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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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.