Dancing to His Own Tune

The mathematically adept reader, counting the names of the men listed in the table of contents of Seven Men, will notice that there are only six.* The seventh is the author, Max Beerbohm himself, who from story to story is seen interacting with his half-dozen heroes; in his elegant fashion he was as specialized and fantastical a specimen of late Imperial English manhood as any of these fictional creations. Born in 1872, he early developed a preternatural poise and grace as a writer and a caricaturist. While still an undergraduate at Oxford he became a contributor to The Yellow Book; Oxford became the magical milieu of his only novel, the blithe love-farce Zuleika Dobson, an extravagant collegiate hommage. Beerbohm retained into old age an undergraduate playfulness, spending much of his later years ornamenting with illustration, collage, and marginalia his own books and the books of others.

His life was bookish, but the bookishness was sunny, skimming the essence, in marvelous parodies, from his more earnest and ponderous contemporaries, and penning essays collected in volumes whose titles themselves signal a refusal to take his enterprise altogether seriously: the first was The Works of Max Beerbohm, followed by More, Yet Again, and Even Now. As a young man he cut a dandyish figure about London; George Bernard Shaw, whom he replaced as theater critic of The Saturday Review in 1898, dubbed him “the incomparable Max.” In 1910 the maturing dandy married Florence Kahn, an American actress renowned for her portrayals of Ibsen heroines, and the couple took up residence, interrupted only by the two world wars, in Rapallo on the Italian Riviera. Keenly appreciated but not widely bought during his prime, he achieved geriatric celebrity with his reminiscing broadcasts over the BBC, beginning in 1935, and with the postwar biographical attentions of J.M. Rewald and S.N. Behrman. By his death in 1956, at the age of eighty-four, he seemed a carefully self-preserved souvenir of a spatted, straw-hatted era long absorbed into history.

Always, even when in the thick of London literary life, Beerbohm projected the somewhat isolating aura of a man dancing to his own tune, who would not be deflected from his private bent by the competitive examples of others. The willful exquisitism of Wilde and Beardsley stayed with him after these hothouse flowers had met their dooms, taking the French perfumes of fin de siècle decadence with them; the heartily prolific late Victorians and Edwardians who were his contemporaries—Shaw, Wells, Chesterton, Belloc, Bennett, Galsworthy—inspired him not to energetic emulation but to the scrupulous, devastating imitations collected in A Christmas Garland, the finest book of prose parodies in the English language. His brief preface arrestingly states an educational fact true for generations of British stylists:

I had had some sort of aptitude for Latin prose and Latin verse. I wondered often whether those two things, essential through they were (and are) to the making of a decent style in English prose, sufficed for the making of a style…

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