[Part 1 of The Divinity and the Disciple: Oscar Wilde in the Letters of Max Beerbohm, 1892-1895]
Upon ceding his post as drama critic of the Saturday Review to Max Beerbohm in 1898, George Bernard Shaw wrote, "The younger generation is knocking at the door; and as I open it there steps spritely in the incomparable Max" (Behrman 21). The description stuck. To his admirers, Max Beerbohm (1872-1956) was always "the incomparable Max."
Over the course of a career that spanned more than sixty years, Beerbohm established himself as Britain's foremost caricaturist and as one of its most beloved writers. Beerbohm's writing owed much of its charm to his distinct literary persona. As Virginia Woolf wrote, "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" (Danson 25). Beerbohm's persona was discernible in his writing even when he imitated another writer's style. As Filson Young, an early reviewer of Beerbohm's parodies, remarked, "...behind these solemn parodies...lurks the shadow of Max himself, making it quite plain to you in what estimation each [parodied writer] is held and mocking with a merciful humour the mannerisms of them all" (Beerbohm, A Christmas Garland xii). The first writer Beerbohm mocked with a merciful (and sometimes not so merciful) humour was his mentor, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).
According to John Felstiner, Wilde was Beerbohm's "presiding spirit" during the early 1890s ("Max Beerbohm" 195). When they became personally acquainted in 1893, Beerbohm was an undergraduate and a fledgling writer, whereas Wilde was already an established (and rather notorious) figure in the London literary scene. Beerbohm had been under the influence of Wilde's writings for some time. Wilde's controversial novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Intentions, his collection of essays, were published in book form in 1891, when Beerbohm was a freshman at Oxford (Wilde 1209; Danson 63). In fact, Intentions was one of the only books that Beerbohm admitted to reading while he was at college (Felstiner, Lies of Art 7).
Wildean style was fashionable among Beerbohm's circle of friends, and "he cultivated...their flippancy, their taste for the precious and artificial and nonsensical, their pose of amused self-admiration, [and] their impish pleasure in shocking" (Cecil 58). During the early 1890s, Beerbohm's letters resonated with Wilde-inspired posing and mock vanity. "My affectations are dying for want of an audience," he declared in a letter to his friend, Reggie Turner, in October 1892 (Letters to Reggie Turner 27). A similar Wildeism followed in a July 1893 letter: "I am suffering, my dear Reg, from a plethora of brilliancy" (Letters to Reggie Turner 42).
Beerbohm also shared Wilde's taste for aestheticism. The principles of aesthetic criticism maintained that art should be judged on the basis of beauty alone and excluded arguments founded on external criteria, such as art's moral influence or historical context. Like his mentor, Beerbohm's aestheticism was of a comic variety. As David Cecil notes: "Max was always a comedian. But his aestheticism began to colour and modify his comic sense. He aspired to blend the comic with the pretty....This is where the influence of Oscar Wilde especially shows itself" (60). An example of the aestheticism Beerbohm was learning from Wilde appeared in a letter Beerbohm wrote in April 1893:
After supper I walked as far as Hyde Park Corner when I saw a glare in the sky like some false dawn. A cabman told me it was a fire and drove me to it-right away past Westminster. It was quite lovely, though there was no life lost I am afraid. Still, the timber yard was quite burnt and as I walked away the dawn was making the helmets of the firemen ghastly. (Letters to Reggie Turner 37)
Beerbohm's admiration was not blind, however. "I am sorry to say that Oscar drinks far more that he ought," Beerbohm wrote to Turner in April 1893, "indeed the first time I saw him, after all that long period of distant adoration and reverence, he was in a hopeless state of intoxication. He has deteriorated very much in appearance: his cheeks being quite a dark purple and fat to a fault" (Letters to Reggie Turner 35). Throughout their acquaintance, Beerbohm's feelings about Wilde wavered between admiration and contempt, and this ambivalence found expression in Beerbohm's letters.
Lawrence Danson sees Beerbohm's references to Wilde in his letters from 1892 to 1895 as conscious attempts to integrate admiration and criticism into verbal caricature (66). In these letters, Beerbohm 's response to Wilde's influence displays itself in three basic ways: as imitation, as criticism, and as satire. The letters reveal a rough progression from imitation, to criticism, to satire over the course of the three-year period, although Beerbohm combined these modes of expression more often than he used them separately. Taken as a whole, Beerbohm's letters from 1892 to 1895 demonstrate that Wilde served not only as a model for Beerbohm but also as an object of criticism and satire.
The Divinity and the Disciple: Oscar Wilde in the Letters of Max Beerbohm, 1892-1895
- Introduction: The Incomparable Max and the Unspeakable Oscar
- The Early Period: Imitation
- The Middle Period: Criticism
- The Late Period: Satire
- Conclusion: "Compare Me"
- Works Cited
Last modified 28 November 2004