Legendary Scribner editor Max Perkins, who discovered some of the 20th century's most iconic American authors in F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, continues to fascinate. To that end, a new film about Perkins and his relationship with Wolfe, called Genius, will hit theaters on June 10. A. Scott Berg, whose 1978 National Book Award-winning biography of Perkins serves as the basis of the film (which stars Colin Firth and Jude Law), explained how this literary editor entered the pop culture lexicon.
Why do you think there is a re-awakened interest in Perkins?
It’s less of a reawakening than a growing awareness. [Perkins] spent his entire career avoiding the limelight. When Dutton published my book, I was surprised to learn that, even in publishing, few knew little more than Perkins’s name. Since the publication of the book, Perkins’s renown has steadily increased. You’ll now find him in dictionaries and encyclopedias; I often see metaphorical references to him as a guardian spirit. I now find that almost everybody in publishing knows who he was, and many newcomers to the business read my book as a rite of passage.
What initially stoked your interest in Perkins?
A high school passion for Fitzgerald drove me to Princeton, his alma mater. By my second day on campus, I was wading through [Fitzgerald's] papers in Firestone Library and Perkins’s name kept popping up. I decided to spend one day in the library searching for everything I could find about Perkins. I discovered shockingly little.
Scribner’s had just donated its company archives to Princeton. So there I was, reading the massive correspondences between Perkins and not just Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wolfe, but also Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Ring Lardner, Erskine Caldwell, Marcia Davenport, Taylor Caldwell, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, and hundreds of others. The fact that nobody had ever mined this collection—which showed how Perkins not only changed the course of American literature but also turned the job of editing into a creative profession—stoked my interest.
Perkins worked with, and nurtured, so many great 20th century American writers, but the film zeroes in on his relationship with Wolfe. Why?
The friendship between Perkins and Wolfe was the most extreme relationship in either man’s life. That work yielded four epic novels--Look Homeward, Angel; Of Time and the River; The Web and the Rock; and You Can’t Go Home Again. John Logan, the screenwriter of Genius, recognized these two men were perfect foils for each other. Perkins, the repressed Yankee, was a cautious slave to duty, responsibly looking after others all his life. Wolfe, the wild Southerner, was oversized in his emotions, self-consumed and reckless, leaving no thought unexpressed. Each needed the other to become his best self; no matter what the subject or situation, drama between them was inevitable.
At BEA, which just wrapped in Chicago, Scott Turow was bemoaning the fact that today's publishing houses do less and less of the work that once made publishers so essential. Do you think that Perkins was part of a golden age in publishing that is now gone?
There’s some truth to what Scott Turow said. As in the past, I think editors are still looking for the next new thing, just as Perkins had been when he “discovered” Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wolfe—all of whom, I should point out, had been rejected by other publishers. I do think we’re missing out on the development of authors today. Scribner’s, in Perkins’s time, often banked on an author through a decade of commercially unsuccessful books—believing, say, that Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings might strike artistic and commercial gold on The Yearling, after two books that had been quickly forgotten. Certainly the financial pressures of publishing are much greater now, because publishing houses are part of larger conglomerates that demand certain quarterly numbers. But there are many truly gifted people in publishing today who “love books,” to use a favorite Perkins expression. My most recent biography, Wilson (Putnam, 2013), benefited from skillful editing and beautiful design and production—resulting in a book as handsome as any in Perkins’s day. While that may no longer be typical, I believe the passion for publishing great books is still very much alive.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Update: An earlier version of this story misstated the release date for Genius and has been corrected. Penguin Random House is also, on June 7, releasing a movie tie-in edition of Berg's Max Perkins: Editor of Genius under its Berkley imprint.