Ask Alma's Owl: Maugham’s Philosophy

Gary Shapiro
June 29, 2016

Dear Alma,

While attending a literature lecture in the summer session, I heard that W. Somerset Maugham once taught philosophy at Columbia. Is that true?

A Novel Philosopher

Dear Novel Philosopher,

Not quite. W. Somerset Maugham, whose well-known works include Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Sixpence and The Razor’s Edge, visited Columbia in November 1950 at the invitation of philosophy professor Irwin Edman (CC'1917, Ph.D.’20), a longtime friend.

Edman had visited the famous novelist at his villa in France two years earlier, when they looked through Maugham’s philosophy books and, according to the Columbia Spectator, Edman offered a list of works to fill the gaps in his collection. Maugham then wrote a “homework” paper on Immanuel Kant and sent it to Edman, who followed up by asking Maugham to present it at Columbia.

The evening before the lecture, Edman hosted a dinner for Maugham and, as described in Ted Morgan’s Maugham: A Biography, provided the author with brief descriptions of dinner guests, such as Lionel Trilling (CC'1925, M.A.’26), who he said “wrote a novel, a little too intellectualized, called The Middle Journey.” Edman continued, “One reviewer in England—I think it was V.S. Pritchett—said ‘This is the best novel by a non-genius since E.M. Forster.’ I have not been able to make up my mind whether that was a compliment or not.”

A crowd of 250 gathered at Casa Italiana to hear Maugham. The Spectator’s report, headlined “W.S. Maugham Tries Hand at Philosophy,” said he argued that Kant was mistaken in thinking that “beauty was immutable.” “Beauty,” Maugham said, “changes with the passing years” and “rests on shifting sand.”

According to Morgan’s biography, the room had no microphone and was “unseasonably warm,” so windows were open and Maugham had to compete with noise from the street. Edman concluded the evening by saying, “Some day, soon in the future, when the students assembled here reminisce of their college days, they will smile and mention that they studied philosophy at Columbia under W. Somerset Maugham.”

The next day Maugham joined a bridge party with the president of the University, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and others. The novelist lost $12 and reportedly was a sore loser. He would later say, “We had a very agreeable game.” During this trip, Maugham also played bridge with another literary Columbian, Random House founder Bennett Cerf (CC’1919).

Maugham’s works were performed on Broadway and the big screen. Stars in the film adaptations of his work included Joan Crawford, Gene Tierney and Tyrone Power. Bette Davis, whose role as a waitress in the 1934 film of his book Of Human Bondage made her a star, often described her career as “Before Maugham” and “After Maugham.” The Columbia archives do not say whether the students who attended his lecture described their academic careers in the same way.

W. Somerset Maugham