A Letter to the Editor

A Letter to the Editor


Max Beerbohm

DEAR SIR,—When THE YELLOW BOOK appeared I was in
Oxford. So literary a little town is Oxford that its under-
graduates see a newspaper nearly as seldom as the Venetians see a
horse, and until yesterday, when coming to London, I found in
the album of a friend certain newspaper cuttings, I had not known
how great was the wrath of the pressmen.

What in the whole volume seems to have provoked the most
ungovernable fury is, I am sorry to say, an essay about Cosmetics
that I myself wrote. Of this it was impossible for any one to speak
calmly. The mob lost its head, and, so far as any one in literature
can be lynched, I was. In speaking of me, one paper dropped
the usual prefix of "Mr." as though I were a well-known
criminal, and referred to me shortly as "Beerbohm" ; a second
allowed me the "Mr." but urged that "a short Act of Parliament
should be passed to make this kind of thing illegal" ; a third sug-
gested, rather tamely, that I should read one of Mr. William Watson's
sonnets. More than one comic paper had a very serious poem
about me, and a known adherent to the humour which, forest-
like, is called new, declared my essay to be "the rankest and
most nauseous thing in all literature." It was a bomb thrown by
a cowardly decadent, another outrage by one of that desperate and


The Yellow Book—Vol. II. Q

282 A Letter to the Editor

dangerous band of madmen who must be mercilessly stamped out
by a comity of editors. May I, Sir, in justice to myself and to
you, who were gravely censured for harbouring me, step forward,
and assure the affrighted mob that it is the victim of a hoax ?
May I also assure it that I had no notion that it would be taken
in ? Indeed, it seems incredible to me that any one on the face
of the earth could fail to see that my essay, so grotesque in subject,
in opinion so flippant, in style so wildly affected, was meant for
a burlesque upon the "precious" school of writers. If I had
only signed myself D. Cadent or Parrar Docks, or appended a
note to say that the MS. had been picked up not a hundred
miles from Tite Street, all the pressmen would have said that I had
given them a very delicate bit of satire. But I did not. And
hinc as they themselves love to say, illæ lacrimæ.

After all, I think it is a sound rule that a writer should not
kick his critics. I simply wish to make them a friendly philoso-
phical suggestion. It seems to be thought that criticism holds in
the artistic world much the same place as, in the moral world, is
held by punishment—"the vengeance taken by the majority upon
such as exceed the limits of conduct imposed by that majority."
As in the case of punishment, then, we must consider the effect
produced by criticism upon its object, how far is it reformatory ?
Personally, I cannot conceive how any artist can be hurt by
remarks dropped from a garret into a gutter. Yet it is incontest-
able that many an illustrious artist has so been hurt. And these
very remarks, so far from making him change or temper his
method, have rather made that method intenser, have driven him
to retire further within his own soul, by showing him how little he
may hope for from the world but insult and ingratitude.

In fact, the police-constable mode of criticism is a failure.
True that, here and there, much beautiful work of the kind has


From Max Beerbohm 283

been done. In the old, old Quarterlies is many a slashing
review, that, however absurd it be as criticism, we can hardly wish
unwritten. In the National Observer, before its reformation, were
countless fine examples of the cavilling method. The paper was
rowdy, venomous and insincere. There was libel in every line of
it. It roared with the lambs and bleated with the lions. It was
a disgrace to journalism and a glory to literature. I think of it
often with tears and desiderium. But the men who wrote these
things stand upon a very different plane to the men employed
as critics by the press of Great Britain. These must be judged,
not by their workmanship, which is naught, but by the spirit
that animates them and the consequence of their efforts. If only
they could learn that it is for the critic to seek after beauty
and to try to interpret it to others, if only they would give over
their eternal fault-finding and not presume to interfere with the
artist at his work, then with an equally small amount of ability
our pressmen might do nearly as much good as they have hitherto
done harm. Why should they regard writers with such enmity ?
The average pressman, reviewing a book of stories or of poems by
an unknown writer, seems not to think "where are the beauties of
this work that I may praise them, and by my praise quicken the
sense of beauty in others ?" He steadily applies himself to the
ignoble task of plucking out and gloating over its defects. It is a
pity that critics should show so little sympathy with writers, and
curious when we consider that most of them tried to be writers
themselves, once. Every new school that has come into the world,
every new writer who has brought with him a new mode, they
have rudely persecuted. The dulness of Ibsen, the obscurity of
Meredith, the horrors of Zola—all these are household words. It
is not until the pack has yelled itself hoarse that the level voice of
justice is heard in praise. To pretend that no generation is capable


284 A Letter to the Editor

of gauging the greatness of its own artists is the merest bauble-tit.
Were it not for the accursed abuse of their function by the great
body of critics, no poet need "live uncrown'd, apart." Many and
irreparable are the wrongs that our critics have done. At length
let them repent with ashes upon their heads. Where they see not
beauty, let them be silent, reverently feeling that it may yet be
there, and train their dull senses in quest of it.

Now is a good time for such penance. There are signs that
our English literature has reached that point, when, like the
literatures of all the nations that have been, it must fall at length
into the hands of the decadents. The qualities that I tried
in my essay to travesty—paradox and marivaudage, lassitude, a
love of horror and all unusual things, a love of argot and archaism
and the mysteries of style—are not all these displayed, some by
one, some by another of les jeunes écrivains ? Who knows but
that Artifice is in truth at our gates and that soon she may pass
through our streets ? Already the windows of Grub Street are
crowded with watchful, evil faces. They are ready, the men of
Grub Street, to pelt her, as they have pelted all that came before
her. Let them come down while there is still time, and hang
their houses with colours, and strew the road with flowers. Will
they not, for once, do homage to a new queen ? By the time this
letter appears, it may be too late !

Meanwhile, Sir, I am, your obedient servant,


Oxford, May '94.

MLA citation: Beerbohm, Max. "A Letter to the Editor." The Yellow Book 2 (July 1894): 281-84. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2010. Web. [Date of access]. http://www.1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV2_beerbohm_letter.html