We were the only two people in the darkened theater. One entire row of seats had been roped off because they were damaged when part of the ceiling fell. The place smelled of stale popcorn and body odor, and we had to wipe the accumulated buttery grease off of the vinyl seats before gingerly sitting down to await the show. The film was Genius (Lionsgate, 2016), starring Jude Law and Colin Firth and directed by Michael Grandage. I knew of Max Perkins and his editing work with most of the major writers of the early 20th century: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe. I knew he had performed more than just editing tasks for his writers, including being a surrogate father-figure. But what unfolded in front of me over the next 104 minutes was something I had not seen before. Grandage had managed to illustrate and dramatize what was not considered all that interesting: a person editing a manuscript. Grandage gives us extreme close-ups of Perkins’ red pencil as he circles paragraphs and lines out words. What is cerebral and internal became physical in the cinematic light. Jude Law captures the maniacal energy of Thomas Wolfe; Colin Firth inhabits Perkins’ calm, methodical, patient character. It was a special cinematic experience for me. When it was over, we walked out into the deserted lobby. Even the employees were gone and we had to let ourselves out of the double-glass doors. But for a film about a vanished world, that seemed eerily appropriate.
I purchased the book upon which the film was based: Max Perkins Editor of Genius (New American Library, 2016) by A. Scott Berg, first published in 1978. Of course, the book is better than the movie because so much of the story was left out of the cinematic treatment. Perkins worked all of his career with Scribner’s, the first publishers of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe and a host of other influential writers in a time when novels were the dominant literary art form. He did far more than just edit. He shepherded each of his authors into print, loaned them money, parented them, sat with them in the hospitals and mental asylums when they broke down, and in the end, cared for their legacies and estates when they died. The film focuses mainly on his work with Wolfe, but the book shows us the full spectrum. He did as much with Fitzgerald who battled all kinds of demons in his career. He manned-up with Hemingway, journeying down to the Gulf Coast to fish and listen to the big man’s adventures. He encouraged, cajoled, and inspired his writers to greater artistic heights than they could reach on their own. The book clearly indicates that Max Perkins is the genius in the title whereas the film leaves one unclear who is the actual genius, Perkins or Wolfe. Both fit the artistic definition.
What impressed me the most about these two pieces of art is the vanished world they represent. Scribner’s published a magazine for years, and that is where many of the writers got their start or later, serialized their novels before publication. That kind of system no longer exists. Magazines and newspapers have dried up. Writers are not writers anymore; they are “content providers.” What is also interesting are the elements of time and physicality. In the film and in the book, we see Wolfe, a writer of prodigious manuscripts, submit his work in crates of rubber-banded sheets, some handwritten and other typed. The wooden boxes fill Perkins’ office. He employs a battalion of typists to convert the manuscript into one massive draft of thousands of pages. He then works, line by line with the author, to cut and shape the manuscript into a coherent novel of substantial artistic achievement. In the book, we see the gestation period of a novel. Fitzgerald writes and writes, lays off for a year to work for Hollywood only to return to the novel and write some more. Perkins worries that it has been five or ten years since an author’s last book and the public may have forgotten him. Hemingway seems the most disciplined of writers, setting himself a daily word count and working hard for months on end to finish a novel. Then he heads off for an African excursion or to cover a war. So time is given for these writers to compose their works. And all of them submit physical manuscripts which are then worked over, by hand, across the desk of Perkins in collaboration with the writer, moving line-by-line through the text. There is no sense of urgency for instant gratification. Sure, the writers and Perkins wait for reviews and sales reports when a novel hits the bookstores (yes, bookstores!). But the world today, with its self-publishing business, the rise of Amazon, and the death of physical bookstores is so much different.
I liked the film Genius, but it is geared for a very particular audience—on my night, just two people! I am amazed the film was made. When I exited that empty lobby near midnight on a hot summer evening, I was struck by the loss of that vanished world. The novels birthed by Max Perkins and his writers were celebratory events when published. They were anticipated by the reading public. I am not sure novels hold the same cultural relevance now. Films hold some regard in our culture, but they are big bombastic affairs with more special effects than literary story. I cannot imagine people being intrigued by what an editor does, or how one person could shape a cultural entity like a novel. The world of Max Perkins and his writers is a vanished world and it is strange that this one fact puts it on the same level as a film that also depicted a vanished world but was a blockbuster: Jurassic Park. When Max Perkins roamed the earth, we had a literary culture. Not anymore.