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The Life of Ezra Pound
by Edward Shaw

Ezra Pound, the enigmatic and controversial figure who arguably did more to change the face of Anglo-American poetry in the twentieth century – with the possible exception of T. S. Eliot – was born in Hailey, Idaho in 1885, an only child whose parents had both Quaker and Puritan origins. The family moved to Pennsylvania when he was eighteen months old, and his early education was initially at “dame schools” (some established by Quakers) and, later, at a military academy. Pound was regarded as an independent-minded and smart youth, but he was also unpopular because he was vain and self-centered. 


Following a three-month tour of Europe, he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania at age fifteen. Even at that early age, Pound knew that he wanted to be a poet and resolved that at age thirty he would know more about poetry than any man living. He left Penn after just two years and in 1905 took his B.Phil from Hamilton College, where it was less demanding academically. He then returned to Penn for an M.A. in Romance Languages in 1906. During his graduate studies he read and immersed himself in Dante’s work, and this led him ultimately to the concepts and ideas underlying his epic poem, The Cantos. 


It was also at Penn that Pound met Hilda Doolittle, later known as H.D., who became involved with him in developing the Imagism movement in London. She left her family and friends to follow him on a visit to Europe. He asked her to marry him in the summer of 1907, coupling the courtship with a hand-bound book of poems he wrote for her, Hilda’s Book, but her father refused permission. Pound was also seeing two other women at the same time, Viola Baxter and Mary Moore. He asked Mary to marry him that summer, too, but she rejected his proposal. He later dedicated another book of his poems, Personae, to her.    


Pound returned to America to continue his dissertation work at Penn, but he managed to antagonize the head of the English Department with his insistence that Bernard Shaw was superior to Shakespeare and by repeatedly and ostentatiously winding an oversized tin watch during lectures. Pound’s fellowship was not renewed and he left school without a doctorate.    


Pound got a job in the fall of 1907 teaching Romance languages at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, a town he referred to as the sixth circle of hell. He continued to alienate others. Though smoking was forbidden, he smoked cigarillos in his office just down the hall from the president’s office. He vexed his landlords and had to move more than once from his apartment because of how he “entertained” guests. In the end, he allegedly offered his bed for the night to a chorus girl stranded in a snowstorm while he slept on the floor, a claim met with disbelief by his landladies. He was asked to leave Wabash and was soon on his way again back to Europe.   


Pound’s first book of poetry, A Lume Spento (With Tapers Spent), was written in Venice and a hundred copies were sold at six cents each. It got rave reviews in the London Evening Standard. He then moved to London in August 1908 and remained there almost continuously for twelve years. That move marked the beginning of his remarkable literary career.  By October, Pound was being widely discussed around town, as much for his behavior as his poetry. He wandered about London with pants made of green billiard cloth, a sombrero and a single blue earring. He was a self-promoter and provocateur who accompanied his signature with a caricature of a gadfly. His poetry definitely was not the Victorian verse of Tennyson and Kipling.  


By early 1909, Pound had published a second poetry collection and had made the acquaintance of William Butler Yeats, William Carlos Williams and Ford Madox Ford. He also met Olivia Shakespear, prominent novelist and Yeats’s former mistress, and through her became acquainted with others in London’s literary scene. Olivia’s daughter, Dorothy, was later to become Pound’s long-suffering wife. In September 1909 he published yet another poetry collection and, in 1910, a book of literary criticism. He then returned to the U.S. for several months to take on the New York Public Library, shouting at the architects during almost daily visits because their proposed design of the new library building offended his sensibilities.  


Pound wrote several essays on America during his stay in New York, but his love for that city had given way to a view that it was becoming a center of coarse materialism. He sailed back to London in February 1911, and it was nearly 30 years before he returned again to America.    


Later that year, Hilda Doolittle arrived in London and took up quarters adjacent to Pound and Richard Aldington, her future husband.  The three of them started working on the ideas that later evolved into the Imagism movement. Imagism, which derived its focal technique from classical Chinese and Japanese poetry, stressed clarity, precision and economy of language while eschewing romanticism, rhetoric, abstraction and excessive use of adjectives.  


Despite being a leading figure in the Imagism movement, Pound never fully embraced it and some of his verse remained formulaic and old-fashioned. He quit the Imagism movement when Amy Lowell, the American poet, and other contemporary writers preempted his leadership role. Pound then joined the Imagism concept to the visual arts, especially cubism, and to music and titled the resultant movement Vorticism. That movement was ultimately short-lived due to the onset of WW l and a lack of public interest. 


Possum and Brer Rabbit


About this time, Pound started to show a side of his character that would have been difficult to predict. This was most apparent in his tireless promotion and generous support of other writers and artists through his work as editor of various literary magazines. He and Dorothy Shakespear had married in 1914 over the objections of her parents, who were concerned about his lack of income. His work with Poetry, The Egoist, BLAST and other journals provided an income, albeit a meager one, and probably more importantly, also afforded him with influence and useful contacts. Ernest Hemingway wrote of him as follows: 


He defends his friends when they are attacked, he gets them into magazines and out of jail . . .  He writes articles about them. He introduces them to wealthy women. He gets publishers to take their books. He sits up all night with them when they claim to be dying … he advances them hospital expenses and dissuades them from suicide. … And in the end, a few of them refrain from stabbing him at the first opportunity.

(Ezra Pound, John Quinn, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce)

The writers Pound helped are like a Who’s Who of twentieth century literature: T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, William Butler Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Ernest Hemingway, H.D., Conrad Aiken, E.E. Cummings, Richard Aldington and Marianne Moore comprise just the short list.  He was similarly supportive of non-writers such as Henri Gaudier-Breszka, the French sculptor whose agent he became. 


He was especially helpful to James Joyce and arranged for publication of several of Joyce’s stories, including Dubliners (1914) and a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in literary journals before their later publication in book form. When Joyce moved to Paris from Trieste, Pound helped him secure lodging and loans and even got him an old pair of shoes. Pound also introduced Joyce to Sylvia Beach, the future publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses. 


When Yeats’s eyesight started failing, Pound spent three winters with him reading, walking in the woods, writing and fencing for exercise. When he was hired by Poetry, he arranged for poems by Robert Frost, H. D., Richard Aldington, Yeats and Joyce to be submitted to the magazine. Pound recognized Hemingway’s talent, introduced him to Joyce, Lewis and Ford Madox Ford and helped foster his writing skills. He and Hemingway were close friends despite the fourteen year age difference. Hemingway gave boxing lessons to Pound in return for Pound’s writing tutelage but said “Ezra habitually leads with his chin and has the general grace of a crayfish or crawfish.” 


But it was T.S. Eliot with whom Pound had the closest and most significant relationship. Pound helped get Eliot’s poetry into various publications and even funded the printing and publication of several of his works.  Modernism brought them together, starting with Eliot’s famous opening lines from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Let us go through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells;

Streets that follow like a tedious argument

Of insidious intent

To lead you to an over-whelming question …

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”

Let us go and make our visit.


Pound, who at twenty-eight was just three years older than Eliot when they first met, immediately recognized his genius and called “Prufrock” the “best poem I have yet had or seen from an American.” Pound paid for its printing costs. What was perhaps Eliot’s greatest work, The Wasteland, was enormously influenced by Pound. He changed the title from “He do the Police in Different Voices”, excised entire sections of the poem and told Eliot to tighten and rearrange other parts. Some critics have argued that The Wasteland was Pound’s vision as much as it was Eliot’s. In its initial release, Eliot dedicated the poem to Pound as “il miglior fabbro,” Dante’s term meaning “the better craftsman,” and continued throughout his life to give full credit to Pound’s contributions to the poem. More than one literary critic has opined that we might never have known the great poet that T.S. Eliot became had it not been for Ezra Pound.  



Their relationship included a personal friendship that went beyond their collaboration on poetry. For openers, they shared the childhood pleasure of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories and would often use Remus dialect in their correspondence to each other.  For example, Pound included this ditty in a March 28, 1935 letter to Eliot:

Ez Po and Possum

Have picked all the blossom,

Let all the others

Run back to their mothers …


Eliot was affectionately called Possum and Pound was nicknamed Brer Rabbit in their private exchanges, which some might consider unusual given the public statures of these two great poets, but it reflected the true affection that existed between them at the time. Eliot’s whimsical book, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats – subsequently made into the successful musical show, Cats, on the London and Broadway stages – stems from Pound’s nickname for Eliot.  


Many examples of their personal connection are to be found. For instance, when Pound discovered Eliot’s cache of off-color poems – indeed odd given Eliot’s fussy, conservative persona – he tried getting them published in BLAST, but Wyndham Lewis would make no exception to his policy against four-letter words in the magazine. And when Eliot decided to give up his academic studies in philosophy at Oxford to pursue poetry, it was Pound who wrote Eliot’s parents advising them of the news.


On the dark side of their relationship, one thing they shared was anti-Semitism. In Pound’s case it was blatant and often accompanied by misogyny – strange, considering his lifelong pattern of relationships with and desire for women – as well as contempt for the common masses. Eliot’s anti-Semitism was more nuanced and more debatable, but lines from several of his poems and statements from some of his lectures made it inescapable to most literary critics that he harbored the prejudice.  


To their friends and associates, Pound characterized Eliot as having ”more entrails than might appear from his quiet exterior” and of possessing a particular bent for satire. When Eliot converted to the high Anglicanism of the Church of England and started moving away from satire, Pound expressed both a personal and professional loss.  He summed it up by saying he could only “lament the psychoses/Of all those who abandon the Muses for Moses.” Their close relationship was never again quite the same after 1922, though they maintained their friendly correspondence over the ensuing years and continued to critique each other’s work.  


Enter Olga Rudge


During World War One and the period immediately following, Pound was contributing regularly to three literary journals, wrote music essays under a pen name and prepared weekly pieces for The Little Review and The Egoist. He also began work on his epic sequence that would become The Cantos, in 1915 and, after several false starts, had the first three cantos published in Poetry in 1917. Then “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”, a poem about a writer whose life had become futile and meaningless, was published in 1920. Pound denied that it was about him, just as Eliot denied he was Prufrock, but it was generally assumed to be autobiographical.


Pound had become disillusioned by The Great War and had lost faith in western civilization, generally and England, in particular. He blamed usury and international capitalism for the loss of life. He also foresaw the coming end to Vorticism and had become insecure about his own career in poetry. He was displaying increasing intemperance and an unseemly sense of self-importance. He had become more outspoken about his anti-Semitism and his disgust with England. The major poetry journals were no longer publishing his submissions. By 1920, he was prepared to move to Paris and his fellow writers in London, even Eliot to some degree, were glad to see him leave.


Olga Rudge was a talented American concert violinist with international standing who Pound first met in the fall of 1922, though he had previously done a review of one of her concerts in 1920. Her background was the polar opposite of Pound’s. She was a successful and respected musician living in a luxury apartment on Paris’s right bank, while he was viewed as a weird bohemian poet living on the left bank. She came from a wealthy Ohio steel family and hobnobbed with aristocracy. His circle of acquaintances was comprised mainly of impoverished left bank writers and artists.


Nevertheless, that meeting marked the beginning of a fifty-year love affair. Pound believed there was a link between his creativity and his ability to seduce women. In fact, after moving to Paris, he complained that he was yet to find a mistress after three months there. His wife, Dorothy, tolerated his philandering ways, perhaps recognizing that the short-term nature of his affairs did not comprise a threat. But the affair with Olga turned out to be anything but short-term.  




The relationship with Olga also gave Pound an opportunity to expand his career to include music composition and music reviews. They spent the following summer in the south of France, where Pound wrote two operas, the most notable of which was Le Testament de Villon. Pound also wrote pieces for solo violin, performed by Olga in concert, and collaborated with George Antheil in applying the principles of Vorticism to music composition.


When Pound first arrived in Paris, he was able to make friends with Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Leger and other people associated with the Dada and Surrealist movements. He also spent considerable time with Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley, living on the same street with them and touring Italy together. But Pound grew unhappy in Paris. His health wasn’t good and someone had attempted to stab him at a dinner party. Dorothy disliked the winters. In 1924, they decided to move to the small town of Rapallo in Italy. Olga, by now pregnant with Pound’s child, followed. His parents also relocated to Rapallo in 1928 after his father’s retirement. Pound apparently divided his time more or less equally between the two women, an arrangement that persisted until the start of World War Two. 

(Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska)


Olga gave birth to a daughter, Mary, in July 1925 and made arrangements with a German-speaking peasant woman to raise the child for 200 lira a month. Mary’s existence was a closely guarded secret since the stigma of an illegitimate child would have damaged her career. By now, she was one of the most celebrated violinists in Europe and had played before heads of state and political leaders in capitals throughout the continent. 


When Dorothy learned of the birth, she separated from Pound for most of 1925. In March 1926, she returned from a three-month visit to Egypt and announced that she, too, was pregnant. In September, Hemingway drove Dorothy to the American Hospital of Paris where she gave birth to a son, Omar. Dorothy’s mother, Olivia, raised him in London until he was old enough to be in boarding school. The two children had marked differences in their upbringing. Mary had but one pair of shoes and books on Jesus and the saints. Omar was raised as an English gentleman in Kensington with the many advantages and privileges associated with such status.   


Pound’s literary fortunes brightened after the move to Rapallo.  The bulk of his work on The Cantos was done in Italy and was published variously in poetry journals or in book form. The 1925 This Quarter dedicated its opening issue to Pound, with tributes from Hemingway and Joyce, and he launched his own literary journal, The Exile.  He won The Dial poetry award in 1928 for translating the classic Confucian work, Great Learning.  


The Turn to Fascism and Incarceration


Pound continued to hold to his belief that western capitalism, which he equated to usury, was the cause of World War One and the consequent loss of life. He concluded that the social credit theory of an obscure British engineer, Major C.H. Douglas, combined with fascism was the ultimate answer and gave a series of lectures on the subject. Olga Rudge had played for Mussolini and told him about Pound, so against Hemingway’s advice Pound met with Il Duce in January 1933. He presented Mussolini with his economic ideas, which were brushed aside, and with a copy of Canto XXX, which the Italian leader found entertaining.  


Pound wrote several books on economics during the 1930s, including one on social credit, and in 1939 he sailed to New York to meet with several senators and congressmen in hopes of avoiding U.S. involvement in the looming World War Two. He was given an honorary doctorate by Hamilton College while in America. He soon returned to Italy and began writing anti-Semitic columns for newspapers, including one owned by the prominent British fascist, Sir Oswald Mosley. One of his pieces was titled “The Jews, Disease Incarnate.” He also wrote to the senators and congressmen he had met with earlier to argue that the war was caused by an international banking cabal and the U.S. should avoid any involvement.


“You let in the Jew and the Jew rotted your empire, and you yourselves out-jewed the Jew … And the big Jew has rotted EVERY nation he has wormed into.” Pound started broadcasting messages such as this one for Rome Radio starting in the early 1940s. He was paid $17 for each 10 minute pre-recorded broadcast. Political views aside, he needed the money. The Italian government feared he might be a double agent, so they insisted on advance approval. Still, ever the contrarian, Pound often changed the text of his 100 plus broadcasts in the studio. He continued to broadcast and to write under pseudonyms until April 1945.  


Meanwhile, Olga and Dorothy had been living in an apartment occupied by Pound’s mother, but it was far too small so they all moved into Olga’s house, which had been purchased for her by her father. Olga was forced by necessity to give language lessons to support the Pounds and her daughter. The nineteen year old Mary, who was eventually sent back to Switzerland to live with her original peasant guardians, wrote as follows about the ménage a trois, “… pent up with two women who loved him, whom he loved, and who coldly hated each other.”


Mussolini was killed by armed partisans April 28, 1945, and Pound was arrested by them four days later. He was initially handed over to the U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps for interrogation in connection with a 1943 grand jury indictment (in absentia) for treason. On May 24 he was transferred to the U.S. Army Disciplinary Training Center near Pisa and placed in one of the “death cells,” 6’ x 6’ outdoor steel cages lit up all night by floodlights. He was in isolation for twenty-five days, with no exercise, no belt, no bed, no shoelaces and with eyes inflamed by dust. He was only permitted to communicate with the chaplain. He started to break down, which Pound recorded as follows in Canto 80: “hast’ou swum in a sea of air strip/through an aeon of nothingness, /when the raft broke and the waters went over me.”  

He was moved out of the cage in mid-June for examination by psychiatrists, one of whom found Pound to be suffering a mental breakdown.  He was placed in his own tent, given reading material and began work (on sheets of toilet paper, among other materials) on the cantos, including those which were to become known as “The Pisan Cantos”. In November, he was sent to the United States, accompanied by an officer escort who commented that “he is an intellectual ‘crackpot’ who imagined that he could correct all the economic ills of the world and who resented the fact that ordinary mortals were not sufficiently intelligent to understand his aims and motives.”  He was arraigned on charges of treason in late November.


Pound was admitted to the prison ward of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in a building without windows and in a room having a thick steel door and nine peepholes for psychiatric observation. Dorothy was declared his legal guardian. Visits could not exceed 15 minutes while, according to T. S. Eliot, “other patients wandered around outside the room screaming and frothing at the mouth.” A panel of psychiatrists declared him to be schizophrenic, an outcome Pound’s lawyer had actually hoped for since it likely saved him from life imprisonment.  


Instead of release on bail, Winfred Overholser, superintendent of St. Elizabeth’s, agreed to have Pound moved to a more hospitable ward near Overholser’s private quarters, where he spent the next twelve years.  The psychiatrists there later concluded that Pound had a narcissistic personality but was clinically sane.  Apparently, Overholser protected Pound from criminal prosecution because he was fascinated by Pound. 


Pound liked his new accommodations. He was permitted to read, write and receive Dorothy and other visitors, including some of his other mistresses, several hours a day. There was a small alcove with wicker chairs adjacent to his room which he was allowed to convert into a private living room to entertain his guests. He continued work on The Cantos and other literary projects. He ultimately refused any effort to have him released.  Olga visited him in 1952 and 1955 but could not convince him to seek release. She wrote to a friend that “E. P. has bats in his belfry but it strikes me that he has fewer not more than before his incarceration.”


Pound was awarded the Bollingen Prize in 1949, the first time this poetry award of the Library of Congress was given, accompanied by $1,000 from the Mellon family.  The award figured into the plans of Pound’s friends and supporters to get him released from St.Elizabeth’s.  


T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, E.E. Cummings and others believed that if the award committee – stacked with the likes of Eliot, Conrad Aiken, Amy Lowell and Katherine Ann Porter – were to give the prize to Pound, the Justice Department would be in an untenable position if it opposed his release.  Upon learning of the award, Pound responded “No comments from the bughouse.” The awarding of the prize to Pound created an uproar in both literary and political circles.


Pound remained at St. Elizabeth’s, his release delayed by his friendship with Eustace Mullins of the Aryan League of America and John Kasper, a far right activist and Ku Klux Klan member. Privately, Pound’s anti-Semitism continued, though he repudiated it in public. Hemingway said he felt Pound should be released during a 1954 interview and again after winning the Nobel Prize that same year. He believed Pound was incapable of abstaining from damning political statements or friendships with the likes of Kasper et al, but he still signed a letter of support for his release and pledged $1500 to Pound when he was set free.


In 1957, Le Figaro, The New Republic, Esquire and The Nation took up Pound’s cause and appealed for his freedom.  The next year, Archibald MacLeish hired Thurman Arnold, the prominent Washington attorney, to file a motion dismissing the 1943 indictment. Arnold did so on a pro bono basis. Winfred Overholser supported the motion with an affidavit stating that Pound was permanently and incurably insane and that further confinement served no therapeutic purpose. The Department of Justice did not oppose the motion and, after a hearing before the same judge who had committed him to St, Elizabeth’s, Pound was set free on April 18, 1958.  


Not with a bang but a whimper


Pound was stripped of his rights of U. S. citizenship and his release from St. Elizabeth’s was predicated on condition that he return to Europe. He and Dorothy arrived in Naples in July 1958 and subsequently went to live with Mary, now married to Boris de Rachelwiltz, at Brunnenberg Castle in Tirol. There he met his two grandchildren for the first time. After a short period, he and Dorothy returned to Rapallo, where Olga Rudge awaited them.  


The ménage a trois was now a ménage a trois plus one. They had been joined by Marcella Spann, a teacher forty years Pound’s junior, whom he had met at St. Elizabeth’s. She ostensibly served as his secretary and was charged with collecting poems for an anthology.  Pound was said to be in love with Marcella and saw in her one last chance to reclaim youth. He wrote about her in Canto CXlll,”The long flank, the firm breast/and to know beauty and death and despair/And to think that what has been shall be/flowing, ever unstill.” It was alleged that he even proposed to her, though he was obviously already married. This was one affair that Dorothy would not ignore and, exercising her legal authority as his guardian, sent Marcella packing to America.


By December 1959, Pound had gone into a depression. Some thought he was exhibiting signs of dementia. Mary had him admitted to a clinic near Merano in the summer of 1960 because of his unexplained weight loss. He made a comeback with his health but developed a urinary tract infection in the spring of 1961. The caretaker responsibilities became too much for Dorothy, so that summer he was sent to live with Olga in Rapallo, then later in Venice. Dorothy mostly remained in London with Omar after that.  


Pound’s health continued to decline and time took its toll on other writers in his circle.  William Carlos Williams died in 1963 followed by T. S. Eliot in 1965.  Pound eulogized Eliot as follows in the Sewanee Review:  “…who is there now to share a joke with?  Am I to write ‘about’ the poet Thomas Stearns Eliot?  My friend the ‘Possum’?  Let him rest in peace, I can only repeat, but with the urgency of fifty years ago: READ HIM.”  Pound attended Eliot’s funeral and travelled to London afterward to visit Yeats’s widow. Two years later, he went to New York for the opening of an exhibition featuring his blue-inked version of Eliot’s “The Waste Land”. After that, Pound’s life was essentially spent in seclusion.  Dorothy only came to see him twice during the last four years of his life  


Pound died in his sleep the day after his eighty-seventh birthday with Olga, ever loyal, beside him holding his hand. He was buried near Diaghilev and Stravinsky on the island cemetery, Isola di San Michele. Dorothy died the following year and Olga passed away in 1996, one month shy of her one hundred and first birthday. She is buried next to Pound. 


Somerset Maugham Presents the Levantine, “Mr. Know-All”
by Edward Shaw

First, a little bit about this complex and gifted writer. . .

Novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist and travel writer, Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was among the most notable authors of the 20th century. His work is characterized by a clear, unaffected style, cosmopolitan settings and an insightful understanding of human nature.

Maugham’s writing spanned many genres, and he was prolific. Four of the more than thirty plays he wrote were running simultaneously in London’s West End at one time. Only Bernard Shaw exceeded that record. Maugham was especially renowned for his many short stories, and he was also the single most recognized writer of travel stories between World War One and World War Two. Several of his novels – Of Human Bondage, The Razor’s Edge, Cakes and Ale and The Moon and Sixpence come to mind – were widely recognized as masterpieces. 

Maugham was the highest paid writer in the world during the 1930s, and he also made a great deal of money from theater productions and Hollywood film adaptations of his work during and after WW II. He prospered financially from shrewd stock market investments, to boot.

Despite these successes, he did not get especially high marks from many critics and other writers of his era. They found his clear, lucid and economical writing style to be plain and suited, at best, to his short stories. The avant-garde writers of the emerging modernist movement – Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Thomas Mann et al – were more popular and often held in higher esteem by the literary intelligentsia. Maugham, himself, was  quoted as saying “I have never pretended to be anything but a story-teller” in his 1947 booklet with that same quote for its title, and he attributed the criticism to his own acknowledged lack of a lyrical quality, small vocabulary and failure to use metaphors.      

Some personal details about Maugham may be illuminating. His mother died of TB when he was eight and he was known to have kept her photo by his bedside his entire life. His father died when Maugham was ten, so he was sent off to live with his cold, emotionally cruel uncle, the Vicar of Whitstable. At King’s School, Canterbury, where he had been enrolled, he was teased about his small stature and poor English (French was his first language) and while there developed a lifelong stammer. He also acquired the ability to retaliate with wounding remarks. 

He left school for Heidelberg at age sixteen, writing his first book there – a biography of Giacomo Myerbeer, the opera composer – and then returned to Britain to study medicine over a five year period.  He wrote a great deal during his studies and never looked back to medicine after the success of his first novel, Liza of Lambeth. Later, like Ernest Hemingway, he was an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in World War One and, subsequently, served as a spy in Russia and Switzerland for MI6, the British intelligence agency. 

Maugham had multiple relationships with both men and women and viewed attractive women as sexual rivals. His view of women was reflected in several of his works in which he portrayed them with strong sexual desires … sometimes resulting in reckless and dangerous behavior.  

Homosexuality was either disapproved of or criminal in most of the many countries Maugham visited during his lifetime. Some of his critics in turn have linked this to Maugham’s failure to condemn the villainous characters in his works. In his 1954 autobiography, Mr. Maugham Himself, Maugham effectively responds to the criticism with the statement “It must be a fault in me {sic} that I am not gravely shocked at the sins of others unless they personally affect me.” (p.564)  

He met Frederick Gerald Haxton, a San Franciscan, during his WWI travels. Haxton became Maugham’s lover and companion until his death in 1944, two years before Maugham’s return to England. Then, in 1946, Maugham took up with Alan Searle. Searle was considered common compared to Haxton but his personality was said to be a good fit for Maugham, who could be painfully shy on occasion. 

It was impossible for a public figure to be openly gay during Maugham’s lifetime, so he went to great lengths to avoid disclosure of his homosexuality.  He was especially consumed by Oscar Wilde’s ruinous fate following the latter’s 1895 trial and imprisonment.  The cover for prominent homosexuals was often a conventional marriage, and this was true for Maugham as well.  His marriage to Syrie Wellcome lasted 12 years and produced a child, Elizabeth, named after the title character of his novel, Liza of Lambeth.  

Syrie had previously been involved in a messy divorce from Henry Wellcome, the pharmaceutical magnate, and Maugham was named as co-respondent since he had fathered Liza while Syrie was still married to Wellcome.  She desperately wanted her subsequent marriage to Maugham to succeed, but in the end she could not tolerate his ongoing relationship and travels with Haxton.  After the divorce, she went on to become a legendary interior designer and was renowned, among other accomplishments, for creating the first all-white room.  

Maugham’s relationship with Liza was a casualty, at least in part, of his relationship with Alan Searle.  In the early 1960s, Maugham sought to attribute her paternity to Henry Wellcome so he could disinherit her and adopt Searle.  Liza sued, and after trials spanning twenty-one months in both French and English courts, won recognition of Maugham’s paternity and a judgment of $1,400,000.  Maugham died about two years later.  

Now, on to Maugham’s short story, “Mr. Know-All” …

“Mr. Know-All” is often characterized as a story about first impressions, prejudice, culture and manners. I would add at least some measure of redemption to that list. The story is told anonymously in the first person, thereby permitting readers to view only the thoughts, feelings and opinions of the nameless narrator.  

The setting for “Mr. Know-All” takes place shortly after the end of WW I on an ocean liner going from San Francisco to Yokohama. This setting is just one of many examples of Maugham’s affinity for travel stories. The narrator and a certain Mr. Kelada must share a cabin because of heavy postwar passenger demand for accommodations on ocean-going vessels. 

Even before meeting him, the narrator develops a prejudicial dislike for Mr. Kelada, a wealthy British citizen of non-European extraction, after viewing his shipmate’s luggage and toiletries that had been placed in their shared stateroom. His dark skin and “Levantine” origin feed the prejudice. (“Levantine” generally refers to someone from countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean – the “Levant” -- and, in Maugham’s time, was often used disparagingly.) Throughout the tale, Mr. Kelada displays behaviors that continue to reinforce the narrator’s initial dislike: immodesty, chattiness, boastfulness, dogmatism, pushiness and much more.   

There is no concealing the narrator’s increasing dislike for Mr. Kelada as the story progresses:

“I did not at all like Mr. Kelada.”

“King George has many strange subjects.”

“The Union Jack is an impressive piece of drapery, but when it is nourished by a gentleman from Alexandria or Beirut, I cannot but feel that it loses somewhat in dignity.” 

“Mr. Kelada was familiar.”

“Mr. Kelada was chatty.”

“…it was at mealtimes that he was most intolerable. For the better part of an hour he had us at his mercy. He knew everything better than anybody else, and it was an affront to his overweening vanity that you should disagree with him.”

“We called him Mr. Know-All, even to his face.  He took it as a compliment.”

A certain Mr. Ramsay and his wife shared the assigned dinner table with the narrator, Mr. Kelada and several other guests.  Mr. Ramsay was rancorous and as dogmatic as Mr. Kelada.  The two of them had many intense, acrimonious discussions during the dinners. Ramsay disliked Mr. Kelada at least as much or more as our narrator.  

One night at the dinner table the discussion led to pearls.  It turned out that Kelada was in the pearl trade, was expert in them, and proclaimed as much to the gathered dinner guests.  He then pointed to the cultured pearl necklace worn by Mrs. Ramsay and said they would be worth $15,000 in the trade or as much as $30,000 on Fifth Avenue. Ramsay pounced, stating his wife bought the pearls from a department store for eighteen dollars and offered to bet Kelada one hundred dollars that the pearls were imitations. Kelada gleefully seized on the opportunity and took the wager.

Earlier in the story, almost in a parenthetical fashion, Maugham gave us a few details about Ramsay and his wife. He was in the American Consular Service stationed in Kobe and had been away from his wife and his New York home for a year. He was very heavy and his ready-made clothes fit him poorly. Mrs. Ramsay was a “very pretty little thing, with pleasant manners and a sense of humour.” She dressed simply because her husband was ill-paid, but she still produced an air of “quiet distinction.” The narrator was especially struck by her modesty.

Maugham had set the stage and now it is back to the bet. Both Ramsay and Kelada asked Mrs. Ramsay to remove the string of pearls so Kelada could examine them with his jeweler’s loupe. She hesitatingly resisted, saying the clasp was stuck. Ramsay came over to her, undid the clasp and handed the necklace to Kelada for examination. The narrator suddenly felt something unfortunate was about to occur but could think of nothing to say.   

As Kelada examined the necklace, he smiled triumphantly and started to speak. Suddenly he saw Mrs. Ramsay blanch and appear about to faint and her eyes, wide with terror, held a desperate appeal. The narrator said it was so clear that “…I wondered why her husband did not see it.”  Kelada flushed, obviously struggling with himself, then said “I was mistaken…it’s a very good imitation.”  With trembling hands, he gives Mr. Ramsay a hundred dollar bill. Ramsay gloats and directs a stinging remark to Kelada. The story about the Levantine’s comeuppance spread throughout the ship that evening.

The next morning, as the narrator was shaving, he saw an envelope addressed to Mr. Kelada in block letters slipped under the stateroom door.  Kelada took it from the narrator, removed a hundred dollar bill, and then asked the narrator to throw the envelope (which he had torn to bits) out the porthole. At this point, the narrator asked him if the pearls were real. His reply:  “If I had a pretty little wife I shouldn’t let her spend a year in New York while I stayed at Kobe…”  Mr. Kelada had shown a wholly unexpected compassion for Mrs. Ramsay and, in the process, sacrificed himself to ridicule.  It seemed he had some decency, after all. 

The narrator ends the tale with “At that moment, I did not entirely dislike Mr. Kelada.” Thus, Maugham gives us the story twist, a signature trademark he so famously employed in many of his works, and Mr. Kelada gains a measure of redemption.