Burroughs Mitchell was, before his death last summer, an editor for more than 40 years. Thirty of those he spent at Charles Scribners Sons, where he was hired by Maxwell E. Perkins a year and a half before that legendary figure died in 1947. What Max Perkins saw in the young Mitchell -- whose prewar experience had been as an editor of pulp magazines such as Argosy and who in the Navy during the war had edited training manuals and a base newspaper -- we can only surmise, because the author himself is too modest to speculate. We do know that Mitchell was the son of Edward Page Mitchell, the editor of The New York Sun, a man about whom H. L. Mencken wrote: "He was to me the superlative journalist of this great, heroic land"; and who wrote a book called "Memoirs of an Editor," which Perkins edited in the '20s. But Perkins, who is famous for picking long-shot authors who paid off spectacularly, must have seen something else in Burroughs Mitchell, something promising, and this hunch paid off as surely as the others, if more quietly.
But I wonder whether Max Perkins would have encouraged Mitchell to write this book -- which Mitchell describes in an author's note as "patches of reminiscence, literary appreciation, portraiture and reflection." Perkins himself never wrote his memoirs, although his career was far more illustrious and interesting than Mitchell's. (It could be said that Perkins' thousands of letters amount to the same thing, on a much grander scale; but Perkins made no effort to publish them, although they were published after his death.) In fact, as A. Scott Berg relates in his "Max Perkins: Editor of Genius," Perkins once responded coldly to the question "Why don't you write yourself?" with "Because I'm an editor."
There is evidence that Mitchell agreed with Perkins. He writes in "The Education of an Editor," "I could see that a writer was somebody who could not escape being one; that he was dominated, vivified, agonized and elated by it. It shaped his life, and I could see that it was not going to shape mine. I don't believe that not writing has caused me the least unhappiness." Of course Mitchell is speaking of writing as a career; presumably the writing of one book does not alter his statement. And yet there are abundant signs in this book that he is writing it for others and not for himself. Everywhere he minimizes: His portraits of Perkins and of his own authors, such as James Jones and C. P. Snow, are no more than the slightest sketches; his advice to would-be editors amounts to little more than this: love books, be lucky and don't be suspicious of the unusual. Even his prose seems painfully careful and unembellished, as if it had been written as college freshmen are urged to write, from outline.
If an editor had described your book as "patches" of something or other, as Mitchell describes his own book above, would you be pleased? Mitchell says in the author's note that he wrote the book at the urging of Gloria Jones, James Jones' widow, and at the urging of Willie Morris and of Mitchell's wife, Jean. And that is how this book seems: as if they had said, "Burroughs, you've had so many marvelous experiences, why not set them down on paper?" And he, quite content with his reputation as a good editor, but also wanting to be a good fellow, began filling out 3-by-5 cards.
Of course Mitchell did have marvelous experiences. When Perkins died, he inherited James Jones, who was writing "From Here to Eternity," and who was about to become one of the most celebrated authors of his day. There is a description, found also in Willie Morris' "James Jones: A Friendship," of Mitchell and Jones sitting in an office at Scribners, going through the huge manuscript of "From Here to Eternity," cutting out enough four-letter words to satisfy an arbitrary limit set by Scribners lawyers. Another writer that Mitchell inherited from Perkins was Marguerite Young, who finished her novel, "Miss MacIntosh, My Darling," 17 years after Perkins had signed her to do it. It weighed in at 3,449 manuscript pages, perhaps the longest American novel ever written. Mitchell managed to get it published in one volume of some 1,200 pages.
Mitchell made discoveries of his own. He published first novels by Thomas Berger and Sue Kaufman, signed C. P. Snow for Scribners, beginning a long and lucrative association for his firm, recommended May Swenson to John Hall Wheelock, who was then in charge of Scribners' poetry list, and when Mitchell himself took over that responsibility, he published the first book of poems by Henri Coulette. Of his tenure as poetry editor, Mitchell makes this surprising admission: "My qualifications did not go beyond the fact that I had read a good deal of poetry, old and new, and liked the new as well as the old. I had only the most cursory knowledge of prosody. I was an amateur, and I remained one. That is, I never raised a question about a technical weakness or urged the alteration of a line."
Mitchell's list looks modest compared with Perkins' Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe and Lardner, but what other editor -- with the possible exception of Robert Giroux -- can compare with Perkins? One of the useful things about this book is that it shows how rare and lucky Perkins was; it demythifies that only sporadically glamorous job of book editor. Good, conscientious editors such as Burroughs Mitchell spend much of their time and energy on authors and works that most of us will never hear about much less read. It speaks well of Mitchell that he does not fail to mention these authors, too, to defend them, and to share a little in the suffering their anonymity brings them.