Max Perkins to Ernest Hemingway: “That Stratford Man Ain’t No Shakespeare!”

“It is certain, to my mind, that the man Shakespeare [i.e., Shakspere] was not the author of what we consider Shakespeare’s works.”

— Maxwell Perkins, writing to Ernest Hemingway on August 13, 1942. (From Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins, Scribners, 1950)

Perkins and Hemingway in Key West, Florida in January 1935

Perkins and Hemingway in Key West, Florida in January 1935

Max Perkins was the editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons for some of the greatest novelists of his time, including not only Hemingway but also Thomas Wolfe and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among many others.  Given that the works of these three writers so closely reflected their individual lives and perspectives, this devoted editor (who got so thoroughly involved in his authors’ joys and sorrows) was in the perfect position to see that the soaring, universal works of Shakespeare utterly fail to reflect the life and perspective of William Shakspere.

To Perkins, given what he knew firsthand, the traditional belief that the Stratford man could have written those works was absurd.

At the time he wrote that letter to Hemingway, the editor was reading the proofs of Will Shakspere and the Dyer’s Hand (1943) by Alden Brooks, who had put forth the candidacy of Sir Edward Dyer (1543-1607), the English courtier and poet.  In his biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978), A. Scott Berg reports that Perkins was able to get the Dyer book published “only because of his obstinacy.”

“For some time the book had been a mania with him,” Berg writes.  “At every editorial conference Perkins brought it up and the board unanimously voted it down. ‘So, being a man of infinite patience,’ one Scribners employee recalled, ‘he would reintroduce his suggestion at the next conference, with the same result.’ What charmed Perkins about the work was that it credited Sir Edward Dyer, an editor, with Shakespeare’s success.”

[Note: I am not sure what Berg means by saying Dyer was an “editor,” but he appears to suggest that Perkins was rejecting the Stratford myth at least partially because of some kind of narcissistic bias or vanity.  If so, I disagree.]

Eventually the board agreed to publish the book “to please Perkins,” Berg reports. “Max sent copies to many critics, hoping to rouse support.  Nearly every one dismissed the work as mere speculation.  Still Perkins retained his faith in the book and his respect for it.”

The reason for this tenacity, I suggest, is that he had come to realize the unbridgeable gap between the literary and dramatic works of Shakespeare and the personal experience of the Stratford man.  It must have come as a profound shock. Max Perkins, who was so attuned to his writers and how their lives affected whatever they wrote, could feel that gap in his bones.

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Postscript: Edward Dyer is rather infamous among Oxfordians because of his letter to Sir Christopher Hatton on October 9, 1572, offering advice on how to compete with Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford for the love and intimate favor of Queen Elizabeth.  His counsel, in short, was to be every bit as cynical and hypocritical as an Elizabethan courtier could be, and then some.  He exhorted Hatton to “acknowledge your duty, declaring the reverence which in heart you bear, and never seem deeply to condemn her frailties, but rather joyfully to commend such things as should be in her, as though they were in her indeed; hating my Lord Ctm [Oxford, Lord High Chamberlain] in the Queen’s understanding for affection’s sake, and blaming him openly for seeking the Queen’s favor.  For though in the beginning when her Majesty sought you (after her good manner), she did bear with rugged dealing of yours, until she had what she fancied, yet now, after satiety and fullness,” he should “use no words of disgrace or reproach” toward Oxford so that the earl, “being the less provoked, may sleep, thinking all safe, while you do awake and attend your advantages.”  [Emphasis added to those words appearing to suggest that Hatton and Elizabeth had engaged in sexual intercourse.]

 

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