March 2013

Mary Mann

An Attempt

Max Beerbohm is Cranky: On the Appeal of the Curmudgeon

Max Beerbohm hates going for walks. He also hates when lady writers are more successful than he is. He wishes that people were more honestly unkind in their correspondence, and he doesn't care too much for socializing.

When reduced to a line, his essays -- each a perfect parody of a different genre or author -- sound annoyingly negative. They conjure up the greatest fear for a new essayist: how does one write about the self without being narcissistic and unlikable? The full essays, written in Beerbohm's distinctive curmudgeonly voice, answer the question with a paradox: be willfully unlikeable, and people will like you.

The key is to include details that are unlikeable enough to prove the writer's honesty and "oneness with the common man," but not so unlikeable as to alienate the reader. Beerbohm accomplished this balance so perfectly that it seems deliberate, as though he carefully constructed a character with exactly the right kind of flaws: the curmudgeon. As his contemporary Virginia Woolf once said: "he has brought personality into literature, not unconsciously and impurely, but so consciously and purely that we do not know whether there is any relation between Max the essayist and Mr. Beerbohm the man."

To find out how it happened, we must first travel back to the Mauve Decade, the 1890s, when Beerbohm came of age, attending Oxford and befriending perhaps the most perfect symbol of the era's aestheticism and decadence: Oscar Wilde. Beerbohm became a dandy like Wilde, wearing his high hat at a jaunty angle and carrying an ivory-topped cane, but he also had a sharp and self-aware eye, and he sketched caricatures of himself and his friends that were spot-on representations of foppishness. This was his first experiment with public humor, and it went well: the sketches captured the pretension and absurdities of his contemporaries without malice. He continued to sketch with impunity, even satirizing the royal family most scandalously, but he managed to do it in such a way that not only did it not offend, it was even appreciated: the royal family knighted him in 1939.

"The most perfect caricature," Beerbohm explained in "The Spirit of Caricature," "is that which, on a small surface, with the simplest means, most accurately exaggerates, to the highest point, the peculiarities of a human being, at his most characteristic moment in the most beautiful manner."

The same could be said of the most perfect parody, and Beerbohm excelled at these too, due to a combination of elegant prose and the grouchy yet avuncular persona that he cultivated. Maybe it was his early self-awareness, or perhaps it was an anxious reaction to the changes in the world at the turn of the century, or it could have simply been his nature -- whatever it was, by the time he was in his early twenties Beerbohm had mastered, as Wilde once said, "the secret of perpetual old age." A gentle kind of crankiness would come to be Beerbohm's signature style; however much he poked fun at other people, it was always through the lens of poking fun at himself.

This strategy is plain in his essay "Going Out for a Walk," which in its opening is already cheeky: "It is a fact that not once in all my life have I gone out for a walk." With this line Beerbohm is already parodying the many "flâneur" essays of the nineteenth century that celebrated walking as an enlightening adventure -- in topic and form, this opening directly plays off of the opening of William Hazlitt's "On Going a Journey": "One of the pleasantest things in the world is going a journey." To Beerbohm, in contrast, as soon as the body embarks on a walk "the brain then wraps itself up in its own convolutions, and falls into a dreamless slumber from which nothing can rouse it till the body has been safely deposited indoors again." His claim that walking shuts off the mind directly refutes the argument made by writers like Hazlitt, Thoreau, and Woolf: that walking affords endless opportunities for stimulation and inspiration.

How does Beerbohm skewer the romance of walking without pissing off flâneurs and their fans? True to form, Beerbohm woos the reader with his flaws: with the same opening line, Beerbohm begins to establish his curmudgeon character, a good-natured grouch who is not inherently angry or bitter towards walkers, but just wishes they'd leave him alone in his chair. Even as he carefully outlines why he holds his own opinion, he also gives us the means to write him off if we don't agree, deftly pruning the barbs from his arguments by basing them on personal experiences and couching them as "just" the opinions of a lone curmudgeon. True to this character he has created, he begins by telling us he's never gone for a walk, and he ends by telling us that he never will, "pending a time when no people wish me to go and see them, and I have no wish to go and see any one, and there is nothing whatever for me to do off my own premises."

This is similar to the ending of "Hosts and Guests," where Beerbohm wraps up an essay that argues that everyone is either a host or a guest by using his own experience -- as someone who really prefers neither -- to refute the whole thing: "Though I always liked to be invited anywhere," he admits. "I very often preferred to stay at home."

While "Hosts and Guests" is another example of Beerbohm's "I'm just an old man who prefers to stay at home" shtick (in fact, he was only forty-six when he published both "Hosts and Guests" and "Going for a Walk"), it's also a parody of the aphoristic writing style used by essayists from Michel de Montaigne to Georg Lukács and characterized by grand, sweeping statements that tend to generalize, as well as a style that requires the writer to begin and end an argument with each sentence. Beerbohm mocks this style by beginning his argument with a strong aphorism -- "Mankind is divisible into two great classes: hosts and guests" -- then dissolving this argument in the aforementioned ending, showing it for what it really is: an impossibly general stereotype for the endlessly divergent human race. In this way, his curmudgeon character both serves the parody and softens its impact.

He also uses this tactic in "The Crime," an essayistic parody of the suspense novels of the nineteenth century. (The opening, "on a bleak wet stormy afternoon," is a direct send-up of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's now legendary "It was a dark and stormy night.") The essay begins with Beerbohm alone in someone else's country house, which he doesn't like for a bevy of cantankerous reasons: "My spirits are easily affected by weather, and I hate solitude. And I dislike to be master of things that are not mine." Searching for solace in the bookshelf, he finds a book by a lady novelist who is not only more successful then he is but who also bested him in an argument once. He promptly burns it.

At this point the discerning lady reader might wrinkle her brow and wonder if this character, who appears to be a harmless old man (he was actually only forty-eight at the time of publication), could be a secret sexist. Fortunately, Beerbohm has already anticipated such a claim and answered it by admitting flat-out that "to be vanquished by a feminine writer is the kind of defeat least of all agreeable to a man who writes." This acknowledgement of his own ridiculous grouchiness takes the wind out of the sails of any attack on his character. He's just a grouchy old man, after all (or so he seems to say), and when the burning book puts the fire out at the end (a harbinger of bad tidings in a suspense novel, but simply a harbinger of a chilly, dark, and boring afternoon in Beerbohm's parody), he gives the woman novelist the last laugh. Here is our curmudgeon again, in his armchair, gleefully grumbling.

Merriam-Webster defines a curmudgeon as "a crusty, ill-tempered, and usually old man," which doesn't sound particularly pleasant. But in writer Jon Winokur's The Portable Curmudgeon, published in 1992, he argues that the curmudgeon's bad reputation is undeserved: "Curmudgeons are mockers and debunkers whose bitterness is a symptom rather than a disease. They can't compromise their standards and can't manage the suspension of disbelief necessary for feigned cheerfulness." In effect, they are merely truth-tellers, and the truth is valued even when it's unsettling.

Yet this doesn't explain the undeniable comic appeal of the curmudgeonly character, which remained popular long after Beerbohm's death in 1956. His work still seems so fresh and modern partly because the character of the curmudgeon has been in steady use by humor writers and comedians ever since, from H.L Mencken to Groucho Marx; Fran Lebowitz to Andy Rooney; Statler and Waldorf, the heckling old puppets in the balcony on The Muppet Show; to nearly all the articles in the satirical newspaper The Onion, whose fictional founder, T. Herman Zweibel, is a curmudgeon of the first order.

The curmudgeon appeal dates back to the traditional concept of the word: a man (generally) who is too old to bother being polite anymore. While Beerbohm refined this concept of the curmudgeon, he certainly did not invent it. As early as 317 BC, the Greek playwright Menander presented his comedy Dyskolos, which translates to The Curmudgeon. Much more recently, but still a century before Beerbohm's birth, the Italian comedy I rusteghi premiered in 1760 in Venice -- the name has been translated as The Cantankerous Men.

The curmudgeon has had a long history in comedy partly because, though cranky, he doesn't care enough about what other people think to get truly violent over his opinions. The curmudgeon is a loner (or at least he'd prefer it that way) and he's physically harmless due to his perceived old age, which means that he can say a lot more than others could without being challenged.

But more than that, the curmudgeon speaks to something essential in human character. True to his method of being willfully unlikeable in order to be likeable, Beerbohm describes this best himself in "How Shall I Word It?" a 1910 essay which parodies a letter-writing how-to book (similar to Miss Manners' etiquette book of today). Beerbohm copies the polite letter-writing guide in style and format, but with "honest" letters, i.e. mean ones. In his reasoning for this, he also describes the strong, universal appeal of the curmudgeon: "Face to face with all this perfection, the not perfect reader begins to crave some little outburst of wrath, of hatred or malice."

This is really what keeps the curmudgeon character so fresh -- we all have some curmudgeon in our hearts. The desire to read the work of an imperfect writer is a desire to be validated as an imperfect human. And who ever heard of a not imperfect human? Even Gandhi had his struggles.

Validation of human imperfections seems to be most important in times of great change, when everyone is feeling unsteady. This makes the specific imperfections of the curmudgeon especially valuable because the old grouch is always longing for the "good old days." Beerbohm certainly did, once noting in his youth that his long-term goal was to go off and live away from modern things so he could "look forth and, in my remoteness, appreciate the distant pageant of the world." In his lifetime he saw the advent of electric lights, home telephones, television, radio, airplanes, escalators, vacuum cleaners... even such ageless-seeming items as the teabag and the cross-word puzzle. He took some things more in stride then others -- he broadcast on BBC radio during World War II and writer Rebecca West gushed that he sounded like "the last civilized man on earth" -- but was almost impossible to reach on the telephone because, as writer S.N. Behrman tactfully put it in The New Yorker, "he tolerated the instrument, but he didn't coddle it."

The dawn of the twenty-first century has arrived with as much change as the dawn of the twentieth did -- with the advent of both the personal computer and Internet, human communication has been irrevocably transformed, and the very value of the printed word is a topic of hot debate. All this social upheaval means that the character of the curmudgeon is on the rise. Just look to Brooklyn, where a large cross-section of twenty-somethings who came of age in the ill-named "aughts" have come to raise their flag in the old-fashioned curmudgeon camp: for every one Internet start-up there are two or three people opening knitting shops, teaching classes on pickling, or selling handmade artisanal cheese.

For many people, rapid change produces nearly instantaneous nostalgia -- this earnest yearning needs humor to make it honest, and this is where the good old-fashioned Beerbohmian curmudgeon steps in. There are many modern grouches (as mentioned previously) who have filled in for him, but no one captures the soul of the curmudgeon so perfectly as Beerbohm, and nothing illustrates this so well as his reaction to the very idea of his own greatness. "How would you like to be a Giant, Sir Max?" Behrman asked as he prepared to lionize the work of the curmudgeon extraordinaire in a seven-part interview series. A reluctant Beerbohm replied with a joke that barely masked his obvious disdain for the idea, "I should have to get an entirely new wardrobe."