Thursday, April 18, 2013

Maxwell Perkins: Great Guy, But He Didn't Think Much of Women and Huck Finn

Okay, my incendiary headline has done the trick and gotten your attention!

As I mentioned, I’ve moved on from Robert Lowell and legendary literary Boston to literary legends: I’m about a third of the way through Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins, selected and edited by John Hall Wheelock.  It’s one of those cool, old paperback Scribners editions with the gray cover and green and white rectangles that I love, published in 1950, so kind of hot off the presses, since Perkins died in 1947.

There are some frustrations, including a bad habit of redacting the titles of the books that (apparently) readers have written in to complain about—nasty language, immoral behavior, the general nastiness of life!—in the letters Perkins writes back to defend the author, Scribners, and writing/art in general.  I guess trolls were around before the internet age.

And I was taken aback by this snippet, early on, which sort of crushed my personal fantasies of having lived in another age and been discovered by Perkins:

March 31,1924
To Edward Bok:
…You have practically confessed, I think in The Americanization [of Edward Bok], or in one way or another, to a rather low opinion of woman (an opinion to which I have no objection, since I share it) but this would make still more interesting a chapter by you upon “Women who have impressed me.”  Of course, you have talked about various distinguished women whom you have met, but mostly you have associated with men and have written about them.  Could you not make a fine chapter on remarkable women you have known? I have known some extraordinary ones in vitality and will power and intellect too.  I think this would have a tendency to round out this book, and to once more bring out your views in these concrete terms….
[Oh, so sorry, Edward Bok, that the book Perkins is writing about, Twice Thirty, seems to be no longer in print…!  Though I confess to being impressed that Bok is the one who coined the word “living room.”  And I should note that Perkins does champion female authors, including (so far) Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Caroline Gordon. I'll imagine he was just trying to establish some ground so that Bok would listen to the editorial suggestion.]

It’s quite humbling to see that many of the books Perkins is writing about are ones I’ve never heard of.  It wasn’t all Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe…Steeplejack by James Huneker seemed to be a big deal.  And Perkins’ acumen was not infallible:

December 5, 1924
To Will James [suggesting what type of book to write for a follow-up to Cowboys North and South]:  
…Really, the book I have in mind—for unsatisfactory as comparisons are, one can never altogether avoid them—is “Huckleberry Finn.”  There was very little plot to it, you probably remember.  Its great interest was simply in the incidents and scenes of the trip on a raft down the Mississippi, told in the language of a boy.  Of course, “Huckleberry Finn” is primarily a boy’s book and it would be better if what you would do were not altogether that…
It’s also interesting how often the word “sales” comes up—and Perkins did start at Scribners in the advertising department—but it’s instructional that during this “golden age” of publishing, there was always much concern about how the book would sell and the various pressures of the industry:

June 3, 1930
To Thomas Wolfe:
…Everything is much as usual here except that the fiction market, which was bad enough as things were , has been rendered still worse by the Doubleday announcement that they are to publish novels at one dollar.  I am glad you worked hard  and we were able to get out “Look Homeward Angel” before this collapse came….
More to come…I haven’t even yet mentioned The Great Gatsby!!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.