I posted the following resolutions in this space eight years ago tomorrow:
• To finish Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong. I changed the title to Pops, but otherwise done and done.
• To see fewer plays—and write more thoughtfully about the ones I do see. If anything, I now see more plays than I did eight years ago. Whether or not I write more thoughtfully about them is, of course, for others to say.
• To spend more time listening to music, not in the background or on the fly, but with the total concentration and involvement that it deserves. Didn’t happen, and I blush to admit it.
• To read Bleak House and War and Peace at long last, and report on my progress in this space. Ditto.
• To go to the gym four days a week, every week. Ditto redux.
• To take more time off. I’ve made some headway in this area, though not as much as I’d like.
• To visit the Grand Canyon. Alas, this longed-for pilgrimage is still on my list of undone things to do.
That was the last time I made any New Year’s resolutions, public or otherwise.
Five years later, I posted as follows:
I’m not making any clever resolutions this year—I’m too distracted by my mother’s illness, and 2011 was so complicated a mixture of success and sorrow that I scarcely know what to think about the year that’s just arrived. I’ll try my best to be a good husband, a good son, a good friend, and a good writer, and that will have to do.
I remain similarly disinclined to year’s-end hubris as 2014 heads out the door. As far as I’m concerned, it’ll be more than enough to be kind and work hard. Or, in the ever-appropriate words of Henry James, “Be generous and delicate and pursue the prize.”
Max Beerbohm quoted those words to S.N. Behrman when the playwright visited him for the last time in 1955:
I knew I had to leave. I hated to leave. Max went on, “Do you know my favorite line of Henry James?”
I could see that he was not really expecting an answer from me—that he was communing with himself.
“It is ‘Be generous and delicate and pursue the prize.’” Max’s eyes were still fixed on the sun-dotted sea. “He didn’t always live up to it, of course. Who can? But in his work he did live up to it. It was his mask.” There was a pause. Max looked at me and smiled. “If you live up to a good manner long enough, don’t you know, perhaps it will become first nature to you, instead of second, or third.”
Perhaps it will. Sixty years later, I shall do my best to find out.
* * *
Max Beerbohm reads “The Crime” (from And Even Now) and “London Revisited” (originally broadcast on the BBC in 1936). These recordings were made for Angel and released on LP in 1955, a year before Beerbohm’s death. They have never been reissued in any format: