Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by A. Scott Berg
Published: August 22, 2002
|A publishing legend|
Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg. First published in 1978; now available from Riverhead Books, 512 pages. Paper, $17.
This is an appealing book on many levels for readers of The Writer. It is an absorbing look at the bittersweet life of a groundbreaking book editor and the book editor's art; a vivid, behind- the-scenes look at Perkins' role in shaping some of the 20th century's most memorable American literature and the behavior--and misbehavior--of some of its most famous writers; and a rich, beautifully detailed model of biography.
The book, which grew out of a senior thesis Berg did at Princeton University, won the 1980 National Book Award for biography. One of our finest writers of historical works that are as well-written as they are well-researched, Berg also won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for Lindbergh, his equally superb biography of Charles Lindbergh.
You learn at the start of Max Perkins that you're in the hands of a talented writer. Rather than begin with the often-dreary discussion of a subject's birth or forebears, Berg offers a novelistic, almost cinematic opening. He wonderfully sketches the scene as Perkins, then 61, finishes some martinis in midtown Manhattan and trudges over in a downpour to a class on book publishing taught by Kenneth D. McCormick, then editor-in-chief of Doubleday.
It is small wonder the students listen intently, for Perkins is a legend in his field. As a young editor, Perkins had discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, but he had done much more than that, Berg writes:
"Beginning with Fitzgerald and continuing with each new writer he took on, he slowly altered the traditional notion of the editor's role. He sought out authors who were not just 'safe,' conventional in style and bland in content but who spoke in a new voice about the new values of the postwar world. In this way, as an editor he did more than reflect the standards of his age; he consciously influenced and changed them by the new talents he published."
One of the first things Perkins tells the students is, "Don't ever get to feeling important about yourself, because an editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing." What Perkins also gave all his authors, it is made abundantly clear in this volume, was "the feeling that he cared as much for their work as they did themselves." Berg adds: "His essential quality was always to say little, but by powerful empathy for writers and for books to draw out of them what they had it in them to say and to write."
The developing writer will pick up some advice from a master in this book, a man who, in novelist Vance Bourjaily's words, possessed an "infallible sense of structure." Among Perkins' advice to one writer, for example, are these nuggets: "Generalizations are no use--give one specific thing and let the action say it. ... You tend to explain too much. You must explain, but your tendency is to distrust your own narrative and dialogue. ... Dialogue is action."
Among the other authors who move through Perkins' sometimes dysfunctional family of writers are Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Taylor Caldwell, Alan Paton, James Jones, Ring Lardner and Erskine Caldwell.
Perkins himself is a study in civility and loneliness, a man who kept a secret (platonic) love for 25 years.
If you're interested in the literary life, Berg's book is so compelling that you're likely to dip back into it now and then, and perhaps even reread it some day. Surely the ultimate compliment for a 512-page biography.