- imperial, colonial and postcolonial history
- scientific and medicinal prose
- travel writing
- Victorian literature
Though he worked in many mediums and on many topics, Samuel Butler (1835–1902) was known during his lifetime as the author of the utopian satire Erewhon (1872). However, the posthumous publication of his journals and semi-autobiographical novel The Way of All Flesh (1902) reframed Butler as a blunt critic of Victorian culture and morality. Butler also published a range of texts, including neo-Lamarckian responses to Darwin, additional novels and literary commentaries, prose translations of and commentaries on Homer, and travelogues of northern Italy. Butler was also drawn to the visual arts, studying painting as a young man and practicing photography later in life.
Samuel Butler (1835–1902) was a late Victorian writer best known during his lifetime as the author of the utopian satire Erewhon (1872). However, the posthumous publication of his journals and semiautobiographical novel The Way of All Flesh (1902) reframed Butler as a blunt critic of Victorian culture and morality. Recent scholarship on Butler has examined his fiction in relation to his varied interests, including his popular science writings, travelogues, and literary criticism; his work in the visual arts as a painter and photographer; and his writings on sexuality in light of his personal life and gender developments in the fin de siècle. Butler's iconoclastic views and works influenced modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce as well as postmodern philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.
Butler's family profoundly affected his life and work, particularly his understanding of habits, memories, and preexisting ideas. The son of an Anglican clergyman, and grandson of a Bishop (and former headmaster of Shrewsbury School, which he would attend), Butler was enrolled in the paternal alma maters and expected to enter the Church. For two years following Cambridge, he lived in an impoverished London parish and prepared to take orders but eventually refused when he realized baptism failed to make one moral. His father would not support his desire to study art, so Butler emigrated to New Zealand, where he operated a successful sheep station in Canterbury from 1859 until 1864. Butler's first publication, A First Year at Canterbury Settlement (1863), a collection of letters home edited by his father, describes his experiences.
In New Zealand, Butler also first read Darwin, and wrote articles interrogating his ideas for a local newspaper. Erewhon uses portions of these essays in its chapters on machinery's evolutionary triumph over man, and revisions indicate Butler's increasing suspicion of the chief role Darwin attributed to natural selection in directing evolution. In his later work Life and Habit, Butler championed a neo-Lamarckian position that emphasized a vital force directing evolutionary change; in short, evolution was not directed by natural selection's “strokes of luck” but rather by “strokes of cunning,” habits transmitted through species-memories that reveal a species-wide “study of the past and present which have given shrewd people a key with which to unlock the chambers of the future” (1878, 248–49). Butler's rejection of natural selection reflects his idiosyncrasies and iconoclastic attitude toward those he saw as powerful or privileged (it may not have helped matters that Butler's father had known Darwin at school). Yet Butler's rejection of natural selection also reflects a broader trend in late Victorian reaction to Darwin, which insisted natural selection's effects were limited and could not account for evolutionary change as such. Butler returned to this line of argument in Evolution Old and New (1879), Unconscious Memory (1880), and Luck or Cunning? (1887).
In 1864, Butler returned to Britain financially independent, and began to study art in London, where he resided until his death. His career as a painter was unsuccessful, though he infrequently exhibited works in the Royal Academy until 1877. Later in life, Butler took up photography, focusing on the art and people of northern Italy, where he vacationed almost yearly; he also published two travelogues of the area, and its geography led him to argue a northern Italian woman wrote The Odyssey. Butler's personal life has led to scholarly speculation about his sexuality. His writing in the 1870s benefited from Eliza Savage's editorial advice, but their collaboration ended when Butler realized she expected marriage. Savage's unexpected death in 1885 led Butler to rue his treatment of her, but he remained adamantly opposed to the idea of marriage. Butler preferred prostitutes, and kept one on salary for himself and his friend and biographer, Henry Festing Jones. Butler's bachelor life was marked by close male attachments, and he employed young men who interested him as secretaries and companions. Although biographer Peter Raby doubts Butler's homosexuality, personal attraction may help explain Butler's peculiar relationship with Charles Pauli: Butler gave Pauli over £6500 during the course of thirty-odd years, much of it in yearly £200 “loans” he could ill afford, ostensibly because Pauli's father had cut him off. However, Pauli had no need of these loans, a fact Butler learned after Pauli's death, and was by all accounts indifferent to him. For some critics, Butler's infatuation with Hans Rudolph Faesch, a young man he met on holiday, proves similarly symptomatic. In 1895, Butler circulated for publication an affectionate poem about Faesch, “In Memoriam HRF,” but withdrew it due to the Wilde trial. Yet in 1899 Butler also published an essay similar to Wilde's The Portrait of W. H., arguing that rearranging Shakespeare's sonnets provided evidence of a homosexual affair.
Erewhon, or Over the Range (1872) was Butler's first and only literary success, a utopian satire of Victorian customs and the influence of prophets on these customs. Its success was short-lived; sales dropped once the public learned the anonymous novel was not Bulwer-Lytton's sequel to The Coming Race (1871). Although critics often discuss the novel's New Zealand setting and its relation to the British imperial project, Erewhon's satirical targets so closely intertwined with Butler's biography that his family found the book offensive when they learned of his authorship. Their reaction led him to slow work on, and eventually withhold from publication, the autobiographical Way of All Flesh, begun in 1872.
Butler's next published work, The Fair Haven (1873), satirizes Christian counter-arguments to rationalist objections to the Resurrection, but most readers missed its ironies. Butler's subsequent work had little audience, and he paid for many of his publications. Toward the end of his life, Butler obtained a new publisher for Erewhon Revisited (1901) and a revised version of Erewhon through George Bernard Shaw. However, Butler's reputation was revitalized by the posthumous publication of The Way of All Flesh (which included an introduction from Shaw). Structured to exemplify his view of habits across generations, the novel traces three generations of the Pontifex family to mount a pointed critique of Victorian parenting, schooling, religion, and sexual morality. His portrait of Ernest Pontifex draws heavily on his childhood, education at Shrewsbury, and relation to the Church. Published along with his philosophically biting journals, The Way of All Flesh helped crystallize an Edwardian rejection of Victorian social and cultural mores that influenced emerging modernist writers.
SEE ALSO: Science writers, male; Shaw, George Bernard; Utopia and dystopia; Wilde, Oscar
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