Richard Pipes (1923-2018) was a leading scholar of Russian and Soviet history at Harvard, a steadfast anti-communist and a close adviser to President Reagan. Born in Poland to Jewish parents, he witnessed Hitler’s visit to Warsaw on September 25, 1939. His family fled occupied Poland the following month. He became an American citizen and taught at Harvard for thirty-eight years. The first of his books I read was Russia Under the Old Regime (1974).
While looking for something else (one of the beauties of the internet) I found a brief essay Pipes contributed to the December 1978 issue of The American Spectator. It begins as a celebration of reading:
“I spend most of my working life reading, mainly sources, primary and secondary, for the histories I write. I do not consciously distinguish this kind of reading (‘research’) from reading for pleasure, inasmuch as trying to cope with life’s problems is for me the highest form of pleasure. I read belletristic works to gain depth and improve my style. The connection between a great novel or essay and a historical source is very intimate because, ultimately, both kinds of literature help to illuminate life’s mysteries. Montaigne probably has done more to shape my historical and political views than any historical monograph that I have ever read. Chekhov, Rilke, and William James, to mention but a few, have profoundly influenced the way I perceive the world and, therefore, write history.”
One can’t imagine an academic, surely not a member of the Harvard faculty, holding such civilized values. How many of them read “to gain depth and improve [their] style” or “help to illuminate life’s mysteries”? Now Pipes reveals his big surprise:
“I have recently developed a passion for Max Beerbohm. He is not generally regarded to be a major writer, nor did he think of himself as one. But as Beerbohm has cautioned in another connection, ‘mental ability is not safely gauged by height or depth of topic. The value of the thing said depends not on the value of the thing it is said about . . . good sense about trivialities is better than nonsense about things that matter.’”
That old libel about “minor” again, quietly dismissed. Who wouldn’t want to read Beerbohm over, say, his neighbor in Rapallo, Ezra Pound?
“Beerbohm was an aesthete, which means that he preferred to ignore everything sordid and evil, and to seek refuge in fantasy and humor. His world is bewitching; his style, sheer perfection. Anyone who grapples with English syntax day in and day out cannot but be overwhelmed by his uncanny choice of words, by the elegant yet never artificial rhythm of his prose, by his sense of composition. Isaac Babel once said that a properly placed exclamation point is like a knife driven into the reader’s heart: In Beerbohm’s prose, nearly everything is of that order of artistic magnitude.”
Were a young writer to ask for stylistic guidance I would suggest he read all the Beerbohm he can find, with emphasis on the essays. Beerbohm is Mozart in prose.
“His best essays have no superior in the English language: Among them I would include almost all the essays from And Even Now (e. g., ‘Quia Imperfectum’), and such masterpieces as ‘Enoch Soames’ and the parodies in The Christmas Garland. (Incidentally, Beerbohm’s style seems to me possibly to have served as a model for Vladimir Nabokov, although I know nothing positive of the influence of the one writer on the other.) Beerbohm had the misfortune to outlive his generation. In the midst of World War II he jotted down in his notebook the following observations:
“Those whom the gods loved died in July 1914
Those whom the gods liked died very soon after Armistice Day in November 1918
Those whom the gods hated lived to see the War’s effects
Those whom the gods loathed will live to see the effects of this War”
I hope some enterprising literary scholar is on the case of Beerbohm and Nabokov. I remember no mention by the latter of the former. The passage from the notebook is new to me. Pipes the historian rightly sees more in Beerbohm than “fantasy and humor.”
“Hardly any of Beerbohm’s writings are in print today, which forced me to undertake (against Beerbohm’s advice) a collection of his first editions. I do not know why he is not read. The other day I learned, however, that one-half of Americans never read a book, and of the others, the book readers, a good proportion use reading as a soporific. Perhaps that is part of the explanation: Beerbohm’s minor masterpieces are invidiously exciting.”
By the end of his life, Pipes must have been demoralized by the state of reading among Americans. He's my kind of reader.