The Prince of Elegant Writers

National Portrait Gallery, London
Max Beerbohm; portrait by William Nicholson, 1905

Max Beerbohm has always been a minority taste. “There are only fifteen hundred readers in England and one thousand in America who understand what I am about,” he estimated. This did not dismay him. On the verge of being forgotten, he always seems to have the good fortune of being rediscovered and championed by those with a taste for invigorating prose. One such enthusiast, the critic F.W. Dupee, wrote:

Rereading Beerbohm one gets caught up in the intricate singularity of his mind, all of a piece yet full of surprises…. That his drawings and parodies should survive is no cause for wonder. One look at them, or into them, and his old reputation is immediately re-established: that whim of iron, that cleverness amounting to genius. What is odd is that his stories and essays should turn out to be equally durable.

Beerbohm himself claimed, “What I really am is an essayist,” and, to the degree that one values essays, one is apt to consider him not only durable but indispensable.

In her 1922 piece “The Modern Essay,” Virginia Woolf singled out Beerbohm as an exemplary practitioner, while also nailing the paradox of his art. Calling him “without doubt the prince of his profession,” she went on:

What Mr Beerbohm gave was, of course, himself. This presence, which has haunted the essay fitfully from the time of Montaigne, had been in exile since the death of Charles Lamb. Matthew Arnold was never to his readers Matt, nor Walter Pater affectionately abbreviated in a thousand homes to Wat. They gave us much, but that they did not give. Thus, some time in the nineties, it must have surprised readers accustomed to exhortation, information, and denunciation to find themselves familiarly addressed by a voice which seemed to belong to a man no larger than themselves. He was affected by private joys and sorrows, and had no gospel to preach and no learning to impart. He was himself, simply and directly, and himself he has remained. Once again, we have an essayist capable of using the essayist’s most proper but most dangerous and delicate tool. He has brought personality into literature, not unconsciously and impurely, but so consciously and purely that we do not know whether there is any relation between Max the essayist and Mr Beerbohm the man. We only know that the spirit of personality permeates every word that he writes.

Today, when memoirs and personal essays stand (rightly or wrongly) accused of narcissism and promiscuous sharing of private information, it does well to ponder how Beerbohm performed the delicate operation of displaying so much personality without lapsing into sticky self-disclosure.

His readers learned everything about his temperament and response patterns—rigorously self-analytical, he was onto all his idiosyncrasies—but next to nothing about his background, finances, affairs, or spouse. Some…

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