The Magazine

The Beerbohm Cult

Why Max Beerbohm is the world's greatest minor writer.

Nov 11, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 09 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Max Beerbohm
A kind of a life
by N. John Hall
Yale University Press, 284 pp., $24.95

LOVERS--no lesser word will do--of the prose, caricatures, and mind of Max Beerbohm constitute a cult. Membership in the cult requires a strong penchant for irony, a skeptical turn of mind, and a sharp taste for comic incongruity. Like all impressive cults, the Beerbohm cult is small, very small, and always in danger of guttering out--but never, I'm happy to report, quite doing so.

When Max Beerbohm died, in his eighty-fourth year, he was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral, along with a very select company of roughly three hundred other English heroes of war, politics, and culture. His family's house in Kensington, at 57 Palace Gardens Terrace, has long borne one of those periwinkle blue plaques noting that an important figure had resided there. In his lifetime, he was knighted, praised by everyone whose praise mattered (T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, E.M. Forster, Edmund Wilson, and W.H. Auden, among others, weighed in), and was widely respected if not revered by people of literary sensibility.

Still, he was always what Arnold Bennett called a "small-public" writer. Beerbohm, even when alive, thought he had a readership of no more than fifteen hundred in England and another thousand in America. He had no delusions about the breadth of his appeal. His "gifts were small," he felt, and he told his first biographer, a man named Bohun Lynch, that he "used them very well and discreetly, never straining them; and the result is that I've made a charming little reputation."

But reputations for charm do not usually long survive the lives of those who exhibit them, however well and discreetly.

Something more than charm has kept the small if scarcely gem-like Beerbohmian flame alive. I am myself, as you will perhaps by now have gathered, a member of the Beerbohm cult. Ten or so feet behind my back, three of his caricatures (of Byron, Matthew Arnold, and Dante) hang above a bookcase. A picture of Max Beerbohm is on a wall roughly six feet from where I am now writing about him. The photograph shows an elderly man--born in 1872, he lived until 1956--sitting on a cane chair on the terrace of his small villa in Rapallo. Ever the dandy, he is wearing a boater at a jaunty angle, a light-colored and slightly rumpled suit, a white waistcoat and dark tie with a collar pin. His left leg is crossed over his right. His head and hands seem rather large for his body. His hooded eyes peer out of deep sockets, his thick white mustache does not droop. His countenance, slightly dour like that of so many great comedians, is that of a man on whom, right up to the end of life, not much has been lost.

I FIRST BEGAN READING Max Beerbohm the year before his death. Of all the comic reputations of that day--S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, Frank Sullivan--his is the only one, nearly fifty years later, whose comedy holds up for me. The combination of common sense and whimsy that were his special literary blend continues to work its magic. All is presented in a calm and unfaltering style of what I think of as formal intimacy; if he ever wrote a flawed sentence, I have not come across it. "To be outmoded is to be a classic," he once said of himself, "if one has written well." His economy of formulation touched on genius. Asked by the playwright S.N. Behrman what he thought of Freudianism, he replied: "A tense and peculiar family, the Oedipuses, were they not?" Ten perfectly aimed words and--poof!--a large and highly fallacious school of thought crumples to dust.

I have been referring to him as Beerbohm or Max Beerbohm, but members of the cult tend to refer to him as "Max" merely, which is how he signed his caricatures. The cult itself sometimes goes by the name "Maximilians." George Bernard Shaw, when turning over the job of drama critic on the English Saturday Review, said he was making way for "the incomparable Max." (Tired of the sobriquet, Beerbohm more than once implored, "Compare me, compare me.") Something of the intimacy of his style seems to make calling him "Max" rather less objectionable than, say, calling Shakespeare "William," or Joyce "Jim." Yet I find I cannot quite bring myself to do it.

IN HIS TWO BOOKS on Beerbohm, N. John Hall calls him Max, but I should say that Hall has earned the right to do so, having served him so sedulously. Five years ago, Hall published a beautiful and impeccably edited collection entitled "Max Beerbohm Caricatures," to which he supplied a fine and splendidly informative accompanying text. In that work, Professor Hall (tempted though I am, I shall refrain from calling him "N.") displayed a wide knowledge of Beerbohm and his milieu and a depth of sympathy for the large comic enterprise that are his caricatures. He produced a book in every way worthy of its subject: modest, elegant, charming, and useful--a keeper, as fishermen like to say.

Now Hall is back with a prose work that he has chosen to call "Max Beerbohm: A kind of a life." As it happens, "A kind of a life" turns out to be "A Sort of a Biography"--a rare and unusual sort. There have been other Beerbohm biographies, the most complete of which is that written by the English man of letters David Cecil; and there have been various studies, none of them silly or obtuse: To be drawn to Beerbohm as a subject almost automatically insures one against pomposity, humorlessness, or academic pretentiousness. Yet for all that has been written about Max Beerbohm, no one has come close to capturing the extraordinary personality behind his small but remarkable creations both in prose and with pencil. Professor Hall comes near to suggesting that there is nothing really that needs to be captured.

Biography, ideally, operates at three depths: The biographer shows how a man appears to his public, how he appears to his friends and family, and how he appears to himself. Hall's biography touches on all three, none in smothering detail, though he is stronger on the first two than the third. His book is not meant to be exhaustive or in any way definitive, and in some ways it is all the more pleasing for its modesty of intentions. "I shall keep this book relatively short," he writes, "and I shall not attempt to ferret out the inner man. The 'inner man of Max Beerbohm' sounds oxymoronic. He was very self-aware, but he was not given to introspection or soul-searching. If he did look deeply into himself--and I don't believe he did so very often--he did not tell us about it."

WHAT THIS LEAVES Hall in his biography is a review of Max Beerbohm's career, an appreciative yet critical sorting out of his various works, and a consideration of the main unresolved questions about his remarkably quiet life. Drawing on other biographies, his book is a vade mecum of Beerbohmian information. Our biographer is immensely companionable, admitting his ignorance when it arises and deciding that many things really are not worth going into. He will provide an interpretation for, or offer a possible motive behind, a work and then blithely add, "I may be wrong," or "But these are merely biographer's fancies." For those of us who do not quite believe in biographical truth, but are much more impressed by (in W.H. Auden's phrase) "the baffle of being," such casualness, far from seeming quirky, is instead rather refreshing and even admirable.

When critical, Hall often levels his criticisms in an amusingly oblique way that his subject would probably have much approved. Of the small number of fairy tales Beerbohm wrote, Hall suggests: "These three stories may be easily avoided by even the most devoted of Maximilians, if only they will try." The ironic tone of that sentence is reminiscent of Beerbohm himself once writing that, apropos of the need for historical background to write about the year 1880, "to give an accurate account of that period would need a far less brilliant pen than mine."

HALL'S JUDGMENTS of Beerbohm's works are quite sound. I know this is so because they agree with my own--always, of course, the best evidence for high intelligence in others. He thinks Beerbohm's single famous work, "Zuleika Dobson"--the novel about a beauty whose arrival at Oxford causes the death by suicide of all the university's undergraduates--rather overdone and therefore tending toward the monotonous, though even so he includes it among Beerbohm's best work. He thinks the early essays, written in the (Oscar) Wildean manner, more than a touch precious, and he believes the volumes of drama criticism suffer from having been written chiefly about second- and third-rate playwrights. He recognizes that Beerbohm tended to underrate Shaw--he had a real antipathy to geniuses, whom he thought "generally asinine"--and to overrate Lytton Strachey. The best of Beerbohm, Hall holds, includes Beerbohm's book of parodies, "A Christmas Garland"; his perfectly polished final collection of essays, And Even Now; and his book of short stories got up to read as if they were memoirs, "Seven Men and Two Others."

Hall expends rather less space on Beerbohm's caricatures, having already devoted a lengthy book to the subject. He provides an excellent account of his subject's brief but brilliant performances over the BBC. But he reminds us that Beerbohm always found drawing easier than writing; and we know that, after he ceased to write for publication in his late thirties with his permanent move to Italy, he devoted himself almost wholly to the delicate and (in his hands) often devastating art of caricature. On this subject, in an early book on Beerbohm, John Felstiner, the biographer of Paul Celan (to have written books on Max Beerbohm and Paul Celan: talk about the comedy of incongruity) rightly says that "generally Beerbohm's caricatures tend to ridicule, while his judgments in writing are less direct--the rough distinction is between satire and irony." Felstiner goes on to say that his innovation as a caricaturist was in bringing "the dynamics of parody into caricature," and it is quite true that the captions to Beerbohm's drawings are often quite as brilliant as the draftsmanship.

Max Beerbohm tended to worry about the cruelty of his caricatures and claimed not to be able to explain it, since only in rare cases--Shaw, Kipling, a now-forgotten novelist named Hall Caine--did he feel a murderous impulse behind his work in this line. (He almost never drew women.) My own feeling is that, as with so many genuine artists, he had great powers of detachment: "I have a power of getting out of myself," he wrote. "This is a very useful power." Writing about Aubrey Beardsley, he noted the aloofness of many artists, which allows them to see "so much" and "the power to see things, unerringly, as they are." His own detachment allowed him a serene objectivity that easily spotted the pretensions and comic self-presentations of others. He was, in the phrase of Henry James, whom he much admired, "infinitely addicted to 'noticing.'" The result, issuing from the end of his pencil, was laughter, usually, in the nature of the case, at the subject's expense. Much as I would have loved to have known Max Beerbohm, I'm not sure that personal acquaintance with him would have been worth the pain of gazing upon his drawing of me.

SOME YEARS AGO, before his late-life turn to Christianity, Malcolm Muggeridge, then still an exquisite troublemaker, wrote in the pages of the New York Review of Books that Max Beerbohm "was in panic flight through most of his life from two things--his Jewishness and his homosexuality." Always audacious and often utterly wrong, the old Mugger this time out missed on both counts.

On the first count, David Cecil writes that of the Beerbohm family "it has often been suggested that they were Jewish . . . ; and the notion gains color in Max's case from his brains, taste for bravura, and his propensity to fall in love with Jewesses." (He finally married one, an American actress named Florence Kahn.) Although Beerbohm claimed he rather wished he had Jewish blood, in fact the Beerbohm family was part Dutch, German, and English in origin. Asked by Shaw if he had any Jewish ancestors, Beerbohm replied: "That my talent is rather like Jewish talent I admit readily. . . . But, being in fact a Gentile, I am, in a small way, rather remarkable, and wish to remain so."

"Jewish talent"--of what might it consist? I think for Max Beerbohm it had to do with his aloofness, his not-quite-fully belonging to any groups or coteries, and with his ironic approach to life. ("I wish, Ladies and Gentlemen," he said in one of his famous BBC broadcasts during World War II, "I could cure myself of the habit of speaking ironically. I should so like to express myself in a straightforward manner.") A woman friend said he "combined an accurate appreciation of worldly values with an ultimate indifference to them." Very Jewish, this, or at least a quality that often shows up in Jews. Finally, there was his essentially comic approach to life. Believing that "only the insane take themselves quite seriously," Beerbohm was primarily and always an ironist, a comedian, an amused observer standing on the sidelines with a smile and a glass of wine in his hand. G.K. Chesterton said of him that "he does not indulge in the base idolatry of believing in himself." Rather Jewish, much of this, too.

AS FOR MUGGERIDGE'S second count, that Max Beerbohm was attempting to hide his homosexuality, here the evidence appears to be purely guilt by association. As a young man, he was on the periphery of the Oscar Wilde circle. (Wilde had a high opinion of Beerbohm, but it was not always returned--"he was never a real person in contact with realities," Beerbohm wrote--and some of his most brutal caricatures are of poor Wilde run to bestial fat.) Beerbohm's best friend, Reggie Turner (a novelist remembered now only for his quip that his rarest books were his second editions), was also homosexual. David Cecil writes that, "though he showed no moral disapproval of homosexuality, [Beerbohm] was not disposed to it himself; on the contrary he looked upon it as a great misfortune to be avoided if possible." Cecil quotes a letter from Beerbohm to Oscar Wilde's friend Robert Ross in which he asks Ross to keep Reggie Turner from the clutches of the creepy Lord Alfred Douglas: "I really think Reg is at a rather crucial point of his career--and should hate to see him fall an entire victim to the love that dare not tell its name."

David Cecil thought that Max Beerbohm was a man of "low vitality," and he was too much the gentleman to place the adjective "sexual" before the noun. The publisher Rupert Hart-Davis, an editor of Beerbohm's letters and a cataloguer of his caricatures, thought him asexual and his marriage to Florence Kahn a mariage blanc. Refereeing the dispute in "Max Beerbohm: A kind of a life," N. John Hall says, at one point, that Beerbohm's private life doesn't matter--but then, later in the book, sides with Hart-Davis in thinking him asexual despite his marriage. A case cannot be made for Max Beerbohm as a notorious heterosexual, but I would like to weigh in with the fact that, in his essay "Laughter," he wrote that "only the emotion of love takes higher rank than the emotion of laughter." The sadness, of course, is that a case of any sort need be made at all.

Max Beerbohm was the world's greatest minor writer, with the full oxymoronic quality behind that epithet entirely intended. He claimed to be without either envy or ambition, wanting only "to make good use of such little talents as I had, to lead a pleasant life, to do no harm, to pass muster." His tact was consummate; and one has never grown less tired of a man who wrote so much in the first person, for he knew the difference, as he once told his wife, between "offering himself humbly for the inspection of others" and pushing himself forward through egotism. He felt that a goodly portion of such success as he enjoyed was owing to his not having "tired people."

Asked to give the 1941 Clark Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge, Beerbohm responded, "I have views on a number of subjects, but no coordinated body of views on any single subject. I have been rather a lightweight; and mature years have done nothing to remedy this."

I DON'T THINK he really believed it. What he believed was that "many charming talents have been spoiled by the instilled desire to do 'important' work! Some people are born to lift heavy weights. Some are born to juggle with golden balls."

He added that the latter were very much in the minority in England then, and, of course, now. But when haven't they been? The golden jugglers are the ones with wit, the ability to pierce pretension, and the calm detachment to mock large ideas and salvationist schemes. They eschew anger and love small perfections. They go in for handsome gestures (Beerbohm refused to accept a fee for speaking about his recently dead friend Desmond MacCarthy over the BBC), have wide sympathies, and understand that a complex point of view is worth more than any number of opinions.

Nothing lightweight about any of this--quite the reverse, I'd say. Had he met Isaac Newton, Beerbohm remarked, "I would have taught him the Law of Levity." It's a powerfully useful and important law, one that Max Beerbohm helped write and that must never, not ever, be allowed to go off the books.

Joseph Epstein is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.