Saturday

Sep. 20, 2014

The Sorrel Filly

by Wendell Berry

The songs of small birds fade away
into the bushes after sundown,
the air dry, sweet with goldenrod.
Beside the path, suddenly, bright asters
flare in the dusk. The aged voices
of a few crickets thread the silence.
It is a quiet I love, though my life
too often drives me through it deaf.
Busy with costs and losses, I waste
the time I have to be here—a time
blessed beyond my deserts, as I know,
if only I would keep aware. The leaves
rest in the air, perfectly still.
I would like them to rest in my mind
as still, as simply spaced. As I approach,
the sorrel filly looks up from her grazing,
poised there, light on the slope
as a young apple tree. A week ago
I took her away to sell, and failed
to get my price, and brought her home
again. Now in the quiet I stand
and look at her a long time, glad
to have recovered what is lost
in the exchange of something for money.

"The Sorrel Filly" by Wendell Berry, from Collected Poems: 1957-1982. © North Point Press, 1985. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins (books by this author), born in New York City (1884). A Harvard grad, Perkins started his publishing career in the advertising department at Scribners, the venerable — and distinctly Princeton — publishing house. In 1914, Perkins joined the editorial staff, where he quickly shook things up at the staid, highly traditional company by seeking out new, young writers. His first major — and controversial — acquisition came five years later with the manuscript of an unknown St. Paul man. Originally titled The Romantic Egoist, an earlier draft had been roundly dismissed and rejected by the other editors in the house, but Perkins saw promise. When F. Scott Fitzgerald revised and resubmitted the book as encouraged, Perkins accepted it against the judgment of his colleagues. The book, now titled This Side of Paradise, was a smash success, as was the follow-up, The Beautiful and the Damned.

Perkins' editorial eye, however, wasn't yet fully trusted by his co-workers. Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was a commercial disappointment, and still Perkins had the temerity to pay attention when the novelist recommended the work of an American writer he'd met in Paris: Ernest Hemingway. Again, Perkins had to fight his firm to publish Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, considered profane for the time. Eventually, Scribners conceded that Perkins seemed to have a knack for his job. He became the editorial director.

The third author with whom Perkins is most associated, and the one for whom he did the most editing, rather than just advising and encouraging, is Thomas Wolfe. Although the manuscript of Look Homeward, Angel was discovered by another reader at Scribners, Perkins took on the sprawling novel and its sensitive author. He ultimately convinced Wolfe to cut 66,000 words, which they did together with painstaking care. Wolfe later described their first meeting about his 1,100-page draft: "I saw now that Perkins had a great batch of notes in his hand and that on the desk was a great stack of handwritten paper — a complete summary of my whole enormous book. I was so moved and touched to think that someone at length had thought enough of my work to sweat over it in this way that I almost wept."

Wolfe's own praise of his editor helped contribute to an impression that the book was practically co-written. Both of them denied this charge; Wolfe, perhaps, grew to resent it. He eventually left Scribners, a move that friends claimed broke Perkins' heart. But they remained close friends, as did Perkins with Fitzgerald and Hemingway, via frequent correspondence.

When Perkins fell fatally ill with pneumonia in 1947, his wife called an ambulance to their home. As an attendant carried the stretcher up to his bedroom, Perkins instructed his daughter to take the two manuscripts from his nightstand — Cry, The Beloved Country and From Here to Eternity — and deliver them to his secretary for safekeeping.

Perkins said, "An editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as handmaiden to an author. A writer's best work comes entirely from himself."

It's the birthday of muckraking pioneer Upton Sinclair (books by this author), born in Baltimore, Maryland (1878). A precocious child, Sinclair entered City College of New York at the age of 14, which he paid for himself, since his father's alcoholism had left his family in dire straits. He funded his education by publishing stories in newspapers and magazines. And by the time he was 17, Sinclair was doing well enough to pay for his own apartment, as well as send his destitute parents a regular income. Before long, though, Sinclair married, had a son, and found that he could not support his family.

Sinclair's extended family was as rich as his immediate one was poor, and a loan from his uncle bankrolled his first, self-published novel when he was 21. But the disparity between this great poverty and wealth within his own family troubled Sinclair. He became a member of the Socialist Party and committed himself to writing fiction about injustice. When the editor of a Socialist journal commissioned him to write about the plight of immigrants working in Chicago meatpacking houses — and the publishing house Macmillan gave him an advance for the book rights — Sinclair moved to the stockyards district for seven weeks. He took copious notes on the miserable working conditions there, and then returned to the East Coast to transform his investigative journalism into fiction.

The Jungle was serialized in the journal, as planned, but Macmillan wanted nothing to do with the book, urging Sinclair to lose the "blood and guts," which he declined. Four other publishers followed suit, rejecting the book for its graphic imagery. Sinclair decided to self-publish once again, and he began taking advance orders. Encouraged by his brisk sales, Doubleday swooped in at the last minute and agreed to publish the book on the condition that its claims could be verified. The publisher's lawyer traveled to the Chicago stockyards to witness for himself the miserable state of affairs, and The Jungle caused an almost instant sensation when it was published in 1906.

Although Sinclair had intended to highlight the mistreatment of the workers in the meatpacking industry, readers reacted instead to his descriptions of the mistreatment of the animals — that is to say, the readers' food. The outcry over the unsanitary preparation of meat helped pass the Pure Food and Drugs Act. Although they denounced his Socialist preaching, both Winston Churchill and President Teddy Roosevelt praised the book.

Sinclair went on to publish more than 90 books in his lifetime. He also very nearly won the governorship of California after his publication of a booklet titled "I, Governor of California And How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future." His radical plan to end poverty met with enough support to land him on the Democratic Party's ticket, which caused an absolute uproar. His candidacy proved to do very well, but when he ultimately lost to the Republican candidate in 1934, he published a follow-up booklet: "I, Candidate for Governor and How I Got Licked."

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