Of Human Bondage | Critical Essay by Robert Spence

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Of Human Bondage.
This section contains 3,410 words
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Critical Essay by Robert Spence

SOURCE: "Maugham's Of Human Bondage," in The Library Chronicle, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Spring/Summer, 1951, pp. 104-14.

In the following essay, Spence traces the novel's rise in popularity and notes the critics whom he believes played a fundamental role in the novel's emergence as a classic.

W. Somerset Maugham has been one of the most prolific writers of our time. However, of the more than fifty books which he has published—novels and volumes of plays, short stories, essays, and travel sketches—only Of Human Bondage has won the full admiration of serious, reputable critics. Although they tend to disregard Maugham's other work, they have been generally consistent in their praise of this autobiographical novel, comparing it with David Copperfield and Tom Jones. Of Human Bondage has been, in addition, enormously popular with the general reading public. It is, in the opinion of Theodore Spencer [in "Somerset Maugham," College English (October 1940)], "probably the most universally read and admired of modern English novels."

In view of the wide acclaim which has been accorded Maugham's masterpiece, it is of interest to notice that the book was not at first a success, either with the critics or the public. Indeed, success came tardily to Of Human Bondage, though it was not ephemeral. In this paper I shall endeavor to trace briefly the history of the reception of the novel, and to suggest what seem to have been some fundamental factors underlying its rise from temporary oblivion to a position in the first rank of modern English novels.

Maugham tells us [in "Of Human Bondage, with a Digression on the Art of Fiction," 1946] that the book

… was published in England [and America] in 1915 and was well enough reviewed. But we were engaged in a war and people had more important things to occupy themselves with than the characters of a work of fiction. There had been besides a spate of semi-biographical novels and the public was a trifle tired of them. My book was not a failure, nor was it a success.

Evidence corroborates the suggestion that the book was not an immediate success. British reviewers in The Tatler, The Westminster Gazette, The Nation, and Punch all considered it perfunctorily, while others were generally critical. The Saturday Review (September 4, 1915) objected to the evident relish of the author in depicting the sordid aspects of life. The Athenaeum (August 21, 1915) commented:

The values accorded by the hero to love, realism, and religion are so distorted as to have no interest beyond that which belongs to an essentially morbid personality. In such a long novel reiteration is peculiarly tiresome and apt to reduce the gratitude which should be felt for the detailed portraiture and varied aspects of life the author presents to us.

The Times Literary Supplement (August 12, 1915) commended the skill with which the portrait of Mildred Rogers is drawn, but objected to the emphasis placed on her distasteful relationship with Philip Carey:

It is not only that we resent being forced to spend so much time with so unpleasant a creature. We resent the twist that is given to the figure of life.

The comments in The Bookman (September, 1915) were less tempered:

It may be gathered easily enough that Philip Carey has no sort of moral principles in his relation to women. He abandons the narrow Christianity of his youth, and adopts a meagre heathenism which brings him more happiness than he deserves. His preoccupation with sex would be more tolerable if it was more frankly sensual; but with him nature is an afterthought. As a portrait of the weak egotist, of the knock-kneed Nietzschean, Of Human Bondage may be greeted as a remarkably clever book.

In the United States the reception by critics was, with one or two exceptions, much the same. Only the appraisal by Dreiser in The New Republic (December 25, 1915) was distinguished by enthusiastic and unqualified praise. Dreiser was pleased that "Nothing is left out," and compared the life of the hero as presented by Maugham with the design in the poet Cronshaw's Persian carpet:

And so it is, Mr. Maugham, this life of Philip Carey as you have woven it. One feels as though one were sitting before a splendid Shiraz or Daghestan of priceless texture and intricate weave, admiring, feeling, responding sensually to its colors and tones. Or better yet, it is as though a symphony of great beauty by a master, Strauss or Beethoven, had just been completed and the bud notes and flower tones were filling the air with their elusive message, fluttering and dying.

Critical comment in The Boston Evening Transcript (August 11, 1915) and The New York Times (August 1, 1915), though it did not approach the fervor of Dreiser's review, was in the main favorable. The Transcript stated:

Romance and realism are mingled in Of Human Bondage exactly as they are mingled in life. It is a chronicle story well conceived, well told, and with every character in it a human being. Not all of it is "agreeable" reading, to be sure, but there is no reason why a novel should cater to the prejudices of those who demand nothing but the "agreeable" in fiction. Perhaps its greatest effect upon us is that it arouses an eager desire for further knowledge of Philip Carey's future.

And The Times commented:

The vivisection is at times a little too minute, the small incidents rather over elaborated, and there are certain episodes … which seem both repulsive and superfluous. Nevertheless, Mr. Maugham has done a big piece of work.

The majority of the American reviews, however, reveal a reaction to the novel comparable to that of the British critics, and similarly proscribe the book. The critic for The Dial (September 16, 1915) wrote:

When a novelist thus sets out to chronicle everything about his hero's life, he can hardly fail to leave us with the feeling of intimate acquaintance. But he can easily miss, as Mr. Maugham does, the broad effects and the larger issues of a human characterization. The only thing of this sort that we get from Of Human Bondage is a most depressing impression of the futility of life …

"Unhappy childhood," said The Independent (August 23, 1915),

always is a bid for sympathy, but little Philip grows up into an insufferable cad. One longs, after reading these novels where spineless men and women yield without a struggle to the forces of evil and are overwhelmed by the world, for the ringing shout of the stout apostle Paul: "I have fought a good fight … I have kept the faith!"

The New York World termed Of Human Bondage "the sentimental servitude of a poor fool." The Philadelphia Press referred to it as the life of "futile Philip," while The Outlook insisted that "the author might have made his book true without making it so frequently distasteful." And The New Orleans Times-Picayune commented: "Certainly the story cannot be said to be in any sense a wholesome one, and it would require a distinctly morbid taste for one to enjoy it thoroughly."

In view of this widespread denunciation by critics in 1915, and the novel's subsequent half-dozen years of dormancy, it is surprising to learn that in 1923 the George H. Doran Company classed it with works in continual demand, and that a commentator [Marcus Aurelius Goodrich] in The New York Times Book Review stated in 1925 that "Of Human Bondage has become a classic." There are probably several reasons for the new interest American readers showed in the novel during the twenties. Perhaps there was something in the story of Philip Carey which appealed to the psychology of what Franklin Roosevelt called "the apparently soulless decade which followed the World War." Or possibly it was, as has been claimed by Richard Cordell and Stuart P. B. Mais, the publication in 1919 of The Moon and Sixpence which drew attention to the earlier "neglected" novel. Maugham has suggested, however, what appears to be a chief factor behind the success of his masterpiece. "It failed to do well," he says [in an interview in The New York Times Book Review (21 April 1946)], "until, in the twenties, a number of your columnists picked it up and began to talk about it." [In an endnote, Spence adds: "I do not mean to intimate that the basic reason for the success of Of Human Bondage was the favorable comment of certain columnists and critics. Their function was to call attention to what previously had been considered a mediocre novel. Possibly the book's popularity with the public is due in part to Maugham's skeptical world view. Readers who experienced the feelings of despair, of frustration, and of the aridity of life subsequent to World War I perhaps found—with Philip Carey—a satisfactory solution to the problems of human existence in skepticism and iconoclasm."] He reiterated the statement when he presented the manuscript of the novel to the Library of Congress in April, 1946. Of Human Bondage was, after publication, apparently forgotten

… for two or three years, perhaps more …

Then again I had a bit of luck. For a reason I have never known it attracted the attention of writers who were then well-known columnists, Alec Woollcott, Heywood Broun, and the still living and still scintillating F. P. Adams. They talked about it among themselves and then began talking about it in their columns. It found new readers. It found more and more readers. The final result you know.

Between 1917 and 1925, roughly, a number of columnists and critics did give much attention to Maugham and to Of Human Bondage. Early stirrings of interest, given impetus by what appears to have been a "Maugham cult," led ultimately to wide enthusiasm. Adams, who stated in a recent letter to this writer that he often alluded to Of Human Bondage, praised the novel in print as early as March 10, 1917. In his column in The New York Tribune under that date appeared this comment: "Home and finished reading Mr. Maugham's Of Human Bondage, which I think is a great book, and I am grateful to W. Hill the artist for having told me of it." The appearance in 1919 of The Moon and Sixpence seems further to have elevated Maugham in the esteem of the critics. Adams praised the novel, and Heywood Broun ranked it after Of Human Bondage. During the early twenties Adams helped to keep the spotlight on Maugham. He wrote in his column of November 5, 1921: "… I read Mr. W. S. Maugham's Liza of Lambeth on the train, and as good a book ever he wrote save Of Human Bondage…. So to bed and read Maugham's The Circle, a highly interesting and diverting play." The George H. Doran Company had, in that year, printed for the first time in America Maugham's earliest novel, Liza of Lambeth, which had appeared in London in 1897. During the previous year Doran had brought out his second novel, Mrs. Craddock, published in England in 1902.

Maugham's stature as a novelist was growing steadily in America—a fact due chiefly to the increasing popularity of Of Human Bondage. In 1922 Grant Overton stated confidently in When Winter Comes to Main Street that

The day will come … when people will think of him as the man who wrote Of Human Bondage. This novel does not need praise. All it needs, like the grand work it is, is attention; and that it increasingly gets.

Adams, also, commented on May 5, 1922: "Thinking again on Intrusion, I mused that the girl [Mildred] in Of Human Bondage, which still to me is the best writing Mr. W. Somerset Maugham ever did, is as well drawn as Roberta in Intrusion." This conviction that Of Human Bondage was Maugham's best novel was echoed by Cornelius Weygrandt, who declared as early as 1925 (A Century of the English Novel) that the final judgment of Maugham would rest on the basis of that work. In 1923 Stuart P. B. Mais discussed the novel in Some Modern Authors, stressing its "realism" and the determination of the author to present all aspects of life, regardless of how unpleasant—those elements which Dreiser had lauded eight years earlier and which the devotees of the twenties generally pointed to. "Maugham," said Mais, "ought to be one of the most formative influences of the present day. There is certainly no one who could exert such a healthy restraint on the young writer who fears to face the truth."

By the middle of the decade Maugham's novel had made, and still was making, enormous headway. Goodrich wrote in 1925 [in "After Ten Years Of Human Bondage," from W. Somerset Maugham, Novelist, Essayist, Dramatist]: "In New York's clubs and drawing rooms and at exoteric dinner tables, one is a bit surprised to find so old a book talked of as if it had been written yesterday…." "Of Human Bondagein the United States is on the way to becoming an uncanonical sensation." Goodrich's statements are not particularly surprising in view of earlier comments by Mais and Dorothea Lawrence Mann. Mais had written (Some Modern Authors):

Of Human Bondage is so good a book that it is impossible (for a long time after reading it) to fall down and worship the young Americans of the Sinclair Lewis type or the intellectual young Englishwoman of the Dorothy Richardson-Romer Wilson type. Of Human Bondage is good because it is sincere autobiography—one of the few absolutely sincere documents I have ever read. I would give it, if I could afford copies, to every imaginative boy on leaving school.

Mrs. Mann, in a commentary in The Boston Evening Transcript (reprinted in Doran's 1925 tribute to Maugham under the title "Somerset Maugham in his Mantle of Mystery"), had stated enthusiastically:

I should like to see the time come when the well-read person would be as unwilling to admit not having read Of Human Bondage as he would be to admit that he had not seen the plays of Shakespeare.

Some indication as to the hold which Maugham's novel took on the reading public is suggested by an essay published by Carl Van Doren in Century for May, 1925 entitled "Tom Jones and Philip Carey; Heroes of Two Centuries." That such a comparison could be made is indeed revealing when one considers that—with the exception of the small re-issue of 1919—the book was not reprinted until two years earlier.

The new-found popularity of Of Human Bondage was not evanescent. As Maugham has said, since the critics began talking about and writing about his novel, "nothing has stopped it." Notice of it reached even the sports pages. Gene Tunney revealed, according to Maugham, that it was the only book he read while training for the famous fight with Jack Dempsey in Philadelphia in 1926. By 1930 Dorothy Brewster and Angus Burrell were expressing the opinion (Adventure or Experience) that "there are probably few characters in modern English fiction with whom readers more readily identify themselves than with Philip Carey."

It should be pointed out that there were, of course, critics both in England and America who remained unconvinced that Of Human Bondage was a "classic," and who did not share in the enthusiasm of the Maugham cult. Desmond MacCarthy, writing in The New Statesman, August 14, 1920, said of the novel:

It is not a cheerful book; the attitude of the author towards human nature is mistrustful, and oddly enough there seems to be little curiosity about human beings in that attitude; the one passion which in the absence of warmer feelings helps a writer most to carry to the finish such a long detailed piece of work.

Weygandt, although holding that Of Human Bondage surpasses Maugham's other work, considered it at best a second-rate novel. "Maugham," he said, "is a keen student of humanity but hardly an artist at all." Brewster and Burrell adjudged the novel a good one, but noted that its ultimate effect is not gained without straining. And Theodore Spencer, in one of the more recent, dispassionate evaluations of the book, declared in 1940 that the success of the novel is definitely limited. "Of Human Bondage is not one of those novels which press us urgently into new areas of awareness; it merely fills out … those areas of awareness which we already possess."

Suggestions that Of Human Bondage has been overrated appear (if anything may be inferred from the publication record) to have had little effect on the reading public once the columnists and critics had stimulated interest in the book. Goodrich, discussing at a ten-year distance the reception of the novel, reported that not until 1923—when the George H. Doran Company authorized a new edition—was there a serious demand for it. During the next two years it was reprinted three times, and by 1925, said Goodrich, libraries and second-hand book stores were reporting increasing demands for it. The popularity of the novel appears to have mounted rapidly. In 1927 Doran issued a new edition, and in 1928 the book reached the cheap reprint stage. Odyssey Press brought out the first of these editions. Grosset and Dunlap published it in their reduced-rate Novels of Distinction series in 1929 and again in 1932, and the Modern Library added it to its list in 1930. By 1931 copies of the 1915 edition were to be found with difficulty. Frederick T. Bason, compiling a bibliography of the writings of Maugham in that year, reported that copies of the first edition of the masterpiece were among the most sought after books in the United States.

Public demand for Of Human Bondage continued undiminished through the thirties. The Modern Library advertised the novel in 1941 as one of its best-selling titles. The Garden City Publishing Company and the Dial Press each issued several reprints between 1933 and 1949. Even British readers, long reluctant to accept Of Human Bondage, apparently caught something of the American fever, William Heinemann, Limited, which published the novel in 1915, brought out in 1934 the first English edition in nineteen years. Reprints followed in 1935 and 1936. In 1936 Doubleday, Doran and Company published in New York the first of several limited deluxe editions. The following year the Literary Guild distributed the novel to its many thousands of members, and in 1938 Yale University Press printed it in two volumes, with an introduction by Theodore Dreiser, for members of the Limited Editions Club. The Clovernook Printing House for the Blind (Mount Healthy, Ohio) published a seven volume edition in braille in 1941, and portions of the novel were recorded recently by Maugham. In addition to the many American and the two British editions, Of Human Bondage has been published in a number of foreign languages—in French (1937), German (1939), Italian (n. d.), Spanish (1944), and Hungarian (n. d.).

It would appear, on the basis of the foregoing data, that there is much justification for Spencer's assertion that Of Human Bondage is one of the most universally read and admired of modern English novels. His statement seems valid despite the generally unfavorable critical comment in 1915, and the subsequent half-dozen years of public apathy toward the book. Not until the early twenties did Of Human Bondage begin its climb toward a position in the highest level of English novels. As we have seen, the emergence of the work appears to have been due in large part to the critics and columnists who saw more in the novel than did the reviewers of 1915. Their interest stimulated public interest, and their unreserved praise was a fundamental factor in the making of a masterpiece. Maugham, when he presented the original manuscript of the novel to the Library of Congress [on April 21, 1946], acknowledged the debt he owed its champions:

It is because the success of Of Human Bondage is due to my fellow writers in America and to a whole generation of American readers that I thought the least I could do was to offer the manuscript to the Library of Congress.

That the novel has not slipped much in the esteem of American readers is suggested by the editorial comment of the Houston, Texas, Post (April 28, 1946), shortly after the presentation. The Post declared that Of Human Bondage is "one of the greatest novels in the English language." Maugham, in his novel The Razor's Edge, stated that "we the public in our heart of hearts all like a success story." Where could one find a better one than in the history of Of Human Bondage?

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This section contains 3,410 words
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Buy the Critical Essay by Robert Spence