Book review: Max Perkins: Editor of Genius

By Alanna Brousseau

editorofgenius“The most important obligation of friendship is to listen,” explained Max Perkins to his second-eldest daughter, Zippy.

Perkins, the editorial momentum behind such literary heavyweights as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe was considerably more than a reviser of words, straddling at times the roles of confidante, money lender, minder, and mediator—often simultaneously.

A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius illuminates the professional and personal life of perhaps the best-known editor in literary history. Immensely more than a chronological account of Perkins’ life, the biography comes alive through vivid anecdotes borrowed from the editor’s personal correspondence with friends, family, and authors.

Perkins was ambitious and quickly garnered a reputation as junior editor at Charles Scribner and Sons by seeking out fresh, young authors and insisting they be published alongside Scribner’s traditionally conservative backlist. Naturally, he was met with resistance. However, his perseverance paid off with the publication of This Side of Paradise, a book by Perkins’ first author, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Perkins and Fitzgerald became close and the former related to the latter as “uncle to a pleasure seeking but adored nephew.” Fitzgerald, a perpetual spendthrift with a penchant for liquor, never ceased to captivate Perkins with his tales of drunken debauchery. In conversation with his wife, Louise, Perkins shares a particularly memorable misadventure:

Scott Fitzgerald was saying what a good egg I was, and what a good egg Ring [Lardner] was, and what a good egg he was, and then, without thinking, as though it was something one good egg did to another good egg, he just drove me into the damned lake.

Perkins’ editorial reputation was cemented when he acquired books by Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Ring Lardner, Marjorie Rawlings, and several other promising authors. He was the champion of all his authors and possessed the unique ability to read, decipher, and remedy whatever ailed them. Above all, Perkins was loyal; his devotion to his authors and their work fostered many relationships that exceeded the bounds of a strictly professional arrangement.

Max Perkins

Editor of Genius begins with reminiscences of youthful merriment and early success, but the latter half of the book is pockmarked with heartache and tragedy.

Perkins faced hardships with most of his authors—he was often concurrently attempting to keep Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and Hemingway’s ego in check. Perhaps the most disheartening occurrence for Perkins, though, was the dissolution of his personal and professional relationship with Wolfe. Their relationship became strained when Perkins began editing Wolfe’s enormous novel with a heavier hand than was normally his custom. As a result, they eventually severed ties, and Perkins remained deeply troubled by these circumstances up until his death.

Additionally, Perkins’ devotion to his work was causing stress at home—he lamented that he had so little time to spend with his five daughters, and Louise was feeling neglected. She longed to realize her dream of becoming an actress, but she mostly abandoned the notion when Perkins expressed his disapproval.

Perkins sought refuge during these troubling times by writing to longtime friend Elizabeth Lemmon, and readers are privy to their correspondence throughout the book. From their first meeting, Perkins was mesmerized by Lemmon. However, their relationship never amounted to anything romantic, and they remained in constant communication until his death.

Perkins’ death, although expected, was a hard blow for those with whom he was closest, and especially for the literary world in which he had so much influence. His propensity to exceed expectations, even at the expense of his own wellbeing, marks him as an indispensible figure in literary history. Editor of Genius is an important book that pays homage to a man whose job it was to remain invisible.

Alanna Brousseau is a recent graduate of the Ryerson publishing program and is currently working as a freelance copy editor.

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