Books you’ll want to read,
written by people you’ll want to meet.

Maxwell Perkins, Thomas Wolfe, and Pokémon Go

August 20, 2016 • Posted in Authors, Editing, Writers by

Maxwell Perkins is one of my heroes.

Maxwell Perkins, Editor

Maxwell Perkins, Editor

Or at least I think he is. I’m about 50 pages into Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, and so far so good. The man had his flaws, but I suppose we can overlook a lot in the one who brought F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway to the world.

Trying to channel Perkins’ editing process, I’m alternating chapters of his biography with chunks of Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. My primary mission was to see if I can detect Perkins’ work behind Wolfe’s words. But now that I’m well into Angel, I find myself wrapped up in it, in awe of this writer who Max Perkins had such faith in.

Listen to this passage describing the sensory imagination of the young boy, Eugene:

Yes, and the exciting smell of chalk and varnished desks; the smell of heavy bread-sandwiches of cold fried meat and butter; the smell of new leather in a saddler’s shop, or of a warm leather chair; of honey and of unground coffee; of barreled sweet-pickles and cheese and all the fragrant compost of the grocer’s; the smell of stored apples in the cellar, and of orchard-apple smells, of pressed-cider pulp; of pears ripening on a sunny shelf, and of ripe cherries stewing with sugar on hot stoves before preserving; the smell of whittled wood, of all young lumber, of sawdust and shavings; of peaches stuck with cloves and pickled in brandy; of pine-sap, and green pine-needles; of a horse’s pared hoof; of chestnuts roasting, of bowls of nuts and raisins; of hot cracklin, and of young roast pork; of butter and cinnamon melting on hot candied yams. 

Can you feel your nose tingling? Doesn’t it make your mouth water? Delicious to read, these adjective-generous lines washed me in childhood memories.

But my nostalgia snapped with this sudden thought: What kind of sensory memories are today’s kids making, glued to their gadgets, playing augmented reality games like Pokémon Go?

Of course each generation worries that the next is going to hell in a hand basket, and somehow humanity manages to muddle forward. But still, I wonder. In a world smelling of fabric softener and exhaust, are we giving our kids the kind of raw material that they will need to write paragraphs like Wolfe’s in the future?

Image credit

Nancy Sayre is Golden Alley Press's old-school, hands-on editor. Max Perkins, Saul Bellow, and Robert Giroux are some of her role models. Her reading interests include classic literature, theology, and the subject matter of whatever books she is editing at the moment.
Beth On August 20, 2016 at 1:35 pm

Hello from an aroma fan.
Love this post.
Have you read any books by Elena Ferrante? She’s the Italian phenom who was discovered here after a New Yorker staff person translated her work to English — she was all the rage last year and I am finally reading the first of her three (or is it four?) part series.
I bookmarked one part of “My Brilliant Friend” because I appreciated the way she uses other senses (in addition to vision). The book is written in first-person, and this paragraph comes at a time when a young man the narrator knows gets a job cutting trees to make room for an asphalt road in Naples:
“We heard the sound of annihilation for days. The trees groaned. They gave off a scent of fresh green wood. They cleaved the air. They stroke the ground after a long wrestling that seemed a sigh.”

Scroll Up