Books & Literature

Book Review Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by A Scott Berg

Originally published in 1979, Berg’s National Book Award winning biography of Max Perkins is republished in support of a movie about the man released in 2016.

98 years ago, a shy, self-effacing journalist of staunch New England conservative values began a career as a book editor and became the most influential American and international literary editorial force of his generation and beyond.

70 years have passed since William Maxwell Evarts Perkins died. Known as simply as Max, Perkins, he published the works of F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Ring Lardner, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Taylor Caldwell and Sherwood Anderson amongst others.

Originally published in 1979, Berg’s National Book Award winning biography of Max Perkins was republished in support of a movie about the man released last year.

Powerful currents twisting and bending the publication industry in the early decades of this 21st Century tend to obscure what it really means to be a book editor and how the best editors shape not just writers, but the very fabric of social and political consciousness that their writers address. This book is a powerful clarion call to readers and publishing professionals on these points, most especially service to a writer’s vision.

Berg’s biography is a richly human, deeply researched, and reasoned exploration of the multiple strands in Perkins’ life and how connections between them energised, grew, limited and destroyed Perkins. Berg comes as close to divining the true inner being of Perkins as any biographer can for a subject long passed away, most especially the mystery of his literary insight and prowess which never saw expression in fiction writing of his own.

Perkins was a champion of new, difficult to categorise literary voices which went against the grain of his employer, the long-lived, reputably conservative New York family publishing company Charles Scribner’s Sons, who he joined in 1910.

Somewhere inside Perkins was a unique capability borne of his immersion in stories read to him as a child, a severe sense of duty, Harvard education (involving associations with literary club, The Stylus, and The Harvard Advocate), plus short stint in journalism that survived his decision to study economics.

Perkins was a unique blend of the new and old coursing through the early 20th Century. This devoted fan of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, with a high regard for Napoleon Bonaparte, could also see the potential of ‘strange’ writers and fight with the board editors to publish them.

Perkins’ deep humanity, open mind, sharp literary and business sense folded into a profound capacity for friendship with his writers that was leagues ahead of any editor of the time.

Friendships were as personal as they were highly professional. F Scott Fitzgerald’s never-ending money problems, Ernest Hemingway’s egotism and use of ‘bad’ words, Thomas Wolfe’s crate upon crate of disorganised pages of his never-ending book compounded by refusals to cut swathes of paragraphs, and Rung Lardner’s difficulty in seeing himself as the writer Perkins saw, not to mention the toll of alcoholism on Fitzgerald, Lardner and Hemingway, were but workaday normality.

It was the vision of each writer Perkins remained resolutely true to. Cuts, changes, subject developments had to be the writer’s choice. Perkins argued extensively with his authors in a spirit of creative comprehension as if he too were the writer, yet also deciding editorial force, and managed works with long phrases of patient time and communication.

His genius was to serve genius, as the book title suggests, yet of himself, Perkins was uniquely a genius of an especial hybrid form of literary art.

Reviewed by David O’Brien
Twitter: @DavidOBupstART

Rating out of 10:  10

Distributed by: Simon & Schuster Australia
Re-Release Date: September 2016
RRP: $24.99 paperback, $13.99 eBook

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