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John C. Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Maxwell Perkins Syndrome
Richard A. Lupoff


    Edgar Rice Burroughs was born in Chicago in 1875. As a young man he tried his hand at many professions, from cowboy and gold miner to soldier and policeman, to advertising checker and salesman of pots and pans. In his late thirties, approaching what we would call today a midlife crisis, miserable at his repeated business failures, he reportedly lay in his bed, sleepless, whiling away the hours fantasizing of wild interplanetary adventures. From this came his first great creations, John Carter, Dejah Thoris and all of the wonderful Martian adventures. Next came Tarzan of the Apes, and with this sometimes bloodthirsty, grownup clone of Kipling's Mowgli, Burroughs had won fame and fortune that lasted the rest of his life, which ended in 1950. His literary heritage is with us yet. 

    Maxwell Perkins was born in New York City in 1884. A skilled editor and publisher, Perkins rose to become vice president and editor-in-chief of the publishing house of Charles Scribner's Sons. He was most noted for discovering and encouraging young and talented writers, and was instrumental in advancing the careers of Ring Lardner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. On occasion he descended to sponsoring an author in one or another of the popular entertainment genres; one such was S. S. Van Dine, creator of the amateur sleuth Philo Vance. Perkins' most famous literary association was with Thomas Wolfe, a writer legendary for delivering titanic, unorganized, unpublishable, yet brilliant manuscripts to his publishers. Perkins worked with Wolfe, cutting and arranging, to produce novels that some critics regard as masterpieces. Nonetheless, Perkins and Wolfe fell out and Wolfe moved from Scribner's after just two novels. 

    I would point out that the authors Perkins patronized were of the "Hi-Lit" (what Philip Klass sometimes refers to as "Qual-Lit") school of fiction, while Edgar Rice Burroughs was a member of the "Lo-Lit" school. More on this later. 


    I am going to speak to you as a longtime reader, part-time critic and occasional teacher of literature. I am also tempted to speak to you as a mostly full-time author in my own right, and had originally intended to do so. But when I made notes for this talk, and started transforming them into an actual text, I realized that the latter topic would take too much time away from the former, so I will invite anyone who wants to talk about my own thirty-odd books and hundred or so short stories, to do so later, on a one-to-one basis. 

    Still, if I sometimes seem to be making inconsistent, even contradictory, remarks, consider rather that I have shifted gears from, let's say, afficionado to academic, or from occasionally rigorous reviewer to a practitioner of the art I am discussing. 

    One of the images that lovers of books carry in their heads is the traditional one of the editor in his office. He is a conservative gentleman, often of a background both moneyed and cultured. He wears a soft, button-down shirt, a quietly patterned necktie and a tweed jacket. He may smoke a pipe. He sits in a large leather chair behind a mammoth desk topped with either polished glass or tooled leather. His office is walled with rich woods and lined with first editions, with a few sporting prints -- or, better yet, original paintings by half-remembered artists -- for relief. 

    This editor probably works -- or worked -- for a house such as Harper & Brothers, Houghton-Mifflin, Appleton-Century-Crofts, Bobbs-Merrill, Alfred A. Knopf, or the afore-men-tioned Charles Scribner's Sons. 

    He tended to issue limited lists of works, and those of the highest literary quality. By high literary quality I imply such characteristics as subtlety of psychological insight, elegance of prose style, and complexity of technique. 

    When an author arrived at this editor's office, he or she was ushered into the inner sanctum, seated upon an elegant chair or loveseat, and perhaps offered a glass of sherry. After making polite small talk for a while, the editor would summon his secretary who would bring the author's manuscript to the room.

    The editor and author would then discuss fine points of literature, a conversation spotted with such phrases as, "I hope you will be so kind as to give us a further development of the splendid theme introduced in chapter three." At the end of the conference the editor would see the author to the door, perhaps to the street door, and send him or her home in a cab. 

    Authors who might expect such treatment were those I mentioned earlier, as protegés of Maxwell Perkins. We might revert to a slightly earlier period of the Twentieth Century and add to the list Henry James and Edith Wharton. 

    An alternative image is one associated with lesser publishing houses and in particular with the pulp magazines of past years or the mass-market paperbacks of the present. In the context of this talk, I will refer chiefly to the pulp era, as examplified by Argosy, Blue Book, Adventure, Short Stories, Weird Tales, Astounding Stories, Black Mask, Wild West Weekly, and perhaps a thousand more. 

    The stories that dominated these magazines were purchased in staggering volume. They represented the "Lo-Lit" school of writing, but it is probably unfair to equate this with low quality. Rather, a different set of criteria applied. Stories were gauged by color and action; by vividness of, rather than subtlety of, characterization; by a kind of dynamic energy and a rapidity of pace and directness of presentation. 

    The editor was typically a shirtsleeved young fellow who swigged coffee at his desk and beer with his lunch. He was busy, busy, busy putting out a string of magazines. If an author arrived at his office -- which often consisted of a battered desk in a tiny cubicle or in a noisy, stuffy bullpen -- it was usually to plead for a check that would forestall eviction for another week and starvation for another day. If the author could time his visit right, and if he was in luck, he might also parlay the occasion into a corned beef sandwich and a shot of whiskey at the local bar-and-grille. 

    Of the literally thousands of authors who worked in this milieu, I will mention just a handfull: Robert A. Heinlein, Louis L'Amour, Erle Stanley Gardner, Leigh Brackett, H.P. Lovecraft, and of course the writer in whose name we are today assembled, Edgar Rice Burroughs. 

    Editorial involvement in manuscripts was minimal, primarily because editors were responsible for such a volume of work that they could not afford the time to tinker with authors' stories. There were exceptions. Let me mention two that I have from persons directly involved. 

    In the early 1950s -- the final burst of vigor among the pulps -- Horace Gold ran Galaxy, Galaxy Novels, and Beyond. He was famous for tinkering with his authors' stories, and on a later occasion told me that he considered it his duty as editor to in effect collaborate with each author. Theodore Sturgeon said, "Horace was able to turn a mediocre story into a good one; he was also able to turn a brilliant story into a good one." 

    In the same era, Frank Belknap Long was editing at Fantastic Universe magazine. The very young Robert Silverberg was cutting his teeth by turning out numerous stories for the magazines of the era. Silverberg told me that he used to reread his published works, and when he read his stories in Fantastic Universe he found them oddly changed, yet not changed. Every character, every incident, every sentence was still in place. And yet -- there was something different about the stories. 

    Silverberg compared the published versions to carbons of his manuscripts, and discovered a multitude of inconsequential alterations. "Big" had become "large." Later, "large" became "big." "Rapid" became "speedy." "Silent" became "quiet" or "quiet" became "silent." More puzzled than annoyed, Silverberg asked the publisher of the magazine, Leo Margulies, what was going on. Margulies shook his head and said, "Frank thinks he has to mark up a manuscript or he isn't earning his pay. But he respects your work, Bob, so he does his best not to really change anything that you've written."


    Maxwell Perkins did not adopt the same approach to editing every author he worked with, or necessarily every book by a single author. According to his biographer, A. Scott Berg, Perkins received the manuscript of Fitzgerald's The Far Side of Paradise and returned it to the author with suggestions for a major revamping, including the switch from a first-person to a third-person narative voice. 

    Fitzgerald acquiesced to many of Perkins' requests, and of course achieved great success. In contrast, Hemingway said that Perkins --

"...never asked me to change anything I wrote except to remove certain words which were not then publishable. Blanks were left and anyone who knew the words would know what they were. For me he was not an editor. He was a wise friend and a wonderful companion." 

    Perkins' colleague at Scriber's, John Hall Wheelock, wrote about Perkins' relationship with Wolfe: 

Max, of course, saw more of Thomas Wolfe than I did. In fact, Wolfe absorbed so much of Max's time, and indeed of the time of everyone connected with the editorial department, that Mr. Scribner felt he'd have to let him go because other authors resented the excess attention Thomas Wolfe was getting... ...the feeling that Max Perkins had for Wolfe as a writer was extraordinary... I always felt there was more to the relationship: Max had no son... He really longed for a son and he made Tom his son (Wolfe and his wife, Louise Saunders Wolfe, had five daughters.) 
    For all of Perkins' success in boosting the careers of his other "Hi-Lit" protegés, his work with Wolfe remains the basis of his legendary stature in American publishing. Generations of bright young graduates of prestigious institutions, be they members of the Ivy League, the Seven Sisters, or otherwise, have arrived in New York, degrees in hand, ideals in heart, and set out to storm the bastions of Publisher's Row, there to carve the manuscripts and guide the talents of reluctant authors into niches in the world of "Hi-Lit." They are arriving still, and those of us whom these latter-day Maxwell Perkinses seek to make into latter-day Thomas Wolfes pursue our profession at our peril. 


    I have mentioned various writers in this talk, and I assume that all of my listeners are familiar with the works of some of these authors, and possibly some of my listeners are familiar with the works of all of these authors, but I am certain that all of my listeners are not familiar with the works of all of these authors. So let me give you a tiny taste of each, as if this were an ice cream parlor and each author an available flavor. Wherever possible, I will give you the first sentences or paragraphs of a given work, as I have found this a fairly reliable way of making a quick decision as to whether I want to read a story or novel in its entirety. From The Turn of the Screw, a ghostly horror story by Henry James: 

The story has held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child. The case, I may mention, was that of an apparition in just such an old house as had gathered us for the occasion -- an appearance, of a dreadful kind, to a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it... 

    Is this Hi-Lit? Consider the following, from "Beyond the Wall of Sleep," a tale of psychic travel and horror by H. P. Lovecraft: 

"I have often wondered if the majority of mankind ever pause to reflect upon the occasionally titanic significance of dreams, and of the obscure world to which they belong. Whilst the greater number of our nocturnal visions are perhaps no more than faint and fantastic reflections of our waking experiences -- Freud to the contrary with his puerile symbolism -- there are still a certain remainder whose immundane and ethereal character permits of no ordinary interpretation, and whose vaguely exciting and disquieting effect suggests possible minute glimpses into a sphere of mental existence no less important than physical life, yet separated from that life by an all but impassible barrier." 

    Is this Lo-Lit? Is it any different from the works of Henry James? I would be grateful to anyone who can help me tell the difference. 

    But let's move on. Let's open that famous F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, The Far Side of Paradise, and take a first taste of the author's wares:

Amory Blaine inherited from his mother every trait, except the stray inexpressible few, that made him worth while. His father, an ineffectual inarticulate man with a taste for Byron and a habit of drowsing over the Encyclopaedia Britannica, grew wealthy at thirty through the death of two elder brothers, successful Chicago brokers, and in the first flush of feeling that the world was his, went to Bar Harbor and met Beatrice O'Hara. 

    Hi-Lit? Here's a Lo-Lit bit, by Louis L'Amour, a little-known piece called "The Lost Golden City of Manos": 

Sleepy rivers writhe sinuously between the deep green of tropical undergrowth covering muddy banks. Great trees, giants of the jungle, arch overhead, their thick limbs heavy with foliage. Somewhere downstream, the slimy coils of a giant anaconda, largest of living reptiles, slip into the dark, mysterious waters of the river. A vagrant ray of sunshine picks out a spot between the shadows, and finds a trace of movement, the black and gold body of a jaguar, the tiger of the Amazonian jungles. Without a sound he slinks by, his dappled body blending almost indistinguishably with sunlight and shadow. 

    Very nice, I think you will agree, and altogether admirable, except perhaps for the "slimy coils of a giant anaconda." Anacondas are not at all slimy, nor are any snakes I have ever encountered or studied. But -- what is so "Hi" about Fitzgerald and so "Lo" about L'Amour?

    Ernest Hemingway, manliest of brawny macho-men. From "The Undefeated": 

Manuel Garcia climbed the stairs to Don Miguel Retana's office. He set down his suitcase and knocked on the door. There was no answer. Manuel, standing in the hallway, felt there was someone in the room. He felt it through the door. 

    Leigh Brackett, one of the relatively few grand female pulpsters and screenwriters, who worked with equal success in science fiction, western, and crime fiction. From No Good from a Corpse

Edmond Clive saw her almost as soon as he came into the tunnel from the San Francisco train. She was standing beyond the gate, watching for him, and somehow in all that seething press of uniforms and eager women, she was quite alone. 

    Hi? Lo? How about something breezy? How about You Know Me Al, a book of baseball fiction by Maxwell Perkins' protegé Ring Lardner: 

Old Pal: Well Al I have not got much to tell you. As you know Comiskey wrote me that if I was up in Chi this month to drop in and see him. So I got here Thursday morning and went to his office in the afternoon. His office is out at the ballpark and believe me its some park and some office. 

    I went in and asked for Comiskey and a young fellow says He is not here now but can I do anything for you? I told him who I am and says I had an engagement to see Comiskey. He says The boss is out of town hunting and did I have to see him personally? 

    From a pulp writer best known for his science fiction, a rare essay into pure fantasy. Robert A. Heinlein's "Magic, Inc.": 

"Whose spells are you using, buddy?" That was the first thing this bird said after coming into my place of business. He had hung around maybe twenty minutes, until I was alone, looking at samples of waterproof pigment, fiddling with plumbing catalogues, and monkeying with the hardware display. I didn't like his manner. I don't mind a legitimate business inquiry from a customer, but I resent gratuitous snooping. 

    Lardner? Heinlein? Hi-Lit? Lo-Lit? Show me the way to go home, I'm tired and I want to go to bed. Let's get to Max Perkins' supreme protegé, Thomas Wolfe, and his supreme masterpiece, Look Homeward, Angel: 

...a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces. Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother's face; from the prison of her flesh we came into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth. 

    And from the this to -- oh, let's pick a fantastic pulpster almost at random. From "Mimic," by Donald A. Wollheim: 

It is less than five hundred years since an entire half of the world was discovered. It is less than two hundred years since the discovery of the last continent. The sciences of chemistry and physics go back scarce one century. The science of aviation goes back forty years. The science of atomics is being born. And yet we think we know a lot. We know little or nothing.

    Was S. S. Van Dine Hi-Lit or Lo? Behind that byline lurked Willard Huntington Wright, art critic and theorist, onetime enfant terrible of the literary world, professional intellectual. Wright/Van Dine's biographer John Loughery says that, in order to make the money necessary to sustain himself in the lifestyle of his choosing, in 1926 he proposed to Maxwell Perkins a series of mystery stories of the purest intellectual water. Perkins took him on. In short order, Van Dine's stories of Philo Vance shot to the top of the bestseller lists, where they remained for a number of years. From this odd Hi-Lit/Lo-Lit hybrid, from The Dragon Murder Case:

That sinister and terrifying crime, which came to be known as the dragon murder case, will always be associated in my mind with one of the hottest summers I have ever experienced in New York. Philo Vance, who stood aloof from the eschatological and supernatural implications of the case, and was therefore able to solve the problem on a purely rationalistic basis, had planned a fishing trip to Norway that August, but an intellectual whim had caused him to cancel his arrangements and to remain in America. Since the influx of post-war, nouveau-riche Americans along the French and Italian Rivieras, he had forgone his custom of spending his summers on the Mediterranean, and had gone after salmon and trout in the streams of North Bergenhus. 
    Now that's what I call exciting writing. Really makes you want to read several hundred pages more, doesn't it? Consider the following, very Lo-Lit opening from "Come and Get It" by Erle Stanley Gardner, Black Mask magazine, 1927: 
I gazed into the black muzzle of the forty-four "Squint" Dugan was holding to my face, and secretly gave him credit for being much more clever than I had anticipated. I had hardly expected to be discovered in my hiding place, least of all by Squint Dugan.

    And now, a parting shot from Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton, the grand doyenne of American Hi-Lit. This novel was serialized in Scriber's Magazine in 1911. 

I had this story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. 

    If you know Starkfield, Massachusetts, you know the post-office. If you know the post-office you must have seen Ethan Frome drive up to it, drop the reins on his hollow-backed bay, and drag himself across the brick pavement to the white collonade; and you must have asked who he was. 

    It was there that, several years ago, I saw him for the first time; and the sight pulled me up sharp. Even then he was the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but the ruin of a man. 

    The Hi-Lit critic Alfred Kazin -- let me repeat, please do not take my use of the terms Hi-Lit and Lo-Lit as praise or pejorative, they are used purely to refer to differing literary traditions in this country -- Alfred Kazin, while praising Ethan Frome as an authentic masterpiece, does take exception to Wharton's opening paragraphs. He says, "Although there is something mechanical and too obvious about the device framing the story -- we are supposed to be getting at it through the eyes of a visitor to Starkfield, who is picking up the details from neighbors -- we easily overlook this under the spell of genuine tragedy." 

    I like to think that Edgar Rice Burroughs was working on Under the Moons of Mars, a.k.a. A Princess of Mars, at the very time that Edith Wharton was writing Ethan Frome. It too was serialized -- in All-Story magazine -- in 1912, just months after Ethan Frome appeared in Scribner's.

In submitting Captain Carter's strange manuscript to you in book form, I believe that a few words relative to this remarkable personality will be of interest. My first recollection of Captain Carter is of the few months he spent at my father's home in Virginia, just prior to the opening of the civil war. I was then a child of but five years, yet I well remember the tall, dark, smooth-faced athletic man whom I called Uncle Jack. He seemed always to be laughing...

    Probably you will remember that Tarzan of the Apes opens with a similar framing sequence, this one set in a pub in London. I wonder what Alfred Kazin would think of these two novels, and how he would compare them to Ethan Frome

    I wonder if there is any real difference between Hi-Lit and Lo-Lit at all. To be sure, some authors deal in the superficial, others in the profound; some in the extraordinary and others in the commonplace; some in the physical, others in the psychological. 

    But had Burroughs, Lovecraft, Heinlein, Brackett and their colleagues in the pulps come under the tutelage of Maxwell Perkins, been published by staid houses and promoted in hightone literary journals and among Hi-Lit oriented university faculties, would they now be regarded as literary icons? 

    And had the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and, heaven help us, Thomas Wolfe, and others of their ilk somehow found their way into the pages of Argosy All-Story Weekly instead of Scribner's Magazine, would we now be attending, let us say, the Edith Wharton Dum-Dum? 

    I thank you for your patient attention.