The Artist and the Critic: 8 Famous Author/Editor Relationships


This week, we were totally psyched to hear that Colin Firth and Michael Fassbender will be playing Thomas Wolfe and his legendary editor Max Perkins in a film adaption of A. Scott Berg’s National Book Award–winning account of their relationship, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. And not just for all the Firth/Fassbender it means we’ll be getting. Inspired by this national nod towards an important literary relationship, we’ve rounded up a few other famous author/editor relationships to inspire both the critics and the scribblers among you. Read about them after the jump, and if we’ve missed your favorite, tell us the story in the comments.

Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe

Though Perkins, often referred to as the most famous literary editor of all time, worked with Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and a host of other talents, his relationship with Thomas Wolfe seems always to draw the most attention. Perhaps this is because it was the most tempestuous — Wolfe was a difficult author to handle, writing uncontrollably, unwilling to cut pages, or even lines without enormous pressure and argument. After many a battle, Wolfe began to become resentful of the popular perception that the genius in his works was as much his editor’s as it was his own, and left Scribner’s in a huff. Despite this professional relationship, the two were best friends, albeit complicated ones. We can’t wait to see all the drama played out on the big screen.

Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot

In The New York Times, Charles McGrath once called Pound and Eliot the “‘Odd Couple’ of 20th-century poetry” (with Pound as Oscar and Eliot as Felix, of course). True enough, but there’s another narrative: that of the slightly older Pound helping Eliot nurture his talent with both emotional and editorial support. It’s not always easy to identify the hand of an editor on an author’s work, but luckily, the original typescript for Eliot’s The Waste Land, found in 1968, does just that. It’s peppered with Pound’s comments, some of which Eliot took, some of which he did not. We must be grateful for both.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Emily Dickinson

In April 1862, Higginson published an article in the Atlantic Monthly, entitled “Letter to a Young Contributor,” which offered advice for aspiring writers. Dickinson replied, sending a few of her poems — and the rest is history. Though they only met face-to-face twice, the pair kept up an incredible correspondence for some 25 years, with Higginson acting both as friend and literary advisor. After her death, Higginson collaborated with Mabel Loomis Todd to edit and publish volumes of Dickinson’s poetry. Though contemporary scholars have berated him for obscuring much of her incredibly specific punctuation, he also garnered the younger poet significant attention that she probably wouldn’t have gotten otherwise — and hey, we got all the punctuation back.

Edgar Allan Poe and Rufus Wilmot Griswold

Let’s get this straight: Poe and Griswold were not friends. They kind of hated each other most of the time, actually, though they seemed to have been always bound up in one another in their professional circles. They attacked each other in print and in private, their careers too close together (and their mutual crush on the married Ms. Frances Sargent Osgood too fraught) for them to leave each other alone. Griswold hated Poe so much that after the latter’s death, he prepared a ludicrously bitter obituary for the New York Tribune, in which he wrote, “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.” Published under the pseudonym “Ludwig,” Griswold was nonetheless quickly unmasked. However, somehow Griswold got his hands on the rights to be Poe’s literary executor after his death — though by what means this came about we can’t quite tell, and edited and published a posthumous collection of Poe’s works, including a highly inaccurate “Memoir of the Author,” the profits from which he did not share with Poe’s relatives. Luckily, not many people remember him.

Charles Dickens and Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Oh, these two. Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton were great friends — Dickens named his tenth and last son Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens, after all — and Dickens was Bulwer-Lytton’s editor, something rather surprising given the contemporary fad of calling Dickens one of the best prose stylists of all time, and Bulwer-Lytton (of “it was a dark and stormy night” fame) one of the worst. Never mind that you can’t tell them apart, of course. But Bulwer-Lytton was nearly as popular as his friend in the early 1800s, and the two often discussed their work. Though Dickens served as more of an editor to Bulwer-Lytton than the other way around, the latter did make one suggestion that still rankles some critics today: feeling that the original ending of Great Expectations was much too sad, he suggested that Dickens let Pip and Estella get together — and so they do to this day.

Franz Kafka and Max Brod

Everyone knows the story: best friends for many years, Brod read all of Kafka’s work, pushing him to publish it, to keep a journal. But in typically self-loathing fashion, on Kafka’s deathbed, he begged his friend to burn everything he had written, a desire also reflected in the author’s will. Brod did not. Instead, he edited them and had them published. All we can say is: thank goodness.

Michael Pietsch and David Foster Wallace

We’ve had as much fun as anyone tracking Pietsch and Wallace’s correspondence about Infinite Jest, which Pietsch edited with aplomb, but we think the work that best shows the solidity of the relationship is The Pale King, which Pietsch painstakingly assembled after Wallace’s suicide in 2008. “Editing with a writer is a joyous collaboration—not even a collaboration, but a conversation, a colloquy, a back-and-forth,” Pietsch told Joe Fassler at The Atlantic. “The editor makes suggestions and proposes and points things out and acts as a sort of super-reader for the author—and the author chooses what if any of that advice he or she wants to take. That interplay with David was one of the most joyous I’ve had in my life as an editor. Without David there to respond, my goal was to include everything that made sense. Everything seemed that it fit with all the other things to make a novel. And to change as little as possible. I didn’t feel like I had the liberty to edit his words without him there to respond to them. So I restricted myself, and restricted my editing, to making names consistent, and places consistent, and ranks—achieving a kind of consistency so the story made sense.” Again, we can only thank him.

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

Another case of posthumous editorship, but this time with a different bent, at least in the public eye. Fans of Plath have long blamed Hughes for her suicide, going so far as to scratch his surname off her gravestone. After her death, Hughes edited and published or re-published much of Plath’s work, including a new edition of Ariel that he rearranged and an edition of her Letters and Journals with certain passages left out. More suppression, critics, fans and family cried. We don’t know — but theirs is one of the most talked about relationships in literary history to this day.