Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Writer and His Editor: Fitzgerald and Perkins

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 unviersity 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 (
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 

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

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Write and Live in 2012

As we welcome the new year and set our writing goals, I'd like to share something I heard yesterday on NPR that stayed with me on a very gutteral level.

As writers, we (well, okay, I) tend to define success based on outcome--did we publish?  This amazing story I heard on NPR yesterday helped me to understand that while we can't always control the outcome in life or in writing, we can control the process. 

So...if you face any adversity in the writing world--namely, rejections, stinging contest feedback, upsetting reviews--you've got to listen to this!

Author Bruce Feiler spoke to Michel Martin on her NPR show Tell Me More.  His topic was overcoming adversity and getting the right start for 2012.

You may know him as the author of The Council of Dads, a bestselling book about his cancer journey and how he asked each of his close friends to share their unique talents with his daughters.

When asked about his new year's resolutions, Feiler offered this story:

Three years ago, he had leg surgery for cancer.  Six months after the surgery, he went to see his surgeon, Dr. John Healey of Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York, and asked him this question (From here on are Feiler's own words.):

"'If my daughters ever come to see you and say, what lesson should they learn from our daddy's story, what would you tell them?'
And this man's a pauser.  Ooh, he pauses longer than anyone I ever heard.  And he said, 

'I would tell your daughters what I know.  And that is--everybody dies.  But not everbody lives.  I want you to live.'

And at its simplest, corest level, I would say, every year, I don't live every day like it's my last but I live every year as if it might be my last.  And my goal every year is to live.

And to me that means--go on an adventure.  Ask a question.  Begin some process that I can look back and say, whatever has happened, good, bad or indifferent, I will have lived my life on my toes and not on my heels."   

To me this means acting, striving to be the very best we can be, controling what we can control, hoping for the best but not taking the worst personally.  Always working to be better.  Or, like my mom always told me, do your best. 

I wish all of you the best in 2012.  And to find joy in the striving!

Here is the NPR link if you'd like to listen.   (The whole discussion lasts 12.5 minutes, and the part above is at the end.)