Freedom of Expression

Max Perkins at Scribner's

Happy election day, gentle readers. For today’s article I would like to discuss freedom of expression. excerpting from a collection of Max Perkins’ letters entitled Editor to Author, selected and edited by John Wheelock. Time after time in his letters, Perkins resoundingly defended the right to publish unpopular ideas.

Nov. 27, 1929

Dear Sir:

We have received your letter with regard to ----. We are sorry that you feel as you do about the book—it is far from pleasant to us to have given offense to anybody, and in particular to those who belong to your faith, which we respect. At the same time, you seem not to understand the function of a publisher, nor to attach any importance to one of the greatest principles in the whole world—that which upholds free speech for the sake of the freedom of the intellect. According to this principle any serious and careful book upon any person of importance and significance to the general public should find a publisher; and any publisher who refrained from publication, even if he did not agree with the author's conclusions, because of fear of some particular sect, would be untrue to his profession, and indeed to the cause of intellectual freedom.

You assume that this book is manifestly unfair and irresponsible, but not one single reviewer has thought this. The very opposite has been the opinion of all the leading publications which review books, including the greatest newspapers and magazines of the United States.

It is a part of the American philosophy as expressed in the Constitution—that, except in the most extreme cases, people should be allowed to express their opinions, and that the result of this is to stir up thought and controversy, out of which will emerge the Truth. It is only what is false that is killed by discussion, not what is true.

Ever truly yours,

Another letter in the same vein responded to a reader’s letter criticizing a book that espoused isolationism, and followed ex-President Hoover’s efforts at a peace conference. The letter was dated February 17th, 1942, a period when the question of isolationism took on great importance. The letter ends as follows:

An American citizen can judge of these matters and yet not be transformed into an isolationist by the fact that, as is inferable from the book, the writer of it favored that policy.

But the main point we should like to make is that in a republic people are entitled to express their opinions if opinions are worth consideration, and it is the duty of a publisher, when it is practically possible, to enable them to do it.

Ever sincerely yours,

Scribners published a book by a Russian defector in 1946, a time of growing tension between the Soviet Union and the West. I Chose Freedom by Victor Kravchenko contained extensive revelations of Soviet prison camps and the use of penal labor. The following two letters reply to readers objecting to this book.

May 31, 1946

Dear -----:

What I said to you about your writing was true. It has passion, and power, but it is not publishable. Your mastery of the English language is not sufficient to enable you at present to write a book to which we could hope to do justice. Besides, I do not think that you understand the fundamental American principles of freedom. Under our theory, the rule is by the considered public opinion of the people, and this depends upon a free press. A free press furnishes the channels for information. The information appears then in magazines, newspapers and books. Some of what appears may be even deliberately misleading. But when it all has appeared, there is the material from which an adult public may form its opinion, and that opinion, in our theory, rules. When we published I Chose Freedom, we foresaw that we would meet violent criticism and opposition. But it is a publisher's function to furnish the means for informing the public on matters of controversy. We should, therefore, have betrayed our profession at the cardinal point of its ethics, if we had refrained because of fear of complications, or of reprisals.

I do not know what your background is, but you have not yet acquired a sufficient command of our language nor, I think, of our principles.

Ever sincerely yours,

Feb. 17, 1947

Dear -----:

We are grateful for your letter about I Chose Freedom. We think the professor to whom you submitted it took exactly the right position. He believes in the free play of the intellect, and in discussion, as the only basis for a republic, and we think he is right. We took exactly the same position: we think that a partisan publisher is betraying his profession. He cannot publish at a loss, and so he must regard the economic factor, but he should be a channel for freedom of expression. You say that you were surprised that we should stoop to publish this book. We did not, and we do not stoop. We know the author of this book. We carefully examined his authenticity and his history, because we thought that what he wrote might have a great influence, and that it was our duty to be as confident as one possibly could be of his honesty and knowledge. We found very good sources in this country, even in our own State Department, to support him. Whatever doubts we had, at the time of publication—and they were very slight—have been completely obliterated by our continued acquaintance with him. There is no question of his honesty and sincerity.

Now, as to the other matter. As I say, we as publishers are not partisan, but your side of the picture is not the only side. You think that there is a great and powerful nation with whom we may be at war, and that the way to avoid war is to be gentle, and compromising, and appeasing. Perhaps you are right. But I may remind you that just exactly such a situation existed in the 1930's, and there are those who think that if we had not been so gentle and appeasing, we might have avoided the horrible affliction of the last war. You give one point of view, but there is that other one, and the cases are not dissimilar. Hitler said he would Nazify the world, in Mein Kampf. Lenin and Stalin have said they would communize the world, and there are those who think they are working at it. What we publishers think is that our function is to bring everything out into the open, on the theory that we have an adult population that knows values, or can learn them, and let them decide.

Ever sincerely yours,

I took a class taught by Cal Morgan, Editor-in-Chief of an imprint at Harper Collins. He edited books by Sean Hannity and Michael Moore. As an editor he helped them tell the story that they want to tell, as well as possible. He kept his own viewpoints vague, and mostly out of the conversation. At most he could challenge the author on a particular point. But there was never any thought of trying to change the message of the book. A liberal editor can do an impartial job of editing a conservative book and vice versa.

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