Samuel Butler (novelist)
4 December 1835|
Langar, near Bingham, Nottinghamshire, England
|Died||18 June 1902
Samuel Butler (4 or 5 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 also made prose translations of the Iliad and Odyssey which remain in use to this day.
Butler was born either on 4 or 5 December 1835 at the rectory in the village of Langar, near Bingham, Nottinghamshire, England, to the Rev. Thomas Butler, son of Dr. Samuel Butler, headmaster of Shrewsbury School and eventual Bishop of Lichfield. Dr. Butler was the son of a tradesman and descended from a line of yeomen, but, his scholarly aptitude being recognized 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 deeply 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 it 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 and then in 1854 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).
Following graduation from Cambridge, he lived in a low-income parish in London during 1858 and 1859 as preparation for his ordination to 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, in September 1859 he emigrated on the ship Roman Emperor to New Zealand, regarded as a British colony since the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 between the British Crown and many of the New Zealand Maori chiefs. Butler went there like many early British settlers of privileged origins, in order to put as much distance as possible between himself and his family. He wrote about his arrival and his 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 in New Zealand was the drafts and source material for much of his masterpiece Erewhon.
He 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 as the author, Erewhon made Butler a well-known figure, more because of this speculation than for its literary merits which are today undisputed.
His father's death in 1886 resolved his financial problems for the last sixteen years of his own life. He 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.
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 (half in jest[original research?]) 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 being debated by proponents of the Technological Singularity, namely, that computers are evolving much faster than biological humans and that we are racing toward an unknowable future with explosive technological change.
Butler also spent a great deal of time criticising Darwin, and this criticism was motivated 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. 
George Bernard Shaw and E.M. Forster were great admirers of the latter Samuel Butler, who brought a new tone into Victorian literature and began the long tradition of New Zealand utopian/dystopian literature that would culminate in works by Jack Ross (writer), William Direen and Scott Hamilton.
Butler never married, and although he did for years make regular weekly visits to a female prostitute, 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 handsome 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 neighboring 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 traveling companion, at a salary of 200 pounds 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 favorite 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 railroad 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 behavior 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.[original research?] Jones says 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 gay 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[ed] 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 titled "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.
Jacques Barzun, in From Dawn to Decadence, asks "Could a man do more to bewilder the public?".
Butler belonged to no 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 in order to protect his family. And 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 of Butler's novel] 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, however, 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 philosophic 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 sought 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 himself chose as most fitting to his work.
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 now only available from antiquarian booksellers. 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).
Major works by Butler
- Alps and Sanctuaries of Piedmont and the Canton Ticino (1881)
- Authoress of the Odyssey, The
- Book of the Machines, The (1863)
- Erewhon, or Over the Range (1872)
- Erewhon Revisited Twenty Years Later: Both by the Original Discoverer of the Country and by His Son (1901)
- Evolution, Old & New (1879)
- Ex Voto; An Account of the Sacred Monte or New Jerusalem at Verallo-Sessia (1888)
- Fair Haven, The
- Iliad of Homer, The: Rendered into English Prose
- God the Known and God the Unknown
- Life and habit (1878). Trubner (reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2009; ISBN 978-1-108-00551-7)
- Luck, or Cunning, as the Main Means of Organic Modification?
- Odyssey of Homer, The
- Shakespeare's Sonnets Reconsidered (1899)
- Unconscious Memory (1880)
- The Way of All Flesh (1903, also titled Ernest Pontifex; or, The Way of All Flesh)
- Robinson, Roger. "Butler, Samuel - Biography". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 2 October 2012.
- Stillman, Clara G. (1932). Samuel Butler: A Mid-Victorian Modern. London: Martin Secker.
- "Butler, Samuel". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- Lyttelton Times 28 January 1860
- "Darwin among the Machines" is reprinted in the Notebooks of Samuel Butler at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/6173
- "Evolution, Old & New Or, the Theories of Buffon, Dr. Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck, as compared with that of Charles Darwin", reprinted in the Notebooks of Samuel Butler at Project Gutenberg
- Geddis, Catherine. "Butler, Samuel." glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture, glbtq.com, 21 July 2006, accessed 8 May 2012
- Robinson, J. Z. "Samuel Butler." Who's Who in Gay and Lesbian History: From Antiquity to World War II, Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon, eds. New York: Routledge, 2001, pp. 90-91
- Jones, Henry Festing. Samuel Butler, Author of Erewhon (1835-1902): A Memoir. London: Macmillan, 1920.
- Sussman, Herbert. "Samuel Butler as Late-Victorian Bachelor: Regulating and Representing the Homoerotic." Samuel Butler: Victorian against the Grain, a Critical Overview. Ed. James G. Paradis. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.
- Morpurgo, Horatio (May 2006). "Samuel Butler, or Sociobiology for Grown-Ups". Three Monkeys Online. Retrieved 2009-05-20.
- Main Page - Gutenberg at www.gutenberg.net
- M. Verzella,“Darwinism and its Consequences: Machines Taking over Man in Samuel Butler’s ‘Absurd’ Tableau”, Rivista di Studi Vittoriani, IX/X, 18/19 (Luglio 2004-Gennaio 2005), pp. 151–168;
- M. Verzella,“Samuel Butler e il gusto del paradosso: il caso traduttologico di Erewhon”, Traduttologia, I (nuova serie), 2 (gennaio 2006), pp. 71–83;
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to:|
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Samuel Butler (novelist)|
|Wikisource has original works written by or about: