Samuel Butler Biography


Samuel Butler (1835-1902) was the second of four children in the family of Reverend and Mrs. Thomas Butler of Langar, in Nottinghamshire, England. His grandfather, for whom he was named, was for many years Bishop of Lichfield and headmaster of Shrewsbury School, which the author attended preparatory to entering St. John's College of Cambridge University. After earning an honors degree in classics and mathematics, young Butler worked briefly as a lay assistant among the poor in London and studied art. After strenuously resisting his father's wish that he enter the Anglican ministry, he sailed in 1859 to New Zealand, where he engaged in sheep farming. After doubling the capital advanced by his father, Butler returned to England in 1864 and settled into quarters at 15 Clifford's Inn, London, where he resided, alone, until his death at the age of sixty-seven.

These key biographical facts barely begin to suggest the fullness and complexity of Butler's life. The tedium and terror of his younger days, of course, are vividly presented in The Way of All Flesh. Butler's relationship with his father was always difficult and probably both better and worse than the father-son relationship treated in the novel. The immediate motivation for the writing of this work came when Butler's father accused his son of having literally killed his mother by publishing two earlier books, Erewhon (1871) and The Fair Haven (1873). It is extremely doubtful, however, that Mrs. Butler had read either one of them. Erewhon was the only book written by Butler to be widely read and to turn a profit during his lifetime. Based on his experiences in New Zealand and an intense interest in Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), it describes a topsy-turvy utopia in which all machines are banned and disease is considered a crime. The Fair Haven was written ostensibly as a defense of the miraculous elements of Christianity but was, in fact, a sophisticated refutation of them. The subsequent bewilderment of readers and reviewers alike left Butler a highly controversial figure and an unlikely recipient of future commendation from an increasingly wary reading public.

Having estranged himself from the religious-minded community, Butler proceeded to vex the scientific community by relentlessly challenging Darwin's mechanistic principles of evolution in a series of books, the first and foremost of which was Life and Habit (1878). Unlike Darwin, who attributed the evolution of species to chance, Butler supported the Lamarckian concept of change: When a creature acquires necessary habits and the organs by which to perform them, these habits and organs are then passed along to their offspring by a process of unconscious memory. Butler's organic theory, however, disavowed external or divine causes in favor of internal or self-generated development.

Butler was destined to be frustrated in his attempts to gain a fair hearing for his arguments, for very few professional scientists believed that a former artist turned satirical humorist should be taken seriously. During most of the years which he spent writing The Way of All Flesh (1873 to 1885), he found himself occupying an increasingly isolated position. Unfortunately, his difficulties were further compounded by financial reverses that left him on the brink of insolvency. In spite of these distressing events, however, Butler continued to live comfortably; only once did he miss his annual vacation in Italy, a country which invariably served to lift his spirits. He also enjoyed the company of a few close friends, among whom was a former fellow art student, Eliza Savage. As an incarnate bachelor, Butler could not reciprocate Miss Savage's romantic interest, but he gratefully received her words of encouragement and judicious suggestions for the improvement of his autobiographically based novel.

Although Butler's financial troubles began to ease as early as 1881, it was not until the death of his father in 1886 that he completely felt that he was financially secure. He promptly engaged a clerk and began to indulge a variety of interests which spanned the fields of literature, art, and music. He published a two-volume biography of his illustrious grandfather, English translations of the Odyssey and Iliad, a book arguing that a woman wrote the Odyssey, an unorthodox but stimulating interpretation of Shakespeare's sonnets, a revised edition of Erewhon, and, as a fitting climax to his writing career, Erewhon Revisited — a delightful version of utopia in a state of deterioration; he also published several articles and three books on art, and was at one time seriously considered for the Slade Professorship of Art History at Cambridge; moreover, he studied musical composition and, in collaboration with a close friend, wrote two cantatas.

Butler, however, is best known today for having written Erewhon and The Way of All Flesh; yet beyond producing these two landmarks of satiric literature, he deserves recognition for being one of the last of an interesting line of amateur men of letters. Butler's life, therefore, takes on a special appeal of its own, especially since his life and works are closely interwoven. If Butler is not quite as well known as he once was, he yet remains a subject of much popular and critical attention. In a way that fits his own concept of immortality — "to live on the lips of living men" — his detractors help to keep him alive even as his admirers give abundant evidence that he has much to interest the present age. His place as one of the most remarkable satirists of the Victorian era is secure.

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