Perkins and Wolfe, The Great American Writer

Charlie Pierce is good enough to point us to Genius, the story of Maxwell Perkins and Thomas Wolfe, coming this summer. It’s based on Scott Berg’s breathtakingly good book on Perkins, who was the editor for, among others, Wolfe, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald.  The movie’s title kind of gives me pause, connoting a teleological sort of biopic, and the trailer sort of hints at the same thing, but what the hell? We’re getting a movie about an editor, and that’s cause for joy. Hopefully, the trailer just hits the “high” points, with the movie being full of clips like below. It’s is a good look at the maddening process between writer and editor, even though it usually happens over emails and passive-aggressive chats.

What I have a feeling the movie is going to do is start a sort of conversation about Thomas Wolfe. In my opinion, he is the Great American Writer. This is different than the greatest American writer (Melville, though I’ll entertain arguments). Wolfe is gigantic and overstretched, flawed and brilliant, maddening and over-the-top and keenly sentimental and brashly cynical and full of a pulsing sense of certainty buoyed by the idea that everything is nonsense. He is always grasping at something huge and enormous even as you feel the ground slipping beneath his feet. There seems to be a fear that if there isn’t blazing certainty there is a hollow emptiness.

He isn’t a metaphor for America or anything. He is, first and foremost, a great writer. He captures the sadness of childhood and the passage of time better than nearly anyone (his only competition, to me, is James T. Farrell, about whom I should write more). I think during the conversation this movie will hopefully provoke there will be a large focus on his flaws, his “genius for the sake of genius” style, and the grandiosity of his vision. But I hope that doesn’t obscure how amazing he was at boring into the small moments, the painful slights that linger, the memories that turn and melt into every ounce of your soul, and the exquisite agony of having a mind. The Thomas Wolfe we should celebrate is a combination of good and bad impulses, of extension and retraction, and someone who tried to capture an overwhelming and uncertain land, sure of its destiny but unsure of its history, an endless experiment with no one in charge. Wolfe, however, was lucky Perkins was in command. His driving subject could use such a steady hand.

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