Sir Max Beerbohm, 1872–1956, was a famous caricaturist with a style very much his own. He was a successful author, too, though not a prolific one: a book of stories (Seven Men), a set of parodies (A Christmas Garland), and one fantasy novel (Zuleika Dobson) make up the sum of his output for most people. Yet his favorite form was the essay, and over a period of 50 years he published six collections of them (seven, if one counts a volume of his theater reviews published in 1924). Phillip Lopate has chosen 50 of these for republication, beginning with 16 essays from And Even Now (1920), and prefaced by an informative if overlong Introduction.
Back in 1965, reviewing Lord David Cecil’s life of Beerbohm, W.H. Auden wrote that Beerbohm’s kind of “pure” essay, written “only to produce aesthetic satisfaction,” was a genre “to which no reader under sixty can bring himself to attend.” He went on to say that these days we expect essays to instruct or edify, that if we’re after aesthetic satisfaction, “we turn to poetry or fiction.” Auden seems to have been right about this. A few essays have been republished in Beerbohm anthologies, but no one has published a collection of them until now, and even Mr. Lopate seems haunted by a doubt about their attraction for today’s readers.
It is certainly true that Aldous Huxley, Beerbohm’s successor and rival as an essayist, always had some schoolmasterly point to make, some startling information to impart, and his readers continued encouraging him to do just that almost till the day of his death in 1963. It is equally true that although Beerbohm had a way of addressing his readers in his essays, he never showed the slightest interest in haranguing them about anything. This does not mean that his essays have no content. A great deal of the information in the Cecil biography comes from the essays, and that is because their real subject was Beerbohm himself and his perceptions of the people and things around him.
That, of course, was what made them interesting at the time. Between 1894 and 1910, Max Beerbohm, still an undergraduate at Oxford when the process began, made himself into what we would now call a celebrity, and people read him—and continued to read him—because they found him as interesting on the page as in real life. Then, after his marriage and semi-retirement to Italy, followed so soon by the catastrophe of the 1914–18 war, he remade himself and his celebrity into a surviving presence, a voice from the lost pre-1914 past.
Study carefully the photograph on the cover of this book. There he sits in old age, as beautifully dressed as ever, with nicely tailored trousers, spats, gloves, and walking stick. An earlier photograph taken at Oxford with his friend William Rothenstein shows him equally well dressed, his hand similarly on a cane, a flower in his buttonhole, looking straight toward the camera with an expressionless superiority that radiates utter self-assurance. Max Beerbohm was one of those unusual people who discover early on who they are and what they want, what they can do and how best to do it—and spend the rest of their lives doing it.
He drew a winning ticket in the birth lottery when he was born into exactly the right kind of family, in the right social circumstances in which his gifts could blossom. His father was a prosperous immigrant merchant of good family from Lithuania. When his first wife by whom he had four children died, he married—despite English law on the subject—her sister, and produced another three. The most remarkable child of the first family became the famous Victorian actor-manager, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Max, 20 years younger than Herbert, was the youngest, born in 1872.
He became a kind of mascot for his flamboyant elder brother, who was very fond of him. When he was only nine he spent his first Saturday with Herbert, who took him to his rooms, then to the offices of Punch where he met the editor, then to visit an actress, and finally to lunch at Herbert’s club. At ten, he was best man at Herbert’s wedding, and quite soon Herbert began allowing him to sit in his dressing room between the acts and observe the famous people who came to visit. When Max was 15, Herbert began taking him to supper parties after the play. Is it any wonder that he developed a dandified social self-confidence, even as a schoolboy?
As a small boy, he began drawing caricatures, and continued all through his school days, but his idiosyncratic style first emerged when he was an undergraduate at Oxford. Similarly, as an undergraduate he discovered that he had the makings of a writer; but the odd thing about him was that he had no intellectual interests—none. To him “history” was the decade before he was born, and he had no interest in science, philosophy, or religion. He had no taste for the older literature, either. So it is hardly surprising that he left Oxford without taking a degree, and that his drawing and his writing should have remained focused for the most part on the London world to which his brother had introduced him.
That was the London of the 1890’s, of Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, The Yellow Book, the decadents, and the Domino Room at the Café Royal. Beerbohm knew them all, and became one of them, though always with reservations. He was still an undergraduate when his first real publication, an essay “In Praise of Cosmetics,” appeared in the first issue of The Yellow Book, and he was soon publishing his drawings. Between them and the attacks on him and The Yellow Book, he was soon a well-known figure. In 1895 Ada Leverson, Oscar Wilde’s friend, interviewed him for a fashionable magazine, and in 1896 he collected his essays into a book, which he had the nerve to call The Works of Max Beerbohm.
In fact, he was a masterly self-publicist. He became a model of demure sophistication, and was soon leading a glamorous social life, which he later claimed not to have enjoyed. When he succeeded Bernard Shaw as dramatic critic of The Saturday Review, Shaw introduced him as “The Incomparable Max,” a phrase that stuck because he had made such a strong impression, and people liked him. Nonetheless, as his biographer Lord David Cecil writes, he was “a much tougher customer than his subsequent reputation might suggest,” and nowadays his most interesting drawings and writings are probably the ones with a satirical edge to them, though his approach—contrary to legend—did not please everyone. P.G. Wodehouse, surely one of the most benign of English writers, who invented his own 90’s dandy, Psmith (“The P . . . is silent as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan”), did not care for him at all. “That supercilious attitude of his made me sick,” he wrote after reading the dramatic reviews. “Do you realise that but for Max there would have been none of this New Yorker superciliousness. They all copy him.”
Beerbohm’s first pieces—for example, the essay on cosmetics in that first Yellow Book—were intolerably mannered, the work of an ambitious undergraduate who was showing off. But he was well taught in Latin, had a good ear for the form and rhythm of a sentence, was well endowed with common sense, and soon pruned his style of its luxuriance. As he grew older he shed his superciliousness, too. The mature Beerbohm wrote extremely well, whatever the form, and is well worth reading for that reason alone.
As for this book, the best approach is to dip and browse. The rewards will follow. One has to be well disposed to an author who can write, in an essay about Parliament, “No one supposes that in a congeries of—how many?—six hundred and seventy men, chosen by the British public, there will be a very high average of mental capacity.” He can be very funny, too, as in an essay parodying a letter-writing manual. One of his early ironic essays, on the joys of pyromania, includes the remark that “Nothing is easier than to be an incendiary. All you need is a box of matches and a sense of beauty.” Two of the later essays, “The Golden Drugget” and “The Fire,” wonderfully evoke the lost civility of pre-1914 England. One sees, too, why the last reminiscent pieces, written for the BBC when he had settled into a quiet benignity, proved so popular.
To read the best of these essays is to hear a quiet, immensely civilized voice, and it occurs to me that it is a pity that the publishers could not have included a CD of one of those last broadcasts. Now that the “Estuarian” accent has taken over in England, it would be very nice to hear English of Beerbohm’s quality spoken again.
[The Prince of Minor Writers: The Selected Essays of Max Beerbohm, edited and with an Introduction, by Phillip Lopate (New York: New York Review of Books) 391 pp., $18.95]