Editing, like baseball, has its mythical past.
But unlike the national pastime, whose myths have been widely circulated and have inspired generations to emulate The Babe or Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, few recognize the figures that appear to transcend the editorial profession.
In 1910, Maxwell Perkins took a job in the advertising department at Charles Scribner’s Sons after working as a reporter for The New York Times. He rose to prominence by taking on a manuscript that the press’s literary advisor, William Crary Brownell, rejected. Brownell, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, objected to Perkins’s acquisition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s manuscript, The Romantic Egotist. However, after working closely with Fitzgerald—and lobbying his colleagues at Scribner’s—Perkins saw the work published as This Side of Paradise in 1920. The book marked a change in direction for Scribner’s, which had been known primarily for publishing eminent writers like John Galsworthy, Henry James, and Edith Wharton. Scribner’s would come to be known for ushering in a new generation of writers largely through Perkins’s efforts.
Perkins would work on more novels with Fitzgerald, and go on to publish authors including Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. He struggled to convince Charles Scribner of the value of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), particularly due to its profanity. However, Perkins rested all doubts concerning his editorial judgment when Hemingway’s next novel, A Farewell to Arms (1929), became a number-one best seller. Nonetheless, it was with Wolfe that Perkins found his greatest professional challenge—and established a mythical status for editors.
Wolfe was a prolix writer. His first novel, Look Homeward, Angel (1929), was shaped by Perkins, who excised 90,000 words from the text (for perspective, consider that The Great Gatsby is only 47,094 words long). With Wolfe’s next novel, Of Time and the River (1935), Perkins blurred the line between editor and author, turning the three cartons of unnumbered pages and 400,000 words that Wolfe submitted into a novel. In turn, Wolfe explicitly acknowledged Perkins in the book’s dedication, calling him “a great editor and a brave and honest man, who stuck to the writer of this book through times of bitter hopelessness and doubt and would not let him give in to his own despair.”
One of the results of Perkins-style editing is that the work of the editor in the United States from the ’20s to the ’40s came to be, in its most distinguished and elite forms, an art in itself. Perkins-style editing involved doing whatever was necessary to support the talents of the author—including taking boxes of raw material and transforming (or translating) them into a finished form. In its most extreme form, editing is seen to be an epic task wherein the editor tirelessly devotes himself or herself to the author. Some see this dedicated, intensive work as admirable; but for others, this type of editing raises serious concerns.
For one, it begs the question as of the novel’s authorship. In the case of Of Time and the River, the acknowledged role of Perkins led some critics to question how much Wolfe had actually written. Wolfe himself came to resent the suggestion that he owed his success to Perkins—and Perkins allegedly did not seek or want the publicity that resulted from his “brave” new form of editing. When a work is created under these conditions, does there arise a sense of shared authorship? Is “authorship” reserved for the writer of the original material? How much of the process from blank page to published volume should be the work of the author?
Until the turn of the nineteenth-century, editors spent more time promoting and advocating texts than shaping them. Part of this was due to the fact that up until 1891, British imports had no copyright protection. This meant that the works of say Charles Dickens and William Thackeray could be published in the United States with no developmental-, line-, or copy-editing. Furthermore, while “the courtesy of the trade” enabled some...