Maxwell Evarts Perkins graduated from Harvard University in June 1907. Utilizing a connection with the managing editor's son to get his foot in the door, young Perkins soon landed a job as a reporter with the New York Times. Paying his dues by reporting on emergencies, disasters, and other police actions, Max was soon promoted to the paper's general staff. Though his early articles were not front page material, he was drawn, as he put it, to "one of those professions whose practitioners deal in the most powerful of all commodities words." While he loved the writing, however, Max soon grew weary of the erratic hours and constant deadlines afforded by newspaper work. In the winter of 1909 he began to search for a job with a more constant schedule.
Armed with a letter of introduction from one of his Harvard professors, Perkins applied for a job with the publishing house of Charles Scribner's Sons in New York. "I know that people generally, and with considerable reason, suspect a newspaperman to be wanting the quality of steadiness," he explained to Scribner. "They do not think him capable of settling down to a regular and unexciting life. In case you share in that idea, I want to tell you that aside from my natural interest in books and all connected with them, I am anxious to make this change because of my desire for a regular life; and I have the strongest reasons a young man can have for desiring such a life, and for liking it once I have it." Perkins remained at the Times while waiting to hear from the publisher, and he was not called for an interview until the spring of 1910. Charles Scribner then hired Max as advertising manager for the publishing house.
With his fortunes on the rise, Perkins married his sweetheart, Louise Saunders, on the last day of December 1910, and the new couple soon started a family one that would eventually include five beloved daughters. In 1914, with Max's reputation firmly established, an opening occurred in the editiorial department when one of Scribner's editors left to join another agency. Perkins was promptly moved "up to the fifth floor," and began what would be a stellar career at Scribner's as one of the most important editors of the twentieth century a career ultimately marked (among others) by three of the century's greatest literary figures.
Perkins's first major discovery appeared in 1919, when a one-time Princeton student and former army officer began corresponding with Scribner's. After two rejections and several rewrites, Max still had to fight to get the young man's work published. When the book finally appeared in 1920, however, the 24-year-old author became the youngest novelist published by the Scribner company to date. His name was F. Scott Fitzgerald, and his book hearalded the voice of a new age the kind of voice that made the older employees at Scribner's cringe. This Side of Paradise despite a number of embarrassing misprints sold an unexpected 35,000 copies in its first seven months, and while the book did not bring Fitzgerald immediate riches, it did make him famous. Perkins was mortified at the errors, but the book remained popular, and stirred the uncertain youth of America.
While Perkins respected the rich, 75-year history of responsible publishing at Scribner's, Max was inclined to take risks and he scouted the work of new authors with a keen eye. As he brought on new talent, Perkins slowly altered the traditional notion of the editor's role. Bucking the usual "safe" and bland content, Max opted for writers offering a new voice a voice that reflected the new values of post-World War I America. He excelled in getting unpublished novelists on the list at Scribner's. Perkins served other roles as well. To Scott Fitzgerald, an erratic spendthrift who would never live down the consequences of his misuse of cash and credit, Max offered friendship and shouldered the responsibility of being the young author's financial overseer.
"His habit of hat-wearing became Perkins's most famous eccentricity and the subject of much speculation. "Why the hat?" people kept wondering. The answer seems to be that he found it useful as well as ornamental. It gave the impression to unexpected office visitors that he was on his way out, and this kept them from buttonholing him into idle conversation. The hat also thrust his ears forward, which helped his hearing. Miss [Irma] Wycoff suggested that Perkins wore his hat to keep customers in the Scribners bookstore from mistaking him for a clerk as he made his afternoon promenade . . . . Perkins's attachment to his hat was hardly greater than his attachment to his clothing in general. At first glance he seemed to be an elegantly dressed New Yorker, but under close scrutiny he looked rather ragged." A. Scott Berg, from Editor of Genius (1978)
Perkins brought on new authors whose works not only sold well, but also achieved a measure of critical acclaim. Among these new talents were Ring Lardner, James Boyd, and Thomas Boyd. His reputation blossomed, and soon many of the best manuscripts arriving at Scribner's were funneled directly to Max's desk. He was still a junior staff member, but he was becoming the company's center of gravity. Perkins would ultimately rise to the top of the editorial department.
As a leader among young writers, Scott Fitzgerald took it upon himself to recommend new talents to Perkins many of whom never panned out. While busy with final revisions for The Great Gatsby, however, Fitzgerald offered a referral for a promising young free lance writer an American author living in Paris. Ezra Pound had recently published a volume of this writer's short stories, and Fitzgerald was emphatic that Perkins give him a try. Max promptly sent to France for examples of the writer's works.
Perkins read a newly-arrived collection of vignettes with great interest in early 1925. The style was unlike anything Perkins had read, but unfortunately the material was not substantial enough for commercial appeal. Captivated by the distinctive sound of the author's voice, however, Perkins unabashedly expressed his hope that the young writer would consider Scribner's as a publisher for any of his new material.
Max and the young writer who had spent the summer of 1925 with Scott Fitzgerald in Paris began to get to know one another through correspondence. The author was working on a new novel, and several New York publishing firms were interested. Perkins feared that Scribner's would miss the opportunity to publish the promising author.
Just when Perkins had lost hope, fate intervened on his behalf. After breaking off negotiations with a publisher in France, the young writer just 27 years old journeyed to New York to meet in person the editor at Scribner's whom he had come to know through correspondence and Scott Fitzgerald. His name was Ernest Hemingway, and he arrived at Max's office in early February 1926.
Max was bowled over by Hemingway's manuscript, but knew that its four-letter words and otherwise shocking subject matter would raise more than a few eyebrows at Scribner's. Steadfast as always, Max pushed the book upon the board of editors with zeal. Opposition was immediate. Charles Scribner himself then 72 years old was stunned by Hemingway's writing but shrewdly, and not without reluctance, agreed to publish the book on its sheer overwhelming merit. Once again, Maxwell Perkins was steering the traditionally conservative publishing house to the edge of respectability toward the voice of America's youth.
Stunned by the richness of Hemingway's work, Perkins gently persuaded the author to tone down the obscenities as much as possible, without totally deleting them. The Sun Also Rises appeared in the fall of 1926, on the heels of a satirical piece titled The Torrents of Spring, which had been a part of Hemingway's deal with Scribner's for the novel.
Perkins pushed the book vigorously, and it sold well. Predictably, however, the expected letters of outrage from conservative America began to pile up on Max's desk. And the progressive editor became adept at answering criticisms.
Shortly thereafter, in the autumn of 1928, literary agent Madeleine Boyd arrived at Max's office with an armload of manuscripts one of which was Thomas Wolfe's fledgling novel titled O Lost (later Look Homeward, Angel).
"The first time I heard of Thomas Wolfe," remembered Perkins, "I had a sense of foreboding. I who love the man say this. Every good thing that comes is accompanied by trouble. It was in 1928 when Madeleine Boyd, a literary agent, came in. She talked of several manuscripts which did not much interest me, but frequently interrupted herself to tell of a wonderful novel about an American boy. I several times said to her, 'Why don't you bring it in here, Madeleine?' and she seemed to evade the question. But finally she said, 'I will bring it, if you promise to read every word of it.' I did promise, but she told me other things that made me realize that Wolfe was a turbulent spirit, and that we were in for turbulence."
Perkins's relationship with Thomas Wolfe was one of the strongest he ever forged with an author, and Wolfe's second novel, Of Time and the River, was the challenge of Max's career.
"In all my life, until I met you, I never had a friend."
A torn fragment from Thomas Wolfe's journals, never sent to Maxwell Perkins
"It is hard to think that Tom wouldn't have been utterly tortured as things are in the world. It was in him to do more than he ever did, but he would have suffered all the time."
Max Perkins to Elizabeth Lemmon, following Tom's death. Ms. Lemmon was Perkins's "ideal woman," a friend with whom he maintained a 25-year platonic love affair.
"The one important thing in the universe to him was his work, and this was so simply because it was so. It was not due to ambition in the cheap sense, and it was not what is generally meant by egotism. He was under the compulsion of genius, and all the accidents of life that got in the way of its expression seemed to Tom to be outrages and insults. He knew in his mind that man was born to trouble that everyone was beset with anxieties and thwarted by obstacles but that this work which he was bound to do should be interfered with by trivialities, was maddening. And so was the struggle with the work itself."
Max Perkins on Thomas Wolfe, for the Carolina Magazine, University of North Carolina.
Maxwell Perkins was at work on an introduction to the Thomas Wolfe Collection, presented to the Harvard College Library by William B. Wisdom, when the editor's sudden death came in 1947 at the age of 62. While stealing moments to write the Wolfe piece, Perkins had been busily editing James Jones's From Here to Eternity the last of Max's many great editorial endeavors.
For a more in-depth look at the relationship between Thomas Wolfe and Maxwell Perkins, refer to Wolfe's biography.
Upon Wolfe's death Perkins became executor of Tom's literary estate. He carefully catalogued the voluminous manuscripts left behind by Wolfe, and oversaw the posthumous publication by Harper & Brothers of The Web and the Rock and You Can't Go Home Again.
Adapted from: Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by A. Scott Berg. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978. Also the Harvard Library Bulletin, Autumn 1947.