If you are a writer, or if you aspire to be one, read this excellent biography. If you are a lover of good literature, or a history buff, read this book. In my opinion Maxwell Perkins was the most influential editor in American literary history. In case your English literature class was woefully deficient, thankfully mine wasn’t, he was the editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe (the first one not the one who wrote Bonfire of the Vanities), Ernest Hemingway, and James Jones. A pantheon of American literature the likes of which we have not seen since. And that is just a partial list. More than editor. He was in essence an essential collaborator to writers who might not have been as successful without him.
This book provides a lot of inside information on the writing and editing process. That itself made it worth my time. Knowing how to take a jumbled inchoate manuscript from the scribbles of someone like Thomas Wolfe and help the author turn it into a piece of genuine literature is a rare art. Back in the day an unknown writer could waltz into the Scribner building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan with their manuscript, and had a much better than even chance of seeing the man himself. Many were asked to tea. Compare that to today when charlatans abound in the publishing business and most publishers want to see an edited manuscript before they will look at it.
A. Scott Berg’s work takes us deep inside Scribner’s publishing house (which started as a publisher of religious books), and the storied rise of Max Perkins and the writers he worked with. The book starts slow, because the author takes his time in building the foundation. It picks up steam as it goes along, and I finished the last half of it today because I couldn’t put it down. I had tears in my eyes the last few pages. I cannot ever remember when I have been moved so powerfully by a biography. I suspect never.