Conversations with Hemingway (4)

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Papa, I know you liked Max Perkins, and I know that you nonetheless struggled with him. Tell us about your relationship.

The thing about Max was that he listened. He knew what worked and didn’t work. Didn’t always know how to fix a problem, but he could hear, loud and clear, that the problem was there. That’s the only thing he could hear loud and clear!

And of course, the fact that he could hear the manuscript meant that he could hear the author (as author). I mean, simply, that he knew when to pay attention to somebody because he had something.

When Perkins believed in you, he believed in you. Now, that’s a nice trait in anybody, but in this case it

I wandered a bit, sorry.

Max knew writing, so he knew what a writer could or couldn’t do — subject to revision if you showed him different. But the fact that he had perfect pitch for writing meant that he couldn’t be fooled by externals. Not about writing. Somebody might fool him about what they weren’t going to do anymore, or how they were going to work harder, all that — but nobody ever fooled him about was this or that passage right or not.

You know what it is worth, to have someone knowledgeable believing you. There’s nothing like it. And to have that person be in a position to advance your career — to plan it with you — was invaluable.

But of course, he worked for Scribners. That meant he had divided loyalties always, that he had to try to keep going in the same direction. But if the author’s needs and the company’s needs diverged, who was he going to stay with? I always knew that, and it gave an edge to our business relationship sometimes.

Let me try to express it again. Max’s professional life was to ride two horses at a time — one foot on the company’s horse, one on whichever author he was handling at the moment. Most of the time, he made it work, because most of the authors knew they needed Scribners on their side, and Scribners knew they couldn’t go around alienating their stable. So mostly the horses ran in the same direction, and he could ride with one foot on each. His personality helped him do it, because he did care about his authors. They were, many of them, his friends. And we all knew it, even Wolfe. But it’s always a hazardous thing to mix business with friendship, and that’s what we had to do, by the nature of things.

So when I invited him to come fishing or hunting with me, we both knew there were two things going — friendship, yes, but also a maneuvering for future advantage, a binding by affection. You should know!

I can’t imagine what my life would have been — my writing life, but that means my life — if not for Max being my editor. When I was in my early twenties, he believed in me. I know that the story is that Scott Fitzgerald puffed me to him and he bought my novel sight unseen, but that leaves out two things. First, he was binding Fitzgerald to him by a courtesy, a sort of taking him seriously as a talent scout, and second, he had seen enough of my journalism — don’t think he hadn’t — to hear something, and take a chance. That’s what makes great intuitive editors and publishers.

But to have the editor at Scribners believe in me, and take a chance on me, and then understand what I was doing, and struggle for me and with me to get as much of what I was trying to do into print as was possible in the laws and habits and climate of the day was remarkable! Especially since he himself was so refined, repressed, un-profane, however you want to put it, but didn’t let that interfere with his hearing what I was doing.

If he and I hadn’t had to argue money; if he hadn’t been riding both horses; if we could have concentrated only on the actual writing and nothing more — but then, maybe we couldn’t have accomplished so much.

Papa, will you introduce me to Maxwell Perkins? That’s the way for him and me to meet, I think.

Don’t you believe it. You and Max are already well acquainted. Why do you suppose Sydney Omar suggested that you might be the reincarnation of Max? It wasn’t entirely flattery — Omar intuited a connection.

Which is?

Not “story” — as you always say — but connection through traits. A lot of what I said about Max applies to you in your career as editor, except you had crosscurrents he didn’t have.

Well, Mr. Perkins — if you’re here, welcome, and thank you for the work you did so well. I know only a bit of it — Hemingway mostly and a bit of Fitzgerald — but your reputation is formidable. Would you like to talk about your relationship with Hemingway?

Not Papa, you’ll notice. That would have made my job impossible. In fact, if I hadn’t been so much older, so as to make straight competition impossible, it would have been impossible anyway. He was Ernest to me, and he never tried to be anything different.

I get the impression that you never cared about being an “alpha male” and all that.

No more than you, and for the same reasons. Competition for its own sake isn’t nearly as interesting as competition for quality — and is boring, in fact. It’s like trying to be the most popular in high school, in your day.

What do you think of Papa’s description of your horse-riding career?

Accurate. It was in the nature of the job. For me to give up acting as Scribners’ representative would have reduced me to a copy editor, and wouldn’t have done him — or any of my authors — any good, because they would still have had to deal with some representative of Scribners, and he couldn’t have known, as well as I did, the value of their work.

Were you a stockholder in Scribners?

I was. I had a small piece, as an executive bonus. Now — look that up and check! But — good that you could ask a factual question at the risk of not getting the right answer.

Well, I figured you weren’t just a salaried employee, but I’ve never seen any sign that you were a stockholder.

I was in the inner circle who decided the course of Scribners’ future, remember!


[EH] Max and I did our dance for 20 years and more — and then he goes and dies of pneumonia on me! It was a blow.

[MP] I was worn out, and we all have to go sometime. And how much longer did you last, year for year?

Oh, I know. But it was a terrible thing. And then Charlie Scribner five years later. It left me isolated.

You did brighten my life, Ernest, you know that, even more than you did for others. Your life was a vicarious life lived for us, letting in a huge draft of fresh air. We liked to think of somebody actually living that way.

I just wish you had had more fun.

No need to think that. Think of your always reading. Suppose somebody had looked at you and said “Poor Hemingway, he spends so much time looking at books or magazines or newspapers, and doesn’t do anything!” They’d miss your real life.

Well, I know. But fishing was good for you, and getting out among men having fun.

I’d never deny it. It was a window into another world. But you know that my inner world was plenty bright. That’s one reason I went deaf — to cut down on distractions. It had its inconvenient points, though.

Your sense of humor is one thing that never translates, Max. People don’t remember.

I was surrounded by too many colorful characters. I looked like the wallpaper. But I had my fun, as you know.

You had a great satiric eye.

This has been fun, but I think I’ve done what I can do for now. Thank you both.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Reading Max Perkins.

4:45 PM. Aha! (What a relief!) (But I read this before, even if I can’t remember it, so knew this if only unconsciously.) Page 153 of A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: “In the past decade his salary had been doubled — to $10,000 — and he was receiving liberal amounts of private stock.”

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