Contemporary Literary Criticism Vols. 1, 11, 15 - Maugham Entries

Gunton, Sharon, et. al., eds. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research Co., 1973–1980

It is with a heavy heart that I write this post. I came across this mighty reference series by chance and upon reading the Maugham entries, I am very surprised at the errors and the editors' choice of extracts to be included, presumably to give the readers a general impression of individual authors.

The main problem that such errors cause is naturally their perpetuation, since they sit stolidly and irrevocably spreading over several full bookshelves in the reference section, gathering authoritative dust over the years.

The Maugham entries span volumes 1, 11, 15, 67, and 93. Each entry consists of a very short introduction and extracts from other publications.

Contemporary Literary Criticism – Vol. 1 (1973)

The volume includes two extracts in the Maugham entry; one is from A. C. Ward's Twentieth-Century English Literature 1901-1960, which I have already talked about in another post. The mistake that Ward has on the publication year of Of Human Bondage is repeated here, 1916 instead of 1915.

The second extract is a curious choice, especially considering some more focussed and specific overview of Maugham's works have already been published, such as those by John Brophy, Klaus W. Jonas, Glenway Wescott, Theodore Spencer, or Richard Heron Ward, just to name a few.

It is from Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without by Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey, and Charles Osborne. The very creation of such a book is in itself questionable. It always intrigues me why anyone would like to spend so much time on researching and writing on authors that one finds no merit at all, a sense of complacency, uncontrollable maliciousness?

More intriguing in this case is the decision to include it in Contemporary Literary Criticism.

Contemporary Literary Criticism – Vol. 11 (1979)

The Maugham entry begins with a short introduction, which includes the following:
He qualified as a doctor in London before he published his first work in 1897.
An information that is false. Maugham publishes Liza of Lambeth before he graduates from St. Thomas's:
It was a thrilling moment for me when, a week or two later, going to see Mr. Unwin he told me that the first edition was sold out and he was hurrying to print a second. I was in my last year at St. Thomas’s Hospital and working for my final examination in surgery. ("Preface to the Collected Edition of 1934." Liza of Lambeth. Jubilee Edition. London: Heinemann, 1947. x–xi)

Four extracts are included this time. The first is from Graham Sutton's Some Contemporary Dramatists published in 1925. Surprisingly, Sutton has quite a few good things to say about Maugham the playwright, even though he considers the latter as chiefly a "technician," which his subsequent comments seem to contradict.

No dramatist is more worth reading for craftsmanship than Somerset Maugham. He is the playwright’s playwright, a very fountainhead of technical wisdom for the aspiring writer; but the latter should take him as a whole, whether for his craftsmanship or for his intrinsic interest. To take a playwright thus has several advantages; his philosophy and his technical method (the two things that count) emerge more clearly than from individual plays; contrariwise, the peculiar strength and weakness of each piece are more apparent. Mass-reading also brings out the plays’ acting qualities. (367)
[H]e is preeminently the playwright of one class-witty, well-bred folk such as one meets in Wilde and Congreve, used by later melodramatists as mere villain-material and revolver-fodder, but restored by Mr Maugham to the light-comedy sphere to which they belong. (367)
Mr Maugham follows Wilde, to whom he owes a good deal. ‘My dear,’ says Lady Wanley in Jack Straw, ‘do you never say anything against anyone? It must make conversation very difficult.’ That is precisely the Maugham note. His plays are full of cultured, witty people, leisured enough to cultivate wit as an art, sure enough of themselves to practise it frankly, witty enough to be funny on the riskiest themes. But their frankness is much more than a witty convention; in the women especially, it is an ingrained quality rising at times to a virtue–a rather terrifying honesty which makes them criticise not even their enemy’s case more frankly than their own. (367)

The last point reminds me of Marlow's perceptive comment in Seven Friends, in which he writes that "The individual quality of his best work is unmistakable; no one else could have written it. It is recognizable as his by a paragraph, even sometimes by a sentence" (161).

Sutton goes on with an interesting observation about Maugham's female characters:
Maugham's women particularly are handicapped by this stubborn honesty; the men have less of it, or do not let it dominate them so much. Perhaps the female sex is by nature less prone to self-deception; but these ladies push honesty to an almost Gallic excess.... The men’s strength lies rather in a horse-sense, a firm hold on expediency which is essentially British. Maugham-heroes have that quality of doggedness, of blind inability to know when they are beaten, for which the Britisher time out of mind has been both praised and derided. Apart from this (and from the salt of wit with which their creator flavours either sex) they are quite ordinary people; and they are sometimes no more than types, whereas his women are always both types and individuals. His men are less searchingly observed than Mr Shaw’s, less epigrammatic than Wilde’s, less solid than Mr Galworthy’s. But they all have this quintessential Britishness: they are of the soil, both in their virtues and their limitations. (367–8)

Sutton also discusses Maugham's early play A Man of Honour, showing how Maugham brings about his plot:
Take his first piece, A Man of Honour; here is no tedious exposition by minor characters (Mr Maugham has no minor characters, save a few footmen and perhaps Osman Pasha in Caesar’s Wife). Basil Kent, the man of honour, is going to be married; he expects one lady to tea, two arrive, and he is at first embarrassed; but although the ladies are both married and appear to have called unexpectedly, you soon find Kent treating one of them with marked cordiality; when he retires upstage with her, and you learn that she is a widow, the trend of events seems obvious until, their private conversation ended, they make it clear by their conduct that you are wrong again–and so on, till by a fascinating process of elimination the bride’s identity emerges. This is not the shortest method of exposition; but it is interesting from curtain-rise, and as an instance of the art that conceals art, leaves the old methods nowhere. (368)

The other extracts are of varying degree of usefulness for readers who want to have an idea of Maugham's works, or how he is being evaluated in the critical field.

When I read them, I keep wondering about the criteria by which they are selected, for example, how would an extracted paragraph like this one help?
All his life Maugham would ask what sort of thing is this soul. He put the question at length in The Razor's Edge, and gave an answer he did not really believe but which captured the approbation of the crowd, hence its tremendous success.... (370; from Cecil Roberts's "Maugham Dissected")

It is hard to say what answer it is that Maugham is supposed to have given that he does not believe.

Then we come to another error:
Three years before his death he published an appalling series of autobiographical article, Looking Backward [sic]. They expressed the rage of an old man lapsing into senility, a vengeful, disgusting exhibition that shook his friends and scandalised his public. Instead of a serene sunset, like the rose of evening that feel around the Villa Mauresque, the black clouds of an old man's venom darkened the scene. (370)

I understand that many of Maugham's friends felt "devastated" (not without some excitement, I would think) by "Looking Back," for whatever reasons. I doubt if his public was that "scandalized," or scandals are precisely what sell. For those who have read "Looking Back," it is hard to pinpoint in which parts Maugham's senility kicks in. It is true that it is not among his best works, and I tend to find that the indignation comes from disagreement more than anything. After all, perhaps our friends are not as predictable as we wish they were, or not such perfect gentlemen as we thought, or all of a piece, as Maugham would say.

Contemporary Literary Criticism – Vol. 15 (1980)

In vol. 15, the same introduction with error about Maugham publishing his first novel after he finished his studies at St. Thomas's is repeated.

The first extract is taken from Anthony Curtis's The Pattern of Maugham, which is not devoid of error in the selection:
Maugham was in his mid-sixties when he published The Summing Up [1939] [sic].

I double checked what is in Curtis's, and the error belongs to the editors of Contemporary Literary Criticism. I will not discuss on this occasion Curtis's book, since this post is about the reference book.

The next extract is much more problematic, taken from Subramani's "The Mythical Quest: Literary Responses to the South Seas." Once again, the editors' choice is peculiar.

Claims such as:
[Strickland] sends forth from the South Seas disconcerting works of art. The legend he creates attracts others like the Maugham-narrator to the South Seas. (368)

However, for those who have read The Moon and Sixpence, the narrator does not go to Tahiti because of Strickland:
It would seem natural that my visit to this remote island should immediately revive my interest in Strickland, but the work I was engaged in occupied my attention to the exclusion of whatever was irrelevant, and it was not till I had been there some days that I even remembered his connection with it. (The Moon and Sixpence. London: Heinemann, 1919. 190)

And then the selection continues directly to:
[Maugham] is overcome by a divine nostalgia when he is faced with the vast and empty ocean, and the low-lying heaven. He perceives the strange affinity of sea and man, nature and universe, and finds himself immersed in the changing moods of the universe.... He finds the ocean ‘inconstant and uncertain like the soul of man,’ and it makes him restless with ancient cravings for god, paradise, and eternity. The Maugham-narrator’s journey in The Moon and Sixpence to the South Seas is a journey of ‘a wanderer back to lands which his ancestors left in the dim beginning of history.' (368)

To do the writer justice I went to check against the original article, which, though I still would not recommend for understanding Maugham's works because of multiples errors and forced interpretation, at least it is not as confusing.

So, here from The Moon and Sixpence we are led to Maugham's other stories set in the South Seas. The quote "inconstant and uncertain..." is from "The Pacific," a very short piece to open the collection of short stories in The Trembling of a Leaf; as for the scene making Maugham "restless with ancient cravings for god, paradise, and eternity," I can only term it as the writer's wishful thinking.

As for the second quote that takes us back to The Moon and Sixpence, about the Maugham-narrator as "a wanderer back to lands which his ancestors left in the dim beginning of history," it actually has nothing to do with the narrator, but about Abraham, a fellow student the narrator knew at St. Thomas's, who chucked everything, his bright future as successful physician, upon finding his home in Alexandria (chapter L).

The extract continues with a potpourri of convenient imageries:
In [his] fiction, symbols from the South Seas easily merge with symbols from ancient Greece. Hence Maugham's South Seas is simultaneously a Polynesian paradise and the 'garden of the Hesperides', and the tropical lagoon in his story 'Red' is transformed into the 'Sea of Homeric Greece.' When Lawson bathes with the part-Samoan Ethel in 'The Pool' his mind is full of half-forgotten Greek had had studied at school. In this setting Maugham's European characters acquire the dignity of Greek gods. For example, Red in the story of the same name is described, as a 'Greek Apollo.' (368)

The original quote from "The Pool" reads like this:
She took no notice of him. She did not even glance in his direction. She swam about the green pool. She dived, she rested on the bank, as though she were quite alone: he had a queer feeling that he was invisible. Scraps of poetry, half forgotten, floated across his memory, and vague recollections of the Greece he had negligently studied in his school days. (Trembling of a Leaf. London: Doran, 1921. 160)

Lawson did not study Greek the language. As for Maugham's European characters becoming Greek gods, there is only one, it seems, Red, who, with time, acquires some sort of a mythical figure in Neilson's narration.

And now, I venture to add that the natives (in plural) also acquire the dignity of Greek goddesses, if you wish:
She [Sally in "Red"] reminded him [Nelson] of the Psyche in the museum at Naples. (Trembling of a Leaf 139)

So, there you go.

The mutilated extract at some points stops making sense and one wonders its inclusion is of any use at all:
However, the underlying psychic force in [Maugham's] writings is basically Christian even though the kind of comments...[he makes] are not necessarily Christian. There is an apparent primacy of Christian over Polynesian mythology [here]. Maugham does not employ any Polynesian mythology at all.... Like Gauguin, who transported the Adoration to the South Seas, and recreated a Polynesian fisherman as Adam and a Tahitian 'wahine' as the Maiden, ...[Maugham employs] multiplicity of primitive Christian symbols of [his] Polynesian material. [He frequently calls] the islands the Garden of Eden, and the natives are referred to as Adams and Eves. Maugham's European characters are transformed into mythological Adams and Eves when they abandon themselves to the activities of the South Seas World. (368–9)

Maugham's ultimate interest is in how English people react when removed from their familiar setting to a completely foreign culture and location, not about the foreign culture or native people per se, and thus, why would he write about Polynesian mythology?

All in total from The Trembling of a Leaf and The Moon and Sixpence, the two texts (all together 565 pages) cited in this article, Maugham uses four times "Garden of Eden," once in "Mackintosh," once in "Red," twice in The Moon and Sixpence; as for "Adam and Eve," once in "Red", and once in The Moon and Sixpence. I would not have called this "frequent," or made a generalization of Maugham's viewpoints about the natives and European characters as Adams and Eves. It is a bit difficult to imagine so many Adams and Eves of different skin colours roaming about on the islands of paradise in Maugham's stories.

We have already seen from the last quote a sudden shift to Gauguin, which carries on in the article. The extract at some point becomes puzzling, so I will include one of the missing parts from the original article, indicated in the following quote by {}.
Maugham in his research on Gauguin, had discovered that Tahura's greatest gift to Gauguin was that she loved him without wanting to possess his soul, so that he was free to create great art. {Maugham tries to define this primitive love:
the real love, not the love that comes from sympathy, common interests, or intellectual community, but love pure and simple, [sic] That is the love that Adam felt for Eve when he awoke and found her in the garden gazing at him with dewy eyes. That is the love that draws the beasts to one another, and the Gods.
What is worth noting here is that} Maugham uses both Christian and pagan symbols to define this love.

First, it is confusing to disintegrate fiction and reality, simply equalizing the narrator in The Moon and Sixpence with Maugham and Strickland with Gauguin. Then, the quote about primitive love is from another story all together, "Red."

Then, the writer warns us on the the danger of degeneration of moral character once we enter this mythical land of the South Seas:
The best illustration of this process of disintegration is Charles Strickland, an insipid stock-broker, who abandons business and family at the age of forty to become a painter in the South Seas. In Tahiti, freed from the imprisonment of convention, Strickland becomes a famous painter. While the South Seas inspires his genius it also degenerates his moral character. His brutal sexuality and limitless cruelty are part of the primitive forces which the South Seas releases, which in turn release his genius. (369)

Well, first Strickland becomes a famous painter after he was six feet under. As about his brutal sexuality, I assume the writer is referring to Blanche Strove, a relationship that happens in Paris, before Strickland has a chance to be morally degenerated in the South Seas.

I do not think I am going to the end of the extract or article.

My question would be: Shouldn't the editors at least read the primary sources before choosing the articles they are going to extract from? Or perhaps consult at least two sources before putting in all the historical facts?

The last extract in this volume is by Robert L. Calder, who has already by that time a full length book on Maugham. In the extract he talks about Maugham in cinema, which is an interesting topic. Let's hope he will produce his book on that some time soon.

I have to confess that this makes very heavy reading, and I will leave the other two volumes with very long entries to another post.

How to cite this:


  1. Fun read, wasn't it?

    I'm a little puzzled by the organisation of these volumes. It seems neither chronological nor thematic. Perhaps the first was aimed at, not very successfully, but the second would have been better anyway (so that one could follow how the critical response to certain author developed through the years).

    One thing I didn't understand. Which of Maugham's works "We Could Do Without" according to Brigid Brophy and her gang?

    I suppose Maugham's answer in The Razor's Edge he didn't really believe is the Hindu mysticism. Since he dismissed it as "an impressive fantasy" as early as 1944 (in the postscript to A Writer's Notebook), it stands to reason that Mr Parker was probably right. But his choice of words is also right, yet he seems unaware of this: did not "really believe". This implies that Maugham may have been unsure whether he believed it or not, or that he may have believed certain parts and rejected others. In the former case, writing a novel about the whole thing was, I reckon, a pretty good way to make up his mind. In the latter case, who says that an artist can't use parts of doctrines he generally disbelieves if he thinks they suit his purpose? Likewise, Wagner certainly didn't believe the hokum of Christianity, but that didn't prevent him, late in his life, from attending mass regularly and making fine use of Christian imagery in Parsifal.

    To Subramani I can reply only with the words of Shakespeare's Cleopatra: "Excellent falsehood!"

    1. Interesting question, indeed I'll try to see if I can find the book, perhaps "Then and Now", Wilson's favourite?

      I have the impression that Larry is someone quite remote from Maugham, I mean there's no identification. He's someone that Maugham/narrator is interested in, intensely, as an artist/writer, and perhaps it is worth asking if one is intensely interested in a subject, whether it automatically means that one believes. I've just been reading a book on eroticism in the Bible, the author is well versed in the Bible, and I was surprised when she made the statement that "if God exists" (not a direct quote). So, I think it's possible. It's intellectual interest, that may or, often than not, may not have to do with beliefs at all.

      Subramani's great, a gem.

    2. "Then and Now" is a good candidate, I guess (no doubt it was Edmund's favourite: he apparently never read another novel by Maugham), and so is "Up at the Villa", though I secretly hope Brigid and co. did have the audacity to aim higher, say, "The Painted Veil" or "The Moon and Sixpence", why not "Cakes and Ale".

      I guess it depends a lot on the artist, but on the whole I agree that pure intellectual curiosity is often enough to produce good art, probably even great art. Creation always and purely out of inner convictions and beliefs seems to me like a romantic delusion. Very few artists, I believe, are not essentially detached and aloof from the world, which makes it quite possible to deal in their art with matters they are "merely" interested in or curious about.

      To give a musical-religious example again, Brahms and Verdi were hardly devotees, but that didn't stop them from composing very fine requiems on Christian texts, the usual Latin ones in Verdi's case, fragments from the Bible in German in Brahms'.

    3. I can conjecture that Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey, and Charles Osborne are harsh towards Maugham because they are Jews, and let's face it there is a certain amount (small it may be) of anti-Semitism in some of Maugham's works. Although in Maugham's case it's merely observational, in that he has seen certain distasteful common traits in the Jews of his time first hand and provides an honest portrayal. That part of "Of Human Bondage" where he is stuck having to haggle with a "greasy Jew" over the cost of a coffin for [his brother's suicide] I believe is non-fiction; I believe that actually happened to Maugham.

    4. Now I'm definitely going to try to find the book. I'm getting interested in this trio's objections. In fact, Alexander and I were talking about anti-Semitism in Maugham a while ago. I do think that he is portraying what he sees at his time, and in his later works, not without humour and even certain tenderness. It would have been much easier to shrug him off as anti-Semitic if he hadn't applied equally his sharp observation on his Gentile characters. I guess race is a touchy subject nowadays and any "unkind" observations, even anachronic ones, get one into trouble.


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