A Severity of Conscience: Writers & Self-Censorship Print
Essays and Memoirs

maxwell_perkins_nywts3(Written May 1997)

Her name is Arianna and she says to me, the professor, after creative writing class, after I had put her in the dunce spot of staying around to speak with me, “I know you wanted me to com­ment on Phillip’s writing, but I can’t because it disgusts me.” She is an older woman, my age, with dread locks and dark brown eyes. There’s a fierceness about her like one who clerks a night shift at 7/11. “It’s his language that repels me,” she goes on, “the language of ad­dicts, using shit and fuck incessantly, typing women as no more than whores who want dope. I’ve heard it a hundred times before, and it doesn’t deserve my attention.”

I shouldn’t be surprised she’s upset. Her objection, though, is rare. “Were you to tell him this,” I say, “he might understand more about his audience than he realizes, that his sensibility is not the only one he can write for.”

“But I’m not his audience,” Arianna says. “When I go to a book store or a library, I don’t reach for that kind of trash on the shelf. I read what I want to read. There’s nothing that tells me I have to read or listen to something that I abhor.”

“Don’t you risk censoring yourself with this,” I say. “Don’t we become more of an authoritarian society which finds importance in what’s not produced and spoken than in what is?”

“I don’t buy that. I have a right to not subject myself to things I find objection­able. Like slasher films or drug pushers. Neither you nor the school can force me to read him.” Her eyelids narrow; she doesn’t move.

“But what will Phillip do for you when it's your turn?”

“I don’t care if he responds to me. He can ignore me like I ignore him.” I expect one, but there’s no self-conscious smile from her.

“Why are you here, then?” I realize, always, too late that this is never a good question to pose to a student.

“Most people in this class,” she says, evading me, “don't write such drivel.”

“In my experience,” I say, “many students write about their lives, their addictions, their failures, the seamy side of city life—and it’s graphic. This is an urban campus.”

“But I’ve heard so much of that crap, that psycho stream-of-consciousness from addicts and people in treatment. It revolts me.”

How adamant her complaint! How righteous her refusal! Still, I want to end our tetchy chat. And compromise. “Can you at least put your disdain into a one-sentence comment?” I ask.

“Literature,” she continues, suddenly professorial herself, “is as much about what is worth reading as it is about what we're supposed to tolerate in the name of artistic liberty. In fact, literature, the stuff that survives, is equal to the reader’s desire to read it. This is foremost, even for a class of creative writers.”

Said with aplomb, she leaves.

Arianna has told me that Phillip’s writing is lousy because it’s offensive. She’s told me to tell him to take his work and stuff it. And I have tried to tell her that the quality of student writing is less important than the supportive­ness we give it as a class. I love you, you love me.

Her objections aside, I’m invigorated by her being in the class. In the ensuing weeks I hope to talk more with Arianna about the “reader’s desire to read it.” I appreciate people like her who spark such important differences. Our culture has championed artistic freedom sometimes to the absurd point of obliterating judgment just so we recognize—uphold, champion—anything that's expressed. Recent cultural history bears this out. In a value-neutral climate of multiculturalism and arts’-groups’ rights, few were eager to discuss the artistic quality of Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” once the debate over its funding began. The perception of adolescent porn in Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs and Calvin Klein’s advertisements had more relevance to moral corruption of the young and free-speech issues than it did to aesthetic confusion. It is, I believe, vital to equate the question, What is Art? with the question, What is a Free Society? What freedoms do the processes of artistic creation and the products of artistic consumption make us aware of? But Arianna’s complaint is not about what can or cannot be published. Her complaint is simpler, more subtle, more individual: It is about asserting her right to refuse objectionable content above or, at least, parallel to an author’s right not to be censored.

At the urban college where I’ve taught for nearly a decade, student writers are student authors, far less Jane Austen, much more Henry Miller. They are relentless chroniclers of experi­­ence—unaware, unfazed and often uninterested in the masks of literature, especially the occa­sionally teachable techniques of poetry and fiction. A lived authority commands their writing: “That SOB in my poem,” say a student proudly, “really is my father.” Stories and poems, whether flat, triumphant, bloody, heroic, artless—they’re all true.

Two weeks later Arianna has not returned. Then I receive word that she’s dropped the course, I suspect immediately after our talk. I lament the fact that I confronted her lack of participation so early as to make her difference the issue. Arianna is the articulate participant I wanted to listen to as much as the articulate creator, in this case the oppositional beatnik writer whose rampant obscenity and existential rant drove her away. Phillip stays in the course because his outrageousness gets attention. Arianna drops no doubt because she feels her rebuke of Philip warrants no serious attention from me or the class. I’m left wondering, have I sided more with the author’s right to be heard than the listener’s right not to listen?

But then had I raised the issue of Phillip’s cussing and realism to class members (which, raised in previous classes, usually yielded discussion of the author’s rights and responsibilities, not the listener’s), the students would have dismissed Arianna’s peevish­ness and, without acrimony, put her in her place. They would have said, Hey, it’s a free country; you don’t have to listen to it if you don’t want to. That’s cool. But let’s compromise and we’ll respect your preference. The author-reader might warn us of the iffy content in his or her poem or story, and we’ll decide for ourselves to stay or leave. On the other hand, I think that maybe it’s better Arianna didn’t get her way. She wanted the course to pro­duce in an instant, perhaps uniformly, a kind of ready-made expurgated writing with proven shelf-life like the Ten Com­mandments or ­the essays of Mon­taigne. And when the course, that is, the student writers, didn’t create microwaveable classics, she high-tailed it back to the bookstore where the safe shelves sag under the weight and banner of: Books To Have Survived Their Offensiveness.

I want to say to Arianna that student writers are just that: They need a place, a supportive place, to make mistakes long before their chapbooks are rejected or published. I also want to invite her back to the classroom. Her intransigence is much more refreshing than the pointlessly free and no-longer-shocking shit’s and fuck’s of so much “creative” writing. She’s right—and yet she’s gone. Self-censored.

*   *   *

Arianna’s complaint puts me in mind first of how accustomed we are to censorship from without—McCarthyism­, ­the McCarran-Walter Act, military intolerance of gays and lesbians, school-board book bans, motion picture and TV ratings' codes, the girlie books on the news­stand barred from the young boy’s reach. Our schizy dilemmas of the objectionable span Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Luther Campbell’s “Nasty As I Wanna Be,” Frederic­k Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of An American Slave and the Antioch speech codes for co-ed dating. Our definition of censorship almost always stipulates a public that must be protected or controlled from offensive speech, film or book. Censorship arises from those institutional at­tacks—state, church, community, kiva—wielded against the production of unpopular ideas, production in material form being key. We censor materials because censoring the mind is impossible. Or better, censoring the mind is accomplished via censored materials. As Jonathon Green points out, censorship has two premises: security and castration. Security, he writes in his Encyclopedia of Censorship, dwells with those bureaucracies who must protect us from knowing their “obsessively restricted trivia.” What we don’t know about ourselves and our fellow citizens can’t hurt us. The far more insidiously restrictive premise of castration brings together govern­ment and other self-selecting demi-gods who dictate what is consumable in hopes of ethically uplifting or expunging our thoughts.

But despite centuries of blinders, by 1997 many Americans have seen it all, which may account for the libertarian paradox of the issue. Though we must continually battle for Paine’s defense of those few severely singular points of view, we are not immune at all from truly disgusting content—bondage videos, snuff films, kiddie porn chat groups. The consequence of our tradition of seeing more rather than less censored material is that our minds become more sophisticated, more discerning, more bored with the sheer quantity of uncensored images and texts. Courts in America have been especially helpful to those who want to bare all. Ten per cent of all legal cases this century—the cases of satire alone, brought as injurious in civil suits and rejected or over­turned, could paper the Grand Canyon—comprise challenges to our freedom to view unexpur­gated materials and, except for rare instances, those challenges are defeated time and again. The public’s right to ridicule those in power or high office is as thoroughly protected as the high and mighty’s tradition to grossly misbehave—and not get prosecuted. The result is our billboards, pic­tures, cartoons, radio drama, art exhibits, films and video, magazines and books are kept almost entirely unexpurgated.

In our day, few of the old style censors exist: The Roman censor no longer supervises public morals as he counts the citizens in their homes; the late Medieval church censor carries no Index of Prohibited Books which, after the invention of movable type, banned heretical religious publications and later, literature and erotica, once secular storytellers began to rival the produc­tion of church-prescribed books; the ­Victorian and Edwardian censor no longer recognizes “obscenity,” or the moral depravity thought to inherently exist in overtly sexual materials. Having survived the Thomas Bowdlers, the John Winthrops, and the Anthony Comstocks and their attacks on our “vices,” the idea of an ­agreed-upon collective social good for which these censors once upbraided us is seldom seen these days. After so much objectionable artwork has been brought to trial and upheld as constitu­tionally protected, the good of the collective has lapsed from our con­sciousness just as the American nuclear family has—a myth of what was ridiculously overstated to begin with. True. Censorship by school boards and corporate VP’s, afraid of alienating their stock­holders, still exists in the West. But its political and class orientation is no longer mono­lithic. Rather censorship is centered—pathetically, I might add—in what Green calls the “private moralists,” whose self-appointed mission is “to protect not the power of those at the top, but the alleged weakness of those at the bottom.”

Complicating as well as dumbing down the issue of censorship are the media’s new methods of constituting and regulating their audience. In his prophetic 1985 Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman showed how the censorship of the past has been transformed by techno­logically induced idleness. Television, a corporate glutton filling our lives with tactless, mindless infotainment, acts today as the great pacifier, that is, the new censor.

I would venture that the traditional civil libertarian's opposition to the banning of books from school libraries and from school curricula is now largely irrelevant. Such acts of censorship are annoying, of course, and must be opposed. But they are trivial. Even worse, they are distracting, in that they divert civil libertarians from con­fronting those questions that have to do with the claims of new technologies. To put it plainly, a student’s freedom to read is not seriously injured by someone’s banning a book on Long Island or in Anaheim or anyplace else. But as George Grebner, the noted communications theorist, suggests, television clearly impairs the student’s freedom to read, and it does so with innocent hands, so to speak. Television does not ban books, it simply displaces them.

Increasingly, in our age, the censor operates in the individual. No one will censor this objectionable writer for me, Arianna complains in a strangely self-totalitarian gambit, so I must do it to myself—refuse to listen. Today, personal choice is of the greatest social value, especially in creating limitations on self-excess which the society will not police. The current emphasis values indivi­duals responding “responsibly” to that which we—the individual we—see and create. No need to censor: just caution. Cigarettes, porno, rock lyrics. (The news reports that cigarette companies may rewrite the package’s injunction: Warning: Cigarettes Kill. As if that will stop people from smok­ing.) In a strangely Huxleyian twist, the contemporary censor is less likely to be on the consuming side and more likely to be on the producing side, the authors them­selves as well as the those who choose to wield their own censoring switch from within the audience.

Our idea of a self-censor equal to the public or institutional censor ­began, I believe, with Freud. In the early twentieth century, Freud was the first to use the word censor to describe a psycho­logical mechanism that blocked certain anxiety-producing thoughts and images from reaching consciousness. A mental censor he labeled it. Freud also noted in Civilization and Its Discon­tents that the super-ego (or conscience) functioned as the mind’s watchdog over the rapacity of the ego. He labeled the conscience a severe taskmaster in its role as enforcer of the individual’s psychological code. By relocating our attentions about censorship away from social taboos to the mind’s organization of defense mechanisms which assuage anxiety and wall out guilt, Freud greatly expanded the entire arena of censorship. His supposition that the censor existed as much in the individual as it did in the social sphere was revolutionary, bringing the self in as a player and not just as a victim of the expurgator. In fact, for Freud and other archeologists of consciousness, society’s censors merely mirrored each person’s individual censor. The individual, without government interference, had enough conscience to regulate what she should and should not see or read or create.

Once Freud constituted a censor in the self, he invited the modernist assault upon it. No sooner had he reformulated the self’s tyranny over perception than writers and artists before and after the Great War swiftly engaged such tyranny with parody and bombast. The will of the modern, in the hands of Marcel Duchamp or Cesar Vallejo, meant an anti-modern response. Thus, many writers spent their time unchaining their inner censors, if not with sym­bolism and anti-romantic Dada, then with alcohol, junk, sex, disillusionment—all in the service of better artistic products. Pound’s "Make It New" meant both work and author. Of course, so radical was this freed creative energy that their effects were often ridiculed and banned.

The obscenity trials of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover—one banned book among many—lasted from its posthumous and denuded publication in 1932, through its ongoing prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act, until Penguin Books’ victory in court in 1960. For nearly thirty years, the camps of state and organized religion combined armies to battle the Lady, but the irony in the end was on Lawrence. The British novelist had gone so far in freeing his characters of their romantic decorum, trying to naturalize their muzzled Victorian sensibility, only to be censored for the faintest few pages of sexual explicitness and a goodly number of spoken words, fuck, cunt, shit, cock, arse, fucking, balls, and piss. (To complete a list of "seven dirty words you cannot say on TV," George Carlin added to the first four, tits, motherfucker, and cocksucker.) For Lawrence's book, what required the censor’s ax was the sex and, more to the point, the depiction of an adultery willingly engaged in by both male and female leads. What was less criticized (or even noticed) was Lawrence’s creation: a self as naturally libidinous as it was spiritually free, idealized in the gamekeeper Mellors (Lawrence’s female-controlling ur-male at his best). Add to that Lady Chatterly’s desire to have Mellors, then to stay with him in a new marriage where their emotional honesty—and healthy sex practices—Lawrence hoped might change the face of human companionship.

It is hard for us to realize in our ACLU-blessed culture that the very freedom to publish uncensored work which writers once sought, which Lawrence never knew completely but challenged during his lifetime, has far less value today as freedom when so little is publicly censored. To be “free from” means much more when one is not free. Free expression, in fact, is sapped of power when all the shackles are loosed. Witness The People V. Larry Flynt, which director Milos Forman called “a love letter to the Supreme Court.” Though Larry Flynt may have bravely tested our liberties, there is nothing really shocking in what he unveiled in the 1970s to most eyes today. In fact, the film reveals Flynt more as a buffoonish entertainer than a first amendment liberator. Flynt’s culture of masturbatory sexual gratification, to follow Neil Postman’s argument, has only pressed our society into further complacency and actually liberated us to buy our sleaze somewhat less self-consciously.

Thus, as writers’ censored work has become celebrated once it was freed, as the psychology of authorship has become as interesting to read about as the traditional work itself, as television has displaced books while policing itself with a motion picture-like rating system, and as pornogra­phers have become free-speech saints, the great shift is almost complete. Today, no consensus exists as to what should be censored. What seems agreed to, however, is a forceful relocation of the censor in each individual, each family, each corporation. The triumph of the monadic, the end of the communitarian. Such responsibility, where the individual appoints the self as ­censor and uncensor, is the newest frontier in our estimation not of what our society and the social good can bear but of what we ourselves can.

The individual-as-self-censor appears to be too new to quantify or to find representative examples other than among artists. One reason for this is that we may have devolved our self-censoring impulses by regarding censorship as a public issue for too long. On the one hand, we have a sense of being freer to choose what’s right amid the myriad choices of explicit and less explicit content while, on the other hand, we have no clue as to the psychology of choice and how much our marketplace, history, and fear play a part in that choice. If there’s one thing writers and artists seldom talk about, it is how the self-censor works within ourselves, between writer and editor, or between writer and audience whose commercial and literary unpredictability authors nowadays must navigate. Agents, address logos, rhetorical devices, the hunger for time, colonies, yes. Self-censorship, no.

Part of the self-imposed silence comes because we aren’t as sure as Arianna is about our right not to look at the offensive object. Why? Our individual ethical codes often tell us to fear and desire what is objectionable. Sexual content is, perhaps, more necessary than ever in a writer’s work. In fact, there seems to be an obligation to write graphic sex scenes not only because audiences are used to them, perhaps crave them, especially in movies, but also because many writers feel they owe a debt to James Joyce and Charles Bukowski who helped open us to the more unsavory aspects of the self. Indeed, ­there’s an objective correlative in the spiral of literature for authors to be at least as less self-censoring as our trail-blazing predecessors were.

Self-censorship has much in common with Jonathon Green’s tags of “security” and “castration.” Self-censorship ensures our personal security when we willfully refuse offensive material and deny ourselves that which might alter our beliefs or corrupt us. This is a bit like Ronald Reagan’s limo driver who, under strict orders, always avoided passing the poor city neighborhoods so that the chief would never see the poverty that existed in America. When we deprive ourselves of chocolate or red meat or chemicals, we sacrifice pleasures or easy cures for the sake of personal health. Denial, despite claims to the contrary, can feel good. What we deny individually may grow into the cultural ideologies ­of thinness, celibacy, virginity as well as material comforts like the cruise ship business. Perhaps the greatest willingness to self-censor occurs when, like Arianna, we refuse to see or listen to sex, violence, and chaos in language, film, work sites, neighborhoods, and the work of fellow writers.

The castration part of self-censorship—censoring the self as a creator before the tradi­tional public censor arrives­—is an understudied and messy interplay between author and audience whose precedent comes in the psychology of authors who are frightened by the chal­lenge of the New in themselves and in their readers. Let me illustrate.

*   *   *

As most everyone knows, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe were editor Maxwell Perkins’s most famous authors at Charles Scribners and Sons. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Perkins cautioned Fitzgerald and Hemingway about using certain three- and four-letter words for sexual intercourse or bodily functions in their novels. To use these words, Perkins once wrote, would be stupid: “The very significance of so original a book”—here he was referring to Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms—“should be disregarded because of the howls of a lot of cheap, prurient, moronic yappers.” Perkins was always careful to define his “suggestions” as legal advice, passing it on from the house lawyers, as it were. Cutting such words entailed no meaningful abridgement of the author’s work. According to Scott Berg, whose Max Perkins: Editor of Genius brilliantly unknots many of the more difficult kinks about Perkins’s involvement in censoring his writer’s manuscripts, Fitzgerald and Hemingway always removed the objection­able word or passage based solely on the judgment of their beloved editor.

The censoring of Thomas Wolfe was not much different from other Perkins’s authors, but it was far more intense. From 1928 to 1935, Wolfe was deeply indebted to Perkins who helped shape his novels from mountains of manuscripts. Both Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River were vastly trimmed by Perkins’s suggestions and the latter book’s dedication to the indefatigable editor is perhaps the most adoring paean ever written from writer to editor in publishing history. But Wolfe was also conflicted by his indebtedness. As Berg tells it, the Wolfe-and-Perkins relationship, after years of blissfully mutual admiration, deteriorated very quickly during the mid-thirties. The immediate cause of their falling out came just after Wolfe’s Of Time and the River was published when Bernard De Voto attacked Wolfe, saying, in effect, that most, if not all writers, wrote their books by themselves without editorial mothering.

The most flagrant evidence of his [Wolfe’s] incompleteness is the fact that, so far, one indispensable part of the artist has existed not in Mr. Wolfe but in Maxwell Perkins. Such organizing faculty and such critical intelligence as have been applied to the book have come not from inside the artist, not from the artist’s feeling for form and esthetic integrity, but from the office of Charles Scribner’s Sons. For five years the artist pours out words “like burning lava from a volcano”—with little or no idea what their purpose is, which book they belong in, what the relation of part to part is, what is organic and what irrelevant, or what emphasis or coloration in the completed work of art is being served by the job at hand. Then Mr. Perkins decides these questions—from without, and by a process to which rumor applied the word ‘assembly.’ But works of art cannot be assembled like a carburetor—they must be grown like a plant . . . like an embryo. The artist writes a hundred thousand words about a train: Mr. Perkins decides that the train is worth only five thousand words. But such a decision as this is properly not within Mr. Perkins’s power; it must be made by the highly conscious self-criticism of the artist in relation to the pulse of the book itself. Worse still, the artist goes on writing till Mr. Perkins tells him the novel is finished. But the end of a novel is, properly, dictated by the internal pressure, osmosis, metabolism—what you will—of the novel itself, of which only the novelist can have a first-hand knowledge. . . . It is hard to see how [the] awareness of [a novel’s completion] can manifest itself at an editor’s desk—and harder still to trust the integrity of a work of art in which not the artist but the publisher has determined where the true ends and the false begins. . . .

By critique's end, De Voto is arguing that Wolfe’s material, while in many ways possessing the grandeur and robustness of great fiction, has “defeated him.” For Wolfe the result of this and any other like-minded criticism was catastrophic. Scott Berg as well as Elizabeth Nowell and Andrew Turnball, later biographers of Wolfe, each wrote of the remaining two years of Wolfe’s life in which he endured extreme psychological ambivalence due, in part, by the questions of authorship that De Voto had raised.

To express his bitterness and to resuscitate his ego, Wolfe wrote a thirty-eight page “personal” letter to Perkins, and Scribners, asking to be relieved of his contract and to end his relationship with Max. Wolfe felt it necessary to declare to the world that he will write a novel all by himself as well as find a new publisher who, respecting his judgment alone, will make no changes in his work.

Wolfe’s first contention in the letter (after pages of praise for what he and Perkins had accomplished) is that the two men had drifted apart philosophically: Perkins remained the cold Yankee conservative while Wolfe, born of working-class parents, identified himself, at least in spirit, with the mass socialist movements of the thirties. This split had been growing ever wider between them, as Wolfe tells it, but Wolfe is recognizing it only now for what it is: censor­ship by class affiliation. Wolfe believes Perkins’s political conservatism was increasing, and it had now “reached the point of dogged and unyielding inflexibility and obstinate resolve to try to maintain the status quo at any cost.” Wolfe labels himself a revolutionary who had the power to depict the truthful plight of the worker and, in fact, had done so. But, Wolfe maintains, that whenever Perkins saw such class identification, Perkins had cut it. “Had I given full expression to these convictions in Of Time and the River I believe it would have been a better book. You do not think so."

About Look Homeward, Angel Wolfe remarks how much “pleasure and satisfaction” the book had given Perkins and how Perkins hoped, regarding Wolfe’s oratorical exuberance, that “the years would temper me to a greater conservatism, a milder intensity, a more decorous moderation,” than what Wolfe brought to Perkins in its rough-cut shape. Wolfe writes [emphasis added], “And I think where I have been most wrong, most unsure in these past seven years, has been where I have yielded to this benevolent pressure.”

Furthermore, on the issue of Perkins’s “help” Wolfe broods in typically eloquent self-bluster. And yet, whether he was just then waking up to the originality of his creative power or had been “yielding” it all along to his mentor, we will never know.

I not only do not need that sort of help but if I found that it had in any way invaded the unity of my purpose, or was trying in any fundamental way to modify or alter the di­rection of my creative life . . . I should repulse it as an enemy, I should fight it and oppose it with every energy of my life, because I feel so strongly that it is the final and unpardon­able intrusion upon the one thing in an artist’s life that must be held and kept inviolable.

Wolfe goes on in the letter to say that he was often frustrated with Perkins’s guidance, that “many things” which he wanted Scribners to print, they refused to print because his pieces might be “too long for magazine space, or too short for book space, or too different in their design and quality to fit under the heading of a short story, or too incomplete to be called a novel.” Wolfe believes that this work was just as vital as anything he or anyone else had done in the traditional form, that is, in the Perkinsesque form. “Some of the best writing that a man may do is writing that does not follow under the convenient but extremely limited forms of modern publication,” he writes. Embarked on a massive new plan for his greatest work of fiction—in which, attacking Perkins again, he will “use as precisely, as truthfully, as tellingly as I can every word I have to use; every word, if need be, in my vocabulary; every word, if need be, in the vocabulary of the foulest-mouthed taxi driver, the most prurient-tongued prostitute that ever screamed an obscene epithet”—Wolfe says that he didn’t want to discuss it with Perkins because he feared that his idea “may be killed at its inception by cold caution, by indifference, by the growing apprehension and dogmatism of your own conservatism.” Wolfe came to fear that Perkins’s “timidity” to publish him was a timidity to recognize the rawness of Wolfe’s genius. So he concluded that if Scribners were to remain his publisher, he would have to give in “to the most rigid censorship, a censorship which would delete from all my writings any episode, any scene, any character, any reference that might seem to have any connection, however remote, with the house of Charles Scribner’s Sons and its sisters and its cousins and its aunts.”

Identifying the house of Scribners in his novels was another sticking point. Wolfe was angry that his literary agent, Elizabeth Nowell, had told Perkins of Wolfe’s plans to begin writing about the editors, the secretaries the stock clerks, and the president of Scribners all of whom he had closely observed for years almost daily. The fact that it was extremely thinly disguised autobiography in which people would see themselves made no difference to Wolfe. (Perkins would become Foxhall Morton Edwards, or the “Fox,” the even-tempered editor who steered the wunderkind along the path of his own genius.) ­Perkins knew, thought, that if Wolfe’s writing about the Scribner clan was published, then Perkins would be humiliated and, by his own admis­sion, would have to resign. In any event, Wolfe feels this to be the worst sort of suppression of his creativity and it was central to his breaking with Scribners. He declares that if he were to continue with Scribners, it will “result in the total enervation and castration of my work.”

It is difficult to know what to make of Perkins’s many replies to Wolfe just after he received this letter. There is an inevitable mix of sadness, surprise and a sort of distant intimacy as he tried desperately to agree with and hold onto the raging bull-author, Thomas Wolfe, while at the same time preserve his own integrity.

You asked my help on “Time and the River.” I was glad and proud to give it. No understanding person could believe that it affected the book in any serious or important way—that it was much more than mechanical help. It did seem that the book was too enormous to get between covers. That was the first problem. There might be a problem in a book, such as prohibited publication of Joyce for years in this country. If you wished it, we would publish any book by you as written except for such problems as those which prohibit—some can’t be avoided but I don’t foresee them. Length could be dealt with by publishing in sections. Anyhow, apart from physical or legal limitations not within the possibility of change by us, we will publish anything as you write it.

In another letter Perkins writes that

I certainly do not care—nor does this House—how revolutionary your books are. I did try to keep you from injecting . . . Marxian beliefs into ‘Time and the River,’ because they were . . . not those of Eugene in the time of the book. . . . It seems as if you must have forgotten how we worked and argued. You were never overruled. . . . I do not want the passage of time to make you cautious or conservative, but I do want it to give you a full control . . . over your great talent.

Was Perkins guilty, overtly or covertly, of seeding the ground for Wolfe to censor himself? Was Wolfe’s rage unfounded, unfairly betraying Perkins’s friendship, a kick in the groin which Perkins did not deserve? The truth no doubt lies somewhere in between.

Perkins claims that Wolfe wrongly believed that he, Perkins, had tried to control Wolfe: “I only did that when you asked my help and then I did the best I could.” Berg reveals that Perkins did not let Wolfe, in the early days, publish “in sections.” Nor did he ever say “we will publish anything as you write it.” Rather, Perkins guided, sculpted, suggested, massaged, let his intentions be known time and again what he thought made a good novel, a harmonious one. Indeed, Perkins had a penchant for autobiographical fiction. These books, whether it was Fitzgerald disguising Gerald Murphy in Tender Is the Night or Hemingway basing Lady Brett Ashley on Amanda Jones in The Sun Also Rises, were precisely what his house did publish—fiction whose marketable forms were recognizable, authors whose career paths were obvious. Amid all the hype that Wolfe was the most special of Perkins’s clients, Wolfe was one among hundreds of writers for whom Perkins said “yes . . . but,” we don’t need so much explanation in this scene as we need the action or dialogue to render it dramatically.

Mere suggestion or grounds for the self-censor? Writers lined up by the droves for such “help” on their manuscripts—Erskine Caldwell, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, James Jones, Marcia Davenport, Taylor Caldwell, and many more. Each said that he or she could not have finished their books without Perkins’s guidance, hoping not that Perkins would merely suggest changes but that he would outfit each writer with detailed plans via discussion, marginal notes, and editorial know-how to make his or her novel realize its potential as fiction. Which, after reading The Yearling or From Here to Eternity, most readers can only praise Perkins for his guidance and thrash Wolfe for his temper. Such editing Perkins accomplished unselfishly, religiously, until his vacation-less life exhausted him and he died in 1947. How many editors have garnered anything close to the same intensity with their clients in the other galaxies of publishing history as Maxwell Perkins had?

Strictly speaking, Perkins was censoring Wolfe by helping shape his work for publication. And yet this is nothing new; this is what good editors do or, put differently, this is how editors survive, especially today in the elastic markets of celebrity biography and self-help or the iffy cosmos of the first-time novel. Editors are under great pressure to make sure that the books they buy will sell or the proposals can be shaped into a book that will sell. Not only is this the editor’s M.O., but there is ample evidence to suggest that this is what writers want their editors to do: As a hungry young novelist, tell me what I must do in order to get published. If the writer wants publication badly enough, he or she must take whatever steps are necessary to ensure it. Recently I heard the literary agent Michael Larsen remark to an audience of writers that it didn’t matter who wrote their books—themselves, ghost writers, their writing group—the only real requirement was that their books must be impeccably written!

Despite the controlling nature of the marketplace, then and now, what is less understood is the author’s response to such controls: How was Wolfe censoring himself, not just to Perkins’s demands as editor but to Wolfe’s char­acter as an artist, a yoke far more insidious as Wolfe’s agonizingly painful transition from Scribners to Harpers attests? Wolfe had no built-in forms of what a novel should look like, though he had read and admired the masters. Instead he envisioned the novel’s form equal to that of the energy with which the writer created it, an organic product which should more often be left untouched than redesigned. Whether or not Wolfe believed that his first two novels were severely clipped, by Perkins’s or Wolfe’s scissors, is nigh impossible to say. But his “personal letter” is very clear about his intentions for his writing (tragically, he had only two years left in which to work). His novels would be truthful, would resemble—no Be!—his own woolly and wild outpourings of character. Perhaps Wolfe was not as much a self-censor as he was one who awoke to the dependencies of his youth and despaired, like anyone else, over what might have been. And perhaps his estimation of his labors with Perkins was as immature a response in him as it was in Perkins not to recognize the consequence of his “benevolent pressure.” And yet the fact that Wolfe was a stone-cold American original is borne out by his many imitators. A generation or two ahead of his ilk, Wolfe has had many admirers, including the beat writers, Kerouac and Ginsberg, and their feasts of inspired typing and mantras of first word, best word, plus the contemporaries, Thomas Pynchon and William T. Vollman, and their dense, dawdling, maniacally self-referential epics. These writers artistic scope and discipline of their haphazardly or exactingly shaped chaos requires most editors to be nearly invisible, more like counselors than bosses, asking little else except, when do I get the final version.

Thomas Wolfe’s fiction may represent the most egregious editorial circumcision in American literature. Though his great engine of writing seemed to beg for an editor’s bias and guidance, Wolfe succeeded, however unconsciously, in breaking free of the marketplace, an act of self-control which continues to empower all writers. Believing himself free to finally begin his immense prose panorama of his singularly American life, Wolfe went to Harpers and worked with Edward C. Aswell in an atmosphere of pure editorial and financial support until Wolfe’s unex­pected death in 1938. His manuscript crates were left to Perkins, whom Wolfe had desig­nated in his will as literary executor. Perkins made several books of what Wolfe had left—among them, The Web and the Rock, You Can’t Go Home Again, and The Hills Beyond—work which was outstanding yet far less so than the epic story Wolfe had planned to write of his life. In 1939 and 1940, Perkins’s main task, one which decimated him again even without Wolfe’s presence, was to pre­serve in these massive novels far more than what he, Perkins, would have deleted only five years earlier.

Wolfe had finally uncensored himself—and Perkins agreed—but, alas, from beyond the grave, the act was no longer collaborative.