W. Somerset Maugham

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W. Somerset Maugham was a celebrated writer of novels and short stories. In addition, he published ten important books of travel, autobiography, criticism, and miscellaneous essays. He was a constant contributor to periodicals, and he furnished prefaces, stories, and chapters to more than two dozen anthologies and books by other writers. Many of his works have been translated into foreign languages.

Maugham’s novels began with a story of London slum life, Liza of Lambeth (1897), and closed with Catalina: A Romance (1948), a love story of no great importance. Of the eighteen novels published between these two, at least five are of major importance: Mrs. Craddock (1902), Of Human Bondage (1915), The Moon and Sixpence (1919), Cakes and Ale (1930), and The Razor’s Edge (1944).

Of the collections of short stories, only the three volumes of The Complete Short Stories (1951) need be mentioned here. The publishing history of the individual stories is extremely intricate. An excellent detailing is provided in Raymond Toole Stott’s Maughamiana: The Writings of W. Somerset Maugham (1950). Stott traces the publishing history of Maugham’s short stories from “Don Sebastian,” which appeared in Cosmopolis magazine in October, 1898, through the publication of “Mr. Know-All” in the April 16, 1949, issue of Everybody’s Weekly. Of special value is Stott’s tracing of the stories that appeared in Nash’s Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Hearst’s International Magazine, and Good Housekeeping from November, 1920, to March, 1947. Maugham’s stories that were written in French and published in three French periodicals receive separate treatment.

Maugham’s travel books include The Land of the Blessed Virgin: Sketches and Impressions in Andalusia (1905), On a Chinese Screen (1922), The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey from Rangoon to Haiphong (1930), and Don Fernando (1935). Literary criticism and autobiography are curiously mixed in The Summing Up (1938) and A Writer’s Notebook (1949), later printed together as The Partial View (1954). The autobiographical Strictly Personal (1941) details Maugham’s flight from France in World War II. The Writer’s Point of View (1951) is a lecture to aspiring writers delivered to the National Book League in London. Other essays and criticism are to be found in The Vagrant Mood: Six Essays (1952), Ten Novels and Their Authors (1954), and Points of View (1958). All these books may be said to be both frank and secretive. In his works, Maugham expresses himself freely on many public and some private subjects, but he guards his innermost privacy carefully.

Achievements

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That W. Somerset Maugham was one of the more successful English writers of the first half of the twentieth century is clear enough, even though the fact is sometimes obscured by that preliminary rising and falling of popular and academic estimation that accompanies the settling of a writer into his place in history. Early criticism tended to portray Maugham’s plays as cynical, shallow, and witty, after the manner of Restoration comedy and of Oscar Wilde. Appreciation of Maugham’s broader and more serious themes—poverty, social injustice, the possibilities inherent in the relationships between the sexes, privilege versus responsibility, and the ultimate nature of human good and evil—has emerged gradually over three-quarters of a century and has established that Maugham the playwright was a thoughtful observer and critic of life.

Maugham’s reputation as a serious dramatist seems likely to continue growing as scholars and critics reconsider his plays, and the success of revivals indicates that at least some of the plays will be part of the living repertoire of English drama for some time to come.

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A dedicated professional, W. Somerset Maugham earned more than three million dollars from his writing, a phenomenal amount for his day. Between 1897 and 1962, a career spanning eight decades, Maugham published twenty novels, four travel books, more than twenty stage plays, an autobiography of ideas, and innumerable essays, belles-lettres, and introductions, in addition to more than one hundred short stories, of which about ninety are readily accessible in different editions. Much of his work has been adapted for use by television and cinema.

Achievements

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W. Somerset Maugham is best known for his urbanity, his wit, his controlled sense of writing, and his ability to describe not only objectively but also so realistically that he has been accused of lifting stories directly from life. Many of his stories do spring from real incidents or actual people, but the perceptions and surprise plot twists are always Maugham-inspired. In fact, Maugham is expressly known as a master of the surprise or twist ending to an inextricably woven plot in his short stories, many of which have been converted to film. His early work, under the influence of Oscar Wilde and his cult of aesthetes, shows a refined and civilized attitude toward life. Several of his novels illustrate the demanding sacrifices that art necessitates of life or that life itself can become, in turn, an art form, thereby demonstrating the “art of living” (The Razor’s Edge, 1944).

Maugham was curiously denied many conspicuous honors (such as knighthood) usually conferred on a man of letters of his distinction, but he was awarded by the Royal Society of Literature the title of Companion of Literature, an honor given to “authors who have brought exceptional distinction to English letters.” Furthermore, the occasion of his eightieth birthday was celebrated with a dinner at the Garrick Club, a distinction given to only three writers before him: Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope.

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A professional man of letters whose work spanned more than six decades, W. Somerset Maugham (mawm) published in a wide range of literary forms, the significant exception being poetry. He first won success, fame, and wealth in the theater; his most acclaimed dramas were performed on the London stage during the first three decades of the twentieth century. He produced more than a hundred short stories, largely written during the period from 1921 to 1950; his collected short stories include four of the best-known stories of the twentieth century: “Rain,” “The Outstation,” “The Letter,” and “The Colonel’s Lady.” Fifteen or more additional volumes are devoted to autobiography, literary and aesthetic criticism, and travel. Among these, the most useful for students are The Summing Up (1938), Ten Novels and Their Authors (1954), and A Writer’s Notebook (1949).

Achievements

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W. Somerset Maugham’s twenty novels are exceptionally uneven; the first eight, though interesting, suggest the efforts of a young novelist to discover where his talent lies. Between the publication of Of Human Bondage in 1915 through The Razor’s Edge in 1944, he produced his most significant prose works. During this period, he was a world-famous man of letters with a following of many thousands who would buy and read anything he wrote; however, a few novels that he produced, such as Then and Now and Up at the Villa, were not in his best vein.

The novels brought Maugham acclaim and recognition both from a general audience and from the intelligentsia. Among common readers, he was perhaps the most successful English novelist of the twentieth century, and, as Samuel Johnson pointed out, the common reader is not often wrong. It must be admitted, however, that Maugham’s detractors, such as Edmund Wilson, present valid criticism: One expects a serious artist to exert an important influence, either thematic or formal, on his or her medium. The symphony was forever altered by Ludwig van Beethoven; no similar statement can be made about Maugham and the novel. He sought to tell a story with clarity and grace, to embody a set of attitudes and values, and to entertain his readers with insights into character and life.

Contribution

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W. Somerset Maugham’s sixteen short stories and sketches in the Ashenden series were among the first in English fiction to present espionage activities as realistic and even dull at times. Because of their accurate depiction, they became required reading for British agents before World War II. Ashenden is sent first to Switzerland and later to Russia to carry out assignments, usually intended to counter German intelligence or, in the example of Russia, to influence internal politics. Both the events and characters from the series are based on Maugham’s experiences as an agent for British Military Intelligence (MI6). Yet Ashenden seems more interested in describing eccentric characters and reflecting on the ironies of the human condition than in reporting on specific missions. Maugham writes in the lucid, idiomatic, and colloquial English typical of his voluminous prose. His hero is the prototype of the later reflective and analytical spymasters of Graham Greene and John le Carré.

When he collected his complete short stories, Maugham compressed the Ashenden series into six long narratives: “Miss King,” “The Hairless Mexican,” “Giulia Lazzari,” “The Traitor,” “His Excellency,” and “Mr. Harrington’s Washing.” Fourteen other Ashenden stories, still in manuscript, were destroyed after Winston Churchill gave Maugham his opinion that they violated English laws concerning official secrets. In addition to the Ashenden series, Maugham wrote a few short stories dealing with murder, and in numerous essays and sketches he drew on his experience as an intelligence officer.

Discussion Topics

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Has critical displeasure with W. Somerset Maugham’s success with audiences contributed to the harsh criticism he has received?

Trace the influence of Maugham’s medical training in his fiction.

Does the theme of the futility of human relationships developed in Of Human Bondage reflect or contradict the lifestyle Maugham chose?

What is the attitude toward religion that Maugham implies in Of Human Bondage? In “Rain”?

Examine the importance of the image of the razor’s edge in the novel The Razor’s Edge.

Bibliography

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Archer, Stanley. W. Somerset Maugham: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993. An introductory survey of Maugham’s short fiction, focusing on style and technique of the stories and the frequent themes of how virtue ironically can cause unhappiness, how colonial officials come in conflict with their social and physical environment, and how people are often unable to escape their own cultural background.

Burt, Forrest D. W. Somerset Maugham. Boston: Twayne, 1985. This volume asserts that Maugham has long been an underestimated and neglected writer in terms of an assessment of his value and position in the literary canon and that there has been a more serious appraisal of his works since his death. Includes a chronology, a basic biography (in the early chapters), and a focus on the literary works from a critical standpoint.

Calder, Robert L. W. Somerset Maugham and the Quest for Freedom. London: Heinemann, 1972. This impressive study primarily emphasizes critical and thematic assessment of the novels, breaking them down into categories of genre (“Novels of Apprenticeship”) or categories of thematic focus (“Artist-Hero Novels”; “Aspects of the Maugham Persona”). This work also exhaustively delineates several of the important issues with which Maugham was concerned—that is, the absolute importance of money, the nature of marriage and bondage, the interest in Native American mysticism (The Razor’s Edge), and the nature of individual freedom. Also provided are four informative appendices, including material on Maugham’s role in Allied espionage (1917) and a discussion of recurring images of bondage and freedom in his works.

Calder, Robert. Willie. London: Heinemann, 1989. Through interviews with friends of Maugham and through letters made available for the first time (and published here), Calder offers an informed account of the playwright and novelist. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.

Connon, Bryan. Somerset Maugham and the Maugham Dynasty. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1997. Connon examines the influence that the Maugham family had on the life and works of W. Somerset Maugham. Includes bibliography and index.

Cordell, Richard A. Somerset Maugham: A Writer for All Seasons. 2d ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969. Cordell, who was Maugham’s friend and confidant, provides an in-depth examination of the writer’s life and works. Cordell disputes the labeling of Maugham as “enigmatic” and “inscrutable,” charging instead that Maugham was just the opposite. This volume includes a substantial section devoted to a discussion of Maugham’s short stories along with chapters on three of the “autobiographical novels,” plays, other fiction, and critical reception.

Curtis, Anthony. Somerset Maugham. Windsor, England: Profile Books, 1982. An excellent forty-seven page pamphlet-sized volume that provides both an intensive and lucid overview of the writer, his genres, his life, and his themes. It also clearly distinguishes Maugham as preeminently a writer of short fiction. An insightful and brief introduction to the author that also includes an index of his available short stories.

Furst, Alan. Introduction to The Book of Spies: An Anthology of Literary Espionage, edited by Alan Furst. New York: Modern Library, 2003. Furst’s introduction discusses Maugham’s place in the exclusive company of literary (as opposed to merely popular) portrayers of espionage in fiction.

Hitz, Frederick P. The Great Game: The Myth and Reality of Espionage. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Hitz, the former inspector general of the Central Intelligence Agency, compares famous fictional spies and spy stories—including those of Maugham—to real espionage agents and case studies to demonstrate that truth is stranger than fiction.

Holden, Philip. Orienting Masculinity, Orienting Nation: W. Somerset Maugham’s Exotic Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Examines the themes of homosexuality, gender identity, and race relations in Maugham’s works.

Holden, Philip. “W. Somerset Maugham’s Yellow Streak.” Studies in Short Fiction 29 (Fall, 1992): 575-582. Discusses Maugham’s story “The Yellow Streak” as a dialectical tale made up of the opposites of civilized/savage, male/female, and racial purity/miscegenation. Considers the treatment of the relationship between the two men in the story.

Jonas, Klaus W., ed. The Maugham Enigma. New York: Citadel Press, 1954. An informative background collection of articles, essays, biographical notes, and book reviews by numerous authors on Maugham. It covers the author as dramatist, novelist, “teller of tales,” and essayist, and it also includes some interesting reminiscences and notes on writing from Maugham himself.

Loss, Archie K. “Of Human Bondage”: Coming of Age in the Novel. Boston: Twayne, 1990. One of Twayne’s masterwork studies, this is an excellent analysis.

Loss, Archie K. W. Somerset Maugham. New York: Ungar, 1987. The chapter on short fiction in this general introduction to Maugham’s life and art focuses largely on his most familiar story, “Rain,” as the best example of his short-story technique and subject matter. Discusses Maugham as a tale-teller and argues that the voice of the narrator is the most important single element in a Maugham short story.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Somerset Maugham. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. This well-reviewed examination of Maugham’s life and work provides comprehensive detail and new insights into his creative process.

Morgan, Ted. Maugham. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980. The first full-scale biography of Maugham and therefore an essential text in all studies of the man and his work. Unlike previous biographers, Morgan enjoyed the cooperation of Maugham’s literary executor and, therefore, is able to correct many distortions in previous studies. Offers a comprehensive account of the private man, including photographs, a complete primary bibliography, and an index.

Naik, M. K. W. Somerset Maugham. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953. The underlying concept of Naik’s approach to a discussion of Maugham’s life and work is that it reveals a basic “conflict between the two strains of cynicism and humanitarianism” in the author himself. Naik begins with a definition of this conflict, discusses biographical data, and then examines the various genres of the author in terms of his overall premise.

O’Connor, Sean. Straight Acting: Popular Gay Drama from Wilde to Rattigan. Washington, D.C.: Cassell, 1998. O’Connor explains the influence that Oscar Wilde had on three gay or bisexual playwrights who wrote from the 1920’s to the 1950’s: Maugham, Noël Coward, and Terence Rattigan. Bibliography and index.

Rogal, Samuel J. A Companion to the Characters in the Fiction and Drama of W. Somerset Maugham. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. An alphabetical listing of the characters—animal, human, unnamed, named—in Maugham’s drama and fiction. Each entry identifies the work in which a character appears and the character’s role in the overall work.

Rogal, Samuel J. A William Somerset Maugham Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. Contains information on Maugham’s life as well as his works. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

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