The Right Coast

April 19, 2004
Hitch's Claws Out For Somerset Maugham
By Maimon Schwarzschild

Also in the Atlantic, a feline piece (claws out) by Chritopher Hitchens on W. Somerset Maugham. Hitchens is merciless, but truthful enough, about Maugham's personal life. As for Maugham's writing, Hitchens essentially gives it a sneer. And it is true that a lot of what Maugham wrote -- and Maugham wrote a lot -- can fairly be called middlebrow.

I have a soft spot for Maugham though, especially his short stories. If not a great writer, Maugham was surely a good bad (or not-great) writer. Playing the philistine, he always boasted that his stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end: and so they have. In fact, Maugham is fun to read, even today.

Easy to play the philistine, Hitchens might say, if you really are one. But as a writer, I think Maugham wears better than a lot of more "serious" twentieth century modernists. Compare him to John Dos Passos, say: pretty much unreadable today; and pretty much unread. (In print though, I'm glad to report.) You can read Maugham's stories, on the other hand, and re-read them, with great pleasure. There is "The Alien Corn". And "The Vessel Of Wrath". And even "The Verger". Cheap sweets? Better than that, I think. Anyway, the calories won't hurt you.