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Beerbohm, Max

Working name of UK author, caricaturist, theatre critic (hailed by his Saturday Review predecessor George Bernard Shaw as "the incomparable Max") and later Radio broadcaster Henry Maximilian Beerbohm (1872-1956). He was initially known for witty and mannered essays published from 1894 in The Yellow Book, The Savoy and other London magazines, first assembled under the self-mockingly grandiose title The Works of Max Beerbohm (coll 1896); at the time they were stigmatized for supposed Decadence, but this was clearly a pose. Standalone fiction of genre interest is chiefly Fantasy. The Happy Hypocrite: A Fairy Tale for Tired Men (October 1896 The Yellow Book; 1897 chap) light-heartedly touches on questions of Identity and the possibility that an adopted mask may (as so often in Gene Wolfe) become the real face. In "A Panacea" (23 July 1904 Saturday Review), Edward VII's shutting of all British theatres for a decade is lauded from the perspective of 1914. "Enoch Soames" (May 1916 Century Magazine) features a deal with the devil by the title's failed 1890s poet, who Time-Travels to the British Museum Library of a century later, and on 3 June 1997 reads – in the simplified spelling of this future – not that posterity has recognized his genius but that he is recorded only as "an immajnari karrakter" in a "sumwot labud sattire" by Beerbohm. "A.V. Laider" (June 1916 Century Magazine) features a Club Story narrative of supernatural Precognition, told by a compulsive and unreliable raconteur. Both these latter tales appear in Beerbohm's finest book Seven Men (coll 1919; exp 1950), also containing the first appearance of "Hilary Maltby and Stephen Braxton", in which (perhaps via Psi Powers) a living author jealously projects images of himself to haunt his more socially successful rival.

Beerbohm's one novel, Zuleika Dobson; or, An Oxford Love Story (1911) deploys various supernatural elements to frame a romantic comedy-cum-Satire in which (almost) all the undergraduates of Oxford drown themselves for the sake of the unworthy beauty Zuleika, who is seen as an irresistible supernatural force, capable of making statues weep, a She figure more than once specifically described as a Basilisk; she is last seen planning to repeat her triumph in Cambridge. The image of emptied college halls with dons at High Table barely noticing the missing students was a chilling if inadvertent Prediction of the effect on Oxford of World War One.

A sui generis caricaturist whose drawing style was deceptively naive-seeming, Beerbohm exaggerated the salient features of many contemporaries including Hilaire Belloc, G K Chesterton, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling (often cruelly), George Bernard Shaw, H G Wells and Oscar Wilde. Using his parallel gift for prose Parody, he mocked the styles of all these authors (except Wilde) and several others – including A C Benson and Frank Harris – in his Christmas-themed collection A Christmas Garland (coll 1912). Fantastic elements are central to the parodies of Thomas Hardy; of Kipling, with a brutish police constable successfully arresting the suspicious "airman" Santa Claus; and, devastatingly, of Wells. "Perkins and Mankind" outlines a Wellsian Utopia in which Christmas is replaced by "General Cessation Day", when old folk walk in joyous procession to the euthanasia chambers ...

to die for the good of the race – to "make way" for the beautiful young breed of men and women who, in simple, artistic, antiseptic garments, are disporting themselves so gladly on this day of days.

An earlier, more broadly comic but less penetrating Wells parody, "The Defossilized Plum-Pudding" (Christmas 1896 The Saturday Review), was excluded from A Christmas Garland along with five others from the same magazine issue, including spoofs of Marie Corelli and of Beerbohm himself. All six were assembled as the US pirate edition Leaves from the Garland woven by Max Beerbohm (coll 1926 chap), reportedly issued by the New York publisher's editor Max Harzof. The best of these discarded pieces – including the three indicated above – are reprinted in Dwight Macdonald's Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm – and After (anth 1960).

Beerbohm published very little after the 1920s, the chief exception being Mainly on the Air (coll 1946; exp 1957), collecting the radio talks he had given since 1935, together with other late essays. Several further selections of his work appeared after his death, as did a number of appreciations and critical studies. The essay/story A Peep into the Past (1923 chap) – included in A Peep into the Past and Other Prose Pieces (coll 1972) – proleptically shows Oscar Wilde as an elderly, highly respectable gay man whose writing has long been forgotten; this, written in 1893 or 1894, was made unpublishable by subsequent events. Also included in the collection is a fantasy vignette inspired by a (real-life) bad painting's failures of perspective.

Beerbohm was knighted in 1939. [DRL]

see also: Richard Buckle.

Sir Henry Maximilian Beerbohm

born London: 24 August 1872

died Rapallo, Italy: 20 May 1956

works (selected)


further reading


Entry from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2011-current) edited by John Clute and David Langford.
Accessed 06:04 am on 19 June 2024.