This fascinating biography celebrating Maxwell Perkins of Scribners Publishing, who changed the way editors work,  began its life as a senior thesis at Princeton University way back in 1971.  Before Perkins, an editor’s role was closer to that of a copywriter, one who tended to grammar, usage, and mechanics. With Perkins’ ascent, an editor also became a confident, analyser, father-figure, advisor, marvelous interpreter.  After Perkins, editors have contiued to have a much greater role in their writers’ lives as well as their work.

What captured my interest here  is our insight into the lives of seminal American writers like Scott Fitzgerald, after whom the author is named;  Thomas Wolfe;  and Ernest Hemingway. We are struck by just how needy these icons were, emotionally as well as financially. Fitzgerald, an immensely talented man but scourged by alcoholism, was forever securing loans from Perkins. Thomas Wolfe, who wrote the epic Look Homeward Angel, was the son Perkins never had. The macho Hemingway, who changed the way Americans write with his pared down prose, gained his own notoriety by first being published by Scribners.

Perkins was unfailingly gracious to these authors and remained quietly in the background where he felt a proper editor should be. Seeing  the tragic dissolution of Fitzgerald, who never lived to see the immense popularity of his Gatsby, is a long, sad journey reflected in his letters to Perkins. Thomas Wolfe, for all his brilliance, bordered on crazy and ended up estranged from Perkins because of Wolfe’s own paranoia.   Bombastic Hemingway charmed and needled fellow writers, even when they had, like Fitzgerald, brought him to the attention of Perkins in the first place.  Reading the many letters to Perkins from these legends is both exhilarating and depressing since the they reveal the very human failings that somtimes overcame these authors’ tremendous talents.  In addition, within the letters, Perkins shows his own remarkable skills as a subtle writer who has an uncanny ability to promote his author’s drafts.

In spite  of the tradition-breaking quality of the manuscripts that Perkins brought to life, there are no happy endings here.  Perkins, whose long marriage was strained, ended up sliding more and more into work and eventually, like so many of his charges, into the bottle.  For a man who revolutionized editing and gave his all, it was a sad demise.  Find the audiobook here.

 

About Leslie Brown
My ocean physicist husband and I raised two wonderful sons, my proudest accomplishment. For many years I taught writing at a university, my job of a lifetime, and worked as a freelance writer for local publications. I am an ocean girl, sometimes profane, who loves animals, reading, and creative projects. I am curious about nearly everything. Loyal and caring, I make a good friend.