Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg

I finished reading this biography over a month ago and have been carrying it around like a holy text. I discovered the book years ago in a local thrift store that has some books in a back corner. Since then it’s been sitting on my shelves, so I put it on my list for the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader.

It was interesting to learn more about Max Perkins beyond some of the legendary stories that I’ve heard, but what I didn’t expect was for the book to have a profound impact on my own writing process.

The strongest aspect of this biography is how A. Scott Berg shows how Perkins worked with writers to mold their writing into compelling stories. “The struggle is part of the process,” he wrote to one writer. “Just get it all down on paper and then we’ll see what to do with it.” This seems like simple advice until you read the sections on Thomas Wolfe and the millions of words that poured out of the man and how Perkins saw the brilliance in those mounds of paper. On the opposite end of the output scale is the agony of Fitzgerald, who quite often could not squeeze out the words.

Writers need to write, but Perkins also encouraged them to rest and take time to reflect upon their writing. Not doing this is, “one of the troubles with writers today, that they cannot get a chance, or cannot endure to do this.” This is critical advice today with the temptations of instant publishing for new writers and the publishing cycle/market demand for established writers.

As the subtitle says, Perkins was an Editor of Genius. Of the wide range of writers that Perkins edited–Ring Lardner, Erskine Caldwell, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Taylor Caldwell, Alan Paton, John P. Marquand, James Jones, to name a few–Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wolfe get the most ink. Fitzgerald is presented as a tragic figure and Hemingway as a pompous ass. It’s Thomas Wolfe who steals the show as an earnest, neurotic writer who is willing to listen and learn from Perkins. Woolfe stumbles and falls and unfortunately by the time he started to get back up he fell down for good. I’ve never read anything by Thomas Woolfe, so it’s not like he’s a favorite writer of mine, but I actually cried when he died and I usually don’t cry over nonfiction. Berg made Woolfe’s struggle seem to vivid, so visceral. Indeed, I found myself wanting to high-five all of the writers in this book at one time or another. Their struggle was Perkins’ struggle and Berg makes you feel that as a reader.

The sections that focus on Perkins and Wolfe working together and on Wolfe’s writing process was very inspiring to me as a novice fiction writer. What Perkins excelled at was seeing the structure (or a better structure) in the works in progress of his authors. Hemingway wasn’t open to suggestions (shocker) and Fitzgerald was more often than not blocked (drinking) or pumping out short stories for magazines (desperate for money), but Wolfe’s inability to stop writing gave Perkins much material with which to work and Berg is able to use their work together to highlight Perkins’ skills.

Berg was only in his 20s while researching and writing this book, which grew out of his senior thesis at Princeton. His focus was on Perkins’ work as an editor and it seems like there’s room for another biography of Perkins, one that explores the man more than his work. Was Perkins the playful father as glimpsed in the humorous letters to his daughters? Or was he the prick who treated his secretary disrespectfully and may have hated women (other than Elizabeth Lemmon who was put on a pedestal and kept at a physical distance via epistolary correspondence)? No doubt he was both of these things and much more. It would probably make interesting reading to find out.

This is the first and only book length biography of Perkins and it’s an outstanding book. It won the National Book Award. Anyone interested in American literary history will be thrilled to read it and fiction writers or those writing book-length works would benefit from reading it as well. Through some sort of literary osmosis writers will–if they hit this book at the right moment in their lives–be infected by Perkins’ endless encouragement, understanding, and the examples of how he helped writers. They’ll also, perhaps, recoil at the narcissism, neurosis, and alcoholism scattered throughout, but these are issues for writers to be aware of, too, not that Berg presents these issues with such a slant, but the consequences of what happens when self-destructive behavior goes unchecked is evident.

This biography is the basis for a movie that’s currently in the works staring Colin Firth as Max Perkins and Michael Fassbender as Thomas Wolfe. Earlier notices had Sean Penn playing Perkins. More recent news claims the movie will focus on the relationship between Perkins and Woolfe. The movie isn’t going into production until early 2014, so you have plenty of time to read this biography and then read some Thomas Woolfe.

5/5 stars

Max Perkins: Editor of Genius
A. Scott Berg
Edition read: 1979 mass market from Washington Square Press
There is a 1997 trade edition available from Riverhead/Penguin
Stay tuned for a new edition with Colin Firth on the cover
Recommend to American literary enthusiasts and writers

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