Early in his marriage, Maxwell Perkins told his wife Louise that he wanted to be “a little dwarf on the shoulder of a great general advising him what to do and what not to do, without anyone’s noticing.”
He was noticed.
Perkins was one of America’s great literary editors, launching F. Scott Fitzgerald’s career with The Great Gatsby, working night and day with Thomas Wolfe to turn an interminable manuscript into Look Homeward, Angel, fishing and hunting with Ernest Hemingway while helping him revise The Sun Also Rises and later masterpieces.
He worked at Scribners for 37 years. As he was taken by ambulance to the hospital where he would die in 1947, he instructed his daughter to retrieve two manuscripts from his bedside. One was Cry, the Beloved Country; the other was From Here to Eternity.
Five years later, Hemingway would dedicate The Old Man and the Sea to Perkins.
Perkins was revered by writers, in part because he knew his role. He didn’t aspire to be an author. He was an editor.
“An editor does not add to a book,” he once said. “At best he serves as a handmaiden to an author.”
His tale is about to become a movie, based on the 1978 biography by A. Scott Berg, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. Sean Penn is reportedly in talks to star in the film.
Perkins was incredibly well-connected, not only through the literary world, but through his family and his years at Harvard.
His grandfather, William M. Evarts, was a U.S. senator, attorney general and secretary of state. His uncle, Archibald Cox, prosecuted the Watergate case until he was fired by President Nixon. A grandson, actor Perry King, has appeared in movies and on TV series such as Big Love, Spin City and Melrose Place.