Max Perkins: Editor of GeniusJuly 20, 2016
by A. Scott Berg
I’ve just begun Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, and I must say that I’ve fallen hard for it. The book is a biography of the life and exalted career of Charles Scribner’s Sons editor Maxwell Perkins, who is responsible for discovering such literary giants such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, among many others. It’s a plus for me because I greatly admire all three writers—well, Wolfe to a lesser extent. (I know, I know, I should worship him, too, but as The One says, “Too many words…”)
During his career, Perkins challenged the established editors and publishers of his employer by introducing maverick writers who wrote in the vernacular of the day. Before Perkins put a judicious hand to the work of these writers, readers were used to more ornate writing in the style of Henry James and Edith Wharton. Those authors dealt with the cultural and social themes and mores of the Edwardian Era, while this new crop of writers discovered by Perkins grappled with contemporary life, among them the newly christened “Jazz Age,” the destruction and disillusionment of war, and more personal themes. It could be argued that Perkins is responsible for ushering in the era of modern American literature.
What Perkins is best known for is his compassionate care and feeding of his authors. I think any contemporary writer would cut off a sizable appendage to have an editor as thoughtful, interested, and interactive as him. Too many times I’ve heard author friends tell me that they feel like an item on an assembly line when it comes to publishing—in one end, out the other. (Lord, is my passive aggressiveness showing?!)
I’m only about a quarter of the way through the book, but Perkins, with his gentlemanly ways—he often lent money to Fitzgerald and defended his writers against others, even if it meant alienating a friend—is someone I would have like to have known. I shall keep you posted.