The Greatest Writer of His Time
“For much of his long life – he lived to be over 90 – Somerset Maugham was the most famous writer in the world. He was known everywhere for his superb short stories and for his novels, the immensely acclaimed, Of Human Bondage, becoming one of the most widely read works of fiction of the twentieth century. His books were translated into almost every known tongue, filmed, dramatized, and sold in the millions, bringing him celebrity and enormous wealth. Wherever he went he was pursued by journalists, eager for information: this extraordinary man seemed to know everyone, from Henry James to Winston Churchill, from Dorothy Parker to D.H. Lawrence.”1
Though immensely successful in his later years, Somerset Maugham's youth was filled with hardship on account of his speech. A withdrawn child on account of his stutter, he especially suffered during his years at The King’s School in Canterbury. “When a fierce master there asked him to translate a passage and he began to stammer, the boys burst out laughing and the master shouted: ‘Sit down, you fool. I don’t know why they put you in this class.’ Seventy years later Maugham recalled this degradation, the laughter from his teacher and peers, and the subsequent demotion that followed."2
“Once there was a long queue outside the third-class ticket office at a train station," Maugham recalled, "so I took my place in the queue. But when it came to my turn to ask for my ticket to Whitstable, I couldn’t get the word out. I just stood there stammering. People behind me were getting impatient, but I still couldn’t say ‘Whitstable.’ Suddenly two men stepped out of the queue and pushed me aside. 'We can’t wait all night for you,’ they said. ‘Stop wasting our time.’ So I had to go to the back and start all over again. I’ll never forget the humiliation of that moment – with everyone staring at me.”
Surprisingly, there was only one instance in which the famed author sought treatment for his stuttering – and that was at age 66. He was hopeful for a “cure”. Due to repeated obligations to speak in public, which he could not avoid, Maugham consulted a Dr. Leahy, a hypnotist who treated many people who stuttered. During several sessions Leahy taught the writer a specific method of self-hypnosis, which over time began to work for him to a point. He still stuttered in his everyday life, but was able to speak in public without stuttering at all, almost like he was acting and using a script. What he referred to as the “Leahy effect” wore off after a while, but Maugham always spoke highly of Leahy and credited his hypnosis with being responsible for both more fluency in front of audiences and a sense of confidence for public speaking.
Though Maugham once summed up his childhood by saying, “I was withdrawn and unhappy, and rejected most overtures of sympathy over my stuttering and shyness," he credited part of his success to his stutter. He cited his speech problem for forcing him to retreat into great books...which would eventually fuel his dazzling success as a writer. As his great works continue to stand the test of time, Somerset Maugham can still be regarded as the best writer of his day.
1 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography by Selina Hastings
2 Somerset Maugham: A Life by Jeffrey Myers
From the Fall 2018 Newsletter