The Summing Up Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Although THE SUMMING UP must be classified as autobiography, in only a very few of the seventy-seven sections into which it is divided is the author concerned with the listing of facts and events or the description of personalities important in his life, a procedure one customarily associates with this literary genre. In Sections VI and VII Mr. Maugham writes brief notes on his grandparents, his eccentric barrister grandfather (on his father’s side his family has been connected with the law for several generations), and his grandmother on his mother’s side, who as the widow of an army officer settled in France, composed music and wrote novels. He gives scarcely more information on his parents, his young and beautiful mother, who died of tuberculosis before he was nine, and his older and “ugly” father whose death two years later left him an orphan to be brought up by his uncle, a clergyman. In Sections XVIII through XXI he touches on his experiences, both happy and unhappy, as a schoolboy in Canterbury and much later as a student at St. Thomas’ Hospital, in London, which provided him with material for his creative work, particularly as a novelist. Elsewhere are passages, often merely a short paragraph or two, seldom more than a few pages, in which Mr. Maugham recounts his adventures as a tourist or temporary resident in a foreign country; for example, as a young man in Spain or as a member of the British Intelligence Service during World War I.

But THE SUMMING UP is not conventional autobiography. As Mr. Maugham himself announces in Section III, his book largely represents an attempt to put in order his thoughts on subjects that had interested him during his life. What had chiefly interested Maugham in the course of his life was prose composition, whether expository or narrative, as a means of communication between writer and reader or, as in the theater, between dramatist and audience.

Probably the best known sections in THE SUMMING UP are those concerned with style, for Maugham’s comments on “lucidity, simplicity, and euphony” are often excerpted and anthologized in college texts used by teachers and students. In Sections X through XV the author discusses and characterizes the style of a number of writers, not an easy task, with great insight and ingenuity. His evaluations are frequently original, often persuasive. He states that the King James Bible has had a deleterious influence, that Sir Thomas Brown, Dr. Johnson, Gibbon, and Carlyle, despite their moments of grandeur, are not for all time. For Mr. Maugham the great stylists are Dryden, Swift, Hazlitt, Newman, and Arnold, and among Continental writers Voltaire (the greatest of all) and Colette. In his descriptions and comparisons he is particularly successful. Nowhere else does he demonstrate more surely his ability to turn the felicitious phrase, to choose the mot juste.

Although as a creative writer Maugham first became known as a novelist with such realistic tales of slum life as LIZA OF LAMBETH, published in 1897, he first became famous and financially independent as a dramatist when he had four plays running simultaneously in west end theaters in 1907. He devotes Sections XXX through XLIII to describing his early efforts and varying degrees of success in this genre, tracing his development as a dramatist from his first play A MAN OF HONOR, first performed in 1903, through his last SHEPPY, produced in 1932. He mentions specifically the construction of such plays as OUR BETTERS, LADY FREDERICK, and THE CONSTANT WIFE, sets down rules and explains techniques which may be summed up in two simple principles: making a point and sticking to it, and cutting wherever possible. (Because Maugham regarded himself as especially talented in...

(The entire section is 1560 words.)