World Literature

Samuel Butler

 

BORN: 1835, Nottinghamshire, England

DIED: 1902, London, England

NATIONALITY: English

GENRE: Fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Erewhon; or, Over the Range (1872)

Life and Habit (1878)

Erewhon Revisited Twenty Years Later (1901)

The Way of All Flesh (1903)

 

 

Samuel Butler. Butler, Samuel, painting. The Library of Congress.

 

Overview

Samuel Butler was a renowned English author of the late Victorian period. A notorious iconoclast, he presented a scathing portrait of Victorian family life in the autobiographical novel The Way of All Flesh (1903), created satires of English society in Erewhon; or, Over the Range (1872) and Erewhon Revisited Twenty Years Later (1901), and opposed the dominant literary, religious, and scientific ideas of his day in numerous essays. Butler’s perceptive criticisms of Victorian England, influential during his lifetime, exerted an even greater impact on subsequent generations of writers and thinkers. As a result, he is often cited as one of the primary progenitors of the early-twentieth-century reaction against Victorian attitudes.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

From England to New Zealand. Butler was born on December 4, 1835, in a small village in Nottinghamshire, England, to Reverend Thomas Butler, the son of an Anglican clergyman and the grandson of a bishop, and Fanny Worsley. Butler grew up in England at a time known as the Victorian era, during which Queen Victoria ruled England and its territories (including New Zealand). Queen Victoria sat on the throne longer than any other British monarch, from 1837 until 1901. This period saw significant changes for both Britain and Europe as a whole, with industrialization leading much of the population to jobs in factories instead of on farms as in the past. The era also witnessed an extended period of peace and prosperity, leading many free to pursue intellectual interests and occupy themselves with the complex rules of behavior found in ‘‘proper’’ society.

Educated at a boarding school near his home, Butler later attended the prestigious Shrewsbury School, where the curriculum emphasized classical studies. Butler continued his education at Cambridge, and, after graduating in 1858, followed family tradition by preparing to enter the clergy. During his clerical training, however, he developed doubts about his vocation, and the next year he announced to his father that he did not wish to be ordained. After much debate, during which alternative careers in medicine, art, and diplomacy were proposed, it was decided that Butler would be allowed to move to New Zealand with a small financial endowment and attempt to establish himself there as a rancher. He left England soon afterward, arriving in the Canterbury region of New Zealand in January of 1860.

Butler remained in New Zealand for nearly five years, running a highly successful sheep ranch and eventually doubling the value of his original investment. As owner of the ranch his duties were light, and he was able to read a great deal during this period. In 1861 Butler read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) in which Darwin outlined his theory of evolution through natural selection. The book strongly influenced Butler; he later commented that, for him, the theory of evolution had replaced Christianity. He subsequently submitted a series of articles to the Canterbury Press in 1862, defending and extrapolating from Darwin’s theory. Butler’s writings attracted much attention throughout New Zealand, and in 1863 Darwin himself wrote to the Press, praising Butler’s clear comprehension of his work. That year Butler’s father compiled a collection of his son’s letters and had them published as A First Year in Canterbury Settlement (1863). Soon afterward Butler sold his ranch to become a full-time contributor to the Canterbury Press.

Return to England and Turn to Satire. Returning to England late in 1864, and after an unsuccessful attempt to become an artist, he began writing his first major satire, Erewhon; or, Over the Range in 1870. Published anonymously in 1872, Erewhon—which, although it was an imaginary country, was clearly based on England and its Victorian society—was an immediate success; when Butler let it be known that he was the author of the work, he was thrust into the limelight. His renown was soon heightened by the publication of The Fair Haven (1873), a satirical denunciation of Christian doctrines misinterpreted by some clergymen as a brilliant defense of those beliefs. Butler next began work on the novel The Way of All Flesh, but soon realized that its intensely negative portrait of his family would gravely offend those members still living. In 1878 he set the uncompleted work aside.

During the last two decades of his life, Butler continued to oppose the dominant ideas of his time by publishing two controversial philological essays, contending in one that the Odyssey had been written by a woman and in the other that William Shakespeare had written his sonnets for a homosexual lover who, although socially inferior to the playwright, had treated him in a cavalier fashion. He also published English translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey, collaborated with his friend Henry Festing Jones on a number of musical compositions, and intermittently worked on the manuscript of The Way of All Flesh. Before his death in 1902 Butler left instructions that this last work should not be published until after the deaths of his two sisters, but his literary executor, R. A. Streatfeild, ignored those instructions and published The Way of All Flesh in 1903.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Butler's famous contemporaries include:

Charles Darwin (1809-1882): Author of On the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin is credited with the theory of evolution, a concept that was crucial to Samuel Butler's work.

Kate Chopin (1850-1904): American author whose The Awakening (1899) was extremely controversial during her lifetime because its heroine rejects her traditional female roles.

Carl Spitteler (1845-1924): This Swiss poet was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1919.

Ephraim Shay (1839-1916): American inventor who developed and patented the Shay locomotive, a widely used version of the steam locomotive.

Machado de Assis (1839-1908): This author of short stories and novels is considered the greatest Brazilian writer of all time.

Ferdinand von Zeppelin (1838-1917): German inventor whose greatest achievement is the development of the airship that bears his name.

 

Works in Literary Context

Butler’s most successful works were influenced both in form and content primarily by two thinkers, Jonathan Swift and Charles Darwin. Butler utilized a Swift-like sense of humor, channeled through his many works of satire. In Darwin, on the other hand, Butler found the germ of an idea—evolution—and developed from this seed a vast, varied, and highly criticized supplemental theory concerning the means of evolution. Without these predecessors and their themes, it is difficult to determine what Butler’s body of work would look like.

Satire. Erewhon, a satirical text whose targets are religion and Victorian society, has been criticized by some as too various in its scope, combining satire and utopianism in an inextricable mixture. But it is probably the most effective book of its kind in English literature since Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), which it resembles and which certainly influenced Butler. As Swift had done, Butler also makes the reader aware of the new perspectives from which any culture can be seen when reflected and distorted in an alien setting. Among his many telling suggestions, perhaps the most prophetic is that crime can be viewed as disease and illness as malingering; now there are specialists in the psychology of the criminal and in psychosomatic medicine.

Evolution. In Life and Habit, Butler addressed the issue of biological evolution. After long consideration of Darwin’s theory, Butler had come to believe that Darwin had failed to accurately identify the mechanism by which evolutionary adaptations were passed on from one generation to the next. Butler developed in Life and Habit and in three subsequent volumes the theory that biological traits are inherited through an unconscious memory of adaptations made by an organism’s ancestors in response to some specific need or desire, suggesting that this memory was incorporated into the physical structure of an embryo at the time of conception. Butler’s concern with Darwin’s work led to a celebrated conflict between the two men, produced not by the differences in their theories, but by a misunderstanding. In 1879 Darwin wrote a preface for the English translation of Ernst Krause’s essay on Darwin’s grandfather, who had also written about evolution. To the translation of his essay Krause added negative remarks concerning Butler’s theory, and Butler, who had read the original German version, erroneously attributed these revisions to Darwin. Embittered by what he considered unfair and unprofessional attacks on his ideas, Butler harbored resentment toward Darwin for the rest of his life, and Butler’s subsequent volumes of scientific writings contain numerous negative references to Darwin’s work. Despite his feelings about Darwin the man, however, Butler’s feelings about Darwin the biologist’s theories remained positive, and their influence on Butler’s work was tremendous.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

One of Butler's theories suggests that machines mark the next step in the evolution of human beings. The idea that mankind's creations will someday supplant mankind itself is a common fear, expressed in many forms of art. Here are some more works that deal with the fearful interaction between mankind and its creations:

The Terminator (1984), a film directed by James Cameron. In a future not that distant, not only have cyborgs—halfmachine, half-human organisms—become reality but so has time travel. These cyborgs, called terminators, are sent back in time to kill the mother of a future resistance leader.

''Trucks'' (1978), a short story by Stephen King. In this short story, set in a truck stop, humans huddle together in fear as semis come to life and slay their owners.

I, Robot (1950), a collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov. Science fiction pioneer Asimov established many of the conventions of robot interaction with humans now common in fiction and film.

 

Works in Critical Context

During his lifetime, Butler’s critical reputation was based on the success of Erewhon. His scientific writings, like Life and Habit, were viewed with interest but were generally dismissed as inferior to those of Darwin, whom critics deemed more qualified to discuss questions of biological evolution.

Butler’s posthumous rise to fame after the comparative obscurity in which he had lived out his life makes an interesting chapter in the history of literature. Obituaries reveal that in 1902 his work was not regarded as important, and The Way of All Flesh was hardly noticed on its publication in 1903; the Times Literary Supplement did not review it until 1919, by which time the novel’s fame had finally forced it to do so. But slowly critics and writers began to speak out. Through the years he was studied, emulated, and praised by Arnold Bennett, Desmond MacCarthy, Arthur Clutton-Brock, George Bernard Shaw, Marcus Hartog, Augustine Birrell, Edmund Gosse, Gilbert Cannon, W. Bateson, C. E. M. Joad, and E. M. Forster. Further, the anti-Victorian tenor of Butler’s writing was well before his time, and his criticisms of the restraints of his society, though controversial at the time, would soon become commonplace as England transitioned into the twentieth century and, in turn, modernity.

The Way of All Flesh. After 1903, the widely read and much-discussed The Way of All Flesh overshadowed all of Butler’s previous writings; appearing during one of the first waves of anti-Victorian reaction, the novel was hailed by critics as a brilliant expose and praised for its satiric wit. The Way of All Flesh was admired in particular by Bloomsbury critics Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Desmond MacCarthy, and E. M. Forster, who, while admitting that the novel was flawed, nevertheless found in it the embodiment of their own ideals. During the 1920s and 1930s, however, Butler’s reputation suffered a decline, with many politically and socially radical critics viewing his iconoclasm as limited and entirely conventional. In a renowned biography of Butler, Malcolm Muggeridge suggested that despite his outward posture of dissent Butler in fact failed to free himself from the most essential preconceptions of Victorian society, concluding that he was ‘‘not so much the anti-Victorian, as the ultimate Victorian.’’

Critics regard The Way of All Flesh as Butler’s most important work, significant both as a perceptive autobiography and as a brilliant criticism of the attitudes and institutions of Victorian England. While critics praise the satiric wit and keen intelligence displayed in the book, many suggest that Butler’s bitterness led him to subordinate such literary elements as plot and characterization to tirade, resulting in a powerful but nevertheless flawed work of literature. Others, however, have defended the depth and subtlety of Butler’s characterizations, noting that the only unsuccessful character in the novel is the main character, Ernest Pontifex, who appears to have been granted Butler’s great intelligence but given limited emotional depth.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Butler is highly regarded for his works of satire, including but not limited to the two Erewhon texts. Can you think of any books or films that satirize American society in this way? How are these satires like Butler’s?

2. Consider all the various machines around you, and think about what kinds of human actions they have replaced or altered. What do you make of Butler’s theory that the proliferation of machines marks the next step in human evolution? Support your thoughts in a short essay.

3. Using the Internet and your library, find out about the latest theories regarding evolution. Write a short essay comparing Butler’s understanding of the evolutionary process to today’s common theories of evolution. How are they similar? How are they different?

4. Read The Way of All Flesh. Then, using the Internet and the library, research some of the Victorian practices Butler satirizes. Based on your reading of Butler’s text and your research, do you think that Muggeridge’s claim that Butler wasn’t ‘‘anti-Victorian’’ so much as the ‘‘ultimate Victorian’’ is accurate? In a short essay, explain your reasoning.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Cannan, Gilbert. Samuel Butler: A Critical Study. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1915.

Furbank, P. N. Samuel Butler (1835-1902). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1948.

Garnett, R. S. Samuel Butler and His Family Relations. New York: Dutton, 1926.

Harris, John F. Samuel Butler, Author of ‘‘Erewhon’’: The Man and His Work. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1973.

Howard, Daniel F. Victorian Fiction: A Second Guide to Research. New York: Modern Language Association, 1978.

Jones, Joseph. The Cradle ofErewhon. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1959.

Muggeridge, Malcolm. The Earnest Atheist: A Study of Samuel Butler. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1936.

Norrman, Ralf. Samuel Butler and the Meaning of Chiasmus. New York: Macmillan, 1986.

Shaffer, Elinor. Erewhons of the Eye: Samuel Butler as Painter, Photographer, and Art Critic. London: Reaktion Books, 1988.

Willey, Basil. Darwin and Butler—Two Versions of Evolution. London: Chatto & Windus, 1960.