The fact that Anglophiles and really well-dressed types are the two groups of Americans most willing to talk with me about Max Beerbohm is a testament to the fact that, though “the incomparable Max” (as George Bernard Shaw famously called him) was an artist who wrote in our shared language, he was simply be too English for many Americans to get. I don’t mean that pejoratively; Americans constantly make references to “English humor,” with creased foreheads and blank looks that tell you they aren’t exactly sure how to describe what the British find funny, but they’re pretty sure it’s something you have to be from across the pond to understand, let alone laugh at.
Although a few unsuccessful attempts have been mounted, now seems as good a time as any for Americans to come around to the very unique, very sharp Beerbohm. His classic 1911 novel Zuleika Dobson; or, An Oxford Love Story — about a beautiful girl who is let into the all-male Oxford and the men who fall in love with her — which comes complete with the most madcap and hilarious mass suicide scene in the history of literature, was recently republished by Melville House as part of their Neversink Library series. That the book has been out of print might strike some as odd, considering it’s just a few years after Zuleika Dobson found itself at #59 on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 greatest novels, beating out his fellow countryman Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited (#80), and American classics like The Catcher in the Rye (#64), The House of Mirth (#69), and A Farewell to Arms (#74). Whether or not you buy into the validity of lists is entirely up to you, but it certainly says something that Beerbohm’s book made the cut, while P.G. Wodehouse, whose own style makes him a quintessential English writer, and Beerbohm’s friend Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray aren’t even included.
Beerbohm’s caricature of Oscar Wilde : Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, on loan to the University of Delaware Library
I wouldn’t be telling the whole truth if I didn’t admit that Beerbohm’s only novel is not exactly the easiest book to get through. It is a satirical take on Oxford, class, and weird acts of machismo with a handful of references from Edwardian times that might confuse even the most dedicated Downton Abbey viewer. But to get through it is to experience one of the truest exercises in literary style, in every sense of the term. Beerbohm was both a unique prose stylist and a master of aesthetics, with a dark sense of humor.
Beerbohm wrote one of the 20th century’s great English novels, but it’s his legacy as a great wit and extremely sharp dresser that people normally mention when discussing his life and work. Beerbohm left behind enough fiction, essays, and famously candid caricatures to create a composite portrait of English high society at the start of the 20th century. His prose style — clever, fast-paced, and sometimes on the verge of anarchy — balances humor with style, and provides a master class in using irony — the greatest weapon in Beerbohm’s arsenal — to look at high culture. In these overwhelmingly self-aware days when faux-thrift store T-shirts are sold as luxury items, Beerbohm’s ability to skewer the rich, famous, and powerful of his time with a nod and a wink seems both quaint and crucial.