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Ernest Hemingway and Max Perkins

Photo: Scribner Magazine
Every time Hemingway visited New York his first port of call was his publisher Charles Scribners & Sons - one of America's most famous and prestigious publishing houses.

The company was based in a ten storey building of classical design on the corner of 48th Street and 5th Avenue. The ground floor, faced in shiny brass, housed the elegant Scribner Bookshop, which, in the words of John Hall Wheelock, the store's manager in the 1930s (before he became an editor for the company) was a 'Byzantine cathedral of books.' Alongside the bookstore there was, as A. Scott Berg describes it, 'an unobtrusive entrance, with, behind it, a vestibule which led to an elevator that clattered its way into the upper realms of the Scribner enterprise.'

The second and third floors housed financial and business departments. Advertising was on the fourth floor. And on the fifth were the editorial rooms with bare white ceilings and walls; uncarpeted concrete floors; roll top desks, and bookcases. In this austere style, Scribners, a family business in its second generation, maintained itself as the most genteel and tradition-encrusted of all the American publishing houses.'

Of course, Hemingway had not come to see just anyone at Scribners, he'd come to see Max Perkins, perhaps the most important and influential literary editor of the 20th century, who not only published Hemingway, but Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and Erskine Caldwell.

William Maxwell Evarts Perkins was born on September 20th 1884, in Manhattan, at the Perkins' family home on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 14th Street. He was the nominative heir of two distinguished American families - the Perkins and the Evarts - and, in the words of that greatest of American literary historians, Van Wyck Brooks, Max Perkins never fully 'fought through' the English Civil War between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers that was so much a part of his background.

That bloody and constitutionally seminal civil war had crossed the Atlantic Ocean eight generations earlier, with the English Perkins' side of the family creating, within Max, the romantic and adventurous Cavalier, whilst the Evarts side - which came from the grey slate of Wales - instilled into the baby New Yorker the necessity to do things the hard way by 'living against the grain', as Brooks put it.

What this mix did was create a strange, inward looking man of bigoted tastes, who could, at the same time, also be the most gregarious of hosts, the most liberal of thinkers, and a man constantly at war with himself. As a result of this mix-n-match Max was always the romantic, devil-may-care Englishman constantly fighting against his other side, that of the pragmatic, scholarly, puritanical, dour, rain-soaked Welshman. A dangerous, inflammatory, intellectually curious mix indeed that is not untypical of New England.

In 1882 Max's father, Edward Clifford Perkins, a graduate of Harvard Law School, fell in love with Senator Evarts daughter, Elizabeth, and later that year married her in Windsor, New Jersey. Elizabeth has been described as dignified and gracious, and a woman who always walked at the same pace, but 'not so slowly as to seem to have no purpose, but not so fast as to be unladylike', and always with her hands folded in front of her. She was the perfect hostess; and had often been her father's hostess in the almost daily political gatherings in Washington: always charming, always smiling, always calculating.

Max's father was 'dapper and possessed a freer spirit', who was also a great lover of literature and the arts. After the honeymoon the couple went to live in Plainfield, New Jersey, from where Edward commuted to his law practice in New York, taking a huge delight in bicycling - the new craze - to and from the train station on a shiny new penny-farthing.

Over the next thirteen years the upright and respected couple had six children, with Elizabeth never demanding good behaviour from them, but, in the words of Perkins' biographer, A. Scott Berg, 'rather expected it' as a right. Edward was a gentle, and caring father who read his children countless bedtime stories, usually from the classics, Shakespeare or Charles Dickens. It was a happy and contented household.

As a young boy Max had an experience that would affect him for the rest of his life.

One summer's afternoon he, and a friend, Tom McClary, went swimming in a deep lake just outside Windsor. Apparently Tom was a poor swimmer and half way across the lake the boy either lost his nerve, or got cramps, and in fear clung onto Max pulling both of them down into the dark and murky water. Max eventually managed to pull himself free and swam to the shore. But once ashore Max, looking back saw Tom floating face down in the lake and immediately swam back and pulled him onto dry land. And as Max pulled Tom from the water his grip around Tom's stomach caused the boy to vomit water and start breathing again. It was a salutary experience for both boys, and they agreed that neither would ever say a word about the incident. But Tom's near drowning ensured Max - unfairly - always considered himself to be 'careless, irresponsible and timid', when in fact he was just the opposite; such was the contradictory and essentially truthful nature of Max Perkins.

As Ernest Hemingway made his way toward the Scribner Building on a cold January Wednesday in 1937, Max Perkins stood looking out of his office window on the fifth floor of the Scribner building down onto 5th Avenue and 48th Street below (as he did every working day at lunch-time) and, like a bird perched high above the world, watched the same people go about their same lunchtime pursuits at exactly the same time on a Monday, as they did on a Tuesday, a Thursday, and a Friday. There was the girl from the jewellery store directly across the Avenue who ran to the long established deli on the corner at precisely 12.30 with a piece of paper in her hand, who could then be seen giving her order very animatedly - her arms flying in all directions - as she asked for cheese on rye, followed by pastrami with mustard on wholemeal, with two Cokes, please, as if her life depended upon it. And Max, who knew where each of the deli's delights were situated in the glass-fronted counter, also knew the girl's very life might depend upon it. The girl would then go running back to the store, brown paper bag in hand, with her yellow hair blowing in the cold wind that blew its way along 48th Street before hitting 5th with an icy blast. Max also knew that the girl's job was probably her first and that if she didn't get lunch quickly, and correctly, she'd probably be looking for another new job pretty soon. Max knew this because he also knew the owners of the jewellery store (Max had bought his wife, Louise's, wedding ring there, and wished he hadn't) were a miserable pair of brothers who got through assistants like bagels at breakfast. But maybe this young woman would last, she'd lasted longer than most, thought Max, and if she was as good in the store as she was at getting lunch for the owners she might end up running the store one day. Max hoped so. Max Perkins poured himself another cup of milky, sweet coffee, from his battered red thermos flask, and dug his teeth into another cheese and pickle white bread sandwich - his favourite - and looked out for the young courting couple who always sat on a bench in front of a smart new block of offices a few yards back along 48th Street. Yes, there they were, sitting very close together in the biting, snow dotted wind, sharing food from a small snap-lid tin, and steaming coffee from a flask. Max guessed they were planning on getting married, at least the young woman seemed to be planning on getting married - she invariably wore a green hat with a feather - as it was she who always brought the food - probably prepared by her widowed mother back in the Bronx - and fed her man thoughtfully and respectfully, like a mother bird with one of its young - with the young man smiling and kissing her after virtually every mouthful. Max thought they'd probably make a good married couple, as long as they could both hang onto their jobs. Not easy at such a time of depression. Then, over on the far side of 5th Avenue, toward 49th Street, Max could see the drunk who'd been there since last summer. Back then he spent most of his time asleep, but now, wrapped in a torn old army blanket he begged food and drink all the time, and the cops had stopped moving him on; instead they gave him the odd sandwich, or a cigarette, maybe a bottle of Coke, or perhaps something a bit stronger in a paper bag. Max knew the guy wouldn't last much longer if he didn't get some shelter soon. Max reminded himself to give the guy a half dollar on his way to the station, and tell the Salvation Army of the guy's plight, as he had for other guys on more than a hundred occasions over the last six months. As Max finished his sandwich, and drained the last of the coffee from his flask, the preacher appeared. This was no ordinary, down at heel, mumbling preacher, most of whom just seemed to stand there talking to themselves. No, this was a flamboyant frock-coated cavalier of a man that screamed God's warnings from the top of a cart pulled by a beautiful black horse. Within minutes of starting the preacher would attract a crowd of several hundred people keen to hear anything that might give them hope. When the preacher appeared Max always opened the window of his office to try and catch the odd word above the roar of the traffic, but seldom heard more than the odd 'smite ye down', or 'it is God's will'. What Max also saw, when the preacher was in full flow, was a couple of pickpockets - who obviously hung around waiting for the man of God - who'd skim through the pockets of the crowds like vacuum cleaners. The young couple never went too close, and Max remembered a cop having his gun, and handcuffs, lifted one lunchtime. That's New York, thought Max, as he closed the window and sat back at his desk to read the new manuscript from Marjorie Kinnin Rawlings.

After high school Max, like generations of Perkins' before him, went to Harvard, and his best friend there - who arrived a year after Max - was Van Wyck Brooks, who was to become America's greatest literary historian, with a string of hugely popular, and readable books, such as 'The World of Washington Irving', 'New England Indian Summer', and, 'The Times of Melville and Whitman', books that changed how America looked at its own literature forever - in fact made that literature known to the world. The friendship between these two young men - who both came from the same town - was such that each inspired in the other a love of great writing, a love that was to be a source, not only of an income for both, but a means by which America discovered its own literary past, and its continuing literary power in the 20th century.

Max graduated from Harvard in June 1907 with an Honourable Mention for his work in Economics - a skill he never used when it came to giving much needed advances to authors - and was the only one of his year who did not celebrate his graduation with a world tour.

Instead, Max got himself a job as an 'emergency' journalist at the New York Times, and would invariably sit through the night waiting for suicides, or fires, and then write-up the bare bones of the story for another journalist to fill-out, usually with fictional juicy details. For this he was paid $15 a week. After a few months of good solid work he was moved to police and court reporting, and covered everything from murders in Chinatown to rent strikes on the Lower East Side. In due course he was promoted to the paper's general staff and scooped the city with his story of the S.S.Republic going aground off Nantucket Light.

By the winter of 1909 Max was looking for work with more regular hours (he was also courting Louise Saunders and needed a regular job to ensure she'd marry him) and applied for job after job.

In the autumn of 1910 he wrote to Scribners applying for the position of advertising manager, and was hired in December 1910.

On December 31st he and Louise married in Plainfield's Holy Cross Episcopal Church, with a honeymoon in Cornish, New Hampshire.

But back in those early days before the First World War Max found the job of advertising manager boring, but he stuck at it hoping something better would come along. Mrs Perkins thought that was the best thing to do, in the circumstances. Of course, Max loved books and spent far too much of his salary on them, and just when he thought he better speak to the 'Old Man' about a raise in salary one of the editors left to become a partner at another publishing house. Charles Scribner had been so impressed with Max's work that he promoted him to the position of editor and booted him up to the fifth floor. Max once told Hemingway that Charles had only promoted him so as not to lose his business in the bookshop below.

In 1916 Max volunteered for reserve duty in the US Cavalry and was posted to the Mexican border. Throughout the war years Scribners kept Max on the payroll.

By 1920 Max considered himself a man of the world, had moved to a larger house, and fathered several daughters, and although still only half way up the ladder at Scribners felt himself to be a success. The real success was still to come though.

Max first met Scott Fitzgerald in the army, and in 1920 introduced the young writer to his friend, Van Wyck Brooks, who considered the young novelist to be a voice of a brave new future. When Max introduced the shy young man to Charles Scribner the publisher resisted all of Max's attempts to sign him up. Of course, when Fitzgerald was a huge success for Scribners Max didn't have to ask anymore. Eventually Max wore Charles down, and in late 1920 Scribners were soon the 'proud' publishers of Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise. As you might expect the book didn't make any money at all to start with, but Scott kept asking for, and taking, advance after advance - $5,000 in all - on future sales. When the book did finally become known, and read, it took off like 'The Flight of a Rocket', which had been its original title.

Max Perkins went on to publish James Jones, Alan Paton, Marcia Davenport, plus a host of others. He died in 1947.


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