Summer Highlight—Genius and Max Perkins: Editor of Genius

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Colin Firth as Maxwell Perkins in Genius

Colin Firth as Maxwell Perkins in Genius

About two months ago, we saw Genius, the biopic based on A. Scott Berg’s excellent biography of Maxwell Perkins, editor of—among others—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe.

As soon as I saw the preview, I knew I would love the movie. I mean, we’ve all seen WRITER movies, where typewriters are feverishly pecked or quill pens are meditatively dipped or cursors implacably blink as authors struggle to get the thoughts out and down. But here, here is richness, soul satisfying to the intermediary who stands between author and reader: a movie about an EDITOR. What exquisite joy to see a film where a key action is the cool and deliberative striking out of a line of text. Where a pivotal montage focuses on cutting a book’s length.

Cops and spies and action heroes get to see movies about themselves all the time. And there are any number of films about artists and dreamers and creators. But name a movie focused on a facilitator—as Perkins himself phrased his ambition, “a little dwarf on the shoulder of a great general advising him what to do and what not to do, without anyone’s noticing”—someone who helps realize the vision of another. (And noble self-sacrificing spouse movies like A Star Is Born don’t count. This is about a professional relationship.) My brother suggested The Miracle Worker, and that’s a good thought, but Annie Sullivan overcame so many of her own handicaps to become Teacher that she does not seamlessly fade into the background. And an editor, a good editor, does.

The real Maxwell Perkins

The real Maxwell Perkins

And Maxwell Perkins was a good editor; a great editor. Which the book not surprisingly clarifies much more than does the movie, which focuses on a single relationship—that of Perkins and Thomas Wolfe—and grays out the rest. And even with this narrow focus, the movie often distorts more than it illuminates, substituting melodrama for nuance, especially with regard to Wolfe’s love interest, Aline Bernstein, whose haplessness has been ratcheted up to showy histrionics. Which is all too bad, but is easily remedied by reading the Berg book.

However, the movie contains at least one scene that is truer than truth, and definitively captures Perkins’s genius. Tom Wolfe has written a dense, evocative, detailed passage where his protagonist falls in love. Patiently and methodically, Perkins asks him if various metaphors and similes and tangents are strictly necessary, and he slowly obtains assent for various deletions. But there’s more. Because he asks Tom what it was like for him when he fell in love, and Tom responds that it was like a lightning bolt, illuminating everything before and after. And then we realize what Perkins is doing: he is leading Tom to create a lightning bolt using style and tone and contrast. And Tom suddenly gets it; he understands that this text must stand out from all the other dense evocative detailed passages in the book. And he cuts the multipage passage to a powerful paragraph.

I loved that scene; it is so smart and so cognizant of what a good editor does and how.

The Maxwell Perkins Berg reveals in his understated and well-constructed biography is a man of “keen intelligence and uncompromising standards” dedicated, as a contemporary described, to “the development of American talent and literature.” Notes Berg, “Max had an artistic flair but New England common sense.” Taken altogether, this made for a tireless, powerful engine driving artists to achieve their best work. Perkins maintained that “An editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing.”

Perkins used many and varied tools in this task. He certainly honed and polished, as in helping S.S. Van Dine perfect detective Philo Vance and in guiding the acid-tongued Alice Roosevelt Longworth into producing a “more relaxed and revealing” memoir. Of this latter effort, he noted “We made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear with Alice Longworth’s book—or she did…Now it’s a good book. It might have been a splendid one. But we had to build up from worse than nothing.”

He advised. Berg explains, “In detailed letters, Perkins gave his reasons. He reminded the author, for example, that his first responsibility was to tell a story and that the reader ‘cannot bear to be too much interrupted.'”

And he certainly cut and chopped. The original Wolfe manuscript of Of Time and the River was a cool million words. Moreover, Wolfe’s resistance to editing was monumental. Notes Berg, “Every time he slashed a page from corner to corner, Perkins could see that Tom’s eye was following his hand. Wolfe winced with pain…”

In truth, the kind of editing that Perkins performed on Wolfe’s books—his shaping and condensing of overly long material—was but the literal manifestation of his greatest gift as an editor. What Perkins could do was see the book inside an author before it was even written. Thus, he advised Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings to write a boys’ book:

She also kept harking back to the letters he had written her in 1933, especially the one in which he said: ‘A book about a boy and the life of the scrub is the thing we want.—It is those wonderful river trips and the hunting and the dogs and guns and the companionship of simple people who care about the same things…

Which culminated in her life’s masterpiece, The Yearling.

Similarly, Perkins tells Taylor Caldwell, “What you have chiefly is the superb talent for telling a story on a grand scale. It is a mighty rare talent.” Berg notes, “With his simple intuition that Taylor Caldwell should write historical novels, Perkins had founded one of the most enduring and profitable careers in the history of book publishing.”

Another powerful arrow in his editorial quiver was Perkins’s ability to create community among his authors. He was forever writing to one about the other, visiting one with another, introducing this one to that one. In the safety of this community, supportive mentoring relationships formed, allowing Fitzgerald to reach out to Wolfe at a lunch with Perkins in Baltimore. As Berg writes, “Fitzgerald tried to console Wolfe about the truncating of his manuscript by saying, ‘You never cut anything out of a book that you regret later.'” And when Fitzgerald suffers a health crisis, Perkins suggests Marjorie Rawlings visit him as a way of “sending in some reserves to boost his spirits.”

Perkins also ran interference and created continuity between and among difficult, high-strung personalities, desperately needing interaction but not always capable of making connection on their own. Thus, “Until Fitzgerald’s death in 1940, Max’s office would be the clearinghouse for much of the emotion going back and forth between the two men [Fitzgerald and Hemingway], particularly when they wanted to communicate without risking a confrontation.”

This ability—compulsion?—to create community among the isolated particularly resonates for me as an editorial tool. Regardless of whether the subject matter is artlifeandtheuniverse or fiscal decentralization, poetry or pedantry, the author is putting part of him- or herself out there, inviting criticism or neglect. Knowing others—or even just knowing OF others—in the same position is endlessly reassuring. Perkins obviously understood this and sought to bridge the various divides, gulfs, and voids between and within his frequently troubled flock.

Berg paints a detailed and compelling portrait of a distinctive yet retiring subject. He brings the modest, matter-of-fact Max Perkins very much to life through careful, but unobtrusive, scholarship and keen insight:

Max’s comments were effective almost subliminally; he had a way of gently tossing them out as one would pebbles into a pond, making rings of meaning which enlarged until they touched the author’s consciousness.

Like Max, Berg keeps himself very much in the background. You are not aware of the skill and effort being exerted to tell the story; there is nothing showy or dramatic in the presentation. On the other hand, the book is neither dry nor humorless, but instead filled with wry observations like this: “One of Perkins’s daughters insisted that he no longer drink so much and then drive. Max gave up driving.”

Berg also paints clear and succinct miniatures of the legendary characters who peopled Perkins’s world. Fitzgerald, to my mind, comes off the best; a tragic, self-aware character, doomed and damned and despairing. Hemingway is cold and hard: “There was something in Hemingway that preyed on the weaknesses of others.” And Wolfe—possibly the son Perkins, the father of five girls, never had and always wanted—contains multitudes, but in the end comes across as extremely immature. In the face of Wolfe’s fulsome, overheated rejection, which is the climax of the film Genius, Perkins remains compassionate and understanding, a good editor to the end: as fellow Scribners’ editor John Hall Wheelock noted, “Thomas Wolfe was the ultimate editorial challenge, part of which meant dealing with his personal temperament.”

In a late-in-life, fiery correspondence with a difficult author who asked him “just who he thought he was,” Perkins answered that he was “John Smith, U.S.A.” who “is always aware of the fact that he may be, and probably is, wrong. That is tolerance.”

And that, in the final analysis, is the very best tool for being a good editor.

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9 thoughts on “Summer Highlight—Genius and Max Perkins: Editor of Genius

    • Nita Congress

      The movie is quite definitely worth seeing, although I am sure much of my enjoyment was due to its being about editing. I found myself laughing at a lot of parts when nobody else in the theater was reacting.

  1. Karen Kovacs

    You had me at Colin Firth 😉 Seriously, though, thank you for reviewing the Editor of/Genius book and film – looking forward to reading/seeing them. I’ve no doubt I’ll laugh at the same places (in the movie) that you did! Of course you saw the great Malcolm McDowell as the great Max Perkins in “Cross Creek” (with Mary Steenburgen aka then-Mrs. McDowell as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings) – that was my first glimmer of awareness as to why Max Perkins was as famous an editor as many authors and more so than many.

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