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MAX AND By Robert Viscusi (Humanities Institute, Brooklyn College] The title of this paper appears to be an ellipsis without punctuation. It is not. Rather, it names a process familiar to readers of Sir Max Beerbohm. Beerbohm practiced in forms which allowed him to join his own signature to those of other artists and writers. This practice makes it easy to imagine essays with titles like "Max and Shaw" or "Max and Strachey" or "Max and Meredith." The present essay does not trace relationships of this kind but begins by simply naming, with the abrupt phrase Max and, the process which makes all of them possible. The web of Beerbohm's relationships with other artists and writers is of an imposing intricacy. Parodies and caricatures, which he produced in abundance, always take another person's manner as their frame. Beerbohm is nearly as well known, too, for his hundreds upon hundreds of dramatic criticisms; these provide the interested reader, sooner or later, with Beerbohm's thoughts upon almost every writer of consequence in his own generation and the one preceding it. Many of his informal essays offer reminiscences of the notabilities of his youth. Even his works of fiction include persons who actually lived, alongside persons presented as if they had done so. The chronicles of his life, likewise, bristle with useful matter for studies of literary and artistic filiations. The young dandy Max was a familiar in the literary circle of Oscar Wilde, the artistic circle of Will Rothenstein, and the theatrical circle of Herbert Tree. In the 'oughts, he was a popular diner-out at some ot London's better-attended houses. After 1910, living in Rapallo, he entertained many pilgrims of consequence as they shuttled across between Maugham at Cap Ferrât and Berenson in Florence. Max knew "everyone." Whom he did not know, often enough, he wrote about. It would, indeed, be possible to construct a literary and artistic history of the fin-de-sieele using his biography as a thread. It is my thesis, however, that Beerbohm's contributions to biography and literary history open up large questions about how we practice both of those arts. To those who are accustomed to thinking of Max as the elegant tri fier he has traditionally been supposed to be, it will perhaps come as a surprise to read that his work poses any troubling questions at all. In advance of the argument, it may suffice to say that Beerbohm was so thoroughly a writer of his time--so fully the student of Wilde and Whistler, so absolutely the contemporary of Beardsley and Chesterton--that his achievement, considered as a whole, poses many of the same problems which the Transition period presents to the literary historian. Central among these is the artistic and cognitive nature of biography. The relationship of biography to literary criticism and history is, of course, difficult to define. But 304 305 no literary criticism of history can proceed without a working resolution of this puzzle. Very few writers can come to our notice, and fewer sustain our attention, even if we are theoreticians, without large amounts of biographical material flowing into view. It is not merely that most texts welcome the biographical gloss. It is that biography is itself a literary arena, and I am not thinking only of the composition of narratives concerning the lives of other people. Biography means, simply, 1 i fe-writi ng; it is simple platitude to recall that every life traces a pattern which we may read. And writers, though critics sometimes forget this anomaly, often write their own lives with more energy than they give to most of the texts to which they subscribe their names. Perhaps never in history did more writers live under the retrospective gaze of their imagined biographers than during the later nineteenth century in England. It is impossible to imagine the career of, say, Benjamin Disraeli or Robert Browning except as conducted tor the wonderment of future generations. This peculiar manner of biographical living was a natural effect of the developing industrialization of literature. Persons of distinction gradually came to look forward as a matter of course to the three-volume memorials...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 304-319
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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