>Some would say that Maxwell Perkins was lucky to work with literary talents such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Taylor Caldwell, to name a few.
Some would say that, but they’ve got it the wrong way around — those writers were lucky to have Max Perkins. He was as marvelous of a friend as he was an editor. Not only could he recognize a masterpiece in its rawest of drafts, he also had an unerring sense of how to tell a story (fiction or biography) and even better, the gift of being able to articulate this with great precision to his authors. A. Scott Berg’s informative and highly entertaining 1978 biography of Maxwell Perkins details these admirable and astonishing qualities superbly.
According to Berg, Thomas Wolfe could write like a house afire, but when it came to pulling his prose together into something well-crafted and readable, he didn’t have a clue. Max Perkins took literally pounds and pounds of manuscript and painstakingly shaped it into a couple of novels.
Perkins seemed to know the very best way to relate to each of his writers. When Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was working on The Yearling, she often became lost in the thicket of novel writing and would become discouraged. At one point, she decided that everything she’d written was inferior and threw it in the garbage. Perkins told her to fish it out and keep going. Like a coach, he reminded Rawlings of her strong and weak points — strong being that she was gifted at connecting episodes rather than hatching out intricate plots; weak being that she sometimes let romanticism and theatricality creep into her writing. He told her the work would be stronger if she soft-pedaled the sentimentality and increased the naturalism since the novel was about tough people facing tough times in a tough environment.
With F. Scott Fitzgerald, Perkins did more than his fair share of sympathetic hand-holding, but at the same time had no illusions about the alcoholic writer and maintained a friendly but no-nonsense attitude that Fitzgerald wouldn’t shirk his literary duties. Not on Perkins’ watch.
A. Scott Berg has written a fantastic biography of one of the heroes and champions of 20th American literature. Berg possesses much of the good taste and judgement that Perkins had, and he seems to have striven to follow his subject’s excellent advice to the letter.
I had a hardcover copy of Editor Of Genius (great title, isn’t it? Perkins would’ve been tickled at the double meaning!) for years, and I somehow let it slip away unread. When I found a used paperback copy in 2001, I pounced on it and devoured it. If you spot this book at a library sale or used bookstore or elsewhere in your bookworm trolling, go for it. For lovers of literature and biography, it’s a gem.