D+ is a cringe-worthy grade. It screams sub-par! South of mediocre! Ticket buyers beware! Alas, it wasn’t enough to keep me from throwing aside the movie review and marching into the nearest theatre to see Genius. To a book lover like me, the subject matter was irresistible: at the dawn of the Great Depression, Scribners editor Maxwell Perkins (who’d already persuaded his firm to take a chance on F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway) says “we’ll publish your book” to the mercurial, much-rejected, way-too-verbose Thomas Wolfe, and the result is the best-seller Look Homeward, Angel. Unlike The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, I’d give the film Genius a solid B.
Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and other stars disappear into the roles of their real-life characters, there’s plenty of tension and conflict to fuel the storyline, and best of all–I walked away from the film wanting to know more. So I bought the book on which it’s based: MAX PERKINS EDITOR OF GENIUS, by A. Scott Berg. Published in 1978, it won a National Book Award, and all these years later it’s still a great read. (Even better than the film, as is so often the case.) It’s a longish book, but the shorter film focuses on the story of the father/son relationship that develops between Perkins (father to 5 daughters) and Wolfe. Nine years into it, the author dies unexpectedly from a brain disease and doesn’t live to see his 38th birthday.
There’s a special Thomas Wolfe Collection in the graduate library at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Wolfe, an Asheville native, enrolled at UNC at age 15. Four year later he was getting a Masters degree at Harvard, intending to be a playwright. A teaching job at NYU gave him an income until Max Perkins gave him his big break. Years later I was an English major at UNC and stood in the Wilson Library, looking through the Thomas Wolfe Collection with reverence. Wolfe was–and still is–North Carolina’s most famous author. That said, I never really got into Wolfe’s novels in college. Look Homeward, Angel seemed like an especially laborious read. Today Wolfe’s not as popular as his former contemporaries Fitzgerald and Hemingway, even though William Faulkner said of Wolfe that he may have had the most talent of their generation. He also influenced future greats like Jack Kerouac, Pat Conroy and Philip Roth. Curious, I pulled my old copy of Look Homeward, Angel off the shelf. The beginning pages were slow, but the first lines of dialogue grabbed me. Pressed for time, I randomly opened the 500+ page small-print novel in a dozen places. There on each page were descriptive passages that were true and beautiful. Much of Tom’s prose is a form of poetry, something I didn’t appreciate in my youth. Someday soon I plan to reread the novel.
So how did Max Perkins, born in 1884, become the editor who helped revolutionize American literature? The book told me much that the film didn’t. Max was descended from two distinguished Yankee families. A swimming accident in his youth in which a friend almost drowned made him resolve “never to refuse a responsibility” from that point on. Like his dad he went to Harvard, but by then his lawyer father was dead and family money was less abundant. Max studied economics, but only because he thought it would be good discipline to study something he didn’t like. It was some literature classes with the wildly popular Professor Charles Copeland that energized him as a student and influenced the editor Max would become. After graduating, Max got a lowly reporter’s job at The New York Times, working the night shift. Several years later, wanting to marry and work more regular hours, he was hired by the Scribners advertising department. Four years later he moved to editorial, but there wasn’t all that much to do. Scribners was a venerable firm with important authors who didn’t need much editing–Henry James and Edith Wharton, for example. After the firm turned down Fitzgerald’s re-worked first novel for the third time, Perkins said to the staff, “If we aren’t going to publish a talent like this, it is a very serious thing . . .we might as well go out of business.” Published in 1920, that first novel This Side of Paradise launched Fitgzerald into international literary stardom. Later on Perkins helped shape the structure of The Great Gatsby and even suggested the title. Sales of the novel were poor in his lifetime, but as we all know, students and adults still read Gatsby–or rush to see the latest movie version.
Max encouraged his authors through years of dry spells, illness, romantic woes, financial troubles and bad reviews. He did this through numerous hand-written letters, taking them out for meals/drinks, and sending them books that might spark their imaginations. Often he advanced them money against future book sales, sometimes dipping into his own pockets when Scribners said, enough. Max never sought the lime-light for himself, only for his authors. Many dedicated their books to him, despite his attempts to discourage them. When Wolfe dedicated his second novel Of Time and the River to Max, it ultimately caused a rift between them. Some critics speculated that Perkins had done most of the work, and Wolfe went and found another publisher. He died before his other novels were published, but ironically he’d named Max the executor of his estate, and Max worked hard to see that his works were published posthumously–with the other publisher!–and to keep Wolfe’s literary reputation alive.
To Max, a good book was something holy. He published many other authors who became famous, including: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who won the Pulitzer for The Yearling (an idea suggested by Max), Ring Lardner, a sportswriter turned successful short story writer and Taylor Caldwell, who became a best-selling writer of historical fiction. If you see the film Genius or read the biography, you’ll come away wondering if another editor could have had the termperament to sort throught the crates of manuscript pages that Wolfe produced and help shape them into coherent novels. Max Perkins, icon, found his passion but worked himself to death by sixty-two.
My major takeaway from learning about Perkins and his authors is this: so many of the great writers whom he helped to discover lived tortured lives. Some were alcoholics, some ended up in sanitariums for a time, some were tortured by their genius and an inability to get the right words down on paper at the right time. Almost all were tortured by the bad reviews. Writing a good book and finding an editor to champion it is no small endeavor. It was true in Max’s day, and it’s true today. But when it happens, the end result is magical. Let’s not forget that.