William Maxwell Evarts Perkins, (September 20, 1884 – June 17, 1947), legendary editor at Charles Scribner and Sons Publishing House, was most renowned for his mentoring of promising young American writers from the 1920s through the 1940s; including such notables as Ernest Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and Thomas Wolfe. He had a reputation for having keen instincts when it came to recognizing new talent in literature, which included encouraging fledgling writer F. Scott Fitzgerald.
A self professed "Yankee" workaholic, Perkins went above and beyond the everyday duties of an editor, in order to foster the American ideals so important to him, through the phalanx of writers that he supported with a litany of problems from broken marriages to lawsuits. Many books that he directly encouraged, promoted, organized, and edited went on to become best sellers; classics such asThe Old Man and The Sea, The Yearling, andYou Can't Go Home Again. More than one writer, beholden to his wisdom and steadfast reserve, dedicated the opening pages of their books to him.
Author Marcia Davenport said of his editorial prowess, "he believes in your characters; they become completely real to him… He can take a mess of chaos, give you the scaffold, and then you build a house on it." In the end, he was more than an editor—to many neophyte writers he was friend, counselor, and father figure.
Born in New York City, he lived in or around New York and its suburbs all of his life. On his father's side, he was descended from Edmund Perkins, who emigrated to New England in 1650, and became a wealthy and philanthropic East Indian merchant. His paternal grandfather, Charles Callahan Perkins, a Harvard graduate of 1843, is credited with being the first American art critic. His father, Edward Clifford Perkins married Elizabeth Evarts, the daughter of New York Senator William Maxwell Evarts. His biographer has said of his dichotomous ancestry, "Within him the two spirits—Perkins aestheticism and Evarts discipline—were blended. Even as a boy, Max had an artistic flair but New England common sense."
When he was 16 years old, he was called home to Plainfield, New Jersey from St. Paul's Academy in Concord, New Hampshire, when his father unexpectedly passed away from pneumonia. Max, whose older brother was away at Harvard, took over as head of the family and later, speaking of the effect this traumatic incident had on his life, said to his daughter, "Every good deed that a man does is to please his father."
He graduated from Harvard College in 1907, where he majored in economics; however, he had the fortuity to study literature under the tutelage of famed Harvard professor Charles Townsend Copeland—"Copey"—who helped prepare Perkins for his real future as a book editor.
After working as a reporter for The New York Times, Perkins joined the venerable publishing house of Charles Scribner's Sons in 1910, as advertising manager. That same year he and Louise Saunders were married in Plainfield's Holy Cross Episcopal Church. Together, they had five daughters and continued an intergenerational tradition of spending vacations in Windsor, Vermont.
At the time that he joined Scribner's, they were known for publishing eminently respectable authors such as John Galsworthy, Henry James, and Edith Wharton. However, much as he admired these progenitors of American literature, Perkins wished to bring in "new blood" by publishing younger writers that addressed the concerns, the hopes, and the dreams of a new generation of post-war Americans. Unlike most editors, he actively sought out promising new artists and found his first protege in 1919—the talented but troubled—F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald's first novel, whose working title was the The Romantic Egotist, was rejected twice by the upper echelon at Scribner's. Perkins, captivated by his writing, worked with Fitzgerald to drastically revise the manuscript and then, despite resistance, lobbied for its acceptance until his colleagues capitulated and gave their approval. In 1920, the Romantic Egoist, christened with the new title This Side of Paradise, sold almost 35,00 copies in its first seven months of publication.
This would become a pattern throughout the years for Perkins: He would cultivate talent often unrecognized by others; then he would guide his writers through every step of the publishing process from giving specific instructions for revisions of their manuscripts, to advancing them funds, and even coming up with titles for books. In this manner he went beyond the normal duties of an editor in order to bring many works—some of them far from ready for publishing—to fruition.
According to Perkins' biographer (Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, p. 41), "he sought out authors who were not just 'safe,' conventional in style and bland in content, but who spoke in a new voice about the new values of the postwar world. In this way, as an editor he did more than reflect the standards of his age; he consciously influenced and changed them by the new talents he published."
Perkins worked long hours all the way up until the end of his life, eschewing most holidays and vacations. On June 2, 1947, suffering from a fever, he was taken to a hospital in Stamford, Connecticut. A prolific letter writer, he had been advising James Jones on his first novel, From Here to Eternity. Another manuscript by his bedside was Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. On June 17, he sat up in his bed and motioning to an empty corner in his room, said, "Who is that?" Those were his last spoken words. The final words that he edited were of the introduction to the Thomas Wolfe Collection, presented to the Harvard College Library.
The publication of This Side of Paradise (1920) marked the genesis of a new generation of writers in American literature, one that would soon come to be associated with Perkins. Fitzgerald's profligacy and alcoholism put a great strain on his relationship with Perkins. Nonetheless, Perkins remained his friend as well as his editor to the end of Fitzgerald's life, advancing him money, making personal loans, and encouraging his inspired but erratic genius. Fitzgerald's masterpiece, The Great Gatsby (1925), which benefited substantially from Perkins' critique, was revised with Perkins' editorial suggestions in mind.
It was through Fitzgerald that Perkins met Ernest Hemingway, and went on to publish his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, in 1926. A controversial book for its time, Perkins had to fight for its recognition over objections by more conservative members of his firm to Hemingway's profanity. In a letter to Hemingway, Perkins expressed his own opinion based on seeing the book as a work of art, and called it, "astonishing and the more so because it involved such an extraordinary range of experience and emotion, all brought together in the most skillful manner—the subtle ways of which are beautifully concealed—to form a complete design. I could not express my admiration too strongly."
The commercial and critical success of Hemingway's next novel, A Farewell to Arms (1929), which rose to number one on the best-seller list, secured Perkins reputation, not only for his procuring of new talent but for his sound editorial judgment as well.
Undoubtedly the relationship that tested Perkins the most, both professionally and personally, was with the prolific—but verbose writer—Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe, who was deeply attached to the written word, often grappled with Perkins over content. After a tremendous struggle, Perkins induced Wolfe to cut 90,000 words from his first novel, Look Homeward Angel (1929). His next novel, Of Time and the River (1935), was the result of a two-year battle during which Wolfe kept writing more pages in the face of an ultimately victorious effort by Perkins to hold the line on its size.
There were other problems as well: Wolfe's ending of a relationship with a woman twenty years his senior, who provided material for one of his characters, resulted in threats of suicide. An autograph seller took him to trial for the sale of a manuscript that Wolfe reneged on; consequently Perkins was forced to testify on Wolfe's behalf. And Wolfe's excessive drinking did nothing to help his problems with discipline in terms of his craft—he was known to deliver crates of unedited papers to Perkins and to write atop a refrigerator that his 6'4" frame leaned against. "The first time I heard of Thomas Wolfe, I had a sense of foreboding. I who loved the man say this. Every good thing that comes is accompanied by trouble." As usual, Perkins' instincts proved correct; and although they had a long and tumultuous relationship, Wolfe's early death at age 38 left a void in Perkins' life.
Prior to the years leading up to his his death, Wolfe was growing increasingly estranged from Scribner's. In an article written by Bernard De Voto for the April 25, 1936, issue of the Saturday Review, titled, "Genius Is Not Enough," he credits Wolfe's success to Perkin's formidable editorial prowess. Wolfe, who like most authors was sensitive to criticism of his writing, began to second guess his relationship with Scribner's. Ultimately, Wolfe did leave Scribner's for Harper and Brothers, and although his apparent ingratitude hurt Perkins, it did not keep him from serving as Wolfe's literary executor after his death in 1938.
Although his reputation as an editor is most closely linked to these three, Perkins worked with many other writers. He was the first to publish J.P. Marquand and Erskine Caldwell, whose name came to him on a recommendation from F. Scott Fitzgerald.
After launching Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' career by encouraging her to write The Yearling, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938, he helped her with other specific writing suggestions which she adhered to religiously. Perkins recognized that her strength as a writer lay in describing the Florida scrubland that she loved, so he encouraged her to write a nonfiction autobiographical account of her experiences. The book, Cross Creek, which developed from this collaboration, went on to become another one of her highly acclaimed best sellers.
Ring Lardner, the popular sportswriter and humorist, was another writer who benefited from Perkins' encouragement. Perkins promoted the idea of publishing a collection of Lardner's short stories and sketches, which became the bestselling book, How to Write Short Stories. (1924) Perkins' intervention helped to establish Lardner as a literary figure, although Lardner himself, remained self depreciating about his work.
His last discovery was James Jones, who approached Perkins in 1945. Jones' initial attempt at writing a novel, called They Shall Inherit the Laughter was rejected by Scribner's, but Perkins, who was impressed by Jones' character and personality as well as by his writing, encouraged him in his second attempt which went on to become the successful From Here to Eternity (1951). By this time Perkins' health was failing, and he did not live to see its success, nor that of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea (1952), which was dedicated to his memory.
Perkins was well known for his "Yankee" reserve, but he also had his peccadilloes; after an author gave him a ten gallon hat, he was never seen without his signature felt fedora. His favorite book was War and Peace, which he read and re-read during times of trouble; he often sent a copy to one of his protégés. Although professional boundaries were blurred when it came to his friendships with authors, he was the steadfast rock upon which they could lean. His contemporary, John Hall Wheelock, said that Perkins did not prefer one type of writing over another, but was "simply devoted to talent." Another friend said, "If Max is to be remembered…it was largely because of his sympathetic understanding and because of the standards he maintained."
Apart from his roles as coach, friend, and promoter, Perkins was unusual among editors for the close and detailed attention he gave to books, and for what the novelist Vance Bourjaily, another of his discoveries, called his "infallible sense of structure." For this, and for his nurturing of talent, American literature is much in his debt.
Maxwell Perkins was the grandson of U.S. Secretary of State, U.S. Attorney General, & U.S. Senator William M. Evarts, the great-great-grandson of Declaration of Independence signer Roger Sherman, and the uncle of Watergate Scandal special prosecutor Archibald Cox. He was also descended from Puritans John Davenport and Theophilus Eaton, as well as Henry II of England.
Perkins' editorial papers are in the Charles Scribner's Sons collection at Princeton University. Perkins became known to the general public in his lifetime as a result of a profile by Malcolm Cowley, Unshaken Friend, in the New Yorker (April 1 and 8, 1944).
Perkin's correspondence with F. Scott Fitzgerald is collected in Dear Scott, Dear Max: The Fitzgerald-Perkins Correspondence, ed. John Kuehl and Jackson Bryer (1991). A similar book regarding Perkins' relationship with Hemingway is The Only Thing That Counts, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli and Robert W. Trogdon. Perkins' own life and career are chronicled in his biography, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg (ISBN 1-57322-621-1).
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