W. Somerset Maugham's Library at Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin

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a collage of Somerset Maugham photo and drawing of Harry Ransom Center
Maugham's Library at Harry Ransom Center

Finally I find the time to have a closer look at a collection that has been fascinating me: Harry Ransom Center's collection of W. Somerset Maugham's books, specifically Maugham's personal library.

First, a little background. Harry Ransom Center (HRC) is one of the research centres at the University of Texas at Austin (UT). It is most famous for its collections of twentieth- and twenty-first-century British and American literature, containing "42 million manuscripts, nearly one million rare books, 5 million photographs, and 100,000 works of art, in addition to major holdings in the performing arts and film."1 Authors' libraries form one of HRC's most distinguished collections.2




Harry Huntt Ransom (1908-1976), an English Professor at UT, was the one who began building the library collections. He understood that as a relatively new university, it was hard for UT to compete with other older special collections. Thus, he put the focus on contemporary writers instead, which presented the advantages of availability and more economical prices, comparing to, for example, medieval manuscripts.3 Throughout the years, HRC has amassed very significant collections and consolidated the vision behind them with the objectives to:

  • provide "unprecedented access to the creative process," which HRC helps to share and celebrate,
  • "understand the historical moment out of which this work emerged,"
  • fulfil its cultural stewardship to collect and preserve this record,
  • "hold these collections in trust for future generations,"
  • encourage scholarship through exhibitions, readings, lectures and other public programs,
  • support UT to "fulfill its commitments as one of the leading teaching and research universities."4

Collection Development Policy

HRC's main collection development policy gives an idea of its direction and sheds light on some changes over the years. It aims at enriching the existing holdings and to "foster connections among the Center's existing collections".5 Its policy towards books is to selectively acquire significant editions, such as limited editions or inscribed copies, by authors already in their collections. One policy that has changed over time due to the mature state of the library collections is on obtaining personal libraries, which HRC no longer does usually.6 When HRC first identified the direction of its modern literature collections, its purchase was dominated by the acquisition of private collections, as "[g]reat libraries cannot be built book-by-book"; this policy helped HRC to "achieve significant gains in the short time available,"7 but then naturally in the course of time, redundancy and duplicates are unavoidable.

W. Somerset Maugham Collection

HRC has very substantial holdings on Maugham, from manuscripts and letters to inscribed books to him and by him, to items from his own library. In this post, I will focus on Maugham's own library that is housed in HRC. Authors' libraries "often provide additional and sometimes unexpected insights into these figures' lives and creative processes," and can offer a glimpse into an "entire intellectual life," a clue to particular "method of writing" and "unexpected insights into patterns of reading," the "furnishings of a mind," and most importantly, "[t]he examination of a single volume annotated by a writer may offer considerable insights, but the study of an entire library, or even a significant portion of it, may open a much wider window."8

These are all excellent arguments, and I will add one more. These books are objects in themselves, denoting a certain period of time, and each one of them has its own story. The story becomes particularly interesting when they once belong to someone who is meaningful to you. The sentimental aspect cannot be overstated.

To the collector, this is a different type of collection altogether. As you can see on my blog, my main acquisition is on Maugham's writings, what he produced. I would say collecting an author's library is much more challenging, and at times very difficult to establish. For an author like Maugham, we would have to resign ourselves to browsing catalogues and consulting the books in special collections.

Establishing the Collection

Maugham was acutely aware of the value of his manuscripts and inscribed books to others. As early as in 1934 he had the intention to sell his manuscripts in order to gather the funds to establish an award for young writers.9 As a result, his manuscripts are usually neatly bound and many are dedicated. In subsequent years, the writer donated these and other books to different libraries, most significantly to King's School in Canterbury, where he spent his childhood years, albeit most unhappily.

Maugham's Grave in King's School

Maugham deposited there the majority of his library, eighteen hundred volumes, and had his ashes interred on the school's premise. When Barbara Back, one of Maugham's most intimate friends, found herself in reduced financial circumstance after her husband's death, Maugham advised her to sell the books he had inscribed to her,10 and he kept track of the market value of his signed books.11

UT libraries are one of the libraries that hold substantial materials related to Maugham, alongside the British Library, the National Theatre Archive, the Lilly Library at the Indiana University Bloomington, the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, and, as mentioned, the King's School library.

An initial search at UT libraries catalogue confirms the vastness of its holdings. There are over 2,000 entries of works by and about Maugham, and when applying the filter to only holdings in HRC, 1,700 entries are returned. As a result, further filter is necessary to make it possible to even discuss the subject. UT libraries catalogue allows another restriction, limiting the hits to "special collection."

A note about this search. It was carried out in May 2017. I notice that now the number of hits differs a little, but I will not update it for this discussion, due to the volatile nature of such search. What follows is what I found last year.

Maugham appears in two categories, as "former owner" and "inscriber," totaling 109 entries. A quick look at the two results of the latter confirms the usual understanding of "inscriber": these are two titles written and signed by Maugham to others. However, the "former owner" category is less straightforward.

Maugham, W. Somerset (William Somerset) 1874-1965, former owner

As mentioned, the majority of Maugham's own library now resides in King's School, Canterbury. HRC's 107 entries would offer a promising supplement to the King's School collection. I expected to find books covering a variety of subjects, as Maugham had a catholic taste in his reading materials. As a writer's working library, the books would likely be related to subjects that he was interested in and those that he had written about. The King's School collection is divided into nineteen subject areas: poetry, drama, prose, English novel, French literature, Italian, Spanish, German, the Christian Church, philosophy and logic, psychology, anthropology and comparative religion, history of civilization, travel, biography and autobiography, science, law, miscellaneous, dictionaries and encyclopaedias.12

Upon closer inspection of the 107 entries listed, however, HRC's cataloguing criteria appear to be arbitrary. The label of Maugham as "former owner" includes, besides books that he actually owned, copies that he inscribed to others and books that he authored.

From the Library of W. Somerset Maugham

Having got more familiar with the holdings and the ways they are catalogued, I had to resort to a different search, with the keywords "library of W. Somerset Maugham," which is how the collection of Maugham's own library is catalogued, using no filters to get maximum results.

There are 174 hits. As the purpose is to establish the collection of Maugham's own library in HRC, I eliminate all entries of books written by him (most of them inscribed to others), which in the strictest sense, do not belong to an author's personal library, as we are looking at what the author read, not what the author wrote. The result is 129 items. However, this list turns out be incomplete, as some of the books with Maugham listed as "former owner" aren't marked as "from the library of W. Somerset Maugham." A further step is required to compare these 129 items with the previous search with Maugham as "former owner." Fourteen more books are added as a result, with a total of 143 books.

Maugham's Personal Library

The 143 items identified are substantial supplements to King's School Library's collection. Among these, 110 books are in English, 14 in French, 16 in German, 1 in Italian, and 2 in Spanish, which are languages that Maugham spoke. The subject areas span from major European and American literatures to religions, card games, history, art, science, philosophy, travel, autobiographical and biographical writings, and architecture. As a small microcosm in itself, it reflects the multidisciplinary, multilingual, and multicultural characteristic of the King's School collection. Thirty of the books are inscribed by their authors to Maugham, among which are H. G. Wells, Osbert Sitwell, Edith Sitwell, John Masefield, Hugh Walpole, Jean Cocteau, etc. The oldest books are the Spanish copies, in the sixteenth century and eighteenth century, the provenance of the first of which occupies the first chapter in Maugham's Don Fernando.

Another book of special interest is The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, which includes 4 letters from Chandler to Maugham, integrated in HRC's manuscripts' collections. This item and the oldest Spanish book on Ignacio de Loyola reveal that HRC obtained Maugham's library through Sotheby's auction in 1967, when the content of Maugham's estate, the Villa Mauresque, was sold.13 Judging by UT libraries catalogue records, the 129 items listed as "from the library of W. Somerset Maugham" may have come from this auction. The rest of the 14 books, 9 of them may have been acquired individually, and the other 5 belong to 3 prominent collections of Maugham's books that HRC has acquired: Jerome R. Zipkin Collection of W. Somerset Maugham, Jonas Somerset Maugham Collection, and Ellery Queen Collection.

Another item of special historical interest is Der Preis der Herrlichket by Henriette von Schirach, inscribed by the author to Maugham. Henriette von Schirach and her family were within Hitler's circle, and she was bold enough to speak to Hitler about the rough treatment of Jewish women that she witnessed.14

Discoverability Evaluation

The inconsistency in cataloguing has created problems for locating HRC's extensive holdings of Maugham's library. The only alternatives are either users search for specific titles, which will return manageable hits for browsing each entry, or users will have to plough through over 1,700 to comprehend the richness of HRC's collection of Maugham's works. Moreover, the filters that UT libraries catalogue provides are insufficient. There is no option to search by collections or editions. Among the 1,700 entries are rare and limited editions, but they can't be easily located, and only some of them are identified as such.

Some of the catalogue entries contain great details to describe the state and content of the item. However, an update of the consistency of the categories would certainly benefit scholars and help promote HRC's Maugham collection, for example, introducing more reliable filters of the role of Maugham, as author, former owner, inscriber, etc. The ability to search by collections would help suggest fresh angles to analyse the interrelation among writers and collectors; insufficient metadata makes collections hidden and thus unused.

In the next post (as this is getting so long already), I will list the 143 items from Maugham's personal library in HRC. And subsequently I will discuss a recent acquisition that I got while examining HRC's holdings, a most interesting item, unlike any other I have got so far.

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Notes

1 Harry Ransom Center. (n.d.). History. Retrieved from http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/about/us/history/

2 Harry Ransom Center. (n.d.). Authors' libraries. Retrieved from http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/collections/books/holdings/libraries/

3 Roberts, W. (1971/1972). Modern literary materials at the University of Texas: Their scope and usefulness. Journal of Modern Literature, 2(3), 329-341, 331.

4 Harry Ransom Center. (n.d.). Encouraging discovery: An introduction to the Harry Ransom Center. Retrieved from http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/multimedia/video/2014/discovery/. Harry Ransom Center. (n.d.). Director's note. Retrieved from http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/about/director/

5 Harry Ransom Center. (n.d.). Collection development policy. Retrieved from http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/collections/pdf/Collection_Dev_Policy.pdf

6 Ibid.

7 Roberts, p. 332.

8 Oram, R. (2014). Writers' libraries: Historical overview and curatorial considerations. In R. Oram & J. Nicholson (Eds.), Collecting, curating, and researching writers' libraries: A handbook (pp. 1-28). New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 2-3.

9 Jonas, K. (1958). W. Somerset Maugham collections in America. Jahrbuch für Amerikastudien, 3, 205-13, 208.

10 Morgan, T. (1980). Somerset Maugham. London, UK: Jonathan Cape, p. 543.

11 Hasting, S. (2010). The secret lives of Somerset Maugham. London, UK: John Murray, p. 371.

12 The King's School. (n. d.). Books Given by W. Somerset Maugham. Canterbury, UK: The King's School.

13 Simpson, C. (1967, November 19). Maugham for sale. The Sunday Times, pp. 28-29.

14 Kaplan, B. A. (2007). Masking Nazi violence in the beautiful landscape of the Obersalzberg. Comparative Literature, 59(3), 241-268, 246.

Comments

  1. Glad to see you posting again. Looking forward to the list!

    I do wonder how accessible the collection is, whether it's only available to alumni and students, or there's some public access.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks amatullah76. It's open to public, which is great. Can't imagine what it would be like if I were living near there!

    ReplyDelete

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