William Maxwell Evarts Perkins, considered the greatest American editor of fiction, was born on September 20, 1884. He grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey but later would graduate from Harvard with an economics major. At Harvard he studied under Charles Townsend Copeland, a legendary literature teacher, who gave Perkins the literature background necessary for his successful career in editing.
Though Perkins will always be connected with the three great authors for whom he edited (Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe), he achieved enough through his career to stand alone as a great American Literature figure. Near the beginning of his career at Scribner's Sons (A respectable publishing house) Perkins told his colleagues that, "My feeling is that a publisher's first allegiance is to talent." At the time he was specifically referring to Fitzgerald's novel This Side of Paradise. After convincing the firm to publish the book, which went on to achieve surprise success, Perkins established himself as an editor with the rare ability to discover new literary talent.
Before his work at Scribner's Sons, Max Perkins was a reporter for The New York Times until 1910. The same year that he took his new position at Scribner's he also got married to Louise Saunders. His wife grew up in Plainfield, Perkin's childhood home. His wife would come to bear him five daughters. When Perkins arrived at Scribner's the firm was known for publishing veteran authors, such as John Galsworthy, Henry James and Edith Wharton. Perkins certainly respected these older writers, but truly believed Scribner's would only continue to succeed if they brought in young talent. Scribner so believed in the necessity to bring in new authors, he actively sought them out, which is very unusual for an editor. It paid off for Perkins, though, for he found F. Scott Fitzgerald. As the author and his editor's relationship grew they became good friends despite Fitzgerald's alcoholism. Maintaining a friendship with Fitzgerald was difficult for Perkins, as Fitzgerald's problems with alcohol and profligacy continued to only get worse. Perkin's continued to be there for Fitzgerald though, advancing him money, making personal loans, and providing a constant flow of encouragement. By the end of Fitzgerald's short life, Perkins still remained a steadfast friend.
During their friendship, Fitzgerald introduced Perkins to Ernest Hemingway, who had already published a volume of short stories in America. Perkins believed so strongly in Ernest that he contracted his upcoming novel without even reading it. As it turns out, The Sun Also Rises went on to achieve extreme success, despite negative feedback from most of Scribner's Sons. The novel did have a high amount of profanity and lewd behavior in it for its time. Perkins worked as a great compromiser, convincing a touchy Hemingway to trim back some of the mature content and at the same time convincing Scribner's and Sons to publish the book with much of the original mature content still in the manuscript. After The Sun Also Rises in 1926 came A Farewell to Arms in 1929, which quickly rose to a number one bestseller. After Hemingway's novels success, all questions of Perkins editorial judgment were erased.
Many critics believe that, though Perkins helped Fitzgerald and Hemingway greatly, that both would have achieved great success without him. This is not the case, however, for author Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe was extremely talented and never at a loss for words. His ability was also a curse, for he constantly poured line after line into his works that were not necessary, and was never very willing to cut anything out. Perkins struggle to edit and cut Wolfe's work is arguably his greatest professional challenge. Though Wolfe was originally grateful for Perkins help, Wolfe came to resent the constant editing and the perception that he was only successful thanks to Perkins. The perception was most likely accurate, as only through Perkins firm editing did Wolfe's work become publishable. Wolfe left Scribner's and Sons in 1936, but not before provoking fight after fight with Perkins, just to justify his own departure. Though Perkins, a loving friend, was hurt by Wolfe's behavior he continued to serve as Wolfe's literary executor, even after Wolfe's early death in 1938. After Wolfe left Perkins he never published another novel.
Perkins established many other close relationships with many successful authors, working with J.P. Marquand, Erskine Caldwell, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Alan Patron and finally, James Jones, Perkins last discovery. Rawlings' The Yearling came directly from Perkins suggestions and it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Patron's Cry the Beloved Country went on to enjoy high success thanks directly to Perkins. Perkins persuaded James Jones to begin the novel that would become From Here to Eternity, but unfortunately Perkins did not live to see its success, nor the success of his good friend Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Ernest dedicated the book to Perkins memory. Perkins died on June 17th, 1947.
Max Perkins was known for his courtesy, his steadfast friendships, and his constant thoughtfulness. His good-hearted nature, however, was not what established Perkins as a top American editor. That success came from his ability to recognize good writing, and his ability to encourage and nurse along his writers whenever need be. Few editors, if any, truly established such strong professional and personal relationships with their authors. Perkins was known for his "infallible sense of structure" (Vance Bourjaily). Although Perkins never claimed to be an artist himself, he had the profound eye to see where even the author could not. Even Fitzgerald and Hemingway's works both improved greatly thanks to the thoughtful mind of Max Perkins. It's obvious that Perkins played a major role in shaping the face of American Literature.
Works CitedBaker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway, Selected Letters, 1917-1961.  NewYork: Scribner Classics, 2003.
Burgess, Anthony. Ernest Hemingway and his world. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons1978. PS3515. E37Z58416Phillips W. Larry, Ernest Hemingway on Writing. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons,1984. PS3515. E37A6Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: An Annotated Chronology. Columbia: Omnigraphics Inc, 1991. PS3515. E37Z7546Wagner-Martin, Linda. A Historical Guide to Ernest Hemingway. 2000. PS3515. E37Z6325"William Maxwell Evarts Perkins." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd Ed. 17 Vols.
Gale Research, 1998.
Other SourcesHanneman, Audre. Ernest Hemingway: A comprehensive Bibliography. Princeton:Princeton UP, 1967. Z8396.3 H45; Supplement 1975Larson, Kelli A. Ernest Hemingway: A reference Guide, 1974-1989. Boston: G. K.
Hall, 1990. PS3515. E37 Z459