was a major figure, a kind of hero. For he was the consummate editor. As a young man he had discovered great new talents—such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe—and had staked his career on them, defying the established tastes of the earlier generation and revolutionizing American literature. He had been associated with one firm, Charles Scribner’s Sons, for 36 years, and during this time, no editor at any house even approached his record for finding gifted authors and getting them into print. Several of McCormick’s students had confessed to him that it was the brilliant example of Perkins that had attracted them to publishing.
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Partly because Perkins was the preeminent editor of his day, partly because many of his authors were celebrities, and partly because Perkins himself was somewhat eccentric, innumerable legends had sprung up about him, most of them rooted in truth. Everyone in Kenneth McCormick’s class had heard at least one breathless version of how Perkins had discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald; or how Scott’s wife, Zelda, at the wheel of Scott’s automobile, had once driven the editor into the Long Island Sound; or how Perkins had made Scribners lend Fitzgerald many thousands of dollars and rescued him from his breakdown. It was said that Perkins had agreed to publish Ernest Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, sight unseen, then had to fight to keep his job when the manuscript arrived because it contained off-color language. Another favorite Perkins story concerned his confrontation with his ultraconservative publisher, Charles Scribner, over the four-letter words in Hemingway’s second novel, A Farewell to Arms.
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Many stories about Perkins dealt with the untamed writing and temperament of Thomas Wolfe. It was said that as Wolfe wrote Of Time and the River he leaned his six-and-a-half foot frame against his refrigerator and used the appliance’s top for a desk, casting each completed page into a wooden crate without even rereading it. Eventually, it was said, three husky men carted the heavily laden box to Perkins, who somehow shaped the outpouring into books. Everyone in McCormick’s class had also heard about Maxwell Perkins’s hat, a battered fedora, which he was reputed to wear all day long, indoors and out, removing it from his head only before going to bed.
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Perkins took of his sopping raincoat and revealed an unpressed, pepper-and-salt, three-piece suit. Then his eyes shot upward and he removed his hat, under which a full head of metallic-gray hair was combed straight back from a V in the center of his forehead. Max Perkins did not care much about the impression he gave, which was just as well, for the first one he made on this particular evening was of some Vermont feed-and-grain merchant who had come to the city in his Sunday clothes and got caught in the rain. As he walked to the front of the room, he seemed slightly bewildered, and more so as Kenneth McCormick introduced him as “the dean of American editors.”
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Hooking his thumbs comfortably into the armholes of his waistcoat, speaking in his slightly rasping, well-bred voice, Perkins began. “The first thing you must remember,” he said, without quite facing his audience: “An editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as a handmaiden to an author. Don’t ever get to feeling important about yourself, because an editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing.” Perkins admitted that he had suggested books to authors who had no ideas of their own at the moment, but he maintained that such works were usually below their best, even though they were sometimes financially and even critically successful. “A writer’s best work,” he said, “comes entirely from himself.” He warned the students against any efforts by an editor to inject his own point of view into a writer’s work to try to make him something other than what he is. “The process is so simple,” he said. “If you have Mark Twain, don’t try to make him into a Shakespeare or make a Shakespeare into a Mark Twain. Because in the end an editor can only get as much out of an author as the author has in him.”
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Once Perkins had concluded his prepared remarks, Kenneth McCormick asked the class for questions. “What was it like to work with F. Scott Fitzgerald?” was the first.
A fragile smile floated across Perkins’s face as he thought for a moment. Then he replied, “Scott was always the gentleman. Sometimes he needed extra support—and sobering up—but the writing was so rich it was worth it.” Perkins went on to say that Fitzgerald was comparatively simple to edit because he was a perfectionist about his work and wanted it to be right. However, Perkins had added, “Scott was especially sensitive to criticism. He could accept it, but as his editor you had to be sure of everything you suggested.”
The discussion turned to Ernest Hemingway. Perkins said Hemingway needed backing in the beginning of his career, and even more later, “because he wrote as daringly as he lived.” Perkins believed Hemingway’s writing displayed that virtue of his heroes, “grace under pressure.” Hemingway, he said, was susceptible to overcorrecting himself. “He once told me that he had written parts of A Farewell to Arms fifty times,” Perkins said.