The Strange Unhappy Life of Max Perkins
In 1927, the Communist “authority” on American literature, Joseph Freeman, attacked the novelists of the period for their failure to contribute to the coming destruction of capitalism. Instead of depicting the class struggle in America, they wrote stories about sensitive individuals who were alienated from the philistine bourgeoisie but who could not even imagine its overthrow. Because the novelists themselves were politically dormant, Freeman charged, their books portrayed the intelligentsia as utterly helpless in the face of modern industrial civilization. Two years after the appearance of this much discussed diatribe, Malcolm Cowley began to play with a more romantic version of the same ideas in a series of evocatively written essays for Hound and Horn and the New Republic. Toward the end of 1932, Cowley co-authored the pamphlet, “Culture and the Crisis,” which explained why the Communist William Z. Foster was the presidential candidate of recently awakened writers like himself. As his next contribution to political consciousness, he collected his magazine pieces on the 20’s into a book, but made only a halfhearted effort to shape them into a unified narrative. The formal incoherence of Exile’s Return (1934) reflects the laziness and self-indulgence that have been a problem for Cowley throughout his career.
Self-indulgence is also at the root of the substantive shortcomings of Exile’s Return. The book is about literary exiles of the 20’s. Yet Cowley ignores such important older expatriates as Edith Wharton and Bernard Berenson, while devoting nearly forty pages to the microscopically minor figure of Harry Crosby, who happened to have been born in the same year, 1898, that Cowley was. “A generation is usually computed at thirty years,” observes the Oxford English Dictionary, but in the narcissistic perspective of Exile’s Return the concept is computed in terms of writers who turned twenty-one years of age between 1915 and 1921. They had had common adventures and had formed common attitudes, Cowley argues, “that made it possible to describe them as a generation.” And what, precisely, were those adventures and attitudes? “They had always rebelled,” reads the clearest of Cowley’s efforts to answer this question,
if only by running away. First it was against the conventionality of their elders and the gentility of American letters; then it was against the high phrases that justified the slaughter of millions in the First World War; then it was against the Philistinism and the scramble for money of the Harding years (although that rebellion took the form of flight).
The trouble with this statement—apart from its exaggeration of the rebels’ feelings about the “gentility” of American letters—is that most of the literary notables of the period who came of age before 1915 or after 1921 shared the attitudes that supposedly set the lost-generation writers apart, and so did countless other Americans who never published a novel or read a little magazine. If Cowley and company felt lost, many of their incorrigibly “bourgeois” countrymen felt the same way. The literary exiles’ feelings of disorientation defined a spiritual kinship with American life in the 20’s, as well as an alienation from it.
Cowley, however, has no interest in the complexities of cultural analysis; black-and-white contrasts are his only stock in trade. Old versus young. Pre-war versus postwar. Sacred versus profane. Artist versus philistine. Departure versus return. Alienation versus integration. The crudity of Cowley’s thinking about an era that he himself lived through is utterly astonishing, but what is even harder to credit is the long shadow that Exile’s Return has cast on the thinking of other readers for more than forty years. No other interpretation of American literature has more engaged the national mind, or more thoroughly stultified it, than the legend of the lost generation that Cowley wove from the warp of the Communist line and the woof of his own romanticism. One of the principal reasons why we still do not possess a satisfactory account of the most fascinating decade in American literary history is that Cowley’s polarities leave no room for paradoxes, and without an appreciation of paradoxes there can be no understanding of the 20’s. Numerous biographies, too, have fallen drastically short of what they might have been because of their authors’ inability to break free of Exile’s Return, the latest case in point being A. Scott Berg’s life of Max Perkins, the editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe.1
In the course of almost eight years of work, which began while he was still an undergraduate at Princeton, Berg went through tens of thousands of letters, interviewed scores of people—and rarely paused to reflect about the rich materials he was assembling. Why was Perkins such an unhappy man? Did the tensions and contradictions in his personality make him peculiarly receptive to certain authors? What does his career tell us about the decade in which he scored his greatest successes? Berg is so insensitive to psychology that he hardly touches the first two questions, but with the third he at least gets far enough to acknowledge that the study of an editor’s life can be a means to larger ends. For an editor is a cultural middleman. If he is any good, he understands authors and he understands audiences. The biographer of an editor is therefore in a position to write cultural history of the broadest significance. Through the consideration of Perkins, a reconsideration of the 20’s might have been launched. Unfortunately, Berg was unaware of any need for fresh discussion. First and last, he happily works within Cowley’s clichés, automatically tailoring his painstaking researches to fit an all too familiar pattern. Max Perkins: Editor of Genius is a book of miserably wasted opportunities.
It is Berg’s black-and-white belief that the publishing business in the 20’s was made up of good guys and bad guys, and that the peerless leader of the good guys was Max Perkins. The subtitle of Berg’s biography hails Perkins as an editorial genius, while the Shelley sonnet which serves as epigraph to the text bids us think of him as a lonely prophet moving through the unheeding many, “A splendor among shadows, a bright blot/Upon this gloomy scene. . . .” He was “a kind of hero,” we are told in Chapter 1, who not only “discovered” Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wolfe, but “staked his career” on them, “defying the established tastes of the earlier generation and revolutionizing American literature.” Now, no one would deny that Perkins had many admirable qualities. He was what people used to call a real gentleman, which in his case meant more than manners. His unflagging loyalty and kindness brought him many friends, and he was a responsible father to the five daughters he had wanted to be sons. His in-house evaluations of the manuscripts of Fitzgerald and Hemingway were remarkably perceptive, while the thousands of hours he devoted to cutting and rearranging the paper avalanches that Wolfe called novels set a record for editorial patience that still endures. The brassy fanfares of biographer Berg, however, grossly exaggerate Perkins’s achievement and drown out the lessons we can learn from its limitations.
Predictably, the first person to present Perkins as a romantic hero taking on the suffocating orthodoxies of the publishing world single-handedly was the author of Exile’s Return, writing in the New Yorker in 1944. In a two-part profile, Cowley described Scribners at the time that Perkins went to work there as a “fantastic” publishing house, “with an atmosphere like Queen Victoria’s parlor.” Perkins, however, put through sweeping changes, and the house “took a sudden leap from the age of innocence into the midst of the lost generation.” Berg not only quotes this piece of rubbish with approval, but embroiders it with enthusiasm. Following up on Cowley’s words about Queen Victoria, he says that at the end of the second decade of the 20th century the three pillars of the House of Scribner were “long-established writers steeped in the English tradition,” Galsworthy, Henry James, and Edith Wharton. There was a “Dickensian atmosphere” about the offices, and curmudgeonly Anglophiliacs held the reins of power. At age sixty-six, Charles Scribner II, old CS, whose face “usually wore a severe expression,” still ran the business, as he had for forty years. The editor-in-chief was William Crary Brownell, a white-bearded, walrus-mustached epitome of the genteel tradition, who had a habit of falling asleep in his office after lunch.
One would never be able to guess from this caricature of Victorian mustiness that old CS was a veritable dynamo of a man, “a born publisher with a great flair,” as John Hall Wheelock has testified, “who truly loved getting books into print.” Scribner had made a lot of money publishing such thoroughly un-English books as John Fox, Jr.’s novel of Kentucky, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come (1903), and intended to go on making more until he died, which is why he carefully listened to Perkins’s recommendation that the firm publish the first novel of an unknown writer named Fitzgerald and then decisively supported it. When This Side of Paradise (1920) proved to be a bestseller, Scribner was delighted, and sent a letter of thanks to the Irish poet and journalist Shane Leslie for discovering Fitzgerald. After reading Fitzgerald’s manuscript, Leslie had sent it to Scribners, with a covering letter to the head of the firm. “Your introduction of Scott Fitzgerald,” Scribner wrote to Leslie, “proved to be an important one for us; This Side of Paradise has been our best seller this season and is still going strong.” Because he also was determined not to publish vulgarities, CS occasionally opposed Perkins’s recommendations. Thus in 1925 he refused to publish Bruce Barton’s portrayal of Christ as a supersalesman. But after The Man Nobody Knows began coining money for Bobbs-Merrill, Scribner was sorry he had not made an exception for this particular example of vulgarity. When Perkins reminded him that he had said it might sell, Scribner replied, “But you didn’t tell me, Mr. Perkins, that it would sell four hundred thousand copies.”
Berg grudgingly describes the publisher as making this remark with a “faint twinkle” in his eye, just as he says that “even” the severe-faced CS laughed at a manuscript of Ring Lardner’s stories, but these are the linguistic games of a mythmaking biographer. In fact, CS had a zestful wit, which was not at all surprising in a man with his appetite for life. When he died in 1930, a lot of the firm’s vitality went with him. Perkins was at the peak of his editorial influence in the 30’s, yet Scribners in this period was not nearly the house it had been in the final ten years under CS. Neither Faulkner nor Steinbeck came to grace the Scribners list—Perkins thought Faulkner was “crazy”—while blockbusters like Anthony Adverse and Gone With the Wind made the stockholders of other companies happy. In a caustic letter to Perkins in 1938, Edmund Wilson spoke of the “general apathy and morbidity into which Scribners seems to have sunk. You people haven’t shown any signs of life since old man Scribner died. . . .”
Berg is equally misleading about Brownell and the much-maligned genteel tradition for which he stood. Genteel-tradition critics like Brander Matthews, James G. Huneker, and Brownell had no desire to keep American literature tied to Queen Victoria’s skirts; they urged, rather, that American writers help to create a truly cosmopolitan culture. Brownell, the author of admiring books about French literature and art, felt that the greatest deficiency in American writing was its want of craftsmanship, its lack of form. If our writers would only submit their native energies to French discipline, they might become masters. Henry James and Edith Wharton exemplified the cultural amalgamation of which he dreamed. Thus Berg’s reference to these writers as “steeped in the English tradition” completely misses the point of Brownell’s fascination with them. They represented a cultural phenomenon that was neither English nor traditional.
Although Brownell was a conservative critic whose favorite word was “standards,” he was not an opponent of change, in the manner of the neo-humanists Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More. Brownell voted against the publication of This Side of Paradise because its frivolousness offended him. But on the day that the manuscript of The Great Gatsby came across his desk, he was as ready to bless the wedding of imaginative abundance and formal control as when he first read The Golden Bowl and The Custom of the Country. Emerging from his office, Fitzgerald’s manuscript in hand, Brownell called to his colleagues, “May I read you something beautiful?” In a letter to Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot praised Gatsby by mentioning it in the same breath with Henry James. One wonders if Brownell was also thinking of that literary progression, as he stood outside his office reading aloud from the novel, and of the important role he himself had played in the cosmopolitanizing of modern American literature.
Just as Brownell was not a literary reactionary, so Perkins was not a revolutionary. One of the most significant omissions in Berg’s biography is his failure to describe Perkins’s editorial role in the publication of Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle. The book is one of the three or four most distinguished that Scribners published during Perkins’s long tenure. Yet Berg reproduces not a word from Perkins to Wilson concerning it, and gives us no indication that Perkins was conscious of the book’s importance, or even that he was proud to have it on the Scribners list. Berg tells us far more than we want to know about Perkins’s encouragement and approval of the work of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Marcia Davenport, but on the subject of his opinion of Axel’s Castle silence prevails. The fact that Perkins was woefully unfamiliar—and in all likelihood quite unsympathetic—with the Symbolist writers whom Wilson was discussing almost certainly explains Berg’s evasiveness. But while his biographer is anxious to minimize Perkins’s intellectual shortcomings, Perkins himself was quite candid about the inadequacy of his literary knowledge. “How frightfully ignorant I am in literature,” he once exclaimed to Hemingway, “where a publishing man ought not to be.”
Not surprisingly, his ignorance frequently led to lapses in taste and displays of naiveté. One of his favorite house authors in the 30’s and 40’s was Taylor Caldwell, and he would become furious whenever literary critics or other Scribners editors (“pedantic editors,” Berg loyally calls them) attacked her as a pulp writer, which is precisely what she was. He touted the third-rate Maxwell Geismar as “the best of the up-and-coming literary essayists.” And he was so impressed by the superficial scholarship of Alden Brooks’s Will Shakespeare and the Dyer’s Hand as to be completely convinced that “the man Shakespeare was not the author of what we consider Shakespeare’s works.”
To his enduring credit, Perkins at once saw the importance of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wolfe, but despite what Berg says, he discovered none of them. Shane Leslie, as we have seen, brought Fitzgerald to Scribners; Hemingway was an established author when he signed on with the firm; and it was the literary agent Madeleine Boyd who aroused Perkins’s interest in Wolfe by telling him that unless he promised to read “every word” of Wolfe’s “extraordinary” first novel, she would not show it to him. Furthermore, Perkins did not stake his whole career on these writers, as Berg maintains. The only episode that even comes close to vindicating this romantic claim was when Perkins argued with CS and the other members of the editorial board that the firm ought to publish This Side of Paradise. “If we’re going to turn down the likes of Fitzgerald, I will lose all interest in publishing books,” Perkins declared. Berg seems to believe that Perkins would have resigned if he had not had his way, but nothing in Perkins’s carefully plotted career suggests that he would have carried out this threat, if indeed it was a threat. As Wolfe knew, Perkins was an extremely clever bargainer—which is why Wolfe gave him the name of Fox when he portrayed him in his fiction:
O, guileful Fox, how innocent in guilefulness and in innocence how full of guile, in all directions how strange-devious, in all strange-deviousness how direct! Too straight for crookedness, and for envy too serene, too fair for blind intolerance, too just and seeing and too strong for hate, too honest for base dealing, too high for low suspiciousness, too innocent for the scheming tricks of swarming villainy—yet never had been taken in a horse trade yet!
In the discussion of This Side of Paradise, Perkins knew that he could not win a strictly literary argument with the formidable Brownell, so he chose instead to talk about the folly of turning away fresh talent. This was exactly the kind of practical argument that made sense to CS. In the end, it was not Brownell’s high standards but Perkins’s canny appeal to his boss’s business instincts that carried the day. Berg’s quixotic interpretation of his hero’s words blocks awareness of Perkins’s resourcefulness as a bureaucratic infighter.
Yet Perkins went to bat for This Side of Paradise not only because he thought it was smart to invest in youth, but because he genuinely liked the novel. Fitzgerald’s work spoke to him, as did Hemingway’s and Wolfe’s. Berg ascribes his instantaneous appreciation of their writings to editorial genius, but Perkins misjudged so many other important books in the course of his career that the explanation is unsatisfactory. Somehow, his sensibility had been conditioned to respond to these three particular authors. It is therefore to the events of Perkins’s private life and to the nature of his personality that we must turn for an explanation of the editorial discernments that made him famous.
One of the most glaring faults of the Berg biography is that it pays almost no attention to Perkins’s early relationship with his parents. Thus the biography is more than half over before we learn from a passing phrase that Perkins’s mother regarded literature as “mental candy.” Whether this grossly unsympathetic attitude was in any way symbolic of the way she had treated her bookish son Max during his formative years, Berg does not say, but if it was, then it helps to explain why Perkins as a grown man felt throttled by women, as Alice Roosevelt Longworth observed. Indeed, a number of people believe that he hated women, and certainly his persistent refusal to allow his wife, Louise, to pursue a career in the theater, even though her failure to achieve artistic fulfillment was manifestly damaging her personality, lends substance to the charge.
No less an authority than the dramatist Edward Sheldon assured the Perkinses that Louise had “talent galore for a career on the stage,” but Max, having extracted a promise from Louise before they were married that she would not become a professional actress, would not budge. The quarrels that marked their marriage from the first increased in bitterness with the years. Eventually Louise converted to Catholicism, much to Max’s disgust, and laid her histrionic talent on the altar of Jesus Christ with a fervor that came to seem like madness. Not satisfied with going to mass every day and cloistering herself on week-long retreats, she sprinkled holy water all over the house, dousing Max’s pillow several times a week. After his death her deterioration accelerated. In the last half-decade of her life she was drunk every night, and finally died as horribly as Zelda Fitzgerald did, after falling asleep while smoking. Instead of acknowledging his own complicity in what was happening to her, Max simply scorned Louise for her bizarre behavior and sought excuses for spending the night away from home. To this highly frustrated husband, the stories of men without women that Hemingway submitted to Scribners must have seemed like balm in Gilead, while misogynistic masterpieces like “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” offered more savage satisfactions, as did Wolfe’s evisceration of his mother in Look Homeward, Angel.
Interwined with Perkins’s feelings about women was an irremediable sadness about all of life. In Van Wyck Brooks’s opinion, Perkins was engaged in a “perpetual war with himself that made him in the end ‘a prey to sadness.’” Caught in a “despairing refusal” to be himself, he did not give “the consent of his will to his own being.” In the face of such a terrible inhibition, one wishes more than ever that Berg had had an interest in tracing patterns of childhood experience. Alas, all that can be gleaned from his book about the early evidences of Perkins’s psychic conflict is his reaction to the loss of his father, who died when Max was seventeen. As the oldest male child still living at home, Max felt it incumbent upon himself to smother his grief, sit at the head of the table, and become the surrogate father of his younger siblings. At an age when he might still have been involved in an uncompleted Oedipal struggle, he also in effect claimed his mother. If indeed she had treated him insensitively, his ensuing resentment did not represent the sum total of his feelings about her. He was not entitled, however to the claim he now staked, and he may very well have incurred a sense of guilt about what he had done to his dead father. In any event, when he blurted out to one of his daughters a generation later that “Every good deed a man does is to please his father,” he unconsciously revealed some sort of expiation.
The son who forever sought to please his father fiercely wanted to father a son of his own. After Louise presented him with his fifth daughter, he gave up trying. Consequently, Perkins’s wish for a son would have gone unfulfilled if he had not met an enormously gifted, desperately flawed young man from North Carolina who himself had lost his father and needed paternal guidance. The incredible editorial effort that Perkins brought to bear upon the chaos of Wolfe’s manuscripts and his unending willingness to put up with Wolfe’s egomania, foul temper, and treachery had nothing to do with the publishing business, in the final analysis. Perkins did not merely collaborate with the author of Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River, as Bernard De Voto charged in a famous critique; he adopted him. Together, Wolfe and Perkins roamed the nighttime streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn, or sat drinking and talking in bars. The hungry author also became a fixture at the Perkinses’ dinner table. As Wolfe’s literary agent, Elizabeth Nowell, recalled, “He all but lived there as a member of the family—or as Perkins’s son, which to all intents and purposes he was. Perkins never seemed to see enough of him. . . .” The obsessions of Wolfe’s fiction—the death of a father, the loneliness of youth, the search for “an unfound door”—formed an accompaniment to a real-life drama of extraordinary intensity.
That Wolfe ultimately dissociated himself from Scribners is very much in the punitive pattern of what Perkins was always doing to himself. All his adult life, Perkins lived within the bounds of self-denial. His marriage was a nightmare, but he never considered divorce. The furniture in his office was old and scarred, the floor rugless. His white shirts—what other color was there?—peeked through the thinning fabric at the elbows of his suitcoats. At Cherio’s, his favorite restaurant, he ate the same meal day after day, until the waiter took the initiative to bring him something different. Hand in hand with asceticism went prudishness. No “real lady” drinks beer or seasons her food with Worcestershire sauce, he announced. “In our family,” he warned his daughters, “we say underclothes, not underwear.”
His devotion to his work was abnormal. It was as if he were trying to drown himself in fatigue. Weekends and holidays he considered an abomination, and did his best to survive them by reading through the bulging briefcases he lugged home from the office. At the same time, his imagination was flooded with fantasies of escape and transformation. When the time was ripe, he would run away. In the past he may have had a far more important identity than he did now, and he might assume another in the not too distant future. Somewhere there was a perfect woman who lived apart from modern life and knew the secret of how to make him happy. “I have a vision of taking to the road at sixty,” Perkins confessed to his Harvard classmate, Waldo Pierce. Friends familiar with Perkins’s doodlings were aware of a far gaudier dream. For years he obsessively sketched portraits of Napoleon, always in left profile, on any piece of paper that came to hand, and the more he sketched, the more the Emperor of the French came to resemble Max Perkins. The futuristic counterpart of this breathtaking communion with the past was the thought that some day he would become President of the United States. He would retire to Vermont and edit a country gazette—which soon would be read by millions, as the brilliance of his opinions brought him to the attention of the entire nation. Not long thereafter, a grateful people would ask him to assume the Presidency. “Of course, Max never really wanted to be President,” John Hall Wheelock has said. Nevertheless, Perkins held himself in secret readiness, outlining his positions on issues to whoever would listen and maintaining a perpetual concern for the country’s welfare. Only his fantasy about the love of a perfect woman meant more to Perkins than his dream of taking power.
Elizabeth Lemmon was eight years younger than Perkins and stunningly beautiful. When he met her in the spring of 1922, he felt she was unlike any other woman he had ever known. The daughter of a large old family with roots in Middleburg, Virginia, and Baltimore, she seemed to have stepped from the pages of a 19th-century romantic novel. Franklin D. Roosevelt also found such a woman in Lucy Rutherfurd, and Edward VIII discovered another in Mrs. Simpson. But Perkins neither married his dream woman nor made her his mistress. Sitting together in the Ritz Bar in New York in 1943, Perkins reached for Elizabeth’s hand, but then pulled back. “Oh, Elizabeth,” he exclaimed, “it’s hopeless.” “I know,” she replied. That is the closest they ever came to physical contact, and the only time they ever explicitly discussed the true nature of their relationship.
Only occasionally in the long years of their love were they together. Letters were what held them close. For twenty-five years he wrote to her at her estate at Middleburg and she wrote back, addressing him at the office. Perkins’s wife was aware that they corresponded, but had no idea how often, or what her husband said to this beautiful younger woman who never married. Although Perkins’s letters suppressed the full truth of his feelings, he indirectly told Elizabeth everything. He spoke of his recurring bouts of depression. He told her that for him she had always represented the thought that life could be “wonderfully happy and good.” In a particularly poignant variation on the same motif, he declared that “after I have been with you I always feel again that those things that now generally seem to be an illusion really do exist.” Through Elizabeth, Perkins sustained a dream that was commensurate with his capacity for wonder.
Can there be any doubt why Perkins was attracted to Fitzgerald’s fiction? A beautiful Southern woman was Fitzgerald’s symbol, too, of the possibilities of perfect happiness. Yet his moral pessimism, no less deeply ingrained than Perkins’s, caused him to believe that if dreams were ever realized they would die; when you get too close, things go glimmering, the author’s spokesman warns in the story called “Absolution.” Perkinsian themes can be found throughout Fitzgerald’s fiction, but it is in Gatsby that they are most striking. The transformation of anonymous James Gatz into the rich and mysterious Jay Gatsby is a literary acting-out of Perkins’s Napoleonic doodlings and secret preparations for the Presidency. The description of Gatsby standing in the darkness, his arms outstretched toward the green light which marks the property where the Southern-born Daisy Buchanan lives, is only the most memorable of a dozen passages in the novel in which Perkins must have recognized a parallel to his own relationship with a dream woman. And Nick Carraway’s simultaneous attraction to conservatism and experimentalism, as typified by his confession that whereas he “wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever,” Gatsby was “exempt” from the requirement, was the story of Perkins’s double life as well. “I think I’m peculiarly cursed in almost always knowing what I ought to do,” Perkins once told Elizabeth, forgetting for the moment that even an epistolary love affair was a departure from the rules.
A paradoxical combination of conservative and experimental ideas dominated the minds of many Americans in the 20’s. Middletown, Robert and Helen Lynd noted in 1929, in their famous “Study in American Culture,” “tends to be at once . . . conservative and . . . experimental in those regions where its children are concerned.” On the one hand, parents insisted that their offspring go to Sunday School, just as they had; on the other hand, they supported a group dental and medical program in the public schools that was unprecedented in their Republican philosophy. Caught between conflicting viewpoints, Middletown parents often felt torn apart by the effort to raise their children. Other citizens, not just in Middletown but across the nation, experienced the same sensation of inner division and uncertainty, as they attempted to cope with the problems of work and marriage in an era of bewilderingly rapid change. Fitzgerald remarked that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” but in the 20’s that test was administered to Americans regardless of their intelligence level.
At times, it became bafflingly difficult to decide whether an idea was old or new. Prominent architects and critics of architecture, for instance, were influenced by Henry David Thoreau’s ascetic insistence that less is more. Did their Thoreauvianism represent a throwback to the 19th century, or was it avant-garde? Lewis Mumford’s inability either to accept the soaring skyscrapers of the modern city or to stop writing about them was a function of his larger inability to answer this question. Perkins, too, could not decide whether his asceticism was backward-looking or up-to-date. The descendant of Vermonters, he had a fondness for the laconic prose of Calvin Coolidge, and in the 20’s he edited a collection of Coolidge’s speeches. Yet his pleasure in linguistic economy also made him an admirer of the stripped-down modernism of Hemingway’s style. Moreover, the personal friendship between Hemingway and Perkins developed more rapidly than it otherwise might have because Hemingway kept presenting himself to Perkins as a fellow ascetic. Always rivalrous, Hemingway very much wanted to displace Fitzgerald in Perkins’s affection. To that end, he took every opportunity to remind Perkins that Fitzgerald squandered both his money and his talent on riotous living, whereas he himself worked assiduously and lived frugally.
In the course of the 30’s, however, Hemingway’s self-discipline went slack. His letters to Perkins continued to speak scornfully of Fitzgerald’s drinking problem, but it was his own that secretly frightened him. Ironically, the alcoholism he did not wish to talk about probably bound Hemingway more closely to Perkins than the asceticism he formerly had advertised. For Perkins, in his quiet way, was also turning into a relentless boozer. Even in the 20’s, he sometimes had shown an astonishing capacity to go the distance with heavy sluggers like Ring Lardner. But as his fantasies of political power failed to materialize and the House of Scribner slid further downhill, the aging editor began instructing the bartenders who mixed his martinis to make them doubles. “Daddy, don’t you drink too much?” one of his daughters asked in 1942. “Churchill drinks too much,” replied Perkins, in an inadvertently revealing comparison; “all great men drink too much.” James Jones, his last important writer, recalled that Perkins displayed an “iron control” during their meetings. “From the steady way he walked, you could never tell that he was drunk.” Even in his cups, Perkins was unable to give the consent of his will to his own being.
Americans in the 1920’s lived in a state of tension between conservatism and experimentalism. While this tension generated a nervous excitement that we have come to think of as typical of the era, it also led to a terrible sense of defeat, when it proved to be unresolvable. Some of the era’s finest works of fiction testify to those feelings of defeat. So does the strange and unhappy life of Max Perkins.
1 Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, Dutton, 498 pp., $15.00.