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A Writer and His Editor: Fitzgerald and Perkins

By on Friday, Jan 20, 2012 in F.Scott Fitzgerald and Maxwell Perkins, Writing Life | 0 comments

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Yes, I am actually going to write about F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor, Maxwell Perkins!

(No, this is not a topic related to Regency or Victorian England!)

But I came across this remarkable book that illustrates this amazing relationship.  The letters exchanged between the two show so clearly the universal dreams and aspirations, doubts, and fears of writers everywhere.  You will recognize them in these brief passages that follow!  Perkins was friend, mentor, and most remarkably of all, full and true believer in Fitzgerald’s genius.

Celestial Eyes, the iconic cover painting of The Great Gatsby by Francis Cugat

The book I discovered, The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 219:  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, I found quite by accident.  While hibernating one Saturday in a study room at our local unversity library. I discovered this book tucked between the legs of my study table and the wall.

The book is remarkable in that it traces the development of Gatsby as a book (revisions, rewritings, etc.) and charts its rise to great noveldom.  Fitzgerald’s struggles with alcoholism undermined his literary genius in that it hid the fact that he revised painstakingly and did layers of drafts.

Fitzgerald died young at age 44 and never lived to see his true literary success.  While he published and lived off of the money he made from writing short stories, Gatsby did not sell well.


digital file from intermediary roll film copy
F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1932, Carl Van Vechten photographer, public domain (www.loc.gov/rr/print/res/079_vanv.html)

Perkins, who discovered the likes of Hemmingway and Thomas Wolfe, was far more than an editor to Fitzgerald–he was a mentor and a father figure.


b&w film copy neg.
Maxwell Perkins, 1942.  From Library of Congress, no copyright restrictions www.loc.gov/pictures/item/94507177/

So take a look at these exerpts.  (I hope I don’t ruin them with my comments.  But I was struck by how Fitzgerald’s struggles embodied those of any writer.)

Fitzgerald (July, 1924):  “I want to write something new–something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.”

(Ah, the lofty goals of artistic aspiration…we can all relate.)

Sept., 1924:
“Now for a promise–the novel will absolutely and definitively be mailed to you before the first of October.  I’ve had to rewrite practically half of it–at present it’s stored away for a week so I can take a last look at it and see what I’ve left out–there’s some intangible sequence lacking somewhere in the middle and a break in interest that invariable means the failure of a book.  It is like nothing I’ve ever read before.”

(See–even F. Scott had to deal with sagging middles and brain fatigue from re-reding his ms over too many times!)

And here is Perkins replying in November, 1924:

“The general brilliant quality of the book makes me ashamed to make even thse criticisms.  The amount of meaning you get into a sentence, the dimensions and intensity of the expression you make a paragraph carry, are most extraordinary.  The manuscript is full of phrases which make a scene blaze with life.  If one enjoyed a rapid railroad journey I would compare the number and vividness of pictures your living words suggest, to the living scenes disclosed in that way.  It seems in reading a much shorter book than it is, but it carries the mind through a series of experiences that one would think would require a book of three times its length.”

“…You once told me you were not a natural writer–my God:  you have plainly mastered the craft, of course, but you needed far more than craftmanship for this.”

(This is a dream relationship.  Perkins clearly saw and understood Fitzgerald’s genius.) 

So inspiring!

For a fascinating discussion of Cugat’s artwork for the 1925 cover of The Great Gatsby, see Charles Scribner III’s essay at http://www.sc.edu/fitzgerald/essays/eyes/eyes.html

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