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Maugham: A Reappraisal by John Whitehead

Maugham: A Reappraisal (original 1987; edition 1987)

by John Whitehead

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Title:Maugham: A Reappraisal
Authors:John Whitehead
Info:Barnes & Noble, 1987. 8vo. 224 pp. First published, 1987.
Collections:About Maugham (inactive), Your library
Tags:About Maugham, Literary Criticism

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Maugham: A Reappraisal by John Whitehead (1987)

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John Whitehead

Maugham: A Reappraisal

Barnes & Noble, 1987.

8vo. 224 pp.

First published, 1987.


Chronological check-list of the works of W. Somerset Maugham

1. Late Victorian
2. Edwardian
3. Between the Wars: Far East
4. Between the Wars: Plays
5. Between the Wars: Europe
6. World War II and After
7. Prospect

Appendix 1: Chronology of Cakes and Ale
Appendix 2: Chronology of The Razor's Edge
Appendix 3: Maugham's Ten Greatest Novels in the World
Select Bibliography of Works Concerning W. Somerset Maugham


John Whitehead is a well-known name to every serious admirer of William Somerset Maugham. He was the man who compiled, edited and prefaced the priceless collection of uncollected writings A Traveller in Romance. First published in 1984, it contains 65 pieces which span 63 years of Maugham's life and had never before been published in book form: curtain-raisers, articles, reviews, even few short stories. Considering that until 1984 these pieces were all but unobtainable for the general reader, and despite many repetitions with Maugham's other writings, A Traveller in Romance is a must for every Maugham buff. The introduction suggests a sensitive and sensible man certainly not lacking appreciation for Somerset Maugham. That's why this ''reappraisal'' cannot but look like a promising read.

Apart from somewhat perfunctory and dull listing of the main events in Maugham's life, Mr Whitehead's introduction is an excellent piece with several very shrewd points. The chief one of these is perhaps his observation that now (in 1987) it is ''critically respectable to treat Maugham as a serious writer'', a status quo that might or might not have changed in the last two decades, but which was surely very different during Maugham's lifetime. Having mentioned the two main critical studies dedicated to Maugham's complete works – Robert Calder's W. Somerset Maugham and the Quest for Freedom (1972) and Anthony Curtis' The Pattern of Maugham (1974) – John Whitehead tells us without any beating about the bush what the purpose of his own study is:

The purpose of this study is to carry the work of appraisal one stage further by subjecting his total output, both dramatic and non-dramatic, to a closer scrutiny than has been attempted before. From such a survey it may emerge that certain assumptions which have arisen concerning the nature of Maugham's talent, and certain judgements that have been pronounced on individual books and plays, are in need of modification. It will perhaps also be found that the enormous body of Maugham's work falls into a different pattern than has previously been supposed.

Fair enough. And pretty tantalising, too. Obviously here is a man concerned with evaluation of Maugham's works, not with bashing his private life and personality. Moreover, he aims at comprehensiveness and gives very sound reasons why yet another critical study of Maugham's oeuvre should exist. On the whole, John Whitehead has done a good job, at least in comparison with the incurably obsessed with Maugham's defects Robert Calder (who at least tries to be thorough), the dull and vapid Stanley Archer (who discusses only the short stories), or the pretentious and contemptuous Archie Loss (who is equally flippant and superficial). Mr Whitehead's critical study, however, is just a little above than that of Richard Cordell – which is mediocre – and falls rather short of Anthony Curtis' splendid work.

The first thing about Mr Whitehead's reappraisal of Maugham that he must be given credit for is his exemplary and highly commendable restraint when he discuses Maugham's notorious homosexuality, a part of his personality over which a good many biographical perverts have had quite a feast. Mr Whitehead always keeps the historical background and what is known about Maugham's character to the minimum, concentrating almost entirely on the literary works themselves. I think this is the first time when I read a hypothesis about Philip Carey's clubfoot being a representation of Maugham's homosexuality which is, if not convincing, at least plausible, elegantly presented and worth considering. Mr Whitehead's argument, in short, is based on Philip's feeling that El Greco had some secret to reveal to him. The critic then links this with the famous part from Don Fernando (1935) where Maugham reaches the conclusion that El Greco was a homosexual in one of his most explicit passages on the topic. The parallel is fresh and provocative.

Mr Whitehead also points out another link which is rather more tenuous but not altogether without interest. In the short story ''Lord Mountdrago'', first published in book form in the collection The Mixture as Before (1940), Dr Audlin is said to have ''eradicated abnormal instincts and thus delivered not a few from a hateful bondage''. Quite unlike his colleagues, Mr Whitehead doesn't waste his (and the reader's) time with nonsense like Mildred's androgynous figure or with her being presumably based on a man in the real life.

There are other interesting bits and stimulating reflections here and there throughout the volume. For example, Mr Whitehead's analysis of The Moon and Sixpence is perceptively concentrated on the weakest spot in the novel: the lack of credibility of the character of Charles Strickland (who, for once, is a fictional character having very little to do with Paul Gauguin). Even about rather mundane matters, Mr Whitehead can offer a valuable observation, like his recommendation Maugham's short stories to be read, not in the collected editions, but in the original volumes where they have unity which is otherwise lost. This may seem all too obvious a point but it is surprisingly often overlooked. Speaking of short stories, Mr Whitehead points out all five which Maugham included in his travel book The Gentleman in the Parlour (1930) so adroitly that the reader might be deceived that they really did happen during the travel; an excellent proof that Mr Whitehead has done his homework pretty well and has solid knowledge of his subject. Occasionally, he also demonstrates brilliant sense of humour, as when he discusses the short story collection The Trembling of a Leaf:

The irony of its sub-title 'Little Stories of the South Seas Islands', which suggests a series of improving tales issued by some missionary society, is only fully borne in on the reader when he has finished the last story.

Maugham's short stories, though, are the part of his oeuvre where Mr Whitehead's treatment is most unsatisfactory. He gives good overview of the volumes and how Maugham's several long journeys in the Far East inspired the stories in them, he remarks that they are chiefly concerned with extremes of human behaviour and even makes a most penetrating observation that the very readability of Maugham's stories is an inherent risk that may lead one to be content with the picture on the surface and thus fail to perceive their deeper meaning.

But when he comes to the short stories themselves, Mr Whitehead simply lapses into the usual, tedious and pointless plot retelling making no attempt at all for a more serious study. One exception is the short story ''Mackintosh'' where he does offer some of his ''wider points of reference and deeper resonances'', but all he has to say is the rather unremarkable statement that the main theme in the story parallels the betrayal of Christ by Judas Iscariot. Then Mr Whitehead goes on to describe the next story in this collection – ''The Fall of Edward Barnard'' – as ''pure comedy''. Which is very wide of the mark indeed: the story certainly has several most amusing episodes, but on the whole it is very serious and concerned with the profound question about the elusiveness of happiness due to its complicated relationship with civilisation – and this is no comedy.

At other places concerned with the short stories, Mr Whitehead can also be very perfunctory, taking eight pieces in a little more than one page in a most blatantly flippant manner. His only comment about ''The Buried Talent'' is that it is included here only because its three-part structure: central European episode is ''sandwiched'' between two Malayan. A very fine short story, ''The Buried Talent'' is unique in Maugham's oeuvre for it is the only mature piece in the genre that was never reprinted in book form during Maugham's life. Why this should have been so remains a mystery to the present day. As a matter of fact, the story first appeared in book form exactly in A Traveller in Romance, but Mr Whitehead doesn't think it worth his while to explore its history and content more deeply. Strange that, because the most often quoted volume among Mr Whitehead's sources is precisely A Traveller in Romance. I am almost inclined to discern the despicable motive of writing this reappraisal only in order to promote the volume edited by himself, but that's probably unfair.

To my mind, Mr Whitehead fails to realise the real significance and to appreciate the strengths of Maugham's works, which is indeed surprising since the critic is well aware of the fact the great writer's personality permeates virtually everything he ever wrote. Mr Whitehead however, rather unfortunately I should think, is more often much more concerned with insignificant details rather than with the writer's personality.

For instance, he makes detailed extrapolations – whole appendices are dedicated to them – how some novels are related to the author's life. He seems to be preoccupied with trivial stuff like continuity of the narrative or the exact years of the action; he never misses to tell us how many chapters certain book has – as if all these matters mattered at all. Reading his ''analyses'' of Cakes and Ale and The Razor's Edge is an excruciating affair as dull and dry as anything. At the same time, Mr Whitehead dismisses the ''Paris chapters'' in Of Human Bondage with contumely, states that the novel should have been better had it been shortened, and in the end concludes that, for all its length, it is not Maugham's masterpiece. As if length were of any importance! What Mr Whitehead fails to realise is that Of Human Bondage is one of Maugham's masterpieces and, moreover, that it could not have been written in any other length. Personally, I wouldn't have it even one chapter shorter.

Apart from the early works, where somewhat harsh criticism is fully justified, Mr Whitehead also gets a trifle too high-handed about many fine works, like The Painted Veil or The Razor's Edge for instance. In the former he laments that Kitty is not convincing as a religious convert, and in the latter he moans that Larry is not convincing as a spiritual convert. Never, as it seems, has Mr Whitehead considered that religion may not be the whole, or even the most important part, of Kitty's transformation, or that the importance of Larry's quest for spiritual freedom lies in the quest itself, not in the final result. Mr Whitehead often uses words like ''unreality'' or ''falsity'' referring to Maugham's plots and he is keen on being scornful about Maugham's ''priggish'' characters, but I cannot help observing that sometimes Mr Whitehead is quite a prig himself who is apt to seek too hard for reality in what are after all works of fiction.

As a matter of fact, not only is Mr Whitehead a prig, but he is also a prude and, most significantly, a moralist. He is often dismayed at Maugham's immorality using adjectives like ''sour'', ''astringent'' and even ''rancid'' – all of them are often singularly apt for describing Mr Whitehead's style as well. He may be largely free of the usual homosexual nonsense, but he has his own obsession: religion and spirituality. Naturally, he is often dismayed by Maugham's agnosticism, but when he remarks how great a drawback his lack of firm religious belief was, he only echoes Graham Greene's superficial and senseless observation.

Mr Whitehead's almost virulent statement that Maugham's ''prosaic mind'' always prevented him from firmly believing in one philosophy is very wide of the mark and demonstrates yet again that he is fundamentally ill-equipped to understand the great writer. Maugham certainly never found solace in any religious or philosophical teaching, but the reason was precisely the fact that his mind was not prosaic enough to be subjected to the conventions, constraints and simplifications of a doctrine. I wonder if examination of Mr Whitehead's background would not show a strong religious streak, no doubt beneficial to himself, but one might argue that it colours his perception to Maugham in a distinctly negative way. Could all that self-righteous indignation be the price for the absence of the homosexual obscenity? Perhaps. At any rate, I am willing to believe that, for all its limitations, Mr Whitehead's ''straight'' critical study is far superior to the ''queer'' ones.

Finally, his attitude to Maugham's notorious memoirs Looking Back is the usual scathing one. Mr Whitehead at least has the guts to say that the best that can be said about such ''egregious piece of vindictiveness and bad taste'' is that there is no reason to suppose that what Maugham said of his wife was untrue. This is quite a lot to my mind, but Maugham's critics and biographers apparently don't think so. It is also telling that Mr Whitehead discusses Looking Back in just a few lines in his introduction and several years earlier didn't include it in A Traveller in Romance, though it did fit his criteria for inclusion very nicely. I guess dealing with these memoirs was much too unacceptable for Mr Whitehead's extremely high moral standards.

Probably the worst of Mr Whitehead's critical study are the parts dedicated to the plays. They consist almost entirely of synopses, often told in several pages and in excruciating detail. For the plays one is familiar with, such stuff is totally unreadable; for those one is yet to become familiar with, it is most undesirable. His treatment of Maugham's essays is in the manner of a bookseller's catalogue, somewhat useful for giving an idea at least about the scope of these works, with occasional illuminating touches too, but also with a good deal of ill-justified negativity. His discussing in detail some of Maugham's articles included in A Traveller in Romance while barely mentioning several important essays suspiciously smacks of self-serving attitude.

But when Mr Whitehead comes to evaluate Maugham's stature as a writer – in the last chapter titled ''Prospect'' – he is uncharacteristically generous, if not a bit ruthless as well. What is immediately apparent is Mr Whitehead's impressive knowledge of literature and his honest desire to put Maugham in the right historical context of his fellow writers. Of course Maugham was not ''innovative in technique like Joyce, nor had he the verbal artistry of James'', and the poetic effects of Hardy were ''quite beyond his scope''; in short, Maugham is second rate, as always described. Mr Whitehead at least has the courage to put him – at his best – in one company with Meredith, Moore, Gissing, Wells, Bennett, Galsworthy, Ford, Forster and Woolf.

From the short stories the critic mercilessly discards all early ones, naturally, as well as all ''Cosmopolitans'' and all late ones, quite inexplicably. He is convinced that whatever Maugham's merit as a short story writer, it will rest on his five mature volumes published between 1921 and 1933, in other words all stories set in the South Seas and the Far East, a sextet with European settings and Ashenden's spy adventures. From Maugham's early novels Mr Whitehead chooses, rather conventionally, Liza of Lambeth (1897) and Mrs Craddock (1902), but he then goes on to add, rather surprisingly, The Bishop's Apron (1906), Maugham's most obscure and forgotten novel which ''deserves to be brought back in print after nearly eighty years of oblivion''. Despite their many flaws, Mr Whitehead is positive that Of Human Bondage (1915), The Moon and Sixpence (1919) and The Razor's Edge (1944) will be appreciated by the posterity. Cakes and Ale (1930) is Maugham's masterpiece, and almost the only place in the whole book where Mr Whitehead unbends himself and waxes lyrical, a very refreshing spectacle indeed. Though certainly at a lower level, The Painted Veil (1925) or Theatre (1937) will continue to ''give pleasure''. The greatest surprise here comes from the inclusion of Maugham's penultimate historical novel Then and Now (1946), usually dismissed with contumely by all critics, but Mr Whitehead is convinced that it ''is the most seriously under-estimated of all Maugham's work.'' Again to his credit, the critic has the audacity to claim that the notorious attack of Edmund Wilson on this novel, and Maugham's works as a whole, was motivated by personal animosity – pretty obvious fact, but rarely recognised by other writers about Maugham.

As far as plays are concerned, Mr Whitehead thinks well enough of his subject to put him in the illustrious company of Shaw, Barrie and Coward. Dismissing all so called serious plays of Maugham, the critic speculates that his status as a dramatist will rest on the five ''mordant'' (another favourite adjective of the author) comedies: Smith (1909), The Land of Promise (1913), Our Betters (1915), The Circle (1919) and The Constant Wife (1926). Mr Whitehead's choice regarding Maugham's essays destined for eternity is perhaps the most questionable one. Apart from The Summing Up (1938) and Don Fernando (1935), he picks up very few of the later essays, among them ''Augustus'' and ''Some Novelists I Have Known'' from the collection The Vagrant Mood (1952). But Mr Whitehead's estimation of Maugham's most personal book more than compensates for his inordinate selectivity:

The Summing Up, as literary autobiography – that is, one concerned with the profession of letters rather than with the minutiae of the author's life – is unsurpassed in this century and should be required reading for anyone, whether writer or reader, with a serious interest in modern literature.

This is just the second instance – after Cakes and Ale – where Mr Whitehead allows himself an expression of unqualified admiration. Much as I disagree with some of his judgements, or resent his tone from time to time, I cannot but admit that, on the whole, his reappraisal of Somerset Maugham is sensible, well balanced, and almost devoid of malice. For all its flaws – priggishness, prudishness, self-righteousness and a certain degree of religious obsession – Mr Whitehead's book is free of the usual homosexual trash that mars severely many a critical study of Maugham. Together with his vast knowledge of literature and his thorough grasp of the subject, the author's very low level of malevolence and his total lack of obscenity are what chiefly makes his study superior to all others I have read so far save The Pattern of Maugham by Anthony Curtis.

Indeed, Mr Whitehead's claim in the beginning that Maugham's works might fall into a different pattern than previously recognised is not fulfilled, or if it is I am certainly not aware of the new pattern. As far the “reappraisal” is concerned, apart from his surprising praise for The Bishop’s Apron and Then and Now, Mr Whitehead’s judgements are thoroughly conventional. Caveats one should take into account include tedious retelling of plots and synopses which the reader, whether familiar with the work or not, is well advised to skip. On the more mundane side, it is worth noting that the study is quite comprehensive and includes something about almost every important piece of writing ever produced by Maugham. The writing style is very well structured, succinct and readable, if too dry and formal sometimes. Overall, a decent critical study worth reading – neither is often the case with literature about Maugham. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Jul 31, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0389207616, Hardcover)

The purpose of this comprehensive study is to subject W. Somerset Maugham's total output to a closer scrutiny than has been attempted before. From John Whitehead's survey it emerges that certain assumptions that have arisen concerning Maugham's talent, and certain judgements which have been pronounced on individual books and plays, are in need of modification. Available for the first time in the U.S.
Contents: Chronological check-list of the works of W. Somerset Maugham; Abbreviations; Introduction; 1. Late Victorian; 2. Edwardian; 3. Between the Wars: Far East; 4. Between the Wars: Plays; 5. Between the Wars: Europe; 6. World War II and After; 7. Prospect; Appendix 1: Edwardian Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham; Appendix 2: Structure of^R Of Human Bondage; Appendix 3: Chronology of Cakes and Ale; Appendix 4: Chronology of The Razor's Edge; Appendix 5: Maugham's Ten Greatest Novels in the World; Appendix 6: Dates of First Commercial English Production of Plays by Shaw, Barrie, Maugham, and Coward; Select Bibliography of Works Concerning W. Somerset Maugham; Index

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:00:52 -0400)

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