Magazine article The American Conservative

Beerbohm Redrawn: Why the Incomparable Max Is Still the Greatest Writer You Haven't Read

Magazine article The American Conservative

Beerbohm Redrawn: Why the Incomparable Max Is Still the Greatest Writer You Haven't Read

Article excerpt

Many years ago an Australian author was approached with a view to giving numerous creative-writing lectures. He refused on the grounds that all he could think of to tell literary neophytes was "Go off and read Orwell's 'Politics and the English Language' essay."

Clearly this made an entire lecture series untenable, though the wisdom of his attitude remains obvious. Yet suppose that a young scribbler has already absorbed the basic lessons of anti-totalitarianism in all its forms, has already acquired solid competence as a wordsmith, and has so far transcended America's Grand Tradition as to achieve a healthy impatience with mere suicidality purporting to be art. Whom could such a tyro contemplate next?

There are obvious 18th-century models worthy of his attention--reading, say, Dr. Johnson's Life of Richard Savage forms an admirable prophylactic against any tendencies to credit the likes of Dylan Thomas with moral insight--but what about more recent times? Supposing a literary novice wishes to aim not just at lucidity and accuracy, admirable though these are, but also at conveying--without any narrow political agenda--a sense of decorum and, heaven forbid, elegance?

In this connection, perchance, acquaintanceship with Sir Max Beerbohm will--after the manner of a celebrated beer commercial--reach parts others cannot reach.

There is something to be said, in connection with Beerbohm (that lasting tag "the incomparable Max" derives from his friendly enemy Bernard Shaw), for such journalistic bromides as "the best-known author you've never heard of." Something, but not much, since unlike many of his contemporaries--born in 1872, he died in 1956--he has never slipped wholly out of print. (Compare and contrast with his fellow literary knights of that era. Sir Hall Caine, Sir William Watson, Sir Alfred Noyes, Sir Henry Newbolt: do not hold your breath waiting for them to be revived.) Joseph Epstein nevertheless called Beerbohm with justice "the worlds greatest minor writer ... if he ever wrote a flawed sentence, I have not come across it."

Epstein could equally well have begun that last clause with "if he ever drew a flawed caricature." For Beerbohm, along with very few others--William Blake, Percy Wyndham Lewis, and Mervyn Peake probably complete the list--belongs to the history of English visual art no less than to that of English authorship. The great art historian Bernard Berenson snapped at someone who had charged Beerbohm with sloth: "That is a piggish remark ... They [Beerbohm's drawings] are as good as Goya. Max is the English Goya."

Detailed analyses of Beerbohm the artist should probably be left to the world's Berensons, but even those of us who literally cannot draw a recognizable human face must salute an example--now at the Smithsonian--of Beerbohm's cartooning lair. It emerged in 1910, shortly after Edward VII's death, and depicts five menacing nouveaux riches associated with that sybaritic monarch's reign, now invading the court of the virtuous George V and vainly hoping for similar influence there. Obesity prevails among them, perhaps by analogy with Falstaff dancing attendance on the newly crowned Prince Hal. Beerbohm's deadpan caption: "Are we as welcome as ever?"

Calling Beerbohm apolitical is like calling the Pacific wet. Though coeval with the rise of red-meat empire-builders and of Fabian social workers, Beerbohm advocated no such strenuous world-saving. In a throwaway line from his old age he once described social classes as "so deplorable sociologically, so dear to anyone with eyes in his head." As this indicates, he represented a conservatism imaginative rather than theoretical. It so detached itself from plans of action as to make Russell Kirk look like Karl Rove.

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The Labour Party's rise inspired in Beerbohm a mild, inchoate fear, but no Labour spokesman ever savaged the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha as Beerbohm's sketches often did. …

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