The Summing Up - W. Somerset Maugham

the copyright and half title of the summing up by somerset maugham
The Summing Up 1938 first UK edition, copyright and half title,
W. Somerset Maugham

The Summing Up (London: Heinemann, 1938)

This post is about W. Somerset Maugham's memoirs The Summing Up. I will record some of my reflections and describe the first edition that I possess.

The Summing Up of An Extraordinary Mind

The first time I read The Summing Up was some years ago. Upon closing the book this time, I experience very different feelings. Maugham has reiterated on different occasions that the most important aspect, or in fact, the sole significance, of an artwork (including a piece of writing, which he sees as a product of artistic creation) is its direct interaction with the beholder; all other considerations fall secondary. This is in itself a very refreshing thought, after the habitual authoritative constraint of academia that one unconsciously imposes on oneself.

So, I will talk about some impressions I have of the book, which are strictly personal.

In The Summing Up, Maugham goes through some of the significant incidents in his life and shares with the reader his development as a writer. He analyses at length writing as an art and some of the important aspects that a writer should consider; quite many pages are devoted to the drama, its construction and the audience. As several critics have pointed out, this is very fruitful reading for aspiring writers.

Nobody would dispute that Maugham was a professional writer; he himself saw that as the only way to write, in order to be able to produce a body of meaningful work that would contribute to the field of literature. After rereading The Summing Up I would venture to say that he was a "professional" human being. This sounds odd indeed, but I will try to explain.

Throughout the book, one cannot help but feel the vitality that Maugham had towards life. Though described as cold, he was very passionate about living. Early on, he made up his mind what he wanted from life and he wanted to live it to the fullest. He welcomed all kinds of experience, each one served for building his personality. He emphasized several times that it was the personality that mattered, it was what sieved through one's works. How much one can excel depends on that. One can only produce great work if one has greatness in one's character. The ultimate aim of one's life is to nurture and develop one's qualities, to exploit one's full potential.

Hard work indeed!

As I mentioned in another post, Maugham was a very impressive autodidact. In The Summing Up he makes many references to books that he has read and studied in order to gain the knowledge that he wanted, to find the answers to his questions. One sees the traits of Larry Darrell (The Razor's Edge) in him.

The Great Critic for Maugham

Besides the exigencies he puts on the writer, he also outlines the essential qualities of the critic, which are indeed demanding. One can see that he may very well shrug off many of the criticisms as unqualified and leaving much to be desired. The critics he has given as examples as up to the mark are Sainte-Beuve and Matthew Arnold. These are the qualities:
The great critic should have a sympathy as wide as his knowledge is universal. It should be grounded not on a general indifference, such as makes men tolerant of things they care nothing about, but on an active delight in diversity. He must be a psychologist and a physiologist, for he must know how the basic elements of literature are related to the minds and bodies of men; and he must be a philosopher, for from philosophy he will learn serenity, impartiality, and the transitoriness of human beings. He must be familiar not only with the literature of his native land. With standards founded on the literature of the past, and studious of contemporary literature in other countries, he will see clearly the trend that literature in its evolution is pursuing and so be enabled profitably to direct that of his own countrymen. He must support himself on tradition, for tradition is the expression of the inevitable idiosyncrasies of a nation's literature, but he must do everything he can to encourage its development in its natural direction. Tradition is a guide and not a jailer. He must have patience, firmness and enthusiasm. Each book he reads should be a new and thrilling adventure; he judges it by the universality of his knowledge and the strength of his character. In fact the great critic must be a great man. He must be great enough to recognize with good-humoured resignation that his work, though so important, can have but an ephemeral value; for his merit is that he responds to the needs of, and points the way to, his own generation. A new generation arises with other needs, a new way stretches before it; he has nothing more to say and is thrown with all this works into the dust-heap. (232-3)

Oof! A very tall order.

One almost feels nostalgic towards an age in which it was possible to devote oneself to an end. We are living in a quite different world now and it would be good to be able to pursue knowledge for its sake, or for one's sake, just because one wants to know, to better oneself, to better the society that one lives in. Apology for this personal lament; our present educational programmes leave no room for that at all.

First Edition of The Summing Up

the cover with a new binding of the summing up by w. somerset maugham
The Summing Up, rebound first edition

I got my copy fairly early before I knew much about book collection. It is a first stated edition, but it has been rebound. One can get a copy of the first edition very cheaply.

There is a special edition called the Eightieth Birthday edition, published by Doubleday & Co. in 1954, signed.

The contemporary reception of the book was mixed. However, the praises seemed to come with a grudge, admitted only because it was quite impossible to deny that it had its greatness. The one that I have read that accepts the fact with natural ease, that Maugham does write good things, is from Paul Dottin, a French critic, who has written quite a bit on Maugham's works. I cannot help but think of the gospel...

Homage to Maugham

Maugham writes at the end of The Summing Up:
The best homage we can pay to the great figures of the past, Dante, Titian, Shakespeare, Spinoza, is to treat them not with reverence, but with the familiarity we should exercise if they were our contemporaries. Thus we pay them the highest compliment we can; our familiarity acknowledges that they are alive for us. (315)

Putting Maugham alongside all these great names of the past must make some people frown, but what I want to say is that the quality that I cherish most in Maugham is that his writings always make me feel that he is sitting beside me, talking to me, telling me amusing stories. Yes, very often I have the sensation that he is still alive, that I could write him a letter, only to realize the next moment that that is no longer possible. To me, he has achieved what the great figures of the past have done for him, and this is my homage to him.

The Summing Up is available for download as a chapter in Mr. Maugham Himself. Please find the link on the free ebook - non-fiction page. For those who are interested in Maugham, it is one of his books that one should read, with profit and pleasure.

The Summing Up (1938) at Abebooks
The Summing Up (1954) at Abebooks
The Summing Up (US ed.) at
The Summing Up (UK ed.) at Amazon UK


  1. I apologise for bringing such a pedestrian issue under such a perceptive post (I especially love the part about "the vitality that Maugham had towards life"; this is indeed seldom noticed).

    Would you mind checking one strange variation? It concerns the last sentence of chapter 27. In the version reprinted in "Mr. Maugham Himself" (1954) it reads: “But then you have to make up your mind about the relations between truth and art.” In at least two modern paperbacks (Pan Books, 1976; Vintage Classics, 2001) this sentence is completely missing; the chapter ends on the previous sentence:

    "It may be that the writers of the present day, who seem to be so much nearer to their raw material, ordinary men among ordinary men, rather than artists in an alien crowd, may break down the barrier that their peculiar gift cannot but raise and so come nearer to the plain truth than has ever been done before.".

  2. Interesting indeed. Mine doesn't have that sentence. I assume that is added in the revised edition, as in Mr. Maugham Himself. Strange that it's not in the modern editions, especially the 2001 one.

    I've checked another edition, published by Literary Guild in 1938, or listed as so, since I have seen editions from Doubleday (or Garden City) that don't correspond with the actual year of publication, that the sentence is present. It doesn't have the paragraphs added at the end in a later edition, as in Mr. Maugham Himself. This is the one that can be borrowed from the Open Library.

  3. Strange that an edition from the same year as the first should have such difference. On these grounds I would suppose that the Literary Guild was published later, but how much later Heaven only knows.

    The paragraphs in the end of the version from "Mr Maugham Himself" are taken more or less word for word from the preface to "The Partial View" (1954), parts of which are in turn taken from the postscript to "A Writer's Notebook". So these at least I wouldn't expect in pre-1954 editions, or at least pre-1949 ones.

  4. Ted Morgan (chapter 16, last paragraph, endnote 177) claims that Maugham wrote "I know just where I stand, in the very first row of the second-raters." on p. 221 of "The Summing Up". Presumably he used a first edition. Is there anything like that in yours?

    1. Regretfully, it's not there. It's the beginning of chapter 58, which I have read several times, because it seems so logical for it to be there. However, I come across something else, an endnote in Jeffrey Meyers:

      "Morgan, Maugham, p. 501, quotes Maugham saying in The Summing Up: 'I know just where I stand. In the very first row of the second-raters,' but this remark does not appear in that book."

      This is endnote 11 for ch. 18 The Lizard of Oz. Meyers doesn't say in which book it appears though.

    2. Not so regretful actually. We have yet another reason to expose Mr Morgan as the master of gossipy inaccuracy which in fact he is. Nice to know that Mr Meyers has already done so officially. I have yet to check his book, but you seem to have spared me this "pleasure".

      You may have noticed how Teddy (I feel him that close already), in the very same paragraph, claims that Maugham said he was a Constable and not a Michelangelo. Which is a travesty of one passage from "The Summing Up" (chapter 22, penultimate paragraph, last sentences) in which the names were used in a very different context. It does, of course, fit with Maugham's admission that he painted easel pictures and not frescoes. But who says that an easel picture cannot be a masterpiece? And who says that all frescoes are anything like Michelangelo's ceiling?

      I'm really sorry for those people (the majority of readers?) who read biographies of Maugham without being familiar with his works. Poor things.

    3. Yes, I see how Morgan force feeds words into Maugham's mouth.

      It is quite frustrating not to be able to find the quote; of course, it is possible that he never wrote it. Nevertheless, I have such distinct feeling that I did read it; I can almost see the page. Perhaps it's just some kind of clever mind inception.


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