Samuel Butler (4 December 1835 – 18 June 1902) was an iconoclastic Victorian-era English author who published a variety of works. Two of his most famous pieces are the Utopian satire Erewhon and a semi-autobiographical novel published posthumously, The Way of All Flesh. He is also known for examining Christian orthodoxy, substantive studies of evolutionary thought, studies of Italian art, and works of literary history and criticism. Butler made prose translations of the Iliad and Odyssey, which remain in use to this day.
Butler was born on 4 December 1835 at the rectory in the village of Langar, near Bingham, Nottinghamshire, England, to the Rev. Thomas Butler, son of Dr. Samuel Butler, then headmaster of Shrewsbury School and later Bishop of Lichfield. Dr Butler was the son of a tradesman and descended from a line of yeomen, but his scholarly aptitude being recognised at young age, was sent to Rugby and Cambridge, where he distinguished himself and launched his successful career. His only son Thomas wished to go into the Navy, but succumbed to paternal pressure and entered the Church, in which he led a wholly undistinguished career, all the more so in contrast with his father's. It has been suggested that this family dynamic had some impact on Samuel, insofar as it created the oppressive home environment (chronicled in The Way of All Flesh) which formed his approach to the world. Thomas Butler, states one critic, “to make up for having been a servile son, became a bullying father.”
In any event, Samuel Butler's relationship with his parents, and especially with his father, was largely antagonistic. His education began at home and included frequent beatings, as was not uncommon at the time. Samuel, however, found his parents particularly “brutal and stupid by nature,” and their relationship to him never progressed beyond the adversarial. He later recorded of his father that, “He never liked me, nor I him; from my earliest recollections I can call to mind no time when I did not fear him and dislike him…. I have never passed a day without thinking of him many times over as the man who was sure to be against me.” Under his parents' influence, he was set on course to follow his father into the priesthood. He was sent to Shrewsbury at the age of twelve (where he did not enjoy the hard life under its then headmaster, Benjamin Hall Kennedy, whom he later drew as “Dr Skinner” in The Way of All Flesh). Then in 1854 he went up to St John's College, Cambridge, where he obtained a first in Classics in 1858 (the graduate society of St John's is named the Samuel Butler Room (SBR) in his honour).
After Cambridge he went to live in a low-income parish in London 1858–59 as preparation for his ordination into the Anglican clergy; there he discovered that baptism made no apparent difference to the morals and behaviour of his peers and began questioning his faith. This experience would later serve as inspiration for his work The Fair Haven. Correspondence with his father about the issue failed to set his mind at peace, inciting instead his father's wrath. As a result, he emigrated in September 1859, on the ship Roman Emperor to New Zealand. Butler went there like many early British settlers of privileged origins, to put as much distance as possible between himself and his family. He wrote of his arrival and life as a sheep farmer on Mesopotamia Station in A First Year in Canterbury Settlement (1863), and made a handsome profit when he sold his farm, but the chief achievement of his time there was the drafts and source material for much of his masterpiece Erewhon.
Erewhon revealed Butler's long interest in Darwin's theories of biological evolution. In 1863, four years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the editor of a New Zealand newspaper, The Press, published a letter captioned “Darwin among the Machines.” Written by Butler but signed Cellarius (q.v.,) it compares human evolution to machine evolution, prophesying that machines would eventually replace man in the supremacy of the earth: “In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race.” The letter raises many of the themes now debated by proponents of the technological singularity, i. e. that computers evolve much faster than humans and that we are racing towards an unknowable future through explosive technological change.
Butler also spent much time criticising Darwin, partly because Butler (himself a man living in the shadow of a previous Samuel Butler) believed that Darwin had not sufficiently acknowledged his grandfather Erasmus Darwin's contribution to the origins of his theory.
Butler returned to England in 1864, settling in rooms in Clifford's Inn (near Fleet Street), where he lived for the rest of his life. In 1872, the Utopian novel Erewhon appeared anonymously, causing some speculation as to the identity of the author. When Butler revealed himself, Erewhon made him a well-known figure, more because of this speculation than for its literary merits, which have been undisputed.
In 1839 his grandfather Dr Butler had left Samuel property he owned at Whitehall in Shrewsbury on the condition that he survived his own father and his aunt, Dr Butler's daughter Harriet Lloyd. While at Cambridge in 1857 he sold the Whitehall mansion and six acres to his cousin Thomas Bucknall Lloyd, but kept the remaining land surrounding the mansion. His aunt died in 1880 and his father's death in 1886 resolved his financial problems for the last sixteen years of his own life. The land at Whitehall was sold for housing development and he laid out and named four roads – Bishop and Canon Streets after his grandfather's and father's clerical titles, Clifford Street after his London home, and Alfred Street in gratitude to his clerk.
Butler indulged himself, holidaying in Italy every summer and producing, while he was there, his works on the Italian landscape and art. His close interest in the art of the Sacri Monti is reflected in Alps and Sanctuaries of Piedmont and the Canton Ticino (1881) and Ex Voto (1888). He wrote a number of other books, including a not so successful sequel, Erewhon Revisited. His semi-autobiographical novel The Way of All Flesh did not appear in print until after his death, as he considered its tone of satirical attack on Victorian morality too contentious.
Butler died aged 66 on 18 June 1902 at a nursing home in St John's Wood Road, London. By his wish he was cremated at Woking Crematorium, and by differing accounts his ashes dispersed or buried in an unmarked grave.
George Bernard Shaw and E.M. Forster were great admirers of the later Samuel Butler, who brought a new tone into Victorian literature and began a long tradition of New Zealand utopian/dystopian literature that would culminate in works by Jack Ross, William Direen and Scott Hamilton.
Butler never married, and although he did for years make regular visits to a woman, Lucie Dumas, he also “had a predilection for intense male friendships, which is reflected in several of his works.”
His first significant male friendship was with the young Charles Pauli, son of a German businessman in London, whom Butler met in New Zealand; they returned to England together in 1864 and took neighbouring apartments in Clifford's Inn. Butler had made a large profit from the sale of his New Zealand farm, and undertook to finance Pauli's study of law by paying him a regular pension, which Butler continued to do long after the friendship had cooled, until Butler had spent all of his savings. Upon Pauli's death in 1892, Butler was shocked to learn that Pauli had benefited from similar arrangements with other men and had died wealthy, but without leaving Butler anything in his will.
After 1878, Butler became close friends with Henry Festing Jones, whom Butler persuaded to give up his job as a solicitor to be Butler's personal literary assistant and travelling companion, at a salary of £200 a year. Although Jones kept his own lodgings at Barnard's Inn, the two men saw each other daily until Butler's death in 1902, collaborating on music and writing projects in the daytime, and attending concerts and theatres in the evenings; they also frequently toured Italy and other favourite parts of Europe together. After Butler's death, Jones edited Butler's notebooks for publication and published his own biography of Butler in 1919.
Another significant friendship was with Hans Rudolf Faesch, a Swiss student who stayed with them in London for two years, improving his English, before departing for Singapore. Both Butler and Jones wept when they saw him off at the railway station in early 1895, and Butler subsequently wrote a very emotional poem, “In Memoriam H. R. F.”, instructing his literary agent to offer it for publication to several leading English magazines. However, once the Oscar Wilde trial began in the spring of that year, with revelations of homosexual behaviour among the literati, Butler feared being associated with the widely reported scandal and in a panic wrote to all the magazines, withdrawing his poem. Tellingly, in his Memoir Jones describes this as a “Calamus poem”; both men would have been aware of Walt Whitman's homoerotic poems of the same name, as well as the very famous but less directly homoerotic In Memoriam by Alfred, Lord Tennyson lamenting the death of his friend Arthur Hallam. Jones adds that Butler chose that title because “he had persuaded himself that we should never see Hans again.”
Beginning with Malcolm Muggeridge in 1937, a number of literary critics have discussed Butler's sublimated or repressed homosexuality, comparing his lifelong pose as an “incarnate bachelor” to the very similar bachelorhoods among his contemporaries of other writers assumed to be homosexual but closeted, such as Walter Pater, Henry James, and E. M. Forster. As Herbert Sussman speculates:
There can be little doubt as to the intensity of Butler's same-sex desire, and the intensity with which he deployed the bachelor mode to regulate it. Victorian bachelorhood enabled a middle-class man who rejected matrimony to remain distinctly middle-class…. For Butler, as for Pater and James, the aim of bachelordom was to contain the homoerotic within the respectable…. With Pauli, and with Jones and Faesch, Butler most likely kept within the homosocial boundaries of his time. There is no evidence of genital contact with other men, although the temptations of overstepping the line strained his close male relationships.
Regarding the visits to Lucie Dumas (Jones was also a client of hers, and Butler paid for his visits), Sussman says, “Even the scheduled excursions into heterosexual sex functioned less to relieve the sexual tension of bachelorhood than to act out the intense same-sex desire for one's daily companions…. In characteristic Victorian fashion, then, these men… perform their sexual bond through the body of a woman.”
Literary history and criticism Butler developed a theory that the Odyssey came from the pen of a young Sicilian woman, and that the scenes of the poem reflected the coast of Sicily (especially the territory of Trapani) and its nearby islands. He described the “evidence” for this theory in his The Authoress of the Odyssey (1897) and in the introduction and footnotes to his prose translation of the Odyssey (1900). Robert Graves elaborated on this hypothesis in his novel Homer's Daughter. In a lecture entitled “The Humour of Homer”, delivered at The Working Men's College in London, 1892, Butler argued that Homer's gods in the Iliad are like men but “without the virtue” and that the poet “must have desired his listeners not to take them seriously.” Butler translated the Iliad (1898). His other works include Shakespeare's Sonnets Reconsidered (1899), a theory that Shakespeare's sonnets, if rearranged, tell a story about a homosexual affair.
The English novelist Aldous Huxley acknowledged the influence of Erewhon on his novel Brave New World. Huxley's Utopian counterpart to Brave New World, Island, also prominently refers to Erewhon.
Jacques Barzun in From Dawn to Decadence asks “Could a man do more to bewilder the public?”.
Butler belonged to no literary school, and spawned no followers during his lifetime. A serious but amateur student of the subjects he undertook, especially religious orthodoxy and evolutionary thought, his controversial assertions effectively shut him out from both of the opposing factions of church and science which played such a large role in late Victorian cultural life: “In those days one was either a religionist or a Darwinian, but he was neither.” His influence on literature, such as it was, came through The Way of All Flesh, which Butler completed in the 1880s but left unpublished to protect his family, yet the novel, “begun in 1870 and not touched after 1885, was so modern when it was published in 1903, that it may be said to have started a new school,” particularly in the use of psychoanalytical modes of thought in fiction, which “his treatment of Ernest Pontifex [the hero] foreshadows.”
Whether in his satire and fiction, his studies on the evidences of Christianity, his works on evolutionary thought or in his miscellaneous other writings, a consistent theme runs through Butler's work, stemming largely from his personal struggle with the stifling of his own nature by his parents, which led him on to seek more general principles of growth, development and purpose: “What concerned him was to establish his nature, his aspirations and their fulfillment upon a philosophic basis, to identify them with the nature, the aspirations, the fulfillment of all humanity – and more than that – with the fulfillment of the universe . . . His struggle became generalized, symbolic, tremendous.” The form that this search took was principally philosophical and – given the interests of the day – biological: “Satirist, novelist, artist and critic that he was, he was primarily a philosopher,” and in particular a philosopher who looked for the biological foundations for his work: “His biology was a bridge to a philosophy of life which sought a scientific basis for religion and endowed a naturalistically conceived universe with a soul.” Indeed, “philosophical writer” was ultimately the self-description Butler chose as most fitting to his work.
Butler accepted evolution but rejected Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. In his book Evolution, Old and New (1879) he accused Darwin of borrowing heavily from Buffon, Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck, whilst playing down these influences and giving them little credit. In 1912, biologist Vernon Kellogg described Butler's views as follows:
Butler, though strongly anti-Darwinian (that is, anti-natural selection and anti-Charles Darwin) is not anti-evolutionist. He professes, indeed, to be very much of an evolutionist, and in particular one who has taken it upon his shoulders to reinstate Buffon and Erasmus Darwin, and, as a follower of these two, Lamarck, in their rightful place as the most believable explainers of the factors and method of evolution. His evolution belief is a sort of Butlerized Lamarckism, tracing back originally to Buffon and Erasmus Darwin.
Historian Peter J. Bowler has described Butler as a defender of neo-Lamarckian evolution. Bowler noted that “Butler began to see in Lamarckism the prospect of retaining an indirect form of the design argument. Instead of creating from without, God might exist within the process of living development, represented by its innate creativity.”
Butler's writings on evolution were criticized by scientists. Critics have pointed out that Butler admitted to be writing entertainment rather than science and his writings were not taken seriously by most professional biologists. Butler's books were negatively reviewed in Nature by George Romanes and Alfred Russel Wallace. Romanes stated that Butler's views on evolution had no basis from science.
Biography and criticism
Butler's friend Henry Festing Jones wrote the authoritative biography: the two-volume Samuel Butler, Author of Erewhon (1835–1902): A Memoir (commonly known as Jones's Memoir), published in 1919 and reissued by HardPress Publishing in 2013. Project Gutenberg hosts a shorter “Sketch” by Jones. More recently, Peter Raby has written a life: Samuel Butler: A Biography (Hogarth Press, 1991). The Way of All Flesh was published after Butler's death by his literary executor, R. Streatfeild, in 1903. This version however altered Butler's text in many ways and cut important material. The actual manuscript was edited by Daniel F. Howard as Ernest Pontifex, or The Way of All Flesh (Butler's original title) and published for the first time in 1965. For a critical study, mostly about The Way of All Flesh, see Thomas L. Jeffers, Samuel Butler Revalued (University Park: Penn State Press, 1981).