THE TELLING OF LIVES, PART I
In the telling of lives, writers may choose any number of forms: biography, autobiography/memoir and fictionalized biography/autobiography. My recent readings included one of each type. Max Perkins; Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg is a biography I first read when it came out in the late 1970’s and reread this spring. Emily Hahn wrote for The New Yorker for a period spanning the late 1920’s into the 1990’s; a prolific writer, she wrote various autobiographies, including No Hurry to Get Home. Much historical fiction takes the form of fictional biography or autobiography and Jane Kirkpatrick has often written of the lesser known heroines of the American West, including Clara Estby of The Daughter’s Walk.
One reviewer of Max Perkins complained that there was not enough about Max’s personal life in the book. I didn’t find that to be the case for the other part of the title is Editor of Genius. This indicates the focus will be on the man’s work-life and, in this case, that of a workaholic. Max Perkins nurtured, financially supported and coached or coerced some of the greatest writers of the 1920’s through the 1940’s in producing their memorable works. His “stable of writers” at Charles Scribners’s Sons continues to impress with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and Edmund Wilson.
Perkins had a strong sense of each author’s quality and gifts; he worked hard to bring their best into the light. The editor would travel to Europe, the Florida Keys, California or wherever his writer of current concern could be found. He’d help Fitzgerald have Zelda admitted to care, make loans out of his own or Scribners’s purse, and talk of the WIP (work in progress) to encourage changes he deemed necessary. Cajoling a reluctant Tom Wolfe to produce, to edit, to eliminate often meant seeking him out in a NYC London or Parisian garret and walking long miles in the dead of night with the “lone wolf.”
While Max’s family of five daughters and his would-be-actress wife (she promised not to act when they married) went to upstate New York in the summers, Max seldom joined them. He worked long hours, often well into the night at his office, or read manuscripts on the train and over his weekend. When Hemingway finally induced Max to join him in deep-sea fishing, he loved it but fretted if he was away more than four or five days.
Tireless, committed to excellent writing and loyal to his writers, Max Perkins showed genius in his choice of authors to bring into the company and in his intense work with them. We will not see the likes of Max Perkins again in this dramatically changing era of book writing and selling.
Scott Berg has done all readers and writers a great service in this greatly detailed and extensively researched volume. He writes beautifully as he wends his way through the life of Max Perkins: Editor of Genius and the lives of his writers.