F. Scott Fitzgerald’s father figure, Maxwell Perkins

The work of literary editors is extremely important, but, done behind the scenes, few are ever known to the public. One exception to this is Maxwell Perkins, longtime editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons. During his time there he was instrumental in getting early works published by Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Ring Lardner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. And in the case of Fitzgerald he served as much more than an editor.

Fitzgerald sent the manuscript for his first novel to Scribners in 1918. Perkins liked the book but the board rejected it, twice. Confident in the young author’s work, he went to bat for Fitzgerald, which ultimately led to the publication of This Side of Paradise in 1920, an immediate bestseller. Today I want to look at Fitzgerald’s letters to Perkins, a selection of which were included in The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Edited by Andrew Turnbull and published in 1963, it was the first large collection of his letters to be released. While this only includes Fitzgerald’s letters, Perkins correspondence to Fitzgerald would later be released in Dear Scott/Dear Max (1971) and The Sons of Maxwell Perkins (2004). Affiliate link

Fitzgerald’s letters show a very interesting, multifaceted relationship between the two men going well beyond the usual business focused writer-editor relationship. Often, to me at least, it feels like a father-son relationship. Fitzgerald frequently tells him what he has read, what he is doing, alongside repeatedly begging him for money to keep going as well as asking for support. A number of times he expresses how much he misses Perkins, saying things such as “I miss seeing you like the devil,” and “I miss seeing you, Max, more than I can say.”

Below is a selection of quotes that I enjoyed from these letters. For a larger selection of quotes, see this page.

“I’ve made half a dozen starts yesterday and today and I’ll go mad if I have to do another debutante, which is what they want.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Maxwell Perkins, December 31, 1920 

“I’m feeling rather tired and discouraged with life tonight and I haven’t the energy to use ink–ink, the ineffable destroyer of thought, that fades an emotion into that slatternly thing, a written-down mental excretion.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Maxwell Perkins, August 25, 1921

“I should like to sit down with ½ dozen chosen companions and drink myself to death but I am sick alike of life, liquor and literature. If it wasn’t for Zelda I think I’d disappear out of sight for three years.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Maxwell Perkins, August 25, 1921

“It’s been a fair summer. I’ve been unhappy but my work hasn’t suffered from it. I am grown at last.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Maxwell Perkins, before August 27, 1924

“This is to tell you about a young man named Ernest Hemingway, who lives in Paris (an American), writes for the Transatlantic Review and has a brilliant future. Ezra Pound published a collection of his short pieces in Paris, at someplace like the Egotist Press. I haven’t it here right now but it’s remarkable and I’d look him up right away. He’s the real thing.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Maxwell Perkins, before October 18, 1924
“Under separate cover I’m sending you my third novel,The Great Gatsby. (I think that at last I’ve done something really my own, but how good “my own” is remains to be seen.)” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Maxwell Perkins, October 27, 1924

“I think (for the first time since The Vegetable failed) that I’m a wonderful writer and it’s your always wonderful letters that help me to go on believing in myself.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Maxwell Perkins, circa December 20, 1924

“Hemingway is a fine, charming fellow and he appreciated your letter and the tone of it enormously. If Liveright doesn’t please him he’ll come to you, and he has a future. He’s twenty-seven.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Maxwell Perkins, circa April 22, 1925

“I wish I were twenty-two again with only my dramatic and feverishly enjoyed miseries. You remember I used to say I wanted to die at thirty–well, I’m now twenty-nine and the prospect is still welcome.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Maxwell Perkins, circa December 27, 1925

“Why shouldn’t I go crazy? My father is a moron and my mother is a neurotic, half insane with pathological nervous worry. Between them they haven’t and never had the brains of Calvin Coolidge.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Maxwell Perkins, February 20, 1926

“The Jazz Age is over. If Mark Sullivan is going on, you might tell him I claim credit for naming it and that it extended from the suppression of the riots on May Day 1919 to the crash of the stock market in 1929–almost exactly one decade.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Maxwell Perkins, before May 21, 1931

“Found New York in a high state of neurosis, as does everybody else, and met no one who didn’t convey the fact to me: it possibly proves that the neurosis is in me.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Maxwell Perkins, January 19, 1933

“I throw out most of the stuff in me with delight that it is gone. That statement might be interesting to consider in relation with Ernest’s article last month’s Esquire; an unexpressed idea is often a torment, even though its expression is liable to leave an almost crazy gap in the continuity of one’s thoughts.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Maxwell Perkins, November 26, 1934

“Would the 25-cent press keep Gatsby in the public eye–or is the book unpopular? Has it had its chance? Would a popular reissue in that series with a preface not by me but by one of its admirers–I can maybe pick one–make it a favorite with classrooms, profs, lovers of English prose–anybody? But to die, so completely and unjustly after having given so much!” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Maxwell Perkins, May 20, 1940

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