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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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."