Where have you gone, Max Perkins?

I recently had the bittersweet occasion to read A. Scott Berg’s marvelous biography, published in 1978,  of Maxwell Perkins, the eminent Scribner’s editor who shepherded the literary (and often personal) lives of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe, among many other authors.

Sweet was the experience because Perkins was that rarest of the breed: Self-effacing, light with the critical touch, rock-solid in loyalty, intuitive, a friend always even when subjected to the alcoholic rages and depressions of his authors. Bitter because his kind seems long extinct. How many editors today would courteously escort an unknown (and unannounced) writer to a local hotel bar to spend hours listening to his troubles?

Perkins had a fondness for history and historical fiction. Those rare days he managed to spend away from work were often spent trudging over Civil War battlefields.

He guided the career of the prolific Taylor Caldwell toward historical fiction and encouraged her to read Sire Walter Scott and Alexander Dumas to gain a mastery of the genre. “What you have chiefly,” he wrote to her, “is the superb talent for telling a story on a grand scale. It is a might rare talent.”

Berg’s description of the editor’s philosophy of historical fiction  is instructive:

Perkins generally believed in letting characters direct the plot of novels, but he instructed Miss Caldwell to think this book [The Earth is the Lord’s] entirely through before setting pen to paper. He sent her all the historical information on Genghis Khan within his reach and books that described central Asia. He suggested that instead of making Genghis himself the central figure she should write a strong personal story about someone who accompanied him and suspend the novel from that.

Berg also found an editing note that Perkins had written to Caldwell:

Sometimes a book about periods far back like that, and about great epic movements, becomes too generalized, too little about a particular individual or particular individuals. That is a danger you must guard against, particularly with your imagination that tends to see things in the large.

Is there another Max Perkins out there today? I’d love to hear from fellow historical novelists or from agents and editors with recommendations on editors who have a particular talent for shaping and guiding the historical novel.

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