Michael F. Epstein | BookMarks: The Genius of Windsor
A drive down Windsor's historic Main Street reveals a number of classically beautiful brick homes from the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was Vermont's largest town and a manufacturing center. Six of those homes were owned from the early 1800s to 2006 by members of the Evarts family of Windsor, starting with William Maxwell Evarts in 1837.
A frequent visitor to the Main Street home was his grandson, William Maxwell Evarts Perkins, whose story is told by A. Scott Berg in "Max Perkins: Editor of Genius," the National Book Award winner for biography in 1978.
Perkins is a fascinating character, well worth reading about in Berg's excellent biography. Born in 1884 and educated at Harvard, he worked as a reporter for The New York Times before landing a job at Charles Scribner's, the distinguished publishing house in New York City.
When Perkins arrived at Scribner's, it had a reputation as a conservative, solid, successful publishing house. When he died in 1947, Scribner's and Sons was primarily known as the publisher of the prize-winning authors of America's Lost Generation.
Perkins discovered, championed, edited and published an entire generation of American authors: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Ring Lardner, Erskine Caldwell, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, James Jones, and Alan Paton, among others. American literature thrived in the 1920's, 30's and 40's largely due to Perkins' insight and recognition of raw, unformed talent in young, unpublished authors, as well as his literary and political savvy.
"Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius" began as Berg's senior thesis at Princeton. But Berg avoids the dreariness of many academic tomes by segregating the footnotes and the detailed index into the final 50 pages of this 500-page work. He sweeps the reader along in a fast-paced, easily readable style.
By quoting extensively from correspondence between Perkins and Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wolfe, Berg introduces the reader to these authors without his own scholarly mediation. Fitzgerald's struggles with insecurity, alcohol, money, and his wife, Zelda, come alive in his letters, and in Perkins' ever-patient and supportive responses.
Hemingway's fears of "drying up" and being ignored are addressed by Perkins, not only in letters, but in visits to Key West, where they fished together. Wolfe's difficulty in converting a five-foot-tall pile of handwritten manuscript into a novel leads Perkins to spend every evening of an entire summer working with Wolfe to structure what became "Look Homeward, Angel."
Throughout the book, Berg takes the reader on parallel journeys. We learn about the writers and the process of editing that leads to their emergence as iconic American authors. We also learn of Perkins' personal life in New Jersey, New York City, Connecticut, and in Windsor, where he found refuge and peace on summer weekends.
For anyone interested in writing and reading, the detailed descriptions of how Perkins worked with writers are riveting. He always gave the author the final word on his recommendations, and he never wrote language for the books. Rather, he was able to read a raw manuscript and judge how the final book should be structured, and what should be deleted or rearranged. His associate at Scribner's, John Hill Wheelock, described Perkins' approach to editing in his book "Editor to Author:" "The recognizing, the encouraging, the guiding of talent, this in his opinion was a sacred task worth any amount of effort, of risk, of time expended."
Perkins did all of that while becoming intimately involved in the personal lives of each of these authors, supporting Fitzgerald and Wolfe with monetary advances and playing a paternal role for them both. He supported Hemingway through his insecurity in hundreds of letters to Paris, Key West, and Cuba.
As for his personal life, Perkins emerges as a complex figure. Deeply engaged with his work, he often spent the evenings and weekends reading manuscripts and writing to his authors. His 37-year marriage appears to have been supportive but lacking in joy and happiness. His primary emotional support was Elizabeth Lemmon, whom he met in 1922 and with whom he corresponded about his work and feelings until his death. He was devoted to his five daughters but longed for a son.
In the days of the three martini lunch, Perkins often drank too much, especially when trying to keep pace with his hard-living authors. He had some strange personal habits, among which was his wearing a hat nearly all the time, including indoors and once even in the shower. He doodled endlessly, largely focusing on Napoleon's visage. And he loved Windsor, dubbing the woods and pond behind his grandfather's home, Paradise, a name that remains today for Windsor's park bordering on Runnemede Lake.
The Evarts/Perkins home remained in the family until 2005. Today it is the popular Snapdragon Inn which features a well appointed library filled with Perkins memorabilia.
The Evarts-Perkins family has another interesting and timely connection to today. William Evarts, in addition to his other accomplishments, served as the counsel for President Andrew Johnson during his impeachment trial in the Senate. In addition, Maxwell Perkins' sister Fanny was the mother of Archibald Cox Jr., the special counsel fired by President Richard Nixon in the "Saturday Night Massacre" in 1973 as another impeachment process began to unfold. Who knows if the Trump impeachment will ultimately involve a Windsor connection?
It was during a drive through Windsor several years ago that I noticed "Maxwell Perkins Lane," and that sighting became the impetus for exploring the connection of this `Editor of Genius' to Vermont history. Thanks to Berg, the life and work of Perkins and his connection to Windsor will long be remembered and admired.
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville and in Cambridge, Massachusetts He can be contacted at EpsteinReads.com, where you will find more than 1000 book review ideas for what to read next.
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