Max Beerbohm is at the core a humorist, and humorists, good ones, are at the greatest risk of falling into the category of “I just don’t get it.” The art is in the performance, in the voice. I get it, but I make no promise for anyone else.
Now, his fiction, Zuleika Dobson (1911) and Seven Men and Two Others (1919/1950), especially “Enoch Soames,” those can be read in a number of ways, for example as horror stories. The essays, though, are little monologues, conversations, so the listener has to be in tune.
Plus, as ephemera, newspaper entertainment, some of Beerbohm’s subjects are now pretty obscure. Beerbohm is not only a writer of the 1890s, but he took the 1890s as his subject and wrote about it for the rest of his life. Some immersion in the period probably helps. The new collection edited by Philip Lopate, The Prince of Minor Writers (2015), makes an effort to screen out the pieces that have become cryptic.
Lopate leads with almost all of And Even Now (1920), omitting only three pieces, including the best one in the book (why, why) then moves back to his first book, The Works of Max Beerbohm (1896), a classic gag for a young comic writer (Beerbohm was 24 years old), then to More (1899), another good dry joke, and Yet Again (1909), yet again the same joke. Most of the rest of the book, about a fifth of it, is related to the theater.
Beerbohm’s signature tone is mock nostalgia, which at times is also real nostalgia, but generally not. Works ends with a college memoir, Beerbohm’s days and nights at Oxford, bumping into Walter Pater and so on. “The serried bristles of his mustachio made for him a false-military air” (185). The memoir ends with Beerbohm moving to the suburbs (“Next door, there is a retired military man who has offered, in a most neighbourly way, to lend me his copy of The Times”) and declaring his retirement.
Once, in the delusion that Art, loving the recluse, would make his life happy, I wrote a little for a yellow quarterly and had that succès de fiasco which is always given to a young writer of talent. But the stress of creation soon overwhelmed me… I shall write no more. Already I feel myself to be a trifle outmoded. I belong to the Beardsley period. Younger men, with months of activity before them, with fresher schemes and notions, have pressed forward since then.
The essay it titled “Diminuendo.” It was published in 1895. Beerbohm was at most 23. He had entered Oxford in 1890 and left in 1894. The “Beardsley period” would be 1894, although Aubrey Beardsley himself was still alive and productive. I suppose for the reader who knew none of this the word “months” ought to be a clue to the joke.
In The Works of Max Beerbohm, this essay is followed by a Bibliography, which consists entirely of magazine pieces and caricatures published from 1894 to 1896 except for an 1886 letter to the editor (“A bitter cry of complaint against the dulness of the school paper”) and some 1890 Latin homework. Lopate excludes the Bibliography, perhaps because he thinks it takes the joke too far.