Max Perkins Editor of Genius

Max Perkins Editor of Genius

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by A. Scott Berg

How could I, someone who can limbo under the IQ score of 160 with the greatest of ease, possibly relate to a page turner with genius in the title?

Well, A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins Editor of Genius, a 1978 National Book Award Winner, may be the finest, most readable book ever written about publishing—publishing when the book business was a very different industry indeed.

This is the biography of one of those once-in-a-lifetime (eye shade wearing) editors from the past, the man who steadied the quill holding hands of some of America’s iconic writers—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe and Jones—until they’d all produced literary classics.

We learn that it was the dogged genius of Scribner’s’ Max Perkins—who ofttimes needed a whip and a chair more than a sharp red pen—that made literary chicken salad out of a less desirable by-product of these brilliant but flawed birds.

And, here in Editor of Genius, Berg shares the compelling inside stories of the creative editing of some of our greatest American novels—from Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise to James Jones’s bestseller From Here to Eternity.

We learn that this was an editor who didn’t spell well and wasn’t a world-class grammarian, yet he had this way about him (genius if you will) with words and the people who wrote them. Perkins was a slicer and dicer, an editor/closer, the magician behind the curtain who somehow inherently knew how to judge a manuscript and then, even in the toughest of times (the Depression), bring a book to market.

While becoming acquainted with Perkins the man, we meet his authors. By book’s end we know that Fitzgerald was caught in a catch-22—between an off-center wife (Zelda) and his own addictions, we become aware of how Hemingway’s reluctance to give up the profanities and “unacceptable characterizations” in The Sun Also Rises put writer and editor at odds. And we learn why Thomas Wolfe should have praised God that he had a Max Perkins (playing the role of cheerleader and wet nurse) sifting, shaping and yes, discarding as he combed Tom’s mega-manuscripts.

Parcels from Page Turners:

Berg’s descriptive narratives are superb. Here, early in the book, he introduces Maxwell Perkins as he enters a room full of (student) would- be editors: “He was sixty-one years old, stood five feet ten inches, and weighed 150 pounds. The umbrella he carried seemed to have offered him little protection—he was dripping wet, and his hat drooped over his ears. A pinkish glow suffused Perkins’ long, narrow face, softening the prominences. The face was aligned upon a strong, rubicund nose, straight almost to the end, when it curved down like a beak. His eyes were a pastel. Wolfe had once written that they were ‘full of a strange misty light, a kind of far weather of the sea in them, eyes of a New England sailor long months outbound for China on a clipper ship, with something drowned, sea-sunken in them.’

Berg again: “Max Perkins did not care much about the impression he gave, which was just as well, for the first one he made on this particular evening was of some Vermont feed-and-grain merchant who had come to the city in his Sunday clothes and got caught in the rain. As he walked to the front of the room, he seemed slightly bewildered, and more so as Kenneth McCormick introduced him as ‘the dean of American editors’.”

Berg’s detailed research presents readers with both anecdotes and personal letters—the back and forth between editor and writers—that make the read both fascinating and compelling.

Berg on the Fitzgerald/Perkins relationship—In January, 1933, F. Scott came to New York for a three-day binge. “I was about to call you up when I completely collapsed and laid in bed for 24 hours groaning,” Fitzgerald wrote Perkins afterward. “Without a doubt the boy is getting too old for such tricks. . .I sent you this, less to write you a Rousseau’s Confession than to let you know why I came to town without calling you, thus violating a custom of many years standing.”

More Berg: Back at La Paix he (Fitzgerald) vowed to go on the water wagon from the first of February until the first of April. He insisted that Perkins keep that from Hemingway “because he has long convinced himself that I am an incurable alcoholic due to the fact that we almost always meet at parties. I am his alcoholic just like Ring (Lardner) is mine and I do not want to disillusion him.” Fitzgerald wrote.

Here Hemingway, realizing that his own workload was adding to Perkins’ suggests that Max join a crew of fishing companions he was assembling that included John Dos Passos, a painter named Henry Strater, and another artist, Waldo Pearce, who had been a Harvard classmate of Max’s.

Perkins’ reply gives us great insights into how the editor lived: “I would give anything to do that kind of thing, but I’ve never done it, and I suppose I never shall now, with five children, etc. I have a vision of taking to the road at the age of sixty. The odds are about a thousand to one against.”

This parcel of narrative presents a snapshot of (sadly) Hemingway the man.

As Hemingway’s novel neared completion, Perkins perceived an almost invisible stimulus which had crept into Ernest’s work habits. The same cockiness appeared whenever his writing was going especially well. Scott Fitzgerald had become a rival whom Hemingway would thereafter pit himself against. At first he had admired Fitzgerald’s talents and enjoyed his company; then he saw Scott’s crippling financial troubles and how he was hobbling on with a book that he had talked about too long. There was something about Hemingway that preyed on the weakness of others, and for the rest of his career his letters to Max revealed a growing competition with Fitzgerald. Invariably he contrasted his own assiduousness and frugality with Fitzgerald’s profligacy.

Perkins on Wolfe’s writing routine: “Mr. Wolfe writes with a pencil, in a very large hand. He once said that he could write the best advertisement imaginable for the Frigidaire people since he found it exactly the right height to write on when standing and with enough space for him to handle his manuscript on the top. He writes mostly standing that way, and frequently strides about the room when unable to find the right way of expressing himself.”

Wolfe, it would seem had bouts of self-doubt so wracking that he couldn’t write, “He keeps getting all upset, and (Perkins wrote to Hemingway), I am to have an evening with him and try to make him think he is some good again. He is good all right.”

One final word from the master—to the published and wannabe published—to those of us who might suffer from writer’s-block flu.

Berg: Perkins’ compassion for troubled writers had not lessened. At about this time he wrote to one author in almost the same words he had used earlier with Thomas Wolfe and Scott Fitzgerald, advising a creative pause.

Perkins: “You won’t have lost time for the rest will have made you younger, so to speak. And turning things over in your mind, and reflecting upon them and all, is something that a writer ought to have to do in quiet circumstances once in a while. That is one of the troubles with writers today that they cannot get a chance, or cannot endure to do this. Galsworthy, who never over-rated himself as a writer but was one of great note in fact, always said that the most fruitful thing for a writer to do was quiet brooding.”

The guess here is that Mr. Galsworthy would agree that in regard to writer’s block—while quietly brooding—a bit of reading might be a good idea. That said, could there be a better cure for this creative hiccup than Max Perkins Editor of Genius? A. Scott Berg’s biography not only presents untold insights into the process that can lead to publication, it again introduces us to the creators of America’s classics.

But it’s Berg’s life-like story of Perkins here in this page turner from the past, the biography of the man who kept these high-strung thoroughbreds from spitting their literary bits, that stirs the souls and spirits of both writers and readers alike.

You can ask for Max Perkins Editor of Genius at your local library, purchase it through your independent bookseller or pick it up on Amazon used, in paperback or hardback, for approximately the 1926 price of the Perkins’ edited classic The Sun Also Rises . . . Just click on the book’s cover.