September 25, 2013

Thomas Wolfe and Maxwell Perkins, Honored Guests at This Year’s Book Sale

book rev wolfebook rev perkins

By Stuart Mitchner

My friend, the editor, has likened his own function at this painful time to that of a man who is trying to hang onto the fin of a plunging whale.

—Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) on Maxwell Perkins (1884-1947)

The “whale” was the manuscript of Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River (1935). How could a mere book editor’s task inspire such hyperbole? The editor as action hero? Perkins and Wolfe soon to be a major motion picture? In fact, a film presently titled Genius, starring Colin Firth as the wily editor and Michael Fassbender as the word-drunk author, will begin filming next year. Honest. I didn’t make it up. The film is based on the biography of Perkins by Princeton alumnus A. Scott Berg, who was at the library in last week’s “Evenings with Friends” event.

When he delivered the massive first draft of his second novel to Perkins in December 1933, Wolfe confessed in a letter, “I need your help now more than I ever did.” It was up to Perkins to help him “get out of the woods,” as he had done in the course of shepherding Look Homeward Angel (1929) to the promised land.

In his essay, “The Story of a Novel,” Wolfe describes the teamwork between author and editor, “the whole strike, catch, flow, stop, and ending, the ten thousand fittings, changings, triumphs, and surrenders” that went into Of Time and the River.

You get a sense of just how demanding the editing process was from Struthers Burt, another Scribners author who worked with Perkins. In his June 9, 1951 Saturday Review piece, “Catalyst for Genius: Maxwell Perkins,” Burt recalls, “I would meet Tom and Max around eleven o’clock at the Chatham Walk of the Hotel Chatham, in Manhattan …. Tom would come striding in like a giant … but always a little cross and pettish with the childish crossness of a giant. Behind him would be Max, white and utterly exhausted. Max was of average height, but he looked small on those hot June nights and sparse like a dry-point etching. Every night for weeks Max and Tom had been working over in Brooklyn [where Wolfe lived “because it was the only place in the U.S. where you could be hidden and lonely”]. Max would persuade Tom to leave 5,000 words out of a new chapter. Tom would consent. Between them they would delete. The next day Tom would turn up with 10,000 new words.”

Star Attraction

It’s thanks to Struthers Burt, by way of his son Nathaniel and grandson Christopher, that the star attraction at this year’s Friends of the Princeton Public Library Book Sale, which begins Friday at 10 a.m., is a copy of the first edition of Of Time and the River signed by Maxwell Perkins, the man without whom it could not have been written and to whom it is emotionally dedicated. In all my years as an amateur bibliophile, attender of rare book fairs, and for some 25 years Friends book sale volunteer, I have never seen anything comparable to this tangible evidence in book form (albeit lacking the dust jacket) of the most storied editor-author relationship in American literature.

Like so many literary partnerships, however, this one did not go smoothly. Imagine a platonic romance — the ultimate literary buddy movie — that falls apart when the more demonstrative party is too extreme and too public in expressing his devotion and appreciation. While it makes perfect sense that Wolfe would dedicate Of Time and the River to Perkins, this was a writer forever given to extremes, and even though various associates at Scribners pleaded with him to tone down the dedication printed in the front matter of the novel, Wolfe insisted on paying a detailed tribute to “a great editor and a brave and honest man, who stuck to the writer of this book through times of bitter hopelessness and doubt and would not let him give in to his own despair … with the hope that all of it may be in some way worthy of the loyal devotion and the patient care which a dauntless and unshaken friend has given to each part of it, and without which none of it could have been written.”

These words were all it took to stir up exactly the sort of litchat gossip about his dependence on Perkins that Wolfe found intolerable. That alone would have been enough to send him to another publisher, but an even thornier problem was his determination to write about Perkins and Scribners in his next novel. Concerned that certain personal in-house information he’d revealed to Wolfe in the course of their working friendship might come to light, Perkins made it clear that he would have to resign if Scribners published the book. But there was no stopping Wolfe. After the North Carolina coming of age described in Look Homeward, Angel, his years with Perkins and Scribners were the summit of his life. So he went to Harpers, which divided the last immense unfinished manuscript into two novels published after Wolfe’s untimely death, The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can’t Go Home Again (1940), wherein Perkins was portrayed as Foxhall Edwards and Scribners as the House of Rodney.

The Last Letter 

When Wolfe died 75 years ago, September 15, 1938, Perkins, who thought of his three most famous authors as surrogate sons, received letters of condolence from Scott Fitzgerald, who said he felt as if he were writing to “a relation” of Wolfe’s (“for I know how deeply his death must have touched you”) and Ernest Hemingway, who referred to the farewell message Wolfe sent to Perkins: “That was a good letter he wrote …. Remember if anything happens to me I think just as much of you as Tom Wolfe even if I can’t put it so well.”

Apparently Perkins had shown Hemingway Wolfe’s last letter, written a month before his death from a cerebral infection set off by pneumonia. The letter begins, “I’m sneaking this against orders, but ‘I’ve got a hunch’ — and I wanted to write these words to you …. I’ve made a long voyage and been to a strange country, and I’ve seen the dark man very close …. I wanted most desperately to live and still do … and there was the impossible anguish and regret of all the work I had not done, of all the work I had to do — and I know now I’m just a grain of dust, and I feel as if a great window has been opened on life I did not know about before …. Whatever happens — I had this ‘hunch’ and wanted to write you and tell you, no matter what happens or has happened, I shall always think of you and feel about you the way it was that Fourth of July day three years ago when you met me at the boat and we went out on the cafe on the river and had a drink and later went on top of the tall building, and all the strangeness and the glory and the power of life and the city was below.”

Cynics might say, look, even his last letter needs editing, but it was the essence of the document, with its soaring last words about the day he’d returned to America from Europe to find that Of Time and the River was a great success, that touched writers all over the world, especially young writers who were inspired by his work and haunted by his story.

I’ve long since given up trying to “recapture the rapture” of first discovering Wolfe and walking around Greenwich Village and Brooklyn Heights following in his footsteps, staying at his hotel, the Albert on University Place (the Leopold in Of Time and the River). For a period between the ages of 18 and 21, the big, wonderstruck, forever wandering wordslinger from the South was the most unlikely of my alter egos, right up there with Holden Caulfield and James Dean. Thanks to this remarkable donation from the Burt family, I had an excuse to pay a return visit to Wolfe after decades of false starts. What I did was go right to Book IV, a little over 400 pages into Of Time and the River, and start reading. At first it was hard going, like dipping one foot into a raging current, or catching hold of a speeding train bound for the Land of the Passionately Purple and Vividly Verbose. I found the secret is to read it aloud. After a few paragraphs, the rolling rhythm carries you along. I took a journey of a hundred pages, through the author’s love-hate relationship with New York, his stint teaching at NYU, his Jewish nemesis and eventual friend, Abe Jones, and a Hudson River rhapsody Scott Fitzgerald remembered as Wolfe at his best.

About the Burts

Maxwell Struthers Burt (1882-1954, Princeton Class of 1904), was the author of numerous popular novels and stories, including The Delectable Mountains (1927), Festival (1931), and the autobiography The Diary of a Dude Wrangler (1924). He was also the co-founder of the Bar BC Ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Besides helping him run the ranch, his wife, Katherine Newlin Burt, was also a successful writer (30 novels and innumerable stories, most about the West). Their son, Nathaniel Burt (1913-2003, Princeton Class of 1936), another writer, was born on the kitchen table at the Bar BC. Over the years the ranch was a literary gathering place (Ernest Hemingway is said to have worked on A Farewell to Arms there). The Burt donation reflects the story of a fascinating family of writers whose interests range from the West to East. Grandson Christopher is the author of Extreme Weather, a guide and record book published by W.W. Norton. Books by the Burts will be on the tables at the Friends Book Sale this weekend, along with items like Princeton Verse 1919, which features two poems by Scott Fitzgerald (as T. Scott) and Riddle Poems by Emily Dickinson, in an edition published and signed by Leonard and Esther Baskin.