It's the birthday of the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins (books by this author), born in New York City (1884). A Harvard grad, Perkins started his publishing career in the advertising department at Scribners, the venerable — and distinctly Princeton — publishing house. In 1914, Perkins joined the editorial staff, where he quickly shook things up at the staid, highly traditional company by seeking out new, young writers. His first major — and controversial — acquisition came five years later with the manuscript of an unknown St. Paul man. Originally titled The Romantic Egoist, an earlier draft had been roundly dismissed and rejected by the other editors in the house, but Perkins saw promise. When F. Scott Fitzgerald revised and resubmitted the book as encouraged, Perkins accepted it against the judgment of his colleagues. The book, now titled This Side of Paradise, was a smash success, as was the follow-up, The Beautiful and the Damned.
Perkins' editorial eye, however, wasn't yet fully trusted by his co-workers. Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was a commercial disappointment, and still Perkins had the temerity to pay attention when the novelist recommended the work of an American writer he'd met in Paris: Ernest Hemingway. Again, Perkins had to fight his firm to publish Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, considered profane for the time. Eventually, Scribners conceded that Perkins seemed to have a knack for his job. He became the editorial director.
The third author with whom Perkins is most associated, and the one for whom he did the most editing, rather than just advising and encouraging, is Thomas Wolfe. Although the manuscript of Look Homeward, Angel was discovered by another reader at Scribners, Perkins took on the sprawling novel and its sensitive author. He ultimately convinced Wolfe to cut 66,000 words, which they did together with painstaking care. Wolfe later described their first meeting about his 1,100-page draft: "I saw now that Perkins had a great batch of notes in his hand and that on the desk was a great stack of handwritten paper — a complete summary of my whole enormous book. I was so moved and touched to think that someone at length had thought enough of my work to sweat over it in this way that I almost wept."
Wolfe's own praise of his editor helped contribute to an impression that the book was practically co-written. Both of them denied this charge; Wolfe, perhaps, grew to resent it. He eventually left Scribners, a move that friends claimed broke Perkins' heart. But they remained close friends, as did Perkins with Fitzgerald and Hemingway, via frequent correspondence.
When Perkins fell fatally ill with pneumonia in 1947, his wife called an ambulance to their home. As an attendant carried the stretcher up to his bedroom, Perkins instructed his daughter to take the two manuscripts from his nightstand — Cry, The Beloved Country andFrom Here to Eternity — and deliver them to his secretary for safekeeping.
Perkins said, "An editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as handmaiden to an author. A writer's best work comes entirely from himself."