Max Perkins Was Here

Illustrations by Howard Munce

(page 1 of 2)

Every now and then a gape-mouthed stranger lands on the stately front porch of 63 Park Street, evidently trying to channel the ghost of Maxwell E. Perkins.

Sandra Bergmann, who owns the house with her architect husband, Richard, tries to dissuade these strangers in her kindly way, but after an article appears somewhere (uh-oh), she’ll look out her window to find some poor soul lost in reverie, no doubt contemplating the brave adolescence of our national literature. “There’s a whole Maxwell Perkins cult out there,” Sandra tells a visitor who she believes has come here for journalistic purposes but is secretly a cult member himself.

Max Perkins, who died sixty-two years ago this June, was the most important American literary figure that you may never have heard of. He wrote no books of his own; his daughters insisted he couldn’t spell or punctuate; and his rivals thought him unsophisticated. Yet as a book editor for Charles Scribner’s Sons, where he worked from 1914 until his death in 1947, he possessed a matchless internal compass about writers and writing, shepherding into print the great works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Edmund Wilson, Ring Lardner and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.



The Perkins aficionado who visits New Canaan likes to envision Max stepping off the 6:02 from Grand Central Station, a trim man in a careworn black suit, white socks, and a boxy felt hat, one arm weighed down by a briefcase full of literary masterpieces. He (or she) further imagines the freshly completed manuscripts of The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises and Look Homeward, Angel accompanying Perkins eighty steps up the hill to his beloved Greek Revival. This stirring image is not mere guesswork. “It was simply the case,” says A. Scott Berg, author of the National Book Award–winning Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. “He had a big, bulging briefcase, and on any given night that briefcase contained the manuscript or the galley proofs of books that changed the course of our culture.”

Perkins would then make his way past the four fluted columns to be greeted by his adoring daughters. He wrote to Fitzgerald on October 18, 1924: “I told you we’d bought a house in New Canaan. It has the face of a Greek temple and the body of a spacious Connecticut farmhouse.” Letters written to and from Perkins in the New Canaan period are among the most intriguing in our literary history. Shortly after Perkins bought the house, Fitzgerald wrote from France: “This is to tell you about a young man named Ernest Hemingway.... I’d look him up right away. He’s the real thing.” Then on October 27: “Under separate cover I’m sending you my third novel, The Great Gatsby…. I have an alternative title: Gold-hatted Gatsby…. Naturally I won’t get a night’s sleep until I hear from you, but do tell me the absolute truth, your first impression of the book….”

Before Perkins could respond, doubts crowded in on Fitzgerald, and he wrote his editor, “I have now decided to stick to the title I put on the book: Trimalchio in West Egg.” Here the lit buff cringes, but not to worry: Perkins, after extravagantly praising the book, wrote of the title, “Consider as quickly as you can a change.” In that same letter, Perkins reported, “I’m taking [the manuscript] home to read again and shall then write my impression in full.” Thus is confirmed New Canaan’s tie to what some consider the greatest American novel of the twentieth century.

Perkins routinely ate dinner with his wife, Louise, and their five daughters, then settled into a chair by the fireplace, where a snow of paper drifted about his feet. “For Whom the Bell Tolls, Look Homeward, Angel. That’s the stuff that littered the floors of the Perkins home in New Canaan. How about that?” says Berg, marveling at the image. “Periodically Max would pull out some pages and read aloud to his family the latest paragraphs that Ernest Hemingway had written.”

Away from the bustle of his office on Fifth Avenue, Perkins’s deep critical apparatus could go to work on a book. After considering Gatsby in New Canaan, for instance, Perkins observed that he had no idea what Jay Gatsby looked like or how he made his millions. He’s supposed to be a shadowy figure, Perkins knows, but these “total” lacks shortchange the reader, offering up a Gatsby who is more blank than mysterious.

“With the aid you’ve given me,” Fitzgerald replied, “I can make Gatsby perfect.”

Glancing backward through history, one might forget what a rare gift is required to scent an emergent Fitzgerald or Hemingway. These were new writers writing in a new way, one which Perkins’s conservative bosses could not grasp. Scribner’s was the venerable house of Henry James and Edith Wharton. In 1919, when Fitzgerald first came to Perkins’s attention, James had been dead only three years and Wharton was still going strong, then at work on The Age of Innocence. These canonical writers, however, set their gaze on the nineteenth century, before the Great War had come along and swept that world into the distant past.

Now a new age was being born. Neither Ulysses nor The Waste Land had yet arrived, and Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka and Virginia Woolf were laboring away in relative obscurity. As for Fitzgerald: His first manuscript landed at Scribner’s with a thud. One senior editor “could not stomach it at all” and another found it to be “hard sledding.” Only for junior editor Perkins did the compass needle dance; he recognized the youthful flaws, to be sure, but he also sensed an enormous talent on the verge of blossoming.

Perkins induced Fitzgerald to improve his manuscript, but again the older editors voted the novel down. In the summer of 1919, Fitzgerald rewrote and retitled the book, using all of Perkins’s suggestions. Now called This Side of Paradise, the novel met the same old resistance. As Berg writes in his Perkins biography, Charles Scribner himself declared: “I’m proud of my imprint. I cannot publish fiction that is without literary value.” A senior editor agreed, calling the book “frivolous.” Still, Charles Scribner must have had a keen instinct of his own. When the discussion seemed to be over, he “peered down the conference table and said, ‘Max, you’re very silent.’”

What Perkins said next can be regarded as historic, the beginning of the process of his “changing the course of the river, the great raw river of American literature,” as Berg puts it by phone. “A publisher’s first allegiance is to talent,” Perkins began. “And if we aren’t going to publish a talent like this, it is a very serious thing.” Fitzgerald would certainly find another publisher, Perkins went on, and the new wave of postwar writers would then follow him, dismissing Scribner’s as a relic. “Then we might as well go out of business.”

This Side of Paradise was published in March 1920 to ecstatic reviews and brisk sales; but more than that, Berg writes, the book “unfurled like a banner over an entire age.”

Hemingway required none of Perkins’s magic editorial advice — neither the minor touches that made Gatsby sing nor the legendary cutting and refitting that Thomas Wolfe would require. As Perkins wrote, “You write like yourself only, and I shall not attempt criticism. I couldn’t with confidence.” But Hemingway presented an immense challenge in other ways. When Perkins received the manuscript of The Sun Also Rises, in May 1926, he recognized its “strange and remarkable” qualities but fretted about the indelicacies, which were nonetheless crucial to the book’s fabric. Perkins wrote to Fitzgerald, “There are many words seldom if ever used before in print.”

If Scribner’s had balked at the mild Paradise, then The Sun Also Rises would provoke lightning bolts of wrath. A nervous Perkins brought the manuscript home to New Canaan in order to consult with his wife. Berg writes, “Louise instinctively grasped the situation, clenched a fist, and told her husband, ‘You’ve got to stand up and fight for it, Max.’” And so Perkins did.

That Perkins should have championed a book considered obscene by many and banned in Boston remains a fascinating paradox.

Born in Manhattan and raised in Plainfield, New Jersey, Perkins always considered himself a New Englander. His forebears were distinguished Vermonters, and Perkins inherited their most pronounced Yankee traits: a polite reserve, extreme modesty, clockwork habits, and “a crag-like obstinacy that at times was maddening,” according to his longtime colleague John Hall Wheelock. Perkins ardently defended his taboo-breaking authors but was himself conservative verging on prudish. When debating the manuscript of The Sun Also Rises with his fellow editors, he wrote down the objectionable words rather than speak them — a method that would seem quaint to any but an old-line New Englander.

In New Canaan Perkins’s Yankee spirit found a proper home. “You would hate it, but I like it,” he wrote to Fitzgerald, who had lived happily if drunkenly in Westport in 1920. And to novelist Thomas Boyd, “The people thereabouts are the right sort, at least to one of New England descent.” Berg suggests that for Perkins, New Canaan struck the perfect compromise between Windsor, Vermont, his avowed paradise, and Manhattan, the capital of American book publishing. “New Canaan was only forty-two miles outside of New York,” Berg says, “but it might as well have been 4,000 miles.”

His sense of happiness living in a small New England town is palpable. “We had a grand winter at New Canaan,” he wrote Fitzgerald in 1926. “Skating on most of the weekends and hockey, and over New Year’s, for three windless days, the whole three-mile lake, a sheet of flexible black ice.” Perkins’s only surviving daughter, Louise King, who is ninety-one, remembers how her father loved to hike in the woods near the New Canaan Reservoir, tossing a stone from hand to hand as he walked. She remembers him reading to the girls from The Three Musketeers (deftly leapfrogging the racy passages) and, especially, from War and Peace. “War and Peace really became part of your own life, as if you knew Pierre and Natasha personally,” Louise says. “My father thought it was the greatest novel ever written.”

Jane Frothingham Gurney, the daughter of Perkins’s eldest daughter, Bertha, remembers her grandfather as “a formal man — quite shy. You might think he was austere, but he wasn’t. I always felt secure in his presence. He never told you what to do. He would just sort of encourage you by gentle suggestion, as he did his authors.” She thinks a moment, then adds: “Here’s something about my grandfather. He had all different kinds of authors, and he met every one where they were and for whom they were. He didn’t try to change them. He always encouraged them to try to be themselves.”

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