A. Scott Berg's Max Perkins: Editor of Genius has become a classic since its publication in 1978, shining a light on an overlooked but critically important literary figure -- and on a golden age of editing. Berg went on to write acclaimed biographies of Charles Lindbergh, Samuel Goldwyn, Woodrow Wilson, and Katharine Hepburn. He answered questions from The National about his Perkins book, the major motion picture that has just been made of it, and book editing today.
1. Max Perkins: Editor of Genius is, among other things, an inspiration for college thesis writers everywhere. You started it as your undergraduate thesis at Princeton, and it ended up winning a National Book Award. How did this happen?
I should start by saying that I went to Princeton because of an extreme passion for F. Scott Fitzgerald. Almost immediately after I arrived there, I went to Firestone Library to look at Fitzgerald’s papers; and I kept seeing Max Perkins’s name popping up — in personal correspondence and professional correspondence.
I could see that Perkins changed not only what F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote but also what an editor did. He offered creative solutions to literary problems; and often, he put himself in the role of marriage counselor, money lender, and friend.
Around this time, Scribners gave most if its archives to Firestone — thousands of pages of letters from Scribners authors and carbon copies of every letter in reply. I spent one day at the end of freshman year looking for everything I could find that was written on Perkins, and I found shockingly little — a Malcolm Cowley profile for The New Yorker, and not much more. I began to think, “There’s an interesting subject for someone — why isn’t there a book?”
At the start of sophomore year, I went to talk with Carlos Baker, who was a Princeton professor and had just published a Hemingway biography. He said, “Certainly there should be a biography of Perkins, the question is whether you” — I was 18 1/2 years old at the time — “should be the one to do it.” He said Perkins was the great enigma of American literature, and that after 7 years of working on his biography of Hemingway, who was edited by Perkins, he still knew as little about Perkins as he did when he started.
The Princeton English Department gave me an A+ on my senior thesis and its thesis prize, and they also said, “There is a book here.” They didn’t tell me it would take seven years to write it. But powerful is the urge not to go to law school . . .
I began active research on the book sophomore year, in the fall of 1968, and it was published in July 1978. So I spent three part-time years on it in college, and seven full-time years after that.
2. Max Perkins is credited with being a major influence on many of the greatest writers of the 20th century — Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and of course Wolfe. How different do you think their careers, and their writings, would have been if Perkins had remained a journalist, and not become an editor?
I don’t do really do crystal-ball biographies, but F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first book, This Side of Paradise, was turned down by three or four publishers. Hemingway’s first book, The Torrents of Spring, had been turned down — and acquiring that led to publishing his next book, The Sun Also Rises. And Thomas Wolfe had been turned down by virtually every publisher in New York.
There is no question Perkins saw something -- heard something -- that others did not. And there is no question he had to go to bat for these authors. With Fitzgerald, he put his job on the line, and said that if Scribners was not publishing the likes of Fitzgerald, he was not sure he wanted to stay.
And This Side of Paradise became an enormous success. The only thing I can compare it to is The Catcher in the Rye. It reflected what young people were feeling and gave them a way to recreate it — young people were suddenly imitating Amory Blaine, the way they later would behave like Holden Caulfield.
Perkins had a great personal influence on the lives of these authors, who were in need not only of money and editing, but of somebody acting in loco parentis. This was true of Fitzgerald, and certainly of Wolfe, much of whose work was about men who were in search of their fathers. He found a father figure in Perkins--who had five daughters and always wanted a son. And so it made sense that he would adopt these “literary sons.”
3. At times it was hard to tell where the writer ended and the editor began — probably most of all with Perkins’s relationship with Thomas Wolfe. Do you think Perkins ever went too far — or, to put it another way, would you say that Perkins was really the co-author of a book like Of Time and the River?
I’m on Team Perkins. I believe he didn’t go too far. Perkins had a credo that he often stated: “The book belongs to the author.” I think one could make the best argument that Perkins overreached with Thomas Wolfe, because he really did take these boxes and boxes of words that Wolfe scribbled on paper and never reread; and it was Perkins who gave them shape. One could argue that Wolfe should have been published raw; but I take Perkins’s side here, because it is not as if Perkins forced Wolfe to do anything — the decisions were always Wolfe’s own.
When it came to The Great Gatsby, I went and counted the words. A good 20 percent of that small book was changed because of suggestions from Perkins. Again, Perkins never said, “Scott, you have to do these things” — they were put out as suggestions, often quite subtly. Of course, when Wolfe came along, he [Wolfe] knew this was the guy who gave us The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises; and that gave Perkins plenty of cred.
4. Perkins certainly feels like a figure from another century, with his pencil marking up — and often heavily rewriting — paper manuscripts. Are there Max Perkinses today, or does modern publishing not have room for people like him any more?
I think there are many editors out there who have the same editorial ability. But two things have changed. First, the business itself. My Max Perkins biography is largely about the golden age of the 1920s and 1930s. Today we live in the conglomerate era, when acquiring editors tend to acquire more than they edit. .
The second big difference was Max Perkins’s character. This is not to say that there aren’t many in the publishing industry today with great character. But I remember my editor on my first book, Thomas Congdon, saying that if Perkins had become a plumber he would have been the world’s best plumber, simply because of his deep personal values. He would have made plumbing so much more interesting.
5. Some people might not have expected a book about an editor — particularly one who said editors should remain invisible — to become a major Hollywood movie starring Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Guy Pearce, and Dominic West. How surprised are you that this came about?
Honestly, it wasn’t a surprise to me. There has been interest in making a movie of this book ever since it was announced in 1978. The first interest surfaced even before the book came out, from Universal. There was a possibility of Paul Newman playing Perkins, which would have been perfect — including the blue eyes.
What attracted them to making a movie was not necessarily the possible drama of editing a book but the personal relationships between the editor and his authors. What I think really comes across in the film -- and I like to think in the book -- is all the passion involved in the work — passion so great that it caused friendships and marriages to fall apart.
6. The movie is called Genius, a word taken, of course, from the title of your book. In the end, what would you say Perkins’s real genius was?
Perkins’s genius had several elements. He clearly had a great eye for talent. He really did hear and appreciate this new sound -- this American language -- that was starting to appear after World War I, and he responded to it.
The next level of his genius was his personal nature. He was, in many ways, a slave to duty. He made a promise as a teenager never to refuse a responsibility. His father, you see, had died when he was young, and so he grew up fast; and then he was involved in a nearly fatal accident when a friend almost drowned, and that deeply affected him. All this shows up in his editing — in his dedication to those around him. The final level was his compassion — he had a real gift for friendship.
This interview was edited for publication.