cover image The Prince of Minor Writers: The Selected Essays of Max Beerbohm

The Prince of Minor Writers: The Selected Essays of Max Beerbohm

Max Beerbohm, edited by Philip Lopate. New York Review of Books, $18.95 (448p) ISBN 978-1-59017-828-7

Compiling 50 pieces by noted English essayist and caricaturist Beerbohm, editor Lopate (To Show and to Tell) invites modern readers to appreciate the scope of Beerbohm’s writing. Virginia Woolf called Beerbohm “the prince of his profession” and his “minor” works provide a glimpse of daily life in the 19th and early 20th centuries, revealing that while manners and dress have evolved, human nature certainly has not. For this alone, Beerbohm’s essays deserve to be revisited today. At its best, his writing is humorous and self-deprecating. His stories of observing a nine-year-old build a sandcastle (“Something Defeasible”) or discovering his favorite hat box stripped of its railway labels (“Ichabod”) may prove more gratifying and relatable to modern readers than his satirical discussions of Goethe (“Quia Imperfectum”) or the behavior of servants (“Servants”). Beerbohm’s longer essays, apart from his touching portrait of his elder brother, “From a Brother’s Standpoint,” can be summed up by his own quote about James McNeill Whistler in “Whistler’s Writing”: “An exquisite talent... is always at its best on a small scale. On a large scale it strays and is distressed.” In this substantial collection, however, the gems certainly outweigh the duds. (June)