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November 3, 1998


by Dee Entrekin

Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (1884 - 1947)

A. Scott Berg's biography chronicles the life of Maxwell Evarts Perkins who introduced the reading public to an astounding number of major talents. In 1910, after graduating from Harvard and spending two years as a reporter for the New York Times, Perkins joined the ultraconservative family-owned publishing house of Charles Scribner's Sons as advertising manager. In 1914, he was elevated to editor and eventually became Editor-in-Chief and Vice-President of the company.

It was not until Perkins became an editor that the newer writers were published by Scribner's. F. Scott Fitzgerald was the first of this new breed that Perkins took under his wing, eventually convincing Scribner's to publish his first book, This Side of Paradise. Fitzgerald, considered a leader among the young writers of his time, recommended many young, promising, and often unpublished writers to Perkins.

While finishing his third novel, The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald alerted Perkins to the genius of Ernest Hemingway. In May, 1926, Perkins obtained Hemingway's The Torrents of Spring for publication, with a contract to publish his book in progress, The Sun Also Rises. He gave as much nurturing to Willard Hungtingon Wright, better known as S.S. Van Dine, the mystery writer and creator of the detective Philo Vance, as he did his more literary writers. Much of Wright's success stems from his association with Perkins.

In the fall of 1928, the editor found himself wading through a huge, orderless manuscript from an unknown writer named Thomas Wolfe. Knowing the editing would be an enormous undertaking, Scribner agreed to publish it. He spent over a year working with Wolfe, editing out and rearranging that which was left, to reach a final proof of Look Homeward Angel.

Although Wolfe, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway were favored by Perkins, Erakine Caldwell, Sherwood Anderson, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Taylor Caldwell, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Alan Paton, James Jones, Douglas Southhall Freeman, Ring Lardner, John P. Marguand, Will James, Arthur Train, Edmund Wilson, and a host of others were also indebted to him. Perkins' advice Marcia Davenport concerning her manuscript, East Side, West Side, can be applied to fiction in general. The nucleus of his 3,000-word critique of support and advice follows:

"I think you have written a notable book in a first draught but that it

needs, as any book, to be revised." "The revisions should be almost only a matter of emphasis, for the scheme is right. Having borne the heat of the battle, you must not fail it now."

"Generalizations are no use -- give one specific thing and let the action say it...." "When you have people talking, you have a scene...You must interrupt with explanatory paragraphs but shorten them as much as you can. Dialogue is action...."

"You tend to explain too much. You must explain, but your tendency is to distrust your own narrative and dialogue...." "You need only to intensify throughout what actually is there -- and I think you would naturally do this in revision anyhow. It is largely a matter of compression, and not so much of that really...."

"You can't know a book until you come to the end of it, and then all the rest must be modified to fit that."

He refused all invitations to lecture except for one, a class of students interested in the business of publishing books, which was being taught by his friend Kenneth D. McCormick, editor-in-chief of Doubleday & Company. Max, as his friends referred to him, was sixty-one years old and may have felt he should pass along what he knew before it was too late: "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."

He goes on to say that: "The process is so simple. If you have a 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 get only as much out of an author as the author has in him."

Dee Entrekin owns Entrekin Book Center.