SUCH are the pangs of mortality: just when you live long enough to know and desire so many books, you are no longer young and limber to rummage for hours on your knees in secondhand books sales.
Fortunately, desire respects no age. By taking five-minute breaks to stand up and banish the floating-dot blackness fogging up my spectacles, I got back enough equilibrium to lunge back and crawl, head hanging down, so I could read book spines that were dumped, higgledy-piggledy, in the dust and gloom of this store’s bargain books section.
And that is how I found the biography of Max Perkins.
Being born in the 1960s has a few perks. One of these was a library card that gave free access to the collection of the United States Information Service (USIS) Library. Located along Jones Ave., the USIS Library was a guilty pleasure for students like me who fantasized about a new world order but hated the hideous ranting of revolutionaries.
Though I often felt I was betraying ardent allegiances when I surrendered to the guard my knapsack (carefully purged of political tracts), I strode into that book-scented hush with only one goal in mind: the fiction section.
Among those shelves with their hard-cover editions sheathed with special laminated covers, I broke faith and defected: forgot dour Marx and alienated Mao to romp with Sylvia Plath, William Burroughs, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and other writers who went after the great, white, American dream.
Even when they wrote about the dream turning into a nightmare, these authors made me care for their makebelieve characters. This was more than the thin gruel of sympathy I could squeeze for the exploited millions revealed by Marx and Engels as the “historical victims” of the “commodity fetishism” and “laws of motion” driving the “political arithmetick” of capitalism.
The most powerful idea, I realized then, was not the one whose time has come. It is its wording.
This thought crossed my mind again last Thursday, when my knees were on fire and I was lightheaded, exulting for coming upon a P242 copy of “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.”
Perkins was just the editor that introduced writers who only changed and continue to alter how we read, write and live: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, James Jones and others whose works became classics.
A. Scott Berg’s literary history won a National Book Award and made one critic write: “Why didn’t someone think of it before?” For Perkins belonged to an old and perhaps passing generation of editors that believed in self-effacement: “The book belongs to the author.”
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings gifted him with a sloughed-off rattlesnake skin with seven rattles shortly after she won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Yearling.” A newspaperwoman struggling with marriage and fear of the “second” book, Rawlings finished the novel after Perkins kept encouraging her for years.
Perkins cautioned aspiring editors from feeling important: “An editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing.” Unbeaten for 36 years in finding new gifted talent at Charles Scribner’s Sons, Perkins spent “two intense, often violent years” getting Wolfe’s “Of Time and the River” into print. According to legend, Wolfe, imperial in height and mercurial in temper, wrote the novel while using the top of his refrigerator as desk. He tossed each completed page into a crate without rereading it. It took three men to cart the box to Perkins, who “somehow shaped the outpouring into books.”
While some critics regard Wolfe’s novels as at least 50 percent written by Perkins, the latter believed that it was just part of his editorial duty to think of length and form, as “these were practical conventions that Wolfe couldn’t stop to think about for himself.”
Hemingway, on the other hand, had a tendency to overcorrect. Perkins said that the writer known for declaring war on adjectives and adverbs rewrote parts of his classic, “A Farewell to Arms,” at least 50 times. “Before an author destroys the natural qualities of his writing—that’s when an editor has to step in. But not a moment sooner.”
Reading this affectionate portrait—its very elegance a tribute to a man who lived for words—I realize our debt to editors, the invisible ones who shape worlds from chaos, who bring order and sense into the wild coupling of the creative.
Though all too imperfect, these human handmaidens—Perkins admitted he spelled “terribly,” was “idiosyncratic” in punctuation, and read as “slow as an ox”—have one claim to immortality: “(Perkins) treated literature as a matter of life and death.”
Long live the immortals.
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* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 20, 2008 issue