Maxwell Perkins, though not a household name, was certainly the most famous editor of our time, discovering and helping to shape the careers of such famous writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, as well as notables such as Ring Lardner, Edmund Wilson, John Marquand, and, his last find, James Jones. A. Scott Berg began his work on Perkins at Princeton as an honors thesis under the direction of Carlos Baker, and he has pursued every possible lead for eight years. Now, thirty years after Perkins’ death, the editor stands revealed in a book of nearly five hundred pages and a series of helpful photographs.
The first point to be made is that Max Perkins would have been horrified by this biography. All of his life he chose to remain in the shadows; a shy and intensely private man, he always avoided publicity. He once said he wanted to be “a little dwarf on the shoulder of a great general advising him about what to do . . . , without anyone’s noticing,” and one recalls that he threatened to resign his job at Scribner’s if Thomas Wolfe included him and his editorial colleagues in his fiction. Especially would he be shocked at the revelation of his drinking problem, his secret “love letters,” and his daughter’s struggle with mental illness.
If the biography had to be written, perhaps Berg is the man for the job. This is patently a young man’s book, with the virtues and flaws the term implies. Berg unquestionably admires his subject, treating him with all possible kindness—even at the risk of turning Thomas Wolfe into something of a villain. Although he had Malcolm Cowley’s New Yorker profile and Perkins’ published letters, Editor to Author, to begin with, he has made excellent use of the Scribner’s files, interviewed everyone who knew and worked with the editor, including his platonic love, Elizabeth Lemmon, who turned over her letters to him. (Apparently without irony she referred to them as her “Aspern papers.”) The author has also had the cooperation of Perkins’ five daughters.
Berg has aimed, obviously, at a popular biography. Instead of dwelling at length on Perkins’ New England village background and education, or his early life as a journalist, he moves rapidly to his rise as a young editor at Scribner’s. Much of the bulk of the book is devoted to Perkins’ most famous writers; in fact, often more space is devoted to Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wolfe than to the editor himself. Although the publishers (and one notes that Scribner’s did not publish this book) lay claim to presenting new facts, anyone who has read a biography of these three novelists will soon grow weary of the stale gossip about them. Here we are treated again to the story of Hemingway’s fight with Max Eastman, Wolfe’s troubles with his aging mistress, Aline Bernstein, and Fitzgerald’s reaction when he discovered that Zelda had stolen his material in her novel Save Me the Waltz.
To be fair, however, Berg is capable of more...
(The entire section is 2,413 words.)