William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) made important contributions as a highly successful playwright; as perhaps the foremost short story writer of his time; and as a novelist.
His reputation and popularity as a novelist rests primarily on four great works: Of Human Bondage (1915), a semi-autobiographical account of a young medical student’s painful progress toward maturity; The Moon and Sixpence (1919), an account of an unconventional artist, suggested by the life of Paul Gauguin; Cakes and Ale (1930), the story of a famous novelist; and The Razor’s Edge (1944), the story of a young American war veteran’s quest for a satisfying way of life.
Although many critics argue that Maugham had a number of Jewish friends and that he therefore could not have been an anti-Semite, he wrote a diary as a young man that included descriptions of deceitful and seedy-looking Jewish men and lewd Jewesses. He privately embraced disturbing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jewish refugees, alleging that many of them were Gestapo spies. Dismissively referring to a departing Jewish dinner companion, he commented that “he should stick to his race’s dietary laws.”
Furthermore, he often described his Jewish characters in derogatory terms. For example, in Of Human Bondage, he described a Jewish undertaker as “a little fat Jew with curly black hair, long and greasy, in black, with a large diamond on his pudgy finger.”
In The Alien Corn – in which Maugham seems to emphasize anti-Semitic Jewish racial characteristics, including large, fleshy noses – his lead Jewish characters have assimilated to the point where their wealth, materialism, and high position in the British aristocracy wrecks the dreams of their son who, to their great mortification, has rediscovered his Jewish identity.
Jewish acceptance by the Gentiles was a common theme in early 20th century English literature, which generally presented social acceptance, particularly amongst societal elites, as a desirable ambition that could only be secured through assimilation – notwithstanding the fact that Gentile antagonism against even fully assimilated Jews often continued unabated. Maugham famously addressed this theme in The Alien Corn, whose title has its origins in the Book of Ruth (see Ruth 2:2-3) and Ode to a Nightingale (1819) by John Keats:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
through the sad heart of Ruth when, sick for home
she stood in tears among the alien corn.
As the pundits would have it, Ruth, a non-Jewish woman in the fields of the aristocratic Boaz, is a metaphor for a rootless Jewish family living amid the “alien corn” of England who, having been fully assimilated into the English gentry, are stunned and scandalized when their eldest son rejects the accouterments of nobility to become a pianist.
In fact, however, both Keats and Maugham miss the fact that, unlike their subjects, who grieve over their spiritual “exile,” Ruth was enthusiastic about leaving her homeland in Moab to accompany her mother-in-law Naomi to Eretz Yisrael, there to join the Jewish people.
In any event, The Alien Corn is an analysis of the conflict between Jewish identity and Jewish assimilation as seen through the prism of British aristocratic society during the post-World War I years. We are introduced to the Bliekogel family, who had left Germany for England at the end of the 19th century. By the time we first meet them in the late 1920s, however, family patriarch Adolphus Bliekogel has renounced his Jewish faith and taken steps to hide even the fact of his being Jewish.
He has changed the family name to Bland and his own name to “Freddy” and his wife, Muriel, has changed her name from Miriam and converted to Catholicism. Freddy, who served as a conservative member of Parliament and as Britain’s Minister of Munitions during World War I, has become an esteemed and well-recognized member of the English aristocracy.
The story begins with a narrator (most certainly Maugham himself), who evokes his longtime recollections of Freddy’s nephew Ferdy Rabenstein, a prosperous Jewish bachelor who had achieved great success at a time when, as Maugham describes it, “English society was still a closed body and it was not easy for a Jew to force its barriers.” To Ferdy, these barriers had fallen “like the walls of Jericho,” but notwithstanding his high status in the English gentry, Ferdy – who “still had his fine Semitic profile and the lustrous black eyes that had caused havoc in so many a Gentile breast” – readily acknowledges his Jewish heritage.
The Blands had severed relations with Ferdy because of their general policy of refusing to associate with non-assimilated Jews and, in particular, because he refused to anglicize his “horrible German name” during the Great War. (Said Ferdy, “I was not ambitious to be a Smith, a Brown or a Robinson.”)
Ferdy invites the narrator to lunch and asks him to invite the eldest Bland son, George (whom Ferdy has never met), to join them, but Muriel refuses to let him meet his great-uncle, commenting, “I can’t see any object of his knowing Jews just because they happen to be distant connections of his.” George nonetheless joins the narrator and Ferdy for lunch, which the narrator/Maugham unflatteringly describes as follows:
[Ferdy] had an inexhaustible fund of Jewish stories. He was a very good mimic and he assumed the Yiddish accent and reproduced the Jewish gestures to perfection; his head sank into his body, his face grew cunning, his voice oily, and he was a rabbi or an old clothes merchant or a smart commercial traveler or a fat procuress in Frankfort. It was as good as a play. Because he was himself a Jew and insisted on it you laughed without reserve, but for my own part not without an under-current of discomfort. I was not quite sure of a sense of humor that made such cruel fun of his own race. I discovered afterwards that Jewish stories were his specialty and I seldom met him anywhere without hearing him tell sooner or later the last he had heard.
The narrator is perplexed by Ferdy’s tactlessness and his apparent pleasure at George’s discomfiture. After they part ways with Ferdy, George calls him “a filthy old Jew” and expresses disgust for his Jewish stories. But his opinion of Jews in general and Ferdy in particular is about to dramatically change.
George, the apple of his father’s eye and heir to the Bland fortune, has been raised to be the perfect English gentleman and is expected to pursue a “respectful” profession befitting the family’s high status, such as the diplomatic service and politics, but he manifests a burning ambition to become a concert pianist. His furious father threatens to cut him off financially, but George flippantly responds that he’ll earn money by selling old clothes.
When his horrified mother says, “like a Jew?” he manifests the Jewish sense of identity that had been growing within him: “Well, aren’t I a Jew? And aren’t you a Jewess and isn’t daddy a Jew? We’re all Jews, the whole gang of us, and everyone knows it and what the hell’s the good of pretending we’re not?”
George’s embrace of his German-Jewish origins is particularly ironic – and foreboding – taking place as it does during years that will soon see the birth of Nazi Germany and the looming Holocaust. His rediscovery of his Judaism is even more poignant given his parents’ rejection of a suggestion by his grandmother that George marry a Jewess.
A compromise is ultimately reached whereby George will be permitted to study music in Munich for two years, during which time no family member is to communicate with him. After the two-year period, he will return home and, if an impartial judge determines that he lacks the talent to become a leading pianist, he will remain at home and assume the responsibilities of managing the Bland family estate.
When the narrator visits George in Munich (at Muriel’s instigation as a way to check up on him), he is shocked to find that George, who has “heard the nightingale’s song,” has not only adopted a bohemian lifestyle but has also rejected his identity as an Englishman in favor of his Jewish identity and pride in his Jewish heritage.
George now sympathizes with Ferdy: “I used to hate hearing great-uncle Ferdy tell his Jewish stories. I thought it so damned mean. I understand now; it was a safety valve…” In a seminal moment in the story, George, much like Ruth the Moabite expressing her attachment to the Jewish people, beautifully and passionately explains:
I? I’m not English. I haven’t got a drop of English blood in me. I’m a Jew and you know it, and a German Jew into the bargain. I don’t want to be English. I want to be a Jew. My friends are Jews. You don’t know how much more easy I feel with them. I can be myself. We did everything we could to avoid Jews at home; Mummy, because she was blonde, thought she could get away with it and pretended she was a Gentile. What rot! D’you know, I have a lot of fun wandering about the Jewish parts of Munich and looking at the people. I went to Frankfort once, there are a lot of them there, and I walked about and looked at the frowzy old men with their hooked noses and the fat women with their false hair. I felt such a sympathy for them, I felt I belonged to them, I could have kissed them. When they looked at me, I wondered if they knew that I was one of them. I wish to G-d I knew Yiddish. I’d like to become friends with them and go into their houses and eat Kosher food and all that sort of thing. I wanted to go to a synagogue, but I was afraid I’d do the wrong thing and be kicked out. I like the smell of the Ghetto and the sense of life, and the mystery and the dust and the squalor and the romance. I shall never get the longing for it out of my head now. That’s the real thing. All the rest is only pretense. (Emphasis added)
In this November 21, 1956 correspondence on his Dorchester, Park Lane, London letterhead, Maugham writes to screenwriter Walter Newman, M.D. care of the Kodimoh Congregation in Springfield. He thanks Newman for forwarding the Kodimoh Bulletin, but adds a “mild protest:”
I never thought that a Gentile who entered a synagogue would be turned out. It was only the idea of the young man whom I was describing [George], and who had fantastic and, of course, erroneous ideas of what would happen to a stranger. He may well have thought he would have been hustled about just as a Christian might be who entered a mosque on a Friday morning.
The Jewish community formed in Springfield, Massachusetts during the mass immigration from Eastern Europe in the last decades of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Springfield’s first Orthodox congregation, Congregation Kodimoh (1916), initially met in members’ homes and in Robert’s Hall before laying the synagogue cornerstone at 19 Oakland Street (1919). As the membership grew, the congregation built a new synagogue nearby at 124 Sumner Ave (1963).
At the end of two years, George returns to his family’s estate, where the family gathers to assess his talent. With his concurrence, they have invited renowned concert pianist Lea Makart to render judgment on George’s prospects. (According to a number of authorities, “Makart” is an amalgam of two renowned British Jewish pianists, Myra Hess and Harriet Cohen.)
Tragically, an hour after she renders her devastating opinion that he can never hope to be more than a very competent amateur, George, caught in the limbo of musical mediocracy and failed ambition and tormented by the idea of a return to a stultifying assimilated life, dies from a self-inflicted shot through the heart.
Maugham’s general tone – and George’s ultimate suicidal act – arguably suggest that Maugham sees George as unreasonable and not in his right mind when he embraced his love for Jews and the Jewish faith and that, in any event, his life as a musician ultimately proved far more important to him than his newly-discovered Judaism.
Ironically, in 1954 the Yiddish Press in Buenos Aires published an Illustrated Supplement in honor of Maugham’s 80th birthday that characterized him as “an honest friend of the Jewish people.” Exhibited here is a page from that publication, “William Somerset Maugham is Eighty” over a photograph of the renowned author.
The translation of several essays and letters by Maugham, as well as a dissertation about him, in the supplement are the work of author Miguel Lejbowicz, with the legend under the photo reading: “In honor of the 80th birthday of genius playwright, brilliant novelist, masterful writer, author of short stories, and honest friend of the Jewish people.”
The publication includes a copy of a letter from Maugham to Lejbowicz in which he happily notes that “quite a number of my works have been translated into Hebrew and been published in Israel.”
(Correction: In last week’s article, I wrote that William Shatner “delivered a dramatic reading from the Bible and the Haggadah for Exodus: An Oratorio in Three Parts, performed and recorded in 2005 by the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra and a choir of 350 conducted by David Itkin, who composed the piece.” In fact, the piece was recorded by the Arkansas Symphony. I apologize for the error.)