Friday, July 23, 2021

Friday's Forgotten Books: Max Perkins, Editor of Genius, A. Scott Berg

Richard S. Wheeler was the author of sixty-nine contracted or published novels that largely dealt with the American West. This include historical novels, biographical novels, and traditional western fiction. In recent years he wrote mysteries, including some set in the upper Midwest, under the pseudonym Axel Brand. 
This review is from 2009. Richard Wheeler died a few years back. A lovely man.

Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by A. Scott Berg

I've finished rereading Scott Berg's great biography of Maxwell Perkins, which won the National Book Award in 1978. It is a massive book and took a week to get through. I've often wondered why it is my favorite book, and why I return to it with renewed thirst and joy, every little while.

For a long time, I thought it was because I had been a book editor and found common ground with Perkins. Or perhaps it was because my family is rooted in New England, though I grew up in the Midwest. There was something in Max Perkins' shy, awkward, introspective nature that rang bells in me.

The truth of it is that I have no idea why that book stands above all others in that place of the heart where I build altars. It is largely a description of the way Perkins, a Scribners editor, nurtured several wayward authors and the result was the most sublime period in American literary history. The list of those he encouraged and published is too long for this posting, but they include Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Ring Lardner, Edmund Wilson, Erskine Caldwell, Sherwood Anderson, John P. Marquand, S. S. Van Dine, Taylor Caldwell, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Alan Paton, and James Jones. No other editor has even come close to discovering and publishing a list like that.

Scott Berg writes tenderly. He had his hands full, because of the acrimony, the disappointments, the bitterness, the craziness, the hurt, that he was chronicling. Somehow Perkins managed to nurture each of his authors, supplied the specific criticisms that lifted their books to new heights, all the while trying to remain anonymous because he felt that editors should not take credit or be known to the public. He often said that a book belongs to the author, and it is the editor's task simply to bring out the best in the author and the book.

This great work by Berg shaped me. It deeply affected how I think about literature. It changed what I aspire to in my writing. I am not the same person I was before this book entered the place of honor on my shelf. I lost my father, whom I loved and admired, when I was young. All those authors he nurtured lost a father when Max Perkins died.



Margot Kinberg said...

That's the thing about great books, Patti. They shape your thinking and the way you look at life. Little wonder you love this one so well.

Jeff Meyerson said...

I've always wanted to read this one but never got past just skimming it and reading specific passages about certain authors. I really should try it from the beginning.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Berg is a very fine biographer.

George said...

I read this Max Perkins biography when it was first published. You don't see editors like Perkins anymore. In fact, you don't see many editors anymore.

I miss Richard S. Wheeler.