The Incomparable Max

Sir Max Beerbohm, 1872–1956, was a famous caricaturist with a style very much his own.  He was a successful author, too, though not a prolific one: a book of stories (Seven Men), a set of parodies (A Christmas Garland), and one fantasy novel (Zuleika Dobson) make up the sum of his output for most people.  Yet his favorite form was the essay, and over a period of 50 years he published six collections of them (seven, if one counts a volume of his theater reviews published in 1924).  Phillip Lopate has chosen 50 of these for republication, beginning with 16 essays from And Even Now (1920), and prefaced by an informative if overlong Introduction.

Back in 1965, reviewing Lord David Cecil’s life of Beerbohm, W.H. Auden wrote that Beerbohm’s kind of “pure” essay, written “only to produce aesthetic satisfaction,” was a genre “to which no reader under sixty can bring himself to attend.”  He went on to say that these days we expect essays to instruct or edify, that if we’re after aesthetic satisfaction, “we turn to poetry or fiction.”  Auden seems to have been right about this.  A few essays have been republished in Beerbohm anthologies, but no one has published a collection of them until now, and even Mr. Lopate seems haunted by a doubt about their attraction for today’s readers.

It is certainly...

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