Maugham, Somerset

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Maugham, Somerset

Somerset Maugham (William Somerset Maugham) (môm), 1874–1965, English writer, b. Paris. He was noted as an expert storyteller and a master of the technique of fiction. An introverted child afflicted with a stammer, Maugham was orphaned at 10 and sent to live with his uncle, a vicar. Although he later studied medicine and completed his internship, he never practiced, having decided at an early age to devote himself to literature. He lived in grand style, spending much of his life on the French Riviera and traveling widely, particularly to East Asia and the South Pacific. Maugham wrote with wit, irony, and scrupulous observation, frequently expressing an aloofly cynical attitude toward life. Famous as a dramatist before he became known for his novels and short stories, he achieved his first success with the sardonically humorous play Lady Frederick (1907). This was followed by a series of commercial successes, the best of which are The Circle (1921), Our Betters (1923), and The Constant Wife (1927).

Maugham had written eight novels before his breakthrough masterpiece, the partly autobiographical Of Human Bondage (1915), appeared. It is the story of the painful growth to self-realization of a lonely, sensitive young physician with a clubfoot. Maugham's experiences as a World War I spy in Russia are reflected in Ashenden: Or, the British Agent (1928), a work that strongly influenced such later writers as Graham Greene, Ian F leming, and John le Carré. Maugham's other famous novels include The Moon and Sixpence (1919), based on the life of the French painter Paul Gauguin; Cakes and Ale (1930), satirizing Thomas Hardy and Hugh Walpole; and The Razor's Edge (1944), dealing with a young American's search for spiritual fulfillment. Frequently his writings, notably the short stories "Rain" and "The Letter," use as background the exotic places he had visited. In his later work Maugham limited himself primarily to essays; The Art of Fiction: An Introduction to Ten Novels and Their Authors (1955) is representative. He was one of the most successful writers in the world during much of his lifetime, but by the early years of the 21st cent. his works had largely faded into obscurity.

See The Skeptical Romancer: Selected Travel Writing (2009, ed. by P. Iyer); his autobiography, The Summing Up (1938); biographies by T. Morgan (1980), A. Loss (1988), R. Calder (1989), J. Meyers (2004), and S. Hastings (2010).

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