Samuel Butler (author)
BORN: 1835, Nottinghamshire, England
DIED: 1902, London, England
Erewhon; or, Over the Range (1872)
Life and Habit (1878)
Erewhon Revisited Twenty Years Later (1901)
The Way of All Flesh (1903)
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 Nottingham-shire, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 exposé 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
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
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—half-machine, 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.
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.
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 of Erewhon. 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.
Samuel Butler (1835–1902) was born in Nottinghamshire, England, on December 4. He was an early critic of evolutionary theory and was among the first to raise philosophical questions about human-machine relations. After being educated at Cambridge University Butler decided to forgo an anticipated ordination and moved to New Zealand to become a sheep rancher (1859–1864). There he read the biologist Charles Darwin's (1809–1882) On the Origin of Species (1859), whose theory of evolution became an obsession. Butler died in London on June 18.
At first Butler was convinced by the theories of Darwin; the two corresponded, and Butler became close friends with Darwin's son, Frances. Upon returning to England, Butler was initially a staunch defender of evolution. As a contribution to that defense he began a book to supplement Darwin's theory by elucidating the role of habit in relation to inheritance. However, while doing research Butler discovered the theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics of Jean Baptiste de Lamarck (1744–1829) as well as the biologist St. George Jackson Mivart's (1827–1900) critique of natural selection, Genesis of Species (1871). Now that he was convinced that Darwin was wrong, Butler's book, Life and Habit (1878), became an attack. It was followed by a series of other critiques that did not have wide influence: Evolution, Old and New (1879), Unconscious Memory (1880), and Luck, or Cunning? (1887).
Best known in the early 2000s for his novel The Way of All Flesh (published posthumously in 1903), Butler achieved literary and financial success during his life from two satirical novels that often are described as Swiftian: Erewhon (1872) and its sequel Erewhon Revisited (1900). Those works, which originated in an essay titled "Darwin among the Machines" (1863) and continued his lifelong preoccupation with evolution, are of particular interest in regard to the ethics of technology.
The books whose titles are the word nowhere spelled backward envision a dystopian society in which machine development has been limited consciously and severely. In the first novel an unnamed narrator accidentally visits Erewhon, a land ruled by philosophers and prophets who equate morality with beauty and health and illness with crime. In Chapters 23 to 25, collectively called "The Book of the Machines," the narrator (whose name, Higgs, is revealed in the continuation) reads a treatise that considers the possible evolution of machine consciousness and details the Erewhonian revolution that led to the prohibition of machines to prevent their domination of the human race. The author argues that the rapid evolution of "higher machines" will lead to their consciousness if steps are not taken "to nip the mischief in the bud and to forbid them further progress."
The narrative further speculates on the nature of consciousness and offers a prescient description of modern DNA testing, anticipating a time when it may "be possible, by examining a single hair with a powerful microscope, to know whether its owner could be insulted with impunity." There is also a linking of machine consciousness with miniaturization and a consideration of whether human life may be merely a step in machine evolution. Chapter 23 concludes:
We cannot calculate on any corresponding advance in man's intellectual or physical powers which shall be a set-off against the far greater development which seems in store for the machines. Some people may say that man's moral influence will suffice to rule them; but I cannot think it will ever be safe to repose much trust in the moral sense of any machine.
Selections from "The Book of Machines" have been reprinted frequently and often are used to initiate discussions of issues that remain fundamental to the ethics of technology.
JAMES A. LYNCH
SEE ALSO Utopia and Dystopia.
Breuer, Hans-Peter. (1975). "Samuel Butler's 'Book of the Machines' and the Argument from Design." Modern Philosophy 72: 365–383. Discusses Butler's reading of Darwin's theories.
Butler, Samuel. (1970). Erewhon, ed. Peter Mudford. New York: Viking. A standard reprint.
Pauly, Philip. (1982). "Samuel Butler and his Darwinian Critics." Victorian Studies 25: 161–180. A history of the rift between Butler and Darwin.
The English novelist and essayist Samuel Butler (1835-1902) was a critic of established religious, social, and scientific ideas.
Samuel Butler was born on Dec. 4, 1835, in Langar, near Bingham, Nottinghamshire, the son of the local vicar. In a time of common paternal absolutism, his childhood seems to have been bleak and graceless. After taking a degree at Cambridge, he came into open conflict with his father over the question of his future profession, and at last he emigrated to New Zealand to become a sheep farmer. But though free of his father, he was not free of revolt, and the spirit of resentful rebelliousness marked much of his later life. In New Zealand he read Charles Darwin's Origin of Species and wrote a series of newspaper articles setting forth Darwin's ideas and ingeniously applying the evolutionary hypothesis to machines. Having made a modest fortune, he returned to England in 1864.
Erewhon (1872), Butler's first book, is a mixture of satire, utopian theories, and serious speculation masked as whimsy. Set in the frame of a trip to an unknown land (Erewhon is an anagram of "no-where"), it has no real plot but is rather a description and discussion of the customs and institutions of Erewhon. In this land moral failings are treated as mental illness and cured by a "straightener," but physical illness and misfortune are considered crimes and severely punished. Children sign certificates absolving their parents of responsibility for their birth, and education is carried on in the College of Unreason.
Butler's reflections on orthodox religion, begun in New Zealand, issued in The Fair Haven (1873), an ironic attempt to reconcile the New Testament with rationalistic criticism. In Life and Habit he returned to the question of evolution. In Evolution Old and New (1879), Unconscious Memory (1880), and Luck, or Cunning? (1887), he developed his ideas with an increasingly self-righteous resentment of what he conceived to be the Darwinians' deliberate concealment of the truth. Butler hoped to be able to restore will, intelligence, and design to a universe apparently made meaningless by the blind process of natural selection.
The novel The Way of All Flesh, Butler's most famous work, was written between 1872 and 1885. It is the supposed biography of Ernest Pontifex, narrated by an older friend with an unrelenting candor deliberately affronting conventional pieties. The account of a grimly repressive childhood is based on Butler's own youth. As a young man, Ernest swings from naive religious zeal to despairing disillusionment, is imprisoned for propositioning an innocent girl, and upon his release makes a disastrous marriage. Finally free, he turns to a career as writer and intellectual gadfly, exposing the evils and hypocrisies of the established institutions and values that had twisted his own life.
Erewhon Revisited (1901) returns to the problem of religion and examines the relationship between rational truth and religious faith.
The primary biographical source is Henry Festing Jones, Samuel Butler: A Memoir (2 vols., 1919). A shorter, more critical biography is Clara G. Stillman, Samuel Butler: A Mid-Victorian Modern (1932). Two good studies of Butler's ideas are P. N. Furbank, Samuel Butler (1948), and Basil Willey, Darwin and Butler: Two Versions of Evolution (1960).
Butler, Samuel, Butleriana, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1976.
Jones, Henry Festing, Samuel Butler: a sketch, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1977.
Raby, Peter, Samuel Butler: a biography, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991. □
The English poet Samuel Butler (ca. 1613-1680) is best known as the author of "Hudibras," a long comic poem that satirizes the Puritans.
The exact date of Samuel Butler's birth is unknown. He was baptized Feb. 14, 1613, in Strensham, Worcestershire. The son of a yeoman farmer, he attended the King's School in Worcester. Shortly after leaving school, about 1628, he entered the service of Elizabeth, Countess of Kent, at her home at Wrest, Bedfordshire. At Wrest he enjoyed the use of the countess's magnificent library and met some of the most learned men of his time.
During the period of the Commonwealth, Butler served as clerk to a number of country magistrates, several of whom were dedicated Puritans. While in the households of these men, he seems to have suppressed his own religious and political convictions and to have busied himself with the writing of Hudibras. It seems probable that Butler modeled his character of the ridiculous Sir Hudibras on the characters of at least two of his Puritan employers.
It was not until after the death of Cromwell that Butler published his first essay, Mola asinaria (1659), pleading for the restoration of the Stuarts. In 1662 Butler began publishing Hudibras in installments. The first part, written in rhyming octosyllabic couplets, appeared late in 1662, the second in 1663, and the third in 1677. It was an immediate success, particularly with the King and his court. Many of the surviving copies of the first edition are inscribed as gifts of Charles II to members of the court, and the number of pirated versions and spurious sequels of the poem testify to its popularity with the general public.
Although Hudibras brought Butler fame, he seems to have lived in relative obscurity after 1663. Little is known of his character and occupation during the years in which he produced the bulk of his writings. Of moderate height and strong build, he is said to have been "a good fellow" possessing "severe and sound judgment." Records show that he was employed as secretary to secretary to George Villiers, 2d Duke of Buckingham, for some time in the early 1670s. It is believed that he remained in London after 1677, occupying a room in Rose Alley, Covent Garden. He died Sept. 25, 1680.
Butler's contemporaries seem to have held Charles II responsible for the poverty in which the poet spent his last years. But in 1677 Charles granted Butler an annual pension of £100. He was buried at the expense of William Longueville, who later collected his unpublished manuscripts. These were kept intact by Longueville's heirs and published in 1759. The volumes contained much occasional poetry, a satire on the Royal Society entitled "The Elephant on the Moon," and a series of prose character sketches.
The most interesting discussion of Butler and his work is by John Wilders in his edition of Hudibras (1967). An earlier biographical account is Jan Veldkamp, Samuel Butler: The Author of Hudibras (1923). Critical discussions of Hudibras and its place in English literary tradition include Edward Ames Richards, Hudibras in the Burlesque Tradition (1937), and Ian Jack, Augustan Satire: Intention and Idiom in English Poetry, 1660-1750 (1952).
Veldkamp, Jan, Samuel Butler, the author of Hudibras, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978. □
Butler, Samuel (1835–1902, English author)
Samuel Butler, 1835–1902, English author. He was the son and grandson of eminent clergymen. In 1859, refusing to be ordained, he went to New Zealand, where he established a sheep farm and in a few years made a modest fortune. He returned to England in 1864 and devoted himself to a variety of interests, including art, music, biology, and literature. Besides exhibiting some of his paintings (1868–76) at the Royal Academy, he composed several works in collaboration with Henry Festings Jones, among them the Handelian Narcissus: A Dramatic Cantata (1888). His Erewhon, in which he satirized English social and economic injustices by describing a country in which manners and laws were the reverse of those in England, appeared in 1872. It brought Butler immediate literary fame. Erewhon Revisited was published in 1901. Butler opposed Darwin's explanation of evolution, finding it too mechanistic, and he expounded his own theories in Evolution Old and New (1879), Unconscious Memory (1880), and Luck or Cunning as the Main Means of Organic Modification? (1887). In his single novel, the autobiographical The Way of All Flesh (1903), he attacked the Victorian pattern of life, in particular the ecclesiastical environment in which he was reared. Brilliantly ironic and witty, The Way of All Flesh is ranked among the great English novels. Butler's notebooks were published in 1912.
See selections from the notebooks ed. by G. Keynes and B. Hill (1951). See also A. Sliver, ed., The Family Letters of Samuel Butler, 1841–1886 (1962); biographies by H. F. Jones (1921, repr. 1973), L. E. Holt (1964), and P. Henderson (1953, repr. 1967); study by W. G. Becker (1925, repr. 1964).
J. A. Cannon
A. S. Hargreaves
Butler, Samuel (1612–80, English poet and satirist)
Samuel Butler, 1612–80, English poet and satirist. During the Puritan Revolution he served Sir Samuel Luke, a noted officer of Cromwell. After the restoration of Charles II, he wrote his famous mock-heroic poem Hudibras (pub. in 3 parts, 1663, 1664, 1678), an envenomed satire against the Puritans in which Luke was the model for the butt Sir Hudibras. He was also the author of other verse satires, some of them not published until the 20th cent.
See J. Wilders' edition of Hudibras (1967); biography by T. Penelhum (1985); studies by H. DeQuehen, ed. (1979) and T. L. Jeffers (1981).