Max Beerbohm and the Shape of Things to Come by Gibbons, Tom

The satirical writings and drawings of Max Beerbohm (1872-1956) provide a unique verbal and visual panorama of early modernism. The subjects of Beerbohm’s formal caricatures, which number more than 2,000, include an astonishing number of contemporary men of letters, from his youthful acquaintance Oscar Wilde to his much later neighbour at Rapallo, Ezra Pound. As will be seen in this essay, both writings and drawings show that Beerbohm was fully conversant—and often engaged—with the major public issues of his time, such as the Boer wars, Fabian socialism, and eugenics. This view of him helps correct the familiar typecast figure of Beerbohm as a lightweight nineties aesthete. In connection with the topic of eugenics, it may interest readers to know that my essay was originally prompted by Professor Dan Stone’s remark about the term “lethal chamber” in his book Breeding Superman: “It is unclear where the phrase comes from” (p. 125). Beerbohm’s familiarity with the alarms about alleged “degeneration” in his day is indicated by his caricatures of his close friend Professor E. Ray Lankester, whose Degeneration (1880) anticipated Nordau’s notorious volume by more than a decade.—Tom Gibbons

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