In a nightmare, Max Beerbohm might have come up with the figure of N. John Hall, the man who, over the past number of decades, whether reissuing old books, bringing out a collection, or now publishing the first biography in forty years, has been the English artist and writer’s academic guardian and caretaker. Beerbohm often thought about questions of renown and posterity, how we are remembered or forgotten, and the relationship between someone deserving to be remembered and the rememberer was clearly a sensitive one for him. In some of his most memorable writing, a character named “Max Beerbohm” is a kind of amateur biographer to certain invented subjects, while Beerbohm’s caricatures, his other art, add up to a gigantic biographical portrait of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century England—yet one seen inside out, through completely unauthorized eyes.
In Hall, a professor of English at City University, Beerbohm has been put in the hands of someone who clearly has had a long and intimate familiarity with his man, and who has done a thorough job here in presenting all the relevant information. But Hall has also seemingly picked up aspects of his subject’s temperament and thinking, chiefly his aversion to larger ideas, his desire to keep biography personal and particular, and his if-it-feels-good-to-me-it-is-good creed as a critic, and the result is a centerless, challenge-free, and all too genial account. Hall is continually breaking in with remarks such as “Max is getting at, as they say, poetic truth,” or “If it did not sound too grand I would say,” or “here comes the inner man stuff”—lines which muddy any sense of Beerbohm’s worth; and Hall’s truly extensive quoting of him has a dampening effect, too, because, while done in an understandable spirit of wanting to show off gems of writing, it makes a reader feel that there’s no reason now to go any further with these works.
Beerbohm, who died in 1956 at eighty-four, is admittedly a slippery figure to handle. He was a specialist in supposedly minor art forms—caricature, parody, the essay, and the short story (he also wrote theater criticism and a novel)—and he spoke frankly and repeatedly about his own “little” talent, his “limitations” and modesty, even his “quiet and unexciting” prose. Yet his work is less precisely that of an esteemed petit maître (which he also called himself)—a creator who makes a polished, perfect product out of a limited range of experience—than that of someone whose very theme is the relation between major and minor, power and powerlessness, success and failure, public reputation and the private life. Reading Beerbohm, and looking at his pictures, we clearly know he isn’t Tolstoy or Picasso; but Beerbohm, who handles his material in ingenious, unpredictable ways, subtly embeds a moral force into his seemingly informal observations, and he transforms caricature into an art capable of exquisitely modulated surface textures and the most precise novelistic insights into character. His work at its best is disorienting, like hearing Pavarotti’s voice pour forth from a midget.
The above isn’t necessarily the standard introduction to Max Beerbohm. He is generally described as an Edwardian dandy and wit, and one whose work is fundamentally “delightful” to contemplate. When, in the 1960s, S.N. Behrman brought out his intimate and conversational Portrait of Max, David Cecil issued Max, a formidably detailed biography, and Dwight Macdonald’s Parodies, an anthology of centuries of this genre, in which Beerbohm played virtually the starring role, was published, numerous writers had a chance to reassess a figure whose gifts as a humorist and fantasist, a satiric artist, and a social observer had been noted, if not entirely admired, since 1895. That was when, a year after leaving Oxford, Beerbohm brought forth a fully ripened piece of hothouse facetiousness entitled “A Defence of Cosmetics.” By the 1960s, Beerbohm ought to have seemed like a figure of largely historical interest. He himself was saying he was out of step with his time, after all, even before he reached middle age. In 1910, not quite forty, he and his then new wife, Florence Kahn, an actress from Tennessee whose career was not showing signs of taking off, dramatically left London, where he had led a highly social life and been for twelve years a theater critic for the Saturday Review, to live in Italy, in a tiny house near Rapallo, on the coast road.
Except for returns to England during the world wars and for his art exhibitions, the childless Beerbohms lived for the next four decades in an extremely modest domicile, supported by income from his books and pictures. After Florence died in 1951, Beerbohm was looked after by Elisabeth Jungmann, whom he married on his deathbed. Moving to Italy didn’t mean he was a recluse, and he continued to work there (though his energies began failing in the 1920s); but he called himself at one point “an interesting link with the past,” and increasingly he associated himself not only with his own youth in the 1890s but with figures from his childhood and even earlier, whether Swinburne, Meredith, or Rossetti.
Forty years ago, however, in the first serious wave of reassessments of Beerbohm, what was generally heard was that he showed few signs of having dated. While Edmund Wilson, W.H. Auden, and John Updike, among others, were aware of his shortcomings, the Beerbohm they admired was a cultivated ironist whose prose and perceptions remained singularly supple. Among those attempting to de-fine him at the time, I think only F.W. Dupee, in an essay reprinted in The King of the Cats, suggested that “power” and how it was abused were crucial elements of Beerbohm’s endeavor. N. John Hall, who doesn’t include Dupee’s writings on the subject, seems to agree with Virginia Woolf’s sense of Beerbohm, stated in a 1920 piece on essayists in which she called him “without doubt the prince of his profes-sion.” Beerbohm’s point, she felt, is only to present himself, his own voice, and that he has no larger program. And this notion, on the face of it, makes sense, at least in that to enter Beerbohm’s world is to go off on an almost bewildering number of different small tracks.
In his essays, which were published over the years in five collections—And Even Now, from 1920, is rightly everyone’s favorite—Beerbohm can appear from piece to piece as an Op-Ed-page editorialist musing on the foibles of the moment, or as a stand-up comedian whose forte is dryly expressed preposterous exaggeration. At times he is a poet of everyday life whose mind is set running on the subject of the problem in seeing good friends off on trips, say, or, in the memorable “Ichabod,” on the catastrophe of sending out an old leather hat box to be refurbished and finding, upon its return, that all the labels stuck on it, of the places one had gone to over the years, have been removed.
Beerbohm the detector of the half-truths we live with writes about the warm yet empty relationships that can spring up between perfect strangers when they are staying at the same resort hotel, or about how some of us are innately “hosts,” others “guests.” In one article, he writes as the appreciator of an overlooked talent, while in the next, like the Woody Allen who took the popular book Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex and skewered it in a movie, he picks up a popular self-help guide for letter writing, How Shall I Word It?, and explores some of the earthier possibilities that the strait-laced author left out.
Seven Men, from 1919, is a series of portraits of imaginary persons, the most vivid being about ignored and terminally out-of-luck writers, while A Christmas Garland, which was published in 1912, is a collection of parodies of the literary lights of the day—Henry James, Kipling, Conrad, Shaw, Arnold Bennett, and Hardy among them—each piece having a tangential relationship to Christmas. Beerbohm’s performance here is generally considered the zenith of the parodist’s art. If you know this or that writer, you have the shivery pleasure, reading Beerbohm’s parody, of getting a pitch-perfect impersonation of that author which is also a combination of a tribute to him and an exposure of his fundamental manner. As is generally pointed out, the parodist’s genius can be felt only so long as his or her readers are fairly intimate with what is being parodied, and by this measure the already small audience for A Christmas Garland gets smaller all the time. Yet when I told someone I was writing about Beerbohm, and did he know him, he shot back, with pleasure and pride, “Scruts”—the title (it is a made-up word) of the Bennett parody.
Zuleika Dobson* goes off in seemingly another direction. Beerbohm’s 1911 novel is about an enchanting adventuress who arrives at Oxford one day and immediately proceeds to have a devastating effect on the entire male undergraduate body. Given that practically everything that happens in it can be conveyed in a paragraph or two, a reader comes to feel that what this overlong, but also at times wonderfully silly and occasionally strangely affecting, novel is really about is the dainty and bemused way it is narrated. Beerbohm’ s voice as a writer is largely the same no matter what the occasion (except when he’s mimicking somebody, of course), and it is a voice that grows on one. He can mesmerize readers because, leisurely and punctilious as his prose can seem at first, what he is saying is generally down to earth, and there is an almost physical tension in the way he seems to weigh the effect of his every word.
Woolf was right about Beerbohm as far as she went. His writing is about his particular voice, but this is only half his story. Writing about him only as an essayist, she didn’t see, as Hall doesn’t appear to see, that the seemingly random, disparate note of Beerbohm’s writing takes on a different meaning when it is looked at in relation to his pictures. Beerbohm turned out over two thousand caricatures, sometimes doing certain individuals, such as Shaw, Edward VII, and himself, again and again. His subjects were men (he rarely drew women) whom he knew in some way and who, whether politicians or artists, bankers or actors, royals or rakes, possessed some form of renown. And in taking in these works we face the vast public realm that Beerbohm’s very private voice, as a writer, is responding to. Absorbing this mischievous report on fame, we can better understand the Beerbohm who, as a writer, could be so engaged by ciphers. When we go through this diverse body of work, which runs from straight, orthodox caricatures to caricatures that, complete with finely detailed settings, have essentially morphed into paintings on paper, we are presented, too, with an experimental and urgent Beerbohm who barely exists in his writing.
Yet it might be said that Beerbohm’s immense and complex body of visual work is waiting to be fully known. In some sense, the Beerbohm we generally read about and carry in our heads is a writer and personality—who happened to be an artist. That this is so is undoubtedly owing to the fact that the hefty body of biographical and critical writing on him has been produced chiefly by people who are concerned with literature and who see Beerbohm in essentially literary terms. Attention is given to the ways that his caricatures are of a piece with his overall spirit, it is true, and Edmund Wilson went so far as to say that Beerbohm’s “work as a caricaturist is in general on a higher imaginative level than his stories, his essays and his parodies.” Wilson was one of the rare people to look at the actual drawings and to note that they have qualities that are lost in reproduction. His remarks, though, came at the tail end of a piece, collected in The Bit Between My Teeth, that was largely about meeting Beerbohm in his old age. Wilson, in short, never fleshed out his significant statement, and no one else has, either.
Wilson’s powerful verdict is one that Beerbohm would have concurred with. He went so far as to say that he believed in his artwork but not in his writing, and he maintained that making drawings of people he knew or was acquainted with was an activity he came to unthinkingly and happily, while writing was always hard work and rarely an activity he looked forward to. Beerbohm’s art has not exactly been ignored, and in his lifetime it was given a degree of attention that might surprise people now. He exhibited his caricatures on a fairly regular basis, his shows were highly praised, and over the years he brought out nearly a dozen album-like collections of the drawings. There was no sense, in other words, that caricaturing was a hobby for him. It was pursued as a livelihood.
Beerbohm’s artwork has never, though, been the subject of a serious, comprehensive, knowledgeably well-chosen museum show. An exhibition of works primarily from American university collections, organized by Hall in 1987 for Hunter College and given the unfortunate title “A Peep into the Past,” is, strangely, the closest the artist has come to such an event. Nor does he have any real place in accounts of English twentieth-century art. (His pictures continue, however, to be traded at auction in London.) Before Hall brought out Max Beerbohm Caricatures in 1997, there was no publication in which you could see more than one or two Beerbohms reproduced in color, even though he was a superb manipulator of delicate tones, countless drawings have tints of one sort or another, and Rupert Hart-Davis, who catalogued them, called Beerbohm essentially a watercolorist. Nor do most of the few publications that present Beerbohm’s drawings include the measurements of these works. That there are no dimensions in the albums Beerbohm published in his lifetime is understandable since earlier in the twentieth century pictures might be reproduced with little accompanying information; but Hart-Davis, whose catalog appeared in 1972, dispensed with measurements, too. Hall, in his book of the caricatures and his new biography, merely notes in passing that the drawings tend to be this or that size, but then Hall’s chief interest isn’t in the drawings as objects in themselves. His Max Beerbohm Caricatures certainly provides a crucially needed overview of these works, but, with all the biographical commentary that he has supplied about the various personalities running in and around the pictures, their power is inevitably dissipated.
The nature of satiric art, of course, works against our looking at individual examples as self-contained objects. Caricatures are often reproduced with lengthy labels beneath them, spelling out the words that may be part of the drawing, or identifying the figures in it, and Beerbohm himself invariably added an ironic or descriptive label, which he wrote, in script, on the face of the sheet. Some of his descriptions are quite lengthy, some even take the form of dialogues, and many are funny and truly enhance the image. In “Had Shakespeare asked me…,” where a nude Frank Harris, a publisher of the day, a fanatical admirer and biographer of Shakespeare, and a noted pornographer, is showing to what lengths he would give himself to the Bard, who stands knock-kneed and ill-prepared for the advance, the title, and the story of how the drawing came about (which is not written on the sheet), undoubtedly complete our appreciation of the picture. And there are innumerable drawings where the accompanying tags are not only witty in themselves but, joined with the image, form something original, a sort of miniaturized, one-scene novel, or play.
Yet when you turn the pages of Fifty Caricatures, a 1913 collection of his drawings, you get a sense of how powerful and varied Beerbohm’s art, taken in purely visual terms, can be on its own. Most of the albums Beerbohm published of his drawings are somewhat overproduced, with a sort of tissue paper placed before each work, which wrecks our desire to go easily from image to image. But in Fifty Caricatures, the only successful presentation of Beerbohm’s art that I have seen, there’s no fancifying tissue. The drawings are tipped onto dark, stiff pages, and the individual titles have been printed in very small type so they are only seen if an effort is made—which happens to be the way a viewer takes in the pale bit of writing when looking at an actual Beerbohm. The images are truly on their own, and they pop out, one more vigorous than the next. Looking at the caricatures this way, we can believe that all the local history that is served up with Beerbohm’s pictures—that he deeply admired Henry James, was ambiva-lent about Shaw, detested Kipling, and so on—ought to be an afterthought, the way that, for example, the various details accompanying a Joseph Cornell box (the movie starlet, the French hotel by the coast, the Renaissance prince, the clay pipe) are afterthoughts.
Beerbohm always worked with the whole sheet as part of the given image. He took every part of his small space into consideration, and if only for this reason it’s exciting to see his drawings completely on their own, pulled away not only from the words crowding them at the bottom but from the fussy period mats that the actual pictures are generally stuck in (which gives them the appearance of items born for the library of a university club). Set free, many Beerbohm drawings seem as if they are about shape in itself, making us want to see them alongside works by Arp or Elie Nadelman. Seeing Beerbohm plain, we’re given an artist whose vision of a race of rubberoids, contorting themselves in the beautifully minimal, palely drawn, deliberately cardboard-thin settings he liked to include, suddenly seems like a harbinger of Francis Bacon, who also placed his contortionists in the barest of stage sets (and a Bacon, conversely, whose spirit might be more comic than had been thought).
Beerbohm’s pictures are hardly all of equal quality. He experimented with many different approaches, and not every type of drawing is uniformly successful (or negligible). It was often said that he “couldn’t draw” and that he made up for his lack of skills with an exuberantly expressive sense of line. He could draw with an academic nicety, however, as many of his least compelling caricatures make clear. His great works are those where the figures have been rendered with his powerful curvy line, and he appears to be approximating the forms of his subjects as he goes along. These are often the pictures where bodies seem closer to musical instruments than to human bodies per se, hands are fat, paw-like tools that resemble petals on some poi- sonous tropical plant, and feet are either the essence of mincingness or huge, galoshes-like affairs—boots which at first seem plainly crude but which in time make us realize how much Beerbohm’s pictures are pervaded by a neatly expressed clumpiness.
Creating a sphere that, formally and expressively, is no more fey than it is gross, Beerbohm was, in truth, a thoroughgoing relativist. He saw all hues, for example, as related tones. An actual Beerbohm colored drawing (as opposed to a reproduction) is often a quietly sumptuous object, with the faintly breathing, matte watercolor washes very closely calibrated one to the next and with the white, untouched paper, whether saved for collars or hands or reflections on shoes, functioning as the brightest, most intense zone of all. Like so many of his contemporaries, whether Beardsley or the painter William Nicholson, the theater director Edward Gordon Craig (in his large body of prints) or Kipling (in his drawings), Beerbohm was preoccupied with questions of scale and proportion, and some of his best drawings are those where he distorts wildly—as in, say, one of Theodore Roosevelt, where he gives the grotesquely huge president a nipple of a head. Maybe only Kipling, in his pen-and-ink pictures for his Just So Stories, was as effective in showing, when something immense is in the same image as something small, how disturbing the immense can be.
Beerbohm’s writing isn’t, in a strictly programmatic way, the antithesis of his art. Yet if his drawings are, very often, about a moment when a veil has been drawn back from public life, and we now see the gods of the moment as their children see them, or as they might see themselves, up-close and fatuous, Beerbohm’s writing is, very often, about the power of a small voice quietly but firmly taking center stage to talk about private and often deliberately inconsequential matters. In two of the best pieces he wrote, “Enoch Soames,” a story in Seven Men, and “‘A Clergyman,'” an essay from And Even Now, Beerbohm took his feeling for the ignored and the minuscule to the heights. The story is a kind of ultimate account of the frustrations of a small talent, while the essay is about a tiny moment in Boswell’s monumental biography of Johnson when a nameless curate asks Johnson an innocuous question and suddenly causes a rupture in the great man’s flow of unending self-involvement.
“‘A Clergyman'” is in part about nonentityship—absolutely nothing is known about this person except Boswell’s recording his one question—as “Enoch Soames” is about having, and not having, a role in a public forum in one’s life, and the way crushed hopes can lead to the sense that one is really living for—that one has come to dwell, mentally, in—posterity. It’s hard to know which is more remarkable, that these pieces of writing about facelessness were conceived by an artist whose subject was almost exclusively the face or that neither work is remotely sentimental.
In an afterword to a now out-of-print edition of Zuleika Dobson, F.W. Dupee perceived that there was an elemental tug of war in Beerbohm between the small and the monumental. Although he was a warm admirer of his subject, Dupee wondered, in thinking about Beerbohm the person, whether his “lifelong obsession with the tedium of bigness…was a kind of childishness or envy. No one else, surely, has ever given so much crafty energy in scaling bigness down.” And certainly, if Beerbohm is to be judged not only by his work but by, in addition, his offhand remarks, his comments in letters, and his private doctoring of the books of the famous—that is, if he is looked at primarily as a personality, which is the effect of Hall’s overly chummy biography—he does emerge as someone who carried his share of pettiness and hostility.
But in Beerbohm’s work alone the task of “scaling,” as Dupee put it, is rarely about simply getting even. His nobodies may be escorted into the light, but they aren’t made into heroes, and his men of renown, though he renders them primarily fit for a burlesque review, really leave his drawing table with their reputations reinvented. What he wanted was a world where we weren’t so deeply in thrall to legends and cant and great, single-minded concepts, and when you look at and read Beerbohm you are given the joy of thinking this freedom possible.
February 13, 2003