Critics, often, are merely bad historians. And just as poor recorders of the past repeat tattered untruths about Christopher Columbus or the Industrial Revolution without bothering to investigate their warmed-over gaffes and inaccuracies, so do arbiters of literature echo the nonsensical opinions of earlier decades. I think of this whenever I pick up W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, which was published exactly one century ago. Still among the novels most read by educated people, and surely among the most powerful ever composed, it is almost never taught in schools or colleges, and it is derided by the intelligentsia. What is it about Of Human Bondage that appeals to so many—and yet is disdained so widely?
Some of the problem is that there is a great deal of accumulated error about the novel and its author. Born in 1874, Somerset Maugham had one of the longest writing careers on record. When his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897), appeared, Maugham was a rival and contemporary of Rudyard Kipling. Not quite a generation later—after Maugham had become the first playwright to have four plays running simultaneously in the West End—Of Human Bondage was recommended for American publication by an unknown editorial assistant named Sinclair Lewis. Thirty-two years after that, when Maugham’s superb short story collection Creatures of Circumstance came out in 1947, he was competing with John Cheever, and he was publishing essay collections and monographs up through the late 1950s. He died in 1965, five years after Albert Camus and four years before Jack Kerouac.
Such tenure offered him time in which to make money and enemies, and he acquired a mother lode of each. One particularly fierce band of foes was composed of the great number of Communist fellow-travelers, the set that dominated tastemaking during the interwar period. The cause of their enmity lies in a now-forgotten but prescient Maugham novel entitled Christmas Holiday (1939). Its story concerns a young Englishman on vacation in Paris who runs into an old friend, a journalist who wishes to be the secret police chief in a future Communist regime. Unabashedly bloodthirsty, this would-be Dzerzhinsky predicts that a barbaric war is coming and believes that, while he places himself behind the Soviet cause, the differences between the Nazis and Bolsheviks are largely semantic. Motivated in equal parts by resentment and desire for power, this journalist is depicted too honestly to have not gravely wounded the feelings of his confreres.
The most influential attack on Maugham was a withering 1946 piece by Edmund Wilson in the New Yorker. Yet while the article has had a vast influence, it is also a compendium of errors. Wilson had two prompts: First, Maugham had just given an address to Congress and had provided the members with an inscribed copy of Of Human Bondage. And second, he had permitted the publication of a revised version of an early novel, Then and Now, which he had written in his mid-20s and rightly dismissed as inferior. Wilson, however, reviewed it as a new work—and something that no person of Maugham’s maturity should have written. Still devout in his Marxism, Wilson explained that, while many people had told him that he ought to take Maugham “seriously,” he could not, citing Maugham’s (obviously correct) observation that no one read Marcel Proust any longer for his incorporation of Henri Bergson’s philosophy but rather for his characters and social portraiture. Wilson wrote off Maugham as unworthy of serious status in literature, and yet, in his diaries, he admitted what was implicit in his review: He had never actually read any of Maugham’s major novels.
Maugham had few writer-friends, and few of them stepped forward to defend him. The damage was done—and it was magnified by the animus of the modernists and aesthetes.
The plaints of the modernists are akin to those rendered against Bach in his lifetime: Maugham had written in the same period as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce; was it not an indictment that had he not adopted their avant-garde methods? More compelling is the claim that he lacked a good style. One problem with this, though, is that Maugham had a number of styles. Most of his plays are imitative of Oscar Wilde, but his short stories are usually written in the third person and are meant to be read in a single sitting. As such, they aim for maximum readability and deliberately employ some of the clichés to which their characters would have been unconsciously drawn in their thoughts and expressions. By contrast, several of his novels, written in his own voice, are sententious and elegant, dressed up in part by the suggestions of his friend Edmund Gosse.