Max Perkins Essay, Research Paper
Max Perkins: Editor of Genius
Max Perkins once wrote to Thomas Wolfe that “[t]here could be nothing so important as a book can be.” Perkins lived and died believing this, as A. Scott Berg attests with his book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. Berg’s book begins by describing a rainy evening in mid-Manhattan where a class of budding editors and publishers awaits the infamous Maxwell Perkins for a discussion on editing. Here Berg reveals Perkins as “unlikely for his profession: he was a terrible speller, his punctuation was idiosyncratic,” and he was an awfully slow reader by his own admission (4). But none came near Perkins’s “record for finding gifted authors and getting them into print”(4). Perkins defines editing to the enthusiastic class, not as being a great speller or grammarian, but as knowing “what to publish, how to get it, and what to do to help it achieve the largest readership”(4). This introduction leads the reader into a long flashback of Perkins’s life as an editor, the risks he took with books by new talents and the undying support he gave artists, proving Perkins to be “America’s greatest editor.”
Max Perkins is basically structured sequentially and intertwines Perkins’s dealings with manuscripts, Charles Scribner’s Sons– Publishers and Booksellers, authors and their personal as well as artistic lives, and some of what went on in Perkins’s personal life. Berg describes how Perkins mingled with artists at work and at home; his wife, Louise was an actress as well as an author of children’s books. The Perkinses hosted dinner parties that included authors such as Thomas Wolfe and F. Scott Fitzgerald as well as attended social functions where writers gathered. Max Perkins hardly vacationed during his life, but surprisingly visited Ernest Hemingway several times in Key West or Arkansas to fish and hunt. If he wasn’t dealing with writers or their manuscripts in one respect or another, he talked about writing where ever he went “as though it were the most important subject in the world,” he read obsessively in his free time, even reading to his daughters every night. Max Perkins briefly, though often enough, mentions Perkins’s family life; his five daughters were very important to him– the only reason he would ever leave work early or even at the typical five o’clock hour would be to spend time with them. Berg discusses the life-long tension in the Perkinses’ marriage because of Louise’s obsession with acting and neglect of wifely duties. Letters between Perkins and his long-time friend and soul-mate, Elizabeth Lemmon were referred to and quoted. And many important familial events are listed.
The book, though, largely accounts the relationships Perkins had with his authors. He supported new talents, sometimes risking his position at the conservative publishing house of Charles Scribner’s Sons; he argued and pushed the manuscripts of new voices, rallied support from other young editors in the house and eloquently made his points of argument at the monthly meetings which for the most part won him the right to publish these important, new writers. He proved himself a man of great instinct when many of these manuscripts became best-sellers and/or turned out to be the products of literary genius. Perkins became known as an editor who nurtured new artists and supported them as they developed. Berg does a wonderful job of revealing the extent to which Perkins did this by including authors’ book dedications to Perkins and giving actual dialogue and quoting letter correspondence between editor and authors. Many writers were blessed with Perkins as their editor including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, the latter perhaps would have never been published or known if it wasn’t for Perkins. Both of these writers take up a lot of space in Perkins’s life as well as in Berg’s Max Perkins.
This is the great weakness of Max Perkins. Berg bogs us down with many detailed stories of authors’ lives. It eventually makes the reader feel as if the book is not about the “editor of genius” at all but about the artists’ genius and instability. Of course these stories perhaps explain why authors are seen as unstable, but the reader is veered off course with these details; they have nothing to do with Maxwell Perkins and his editing. However, some of the descriptions do give us a clear look at what Perkins tolerated, from constantly drawing against the house’s finances in order to support Fitzgerald’s uncontrollable spending habits while he never got around to writing, to continuing to nurture Wolfe’s artistry while at the same time, silently accepting Wolfe’s many insults and, sometimes violent, threats. This clarity of Perkins’s humility is certainly a testimony to Perkins’s reverence of books.
Berg does do a nice job with describing Perkins’s style of editing. The reader gets to know Perkins as Max and begins to see him as the devoted best-friend or parental figure and the behind-the-scenes mentor of some of the greatest American writers. He spoke the “language of writers,” and he never gave up on any of them nor would he let them give up on themselves. When Max found the “real thing” as he called it, he went to great lengths to support it; “he treated literature as a matter of life and death” (4). He believed in being behind-the-scenes, that the “book belonged to the author,” though he was sometimes greatly involved with a book’s revision of structure and content, spending large amounts of time, including his free time, poring over one book. This was considered a “bold new kind of editorial work”(136). And Max became known as a “creative” editor. But Max discussed with an author each change or cut he thought was necessary in a manuscript, making the changes dependent upon mutual agreement, with the author always being the final judge. He adhered to his own conviction that “a book must be done according to the writer’s conception of it as nearly as perfectly as possible”(298). Max said at best he was a “handmaiden” to an author: he helped in literally any way he could, but he wasn’t the creator. Neither was he egotistical about what he did, even when he helped scale Wolfe’s three-thousand-plus page manuscript, Time and a River, down to a readable novel.
Throughout his life, Perkins discovered, nurtured, inspired and encouraged some of the greatest writers. He even humbly offered up successful ideas for plot-lines, titles, and the like– but he may never have known the huge impact he had not only in the world of editing and publishing but in the world of literature. The day Maxwell Perkins died, he woke up and began to ready himself for work despite his terrible coughing and the pain in his lungs. Up to the end, books were a priority. And Berg, in clear and interesting language, conveys the “real thing” in Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.