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.



Filed under Opinion, Writing

8 responses to “FROM MY READING CHAIR

  1. Penny

    I have always found Maxwell Perkins fascinating to read about and I have always longed for such an idyllic author/editor connection. Here are some personal facts about Perkins.
    Maxwell Perkins became known to the general public in his lifetime as a result of a profile by Malcolm Cowley, “Unshaken Friend, ” in the New Yorker magazine (April 1 and 8, 1944). Perkins was the grandson of U.S. Secretary of State, U.S. Attorney General & U.S. Senator William M. Evarts, the great-great-grandson of Declaration of Independence signer Roger Sherman, and the uncle of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. He was also descended from the Puritans John Davenport and Theophilus Eaton, as well as Henry II of England. Perkins had a home in Windsor, Vermont, located on 26 Main Street. The home was purchased from John Skinner in the 1820s for $5,000 by William M. Evarts and was passed down to his daughter, Elizabeth Hoar Evarts Perkins, who left the home to family members, including her son Maxwell Perkins. The home stayed in the family until 2005. 26 Main Street in Windsor was recently restored and reopened as Snapdragon Inn. Snapdragon Inn is open to the public and features the Maxwell Perkins Library, which displays and collects items related to Maxwell Perkins and his extended family. His house in New Canaan, Connecticut, the Maxwell E. Perkins House, is on the National Register of Historic Places. His granddaughter, Ruth King Porter, is a Vermont writer. “Father to Daughter: The Family Letters of Maxwell Perkins” is a collection of letters written by Perkins to his wife and five daughters, collected and edited by his grand daughters. Andrews Mcmeel Pub (October 1995)

  2. Hi Penny,
    Thanks for your contribution. I didn’t know about 26 Main Street in Windsor, VT/Snapdragon Inn. Wouldn’t you love to travel there and also tour many writers’ homes in New England? Sigh…

  3. Interesting post, Arletta! Oh, so many books, so little time…

  4. Kathleen,
    You are so very right about so many books. My son recently built me another wall of book shelves and two are full of the to-be-reads!
    Thany you for stopping by.

  5. Thanks, Arletta! I ordered the Max Perkins book.

  6. OH, Robin, that is a huge compliment if I’ve inspired you to delve into Max’s story. I know you will find it enchanting and inspiring!

  7. I love Marjorie Kinnans Rawlings stories. My favorite movie is Cross Creek where she met a deer and a girl, who would become Flag and Jody in the Yearling. I visited the place the last time we were in Florida. I remember her reading letters from her editor (in the movie) personal, encouraging letters. I’ll have to look at that movie again (it’s on my “movies to keep shelf”) and see if those letters were from Max Perkins.

  8. Hello Eunie,
    I don’t remember the movie tho’ I must have seen it…one to look for.
    I just saw “Midnight in Paris” yesterday, a time travel back to the 1920’s with Fitzgerald, Hemingway and all sorts of artists portrayed…but no Max, just a reference to “my editor.” It was funny and delightful to go back to G. Stein and all the luminaries who gathered around her. The bio does that, too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

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