The Razor’s Edge From the July 28, 1942 edition of the Vineyard Gazette:

Many different influences, some deep-running and others fleeting and unpredictable, have brought visitors to Martha’s Vineyard over a long period of years. W. Somerset Maugham, who has visited many islands of the world, was never drawn this way until now, and in the end it was the shortage of rubber which led him to the Vineyard. Here he stays at the Colonial Inn in Edgartown only a few yards from the room where Nathaniel Hawthorne slept something more than a century ago.

It is natural to comment on the fact that Maugham is a guest at the same inn, by descent, which entertained Hawthorne, for between the coming of these two it is doubtful whether any world figure in letters, in the same meaning of the term, has sampled Edgartown air and sea water. Herman Melville sailed under a Vineyard captain, but no one has ever found evidence that he himself came here. The man who wrote Of Human Bondage belongs in the great succession, and since this Island more than most places of the earth takes pride in its visitors — which is perhaps an Island prerogative — his arrival at once goes into an unwritten but well remembered record.

Actually the shortage of rubber is only the most recent link in a chain of causes. The Nazi conquest of France gave Mr. Maugham the shortest of chances to escape from his villa where he had more or less settled down after years of activity which began in the first World War. Government service at the time gave him a taste for travel, and for some years he went to many far places, ultimately choosing the south of France for a home because a former illness, contracted in Russia while on wartime duty there under conditions of near-starvation, made it important for him to seek a sunny climate.

Then came the German deluge. With only a suitcase, a pillow and a blanket he left behind him his home, his manuscripts and books, everything he had collected to keep with him through the years, and found refugee passage on a collier. He lived and slept in the coal dust and dirt with other refugees for the length of an incredibly long passage — more than twenty days — to England.

This sudden exile and violent loss of everything except four suits — which were the chief contents of the suitcase by an emergency choice he now thinks was wise — upset him deeply for the first twenty-four hours. Then he wrote it all off with the words uttered to himself. “To hell with it. The only important thing is to win this war.”

England in those days did not mean safety, and there Mr. Maugham went through the bombing of London. He says everyone took it well, and he has no doubt that whatever may happen over here our people will take it will. Ultimately he came to this country, and in the winter season he occupies a cottage on a large estate in South Carolina, an environment which he likes — and beyond many acres of marsh land he looks out upon a river as blue as the water of the Riviera. But on this estate he is remote from any town and must drive twenty-four miles if he wishes to buy a chop, or anything else.

Here the chain of causes comes to an end, with rubber. It was important for Mr. Maugham to spend the summer in a place where he would not require a car, thus saving his tires for the indispensable driving of the winter months. A friend suggested Edgartown, and here he is, swimming in the morning, working in the afternoon, and finding his choice satisfactory. Where he wishes to go he can walk — except that he takes the launch to the beach — and he walks with enjoyment.

But if it had not been for all the unbelievable mixing up of the world which began with the aggressions of Hitler, it would have been some other beach, in sunny France, and not the sandy shore of Chappaquiddick.

Incidentally, Mr. Maugham likes the bathing here, but he says quite candidly that it does not come up to that of the Riviera. The water there is warmer, and he likes warm water. So far as he has observed, the Vineyard water is not so blue. Comparison with the English Channel, though, is all in the Vineyard’s favor.

This is why Mr. Maugham came to the Island, and this is what he is doing here. That further question, which is invariably asked on such occasions — what is he like? — is hard to answer, but not for the usual reasons. In a way the question is a fair one, because the human race is curious about a man who has written what Mr. Maugham has written.

When one talks with him on a summer evening in Edgartown he seems most of all the same individual, but on closer acquaintance, already met in many printed pages in which he has told about himself and talked about books. There is no difference. The candor and clarity with which he has written seem to leave no chance for footnotes of qualification or revision — certainly not on any brief notice. This is not always true of writers, but it should be.

Compiled by Hilary Wall