Most likely, few people outside of the publishing industry are immediately familiar with the name Maxwell Perkins, despite the fact that he played a large hand in shaping modern American literature. In the new biopic Genius, based on the biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg, Colin Firth and Jude Law bring to life Max Perkins, editor at Scribner’s, and Thomas Wolfe, the tempestuous, verbose author whose friendship with Perkins was nearly as much the stuff of legends as Wolfe’s novels.
If you are looking for a topic for your American Literature class, consider taking a look at Genius, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, and the research behind both the film and the biography.
Journey to Genius film
According to Ben Abramowitz, in “Genius, the Biopic About the Editor Behind America’s Greatest Novelists” in the summer 2016 issue of Vanity Fair, the journey to Genius was nearly fifty years long. It began with Berg’s obsession as an undergrad; he discovered the figure of Perkins behind one of his favorite authors, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and was infinitely curious. As a contributor to the 2013 Thomas Wolfe Review noted in “Perkins,” reviewers such as Joseph Epstein consider Perkins “the most famous of American publishing editors … the representative, the exemplary figure.” Perkins discovered Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, as well as working with other notaries including Edith Wharton, John P. Marquand and Erskine Caldwell. He also shaped the direction of American editing. According to Berg, as quoted by Abramowitz, “Before Perkins, book editors had largely mechanical jobs: signing the book and preparing the manuscript for the printer. This one person changed the course of great American literature by working closely with authors to shape their manuscripts.”
Berg’s interest in Perkins was whetted through the correspondence between Perkins and Hemingway, and then through letters released by Scribner’s between Perkins and other authors. Compiling that information to show the shape of the man, Berg presented his work as his undergraduate thesis, and spent the next seven years developing that into a book–which won the National Book Award. John Logan, screenwriter of Gladiator and Skyfall, believed that it could be made into a film, despite the usual problems with filming writers as main characters. (Writing is a solitary profession that, during that era, meant spending a great deal of time with a typewriter. The film offers much of that work in montages.)
In an AV Club review of the film, “Genius makes the old-fashioned fresh again, at least for awhile,” published June 9, 2016, Alex McCown reports that he thinks the filmmakers and actors succeeded at making this story of writers and editors work on screen–at least for the first half. “The standard biopic filter of seeing a spitfire soul through the lens of a more reserved and relatable associate succeeds to a greater degree than usual,” McCown wrote. He praised Colin Firth, who is well known for the reserved, proper type of role required in portraying Perkins. Contrast that staid role with the overabundant energy brought to Wolfe by Jude Law. “The film is never more alive than when Wolfe and Perkins are arguing over the nature of art,” McCown explained. The film follows the biopic formula very closely, and unfortunately, the fall-out between Wolfe and Perkins, when Wolfe leaves Scribner’s for a more lucrative offer, despite their friendship, is as uncomfortable for the audience as it is painful for the characters.
Behind the letters
But while tradition has given Perkins credit for providing massive cuts to Wolfe’s overwhelmingly dense prose, how much of the praise the resulting published works was due to Perkins’s help? According to the contributor to the Thomas Wolfe Review, some of the Perkins lore has grown beyond Perkins’ actual impact. The critic noted that a reviewer repeated “some debunked bunk” about Perkins cutting his way through Wolfe’s voluminous papers, wielding his red pen like a machete.
Genius certainly embraces those legends, but also portrays the more tender moments, such as when Perkins writes a personal check to Fitzgerald, whose Gatsby has underperformed for the publisher. Berg talked about watching that scene in Vanity Fair: “Watching them film it was the strangest and most wonderful sensation. My heart was just pounding.”
How would you approach Genius for your research paper? Tell us in the comments.