Conversations with Hemingway (5)

Monday, May 3, 2010

7 AM. Reading Burke’s biography of Perkins in great hopes, I came to Tom Wolfe’s picking a quarrel with Perkins — for more or less unconscious reasons — and thought, “oh yes, I remember that kind of thing!” The letter full of a different viewpoint that can’t possibly be addressed successfully because the other person can’t distinguish between viewpoint and objective reality.

How many times! And it’s the kind of situation where explanations only compound the confusion and lack of sympathy. How many times! And the closer the sympathy that had entered into it, the less the difference could be breached.

I know I’ve read this book before, but none of it is familiar, and when I did I must have had something in mind — Hemingway and Perkins exclusively? — because I can’t remember knowing or caring much about Fitzgerald or Rawlings or Wolfe, let alone S.S. Van Dine. Nor do I remember about Perkins and his wife, nor Elizabeth in Virginia. It is as if I never read it.

Well, Papa, I don’t want to veer off to Max Perkins. You and I are perhaps in the middle of something but I don’t know that it centers on your relationships with others, even important others.

And I must say, reading of Perkins’ life, I sympathize so actively with him, because I spent nearly 20 years in increasingly the same position, though in a vastly smaller field. Always connecting, always encouraging — it becomes a strain.

Dealing with people like me, you mean.

Relationships bring demands, if only of time and attention. You can only slice the pie so many ways. I still spread myself too thin, which means, next, too shallow.

Anybody could see that Max was slicing himself too thin, but there wasn’t anything to do about it. If I stayed out of his way, that didn’t mean everybody else would. So why should his time and energy be taken up with chickenshit?

I got the feeling — in fact I know it — that you were among the very least demanding in terms of his having to work over your manuscripts. But he paid in other ways.

He paid his way in other ways. I wasn’t begging; I was playing my trade and making them a lot of money.

It’s an interesting question, to me — how much can we speak inner to inner, and how much does it have to be the old outer to inner stuff?

That depends on what you trigger. If you get into something that raises my hackles — something unresolved, you’d say — you may get what you call the In-Process Me — me as I was at any given time in my life. My robot, you might think of it, for that particular topic. Otherwise you’re talking inner to inner and I don’t come to you through my defenses and my diplomatic channels, let’s say.

It is in the inner-to-inner exchange that you can tell your story, Papa — or, I should really say, Ernest. There is no need to be the alpha male next to me, or next to anyone, anymore. Or does that stuff go on on the other side too?

It’s all hard to talk about, because there are so many definitions, and things here don’t seem so fixed because one aspect and then another can come to the fore and it sounds like you’re talking about different things. There’s me — and me as part of a larger being that immediately created me, and me that is crystallized in so many lifetime attitudes and experiences, and the whole soup swirls around. I’m not the one to sort it out, and that isn’t what you want of me anyway.

I was sort of under the impression that you wanted something of me — which I am glad to give if it can be done.

You want the connection, I want the ability to clarify things.

That works for me, if it works for you.

So — to return — are you defensive about your business relationship with Scribner’s?

Look, I know I look unreasonable in those angry letters. Nobody is at their best when they’re worried, and sick and they suspect they are on their own with no one looking out for their interests. But I had valid Concerns. Max was a great guy and a great editor. He was supportive in so many ways. Nobody denies it, how could you? It was clear. But he was a businessman, and like I said, he was riding two horses. Sometimes he would press me to do things that were in Scribner’s interest, sure, but not necessarily in mind. And if I didn’t stand up for myself, who would?

Do you think you should have had an agent?

Then I would have had one more guy to watch.

I don’t know. I read — through you — the analysis that said that I lost more than I gained by not having an agent do my negotiating for me. Maybe so. But if I had had an agent, maybe he’d have gotten between me and Max, you know? Maybe he’d have always been looking to maximize his commissions even if the deal might not work out for me in the longer run.

The thing is, if I had had one person I could trust to look out just for me, through thick and thin, I could have relaxed. But that’s just theory. Who’s going to find that? Even Max had divided loyalties, and he was a prince. Why do you think an agent would have been any better?

You were offered generous with the company, and they with you.

It was a great relationship. Great to have one publisher. But it did have its disadvantages.

Yes. You felt taken for granted.

This time as you’re reading Berg’s book I am reading it with you, in a way. So I see the Scribner’s side of it both in the text and in your own experiences. But that doesn’t change how I felt then — and it doesn’t mean I was necessarily wrong.

No, not at all. I guess my concern here is centered on your emotional life as I intuit it, inside your behavior.

Yeah, I hear you psychoanalyzing me as you go along. If I couldn’t see you from the inside, I’d resent it.

You’d misunderstand it.

That’s the point of all this, isn’t it? What I misunderstood, what people misunderstood about me.

Well, it’s a defense of you, in a way. A defense against your own actions.

An interesting approach, and at least one that nobody else could take except in the same way.

I don’t feel like we’ve gotten very far this morning. I am getting restless. It’s like I was getting tangled up in it, when I ought to be the reporter.

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