Of the making of many books on Ernest Hemingway there is no end. In the nearly 46 years since Hemingway‘sdeath, scholars and enthusiasts have published book-length works on everything related to his life and provided inventive interpretations of his novels and short stories.
book-length works on everything related to his life and provided inventive interpretations of his novels and short stories.
The man himself was extraordinary, and so are his works of fiction, which endure today; the novels “The Sun Also Rises” (1926), “A Farewell to Arms” (1929) and “The Old Man and the Sea” (1952) are required reading in many high school and college classrooms, as are several of Hemingway’s masterful short stories. Now Robert W. Trogdon, a professor at Kent State University and a rising sachem in Hemingway studies, has written a work that focuses upon the remarkable creative relationship between “Hem,” legendary editor Maxwell Perkins and the publishing firm Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Perkins is renowned as the editor who discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and James Jones during his career at Scribners, and he brought their works to the attention of the reading public. In 1924 he was advised by Fitzgerald — his first major “find” — that there was a new, largely unknown American writer named Ernest Hemingway who lived in Europe and showed strong promise for great accomplishments. Perhaps Perkins and Scribners would be interested in working with him?
Mr. Trogdon describes Perkins‘ editorial courtship of Hemingway, who wanted his works to reach a wider audience through the agency of a big-name publisher. Perkins drew Hemingway to Scribners, but not before the author had signed a contract with the then-up-and-coming publishing house of Boni & Liveright.
Quickly sensing his mistake, Hemingway determined that his first order of business would be to shake loose from his new publisher, which he did by writing “The Torrents of Spring,” a short novel with limited appeal. Boni & Liveright declined to publish the book, and this decision released Hemingway from his contract.
He fled to the welcoming embrace of Scribners, which agreed to publish “The Torrents of Spring” — a relatively weak work written to deliberately mock the stark, groping-for-meaning style of Sherwood Anderson’s novel “Dark Laughter.” From this inauspicious beginning, Scribners went on to publish all of Hemingway’s greatest novels and short story collections.
At its heart, Mr. Trogdon’s study focuses upon the fascinating junction within Hemingway where the creative artist and the man of business meet. Hemingway saw himself as a craftsman attempting to tell stories using the raw language of everyday life.
But he found that if he wished to earn a living by writing, it would be necessary to conform to some extent to the publishing dictates of his era, a time when the U.S. Post Office could deny delivery of magazines and books containing stories the Postmaster General considered obscene.
Reading “The Lousy Racket” — the title refers to Hemingway’s stated opinion of the publishing industry — it is enlightening to see the sort of common oaths and other words (such as “condom”) that were forbidden from appearing in print during much of Hemingway’s career. Perkins needed to delicately negotiate with his author to see such terms softened or replaced by dashes, and somehow he succeeded in getting the touchy, easily offended Hemingway to comply.
Hemingway’s temper and temperament provide an interesting study in and of themselves. Through liberal quotation from the letters of both Hemingway and Perkins, Mr. Trogdon shows the progression of Hemingway from an eager-to-please novice to an increasingly irascible, hot-tempered genius whose artistry was unquestionable even though his commercial instincts were sometimes considerably off kilter.
Hemingway was forever complaining that Scribners didn’t market his books aggressively enough, and there is evidence enough in “The Lousy Racket” that sometimes he was right, though sometimes not. (Apparently only Hemingway thought “Fifth Column and the First Forty-nine Stories” would be an acceptable title for a book. Perkins and the marketing department at Scribners grudgingly complied with their star author’s recommendation, and upon the work’s publication in 1938 it — predictably — sold poorly.)
The stellar character and self-denying spirit of Max Perkins was a rock for Hemingway throughout much of the latter’s career. In a manner similar to that demonstrated in A. Scott Berg’s stellar biography “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius” (1978), Mr. Trogdon demonstrates how Perkins bent over backwards to reassure Hemingway of his importance as a writer, refrained from telling Hemingway how or what to write and in general served as a midwife to Hemingway’s greatness rather than a co-star.
Perkins‘ loyalty to his author became especially important during the decade-long period during which Hemingway was repeatedly panned by critics. This period began in 1932 with the appearance of “Death in the Afternoon” and lasted until the publication of his greatest novel, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1940).
Critic Max Eastman arguably launched the onslaught when he — in his influential review-essay “Bull in the Afternoon” — caricatured Hemingway as an ersatz tough guy whose he-man themes and style were all a pose, something like a man wearing a chest-rug. (Eventually Hemingway and Eastman came to blows over this article, in Perkins‘ office.) But the Hemingway-bashers were silenced and then prompted to praise by “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” the last work Hemingway wrote with the encouragement of Perkins, who died in 1947.