S.N. Behrman, the writer for The New Yorker who befriended Max Beerbohm for the last four years of the Englishman’s life, reports in Portrait of Max:
“Max’s attitude toward bigness was essential to his own view of himself as an artist. He had a severely topiary intelligence; he knew where he could go and where he couldn’t go, what he could do and what he couldn’t do. `I am not creative in a big way,’ he said to me that day. `I haven’t any powerful invention; I used up all I had. What I really am is an essayist.’”
I admire Beerbohm’s modesty here, though in fact it isn’t modesty, as least in any self-disparaging sense. Beerbohm had passed his 80th birthday when he spoke. His best work – say, And Even Now and Seven Men – was 30 or 40 years behind him, and he knew it. Beerbohm was speaking retrospectively, sparing us the spectacle of an old man pathetically inflating his past, though personally I would rather reread “Enoch Soames” than a dainty plucked from the oeuvre of Cormac McCarthy, who surely is “creative in a big way.”
Two phrases struck me, one Behrman’s, the other Beerbohm’s. “Severely topiary intelligence” is curious and precise. “Topiary” means what you think: “of, relating to, or being the practice or art of training, cutting, and trimming trees or shrubs into odd or ornamental shapes.” In other words, Beerbohm’s art is minor, which is not the same as unimportant, uninteresting or unamusing. It’s the adverb – “severely” – that pins the description to its subject. Secondly: “What I really am is an essayist.” How much mischievous wisdom and irony can be packed into seven words? Beerbohm was one of the last century’s wittiest practitioners of the essay. Behrman tells us Charles Lamb numbered among Beerbohm’s “great enthusiasms,” and it shows.
I bring this up because I think Beerbohm had the makings of a fine blogger: He was witty, well read, wrote elegant prose and possessed a judicious sense of tone and balance. He was a natural storyteller who only rarely excelled at fiction. It’s too late for Max (he died in 1956) but not for us. He’s pertinent to bloggers because the best among them are essayists manqué. We can learn from his humility and wit (a rare combination), as in Beerbohm’s description of his friend the painter James McNeill Whistler:
“An exquisite talent like Whistler’s, whether in painting or in writing, is always at its best on a small scale. On a large scale it strays and is distressed….For no man who can finely grasp a big theme can play exquisitely round a little one.”