The Beerbohm Cult
Why Max Beerbohm is the world's greatest minor writer.
Nov 11, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 09 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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.