EDITOR TO AUTHOR: The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins

Selected and Edited, with Commentary and an Introduction by John Hall Wheelock

Most of Perkins’ letters in this volume were written to Scribners authors. Of that bunch, three ace performers were developed by Perkins: Hemmingway, Thomas Wolfe, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In John H. Wheelock's words,

Perkins_at_desk"The man who wrote these letters was a man with a passion for good writing, a passion for the true, for the intensely felt, the completely realized—in other words, for talent. Nothing, throughout a working lifetime, swerved him from that allegiance. For him, reading with those watchful, those ever hopeful eyes, no honest writing was without interest. How many a bulky manuscript, unpublishable for one reason or another, was laid on his desk, with a report noting perhaps certain passages that showed promise! For Max, that was enough. The work might not be publishable, but there were glimmerings of talent. Into his already swollen briefcase it would go; a weekend was devoted to it, in the hope, not always unrewarded, that something could be salvaged."

The letter from this book that impressed me the most was one Perkins wrote to reject an author's work:

Jan. 10, 1936
Dear ----,

It is hard to be obliged to tell you that "----" does not seem to us acceptable for publication. The fact that we also feel that it is now unlikely that it can be made acceptable compels us to speak plainly about it.

We ought to tell you at the outset that [1] we think you are both creating and writing too hurriedly, which is not fair to your unquestionable talent. Your novel seems to us to show the consequences of this in both conception and execution. We were not disturbed by faults apparent in your original rough draft of the first half, because you told us that it was the product of the time you could spare from income-bringing writing in the course of several weeks only, and we felt that they would be taken care of in a more leisurely rewriting. But the faults, we think, are still there, in the second half of the story as well—which we now read for the first time. [2] This story still seems superimposed upon its background, and not in any real sense to grow out of it. Many characters are introduced who do not touch the story. It is as if you had carefully gone over the local newspaper files of the eighties, made copious notes, and used this background material valiantly, with the result that much of it seems dragged in, and awkwardly handled. [3] Very often, too, your exposition is disproportionate: things really important to the story are set forth briefly and indirectly, whereas some of the local and political detail, of no real consequence in the novel as such, is given the emphasis of exposition by dialogue.

The fact that we were willing to pay you an advance, provisional upon acceptance, is evidence enough that we believed in your talent. Emphatically, we still do. But we apparently overestimated your faculty for self-criticism. It seems to us now that you must have written this book when you were only half ready to begin it. If you were to rewrite it now, from stem to stern, we don't think that it would come to life, even though you might succeed in integrating story and background more effectively. Your right course—unless we are wrong in our opinion of this manuscript—seems to us to be to put it aside, take up one of the other novels in the plan you outlined to us, and then write this and see if you are ready yourself to accept it.

All this gives you brutally less than your due; you have created some sympathetic characters, and done much effective writing. But we think that your rapid writing for income has got you into an attitude toward your material that you will have to lose. And, of course, you will want to check our opinion immediately by submitting your manuscript to another publisher. If his decision supports ours, entirely anew a few years from now. If you write another novel we believe that you ought to put it away, once you have finished it, until the impulse that led you through it has gone quite cold; then take it up again this letter then may be worth an attentive reading. We appreciate the difficulties under which you must work. A novel of this kind should come out of long reflection upon the characters and upon the scene, so that the background and the people and the events all, in the end, become part of a true unit. It is a harder kind of novel to do quickly, perhaps, than any other. You are hard pressed for time because of your circumstances. We greatly hope that you may be one of those to get a Guggenheim Fellowship, which would free you from the necessity of so much rapid writing which develops habits in writing incompatible with the dimensions of such a book as you had designed.

Ever sincerely yours,

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