Edgar Rice Burroughs and
the Maxwell Perkins Syndrome
Richard A. Lupoff
I. WHO WERE THESE TWO MEN?
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
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.
RELATIONSHIPS IN AMERICAN FICTION
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
III. HOW MAXWELL
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
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."
at Scriber's, John Hall Wheelock, wrote about Perkins' relationship with
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.
IV. HI-LIT VERSUS
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Princess of Mars, at the very time that Edith Wharton was writing
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...
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.