Today in Literary History – August 24, 1872 – “The Incomperable Max” Beerbohm is born

Max Beerbohm (or to give him his full handle, Sir Henry Maximilian Beerbohm) was born in London on August 24, 1872. He was known originally as a dandy and a bon vivant (closely associated with Oscar Wilde’s circle, a good friend of Aubrey Beardsley) and an accomplished caricaturist (signing his drawings as simply “Max”).

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He went on to be a respected drama critic, an essayist (both serious and humorous) a parodist, a radio broadcaster and the author of one classic novel, Zuleika Dobson, a satire of undergraduate life at Oxford University published in 1911.

He was widely known in his day as “The Incomparable Max” (a title given to him by George Bernard Shaw) for his good nature and his literary versatility.

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A Beerbohm self-caricature from 1897

Beerbohm himself wrote that “I am inclined to think, indeed I have always thought, that a young man who desires to know all that in all ages and in all lands has been thought by the best minds, and wishes to make a synthesis of all those thoughts for the future benefit of mankind, is laying up for himself a very miserable old age.”

A recent (and excellent) collection of his essays is cheekily titled The Prince of Minor Writers.

Certainly, Beerbohm shone in his essays. As one critic said, “Throughout his long life, he remained, resolutely, a miniaturist. He wrote small pieces about small things, but each was so carefully and wonderfully wrought (“No Roman ever was able to say, ‘I dined last night at the Borgias’”).”

His caricatures too are simple but hugely expressive.

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Caricature of Oscar Wilde

His father was a wealthy Lithuanian-born grain merchant. People often assumed that Beerbohm was Jewish but Beerbohm said that he came from Protestant stock. He married twice, both times to Jewish women. Both times too, it seems, the marriages were not consummated.

There has been a murmuring over the years that Max might have been doubly closeted – as a gay man and as the son of a Jewish family “passing” as goyim.

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In the end it doesn’t really matter. He left behind a large body of “minor” writing that is a joy to read. As the Chilean novelist, and Beerbohm fan, Roberto Bolaño wrote, “The great Max Beerbohm may be the paradigm of the minor writer and the happy man. In other words: Max Beerbohm was a good and gracious soul.”

Max Beerbohm died in Rapallo, Italy in 1956 at the age of eighty-three.

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