The return of a man called Perkins

The literary editor behind the greatest works of Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald is to feature in a new biopic

The publishing editor – traditionally a fussy, gnomish individual with a balding pate and pebble glasses, who inhabits a dusty backroom in his publishers' basement and holds forth with passion on the role of the semi-colon or the iniquity of the dangling modifier – is not usually considered a romantic or heroic kinda guy. He may know all about plot structure, about character consistency and impeccable grammar, but he's unlikely to be considered a sex god or alpha male. Unless, that is, he's Maxwell Perkins.

In American publishing circles, Perkins, who died in 1947, is spoken of with trembling reverence. He acted as midwife to some of the greatest masterpieces of US literary history, most especially The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises. He befriended, and earned the trust of, writers with the god-like status of Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe and F Scott Fitzgerald. And now he's about to be immortalised on the silver screen, played (probably) by Sean Penn.

It's not the first time his filmic canonisation has been planned. Ever since the biographer A Scott Berg's excitable life, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, won a National Book Award in 1978, rumours have flown about film adaptations. In 2008, a script by John Logan was being shown around, and Lawrence Kasdan, director of Body Heat and The Big Chill and writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Clash of the Titans, was set to direct; but the money didn't work out. Now the producer and financier Bill Pohlad will direct the Logan script, with Berg, the biographer, in the executive producer's chair. Pohlad has worked with Penn on three occasions and is expected to reel him in to play the fedora-wearing editor-in-chief.

Why Perkins? What was so special about the man who spent the best part of the Jazz Age reading typescripts and explaining to people that their plot was in the wrong order? He was born in New York City in 1884, went to school in New Hampshire and graduated in economics from Harvard. After working for the New York Times as a reporter, he joined Charles Scribner's Ltd, the country's most distinguished publishing house, in 1910, initially as advertising manager.

Keener to work with younger talents than the company's traditional-minded authors (who included Henry James and Edith Wharton), he signed up Fitzgerald in 1919, in the teeth of his older colleagues' disapproval. The working title of Fitzgerald's debut was The Romantic Egoist. Under Perkins's careful attentions, it was radically revised, retitled This Side of Paradise and published in 1920, a watershed in American letters.

He met Hemingway at the start of his career and persuaded Scribner's to take on his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, a chronicle of drink, directionless chat, impotence, bullfights and the memory of war. Once more his colleagues objected to the language but were out-argued by Perkins. He also worked with the macho Papa on A Farewell to Arms in 1928.

The story goes that Hemingway came to the publishers' office for a showdown over obscenity. Perkins told him there was one word he had used in the book that could not, under any circumstances, be printed in a Scribner's novel. He couldn't say it out loud, he said, so he wrote it down – fuck – inside one of the squares on his desk calendar. While Perkins and Hemingway were at lunch, the venerable Mr Scribner came to his office and saw the offending word, on a day apparently specially earmarked. When Perkins returned from lunch, Scribner said to him: "Don't you want to take the rest of the day off, Max? You must be exhausted."

When a novel by the hopeless title O Lost was discovered on the Scribner's unsolicited manuscripts pile, Perkins was told to make something publishable out of it. He made thousands of notes, analysed every scene, suggested cuts and changes but delighted the author, Thomas Wolfe, by insisting he retained the coarse, vulgar and obscene bits. He asked Wolfe to cut 90,000 words from the vast manuscript and rename it Look Homeward, Angel. It was published in 1929 and another channel of American writing was opened. Subsequent huge works by Wolfe saw titanic struggles by the two men for "possession" of increasingly baggy narratives, and Wolfe finally left the firm. But Perkins was his literary executor after his death in 1938.

He did not, as some people imagine, rewrite the works of his starry charges; instead he gave them advice on structure, selection and where their creative instincts were taking them. Oddly, for an editor, he was sloppy about punctuation, spelling and proof-reading. His letters were written in a slapdash tirade of half-connected thoughts, linked by commas and plus signs. This, for instance, to Hemingway: "I'm glad you're going to write some stories. All you have to do is to follow your own judgement, or instinct + disregard what is said, + convey the absolute bottom quality of each person, situation + thing. Isn't that simple!!... I can get pretty depressed but even at worst I still believe... that the utterly real thing in writing is the only thing that counts + the whole racket melts down before it. All you have to do is trust yourself."

He was, however, more than a creative editor to his charges. He was their friend and fan and one-man support system. He went fishing with Hemingway in Key West and hunting in Arkansas. He lent Fitzgerald money for his various excesses. He stayed up all night, flat out, working with Wolfe. The Collected Letters of Perkins reveal the titans of American letters as a bunch of terrible cry-babies, whom Perkins had constantly to reassure. In December 29, Hemingway wrote to complain that someone had alleged that he and Fitzgerald were homosexuals. Perkins wrote a placatory letter. In the same week, Fitzgerald wrote about the false reports in the paper about a Hemingway boxing match in which he, Fitzgerald, was timekeeper. Perkins wrote to tell him not to worry. Wolfe wrote to whinge about the critics' unenthusiastic reception of Look Homeward, Angel. Perkins wrote back to assure him it was a big success and would live forever.

The authors were all considerably younger than him. Perkins was 12 years older than Fitzgerald, 15 years older than Hemingway and 16 years older than Wolfe. It's not too tendentious to suggest that he was their father-figure and they the sons he never had (though he had five daughters by his wife, Louise Saunders.) In later years he added more distinguished names to his roster of "sons" – Ring Lardner, SS Van Dine, Erskine Caldwell, Edmund Wilson and Alan Paton, of Cry the Beloved Country. At the time of his death in 1947 he was encouraging James Jones to write what became From Here to Eternity.

Perhaps the best index of his success is the fact that no editor has ever had more books dedicated to him – 68 of them by the time he died. "He shaped American literature more than any other editor," wrote the publisher Patrick O'Connor. "He was responsible for the literary popular novel. He found major authors, and he found the readership for their books."

Literary greats: Three of his biggest successes

F Scott Fitzgerald

The author of The Great Gatsby was signed up by Perkins in 1919, against the wishes of his senior colleagues. Fitzgerald, who financed some of his personal excesses with loans by Perkins, became one of the 20th century's greatest writers and the creator of the 1920s Jazz Age, a term he coined.

Thomas Wolfe

When a manuscript titled O Lost found its way to Perkins's desk, he knew he had something special. Renamed Look Homeward, Angel, the novel launched Wolfe's career and helped to redefine American literature. Perkins eventually fell out with Wolfe, who went on to write several more highly acclaimed works.

Ernest Hemingway

The Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning American author and journalist, who drove ambulances during the First World War, published his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, in 1926 after Perkins championed him at Scribner's, the New York publishing house – and defended his controversial use of obscenities.

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