Authors: Samuel Butler (1835–1902)

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English novelist, essayist, and artist.

December 4, 1835

Langar, England

June 18, 1902

London, England


Samuel Butler, English novelist and essayist, was born in the village of Langar, in Nottinghamshire, England, on December 4, 1835. He was the son of the Reverend Thomas Butler and the grandson of a bishop of Lichfield, a clerical ancestry that would have its influence on his writings. Butler was educated at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and was intended for the church; because of his religious doubts, however, he declined to take orders, preferring to study painting. The resulting estrangement from his father led him to leave England in 1859 for New Zealand, where he spent five years in sheep farming. He became interested in the theories of Charles Darwin and wrote the essay “Darwin among the Machines” (1863), the germ of Erewhon (1872). Returning to England in 1864, he continued his painting, exhibiting regularly, and also composed music. He became a friend of Darwin but disagreed with the latter’s theory of evolution and wrote several books to advance a theory of his own, which was never taken very seriously by scientists.

Samuel Butler.

By Dutton,Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Butler’s next phase was classical. He became interested in the Homeric question, maintaining that the Iliad and the Odyssey were by different authors and that the latter was written by a woman. Like his books on evolution, these writings now belong to the curiosities of literature.

Butler’s importance lies in his contribution to the reaction against Victorianism. Erewhon (“nowhere” in reverse) is a satire on the machine age and was the forerunner of several modern novels. By depicting a society in which the possession of any mechanical device is illegal, he made fun of nineteenth-century industrialism and then proceeded to satirize much of Victorian morality. In Erewhon, sickness is a crime, while crime is a sickness and is treated as such. Thus, society’s attitude toward morals is the product of convention; it is as illogical to condemn a man for stealing as to condemn him for contracting influenza.

Perhaps Butler’s most important novel, however, is The Way of All Flesh (1903), written between 1873 and 1883 but not published until a year after his death. This book, which George Bernard Shaw claimed had influenced him greatly, is a satiric portrait of Butler’s own childhood. Theobald and Christina Pontifex are modeled on his parents, while Butler himself appears twice: as Overton, the narrator, and as Ernest, the repressed son. The work is a blistering indictment of the worst aspects of Victorian family life, with its excessive strictness, exaggerated piety, and hypocrisy. The book is hardly a novel; it is more a series of essays in which Butler attacks the shams of the world of his childhood in a clergyman’s family, and at the same time expresses his philosophy of common sense. His hero is the prototype of the modern youth who revolts against his parents’ mores and eventually builds a life of his own. It is the story of Butler’s own struggle for freedom.

Butler died at a nursing home in London on June 18, 1902, age sixty-six.

Author Works Long Fiction: Erewhon; or, Over the Range, 1872 The Fair Haven, 1873 Erewhon Revisited Twenty Years Later, Both by the Original Discoverer of the Country and by His Son, 1901 The Way of All Flesh, 1903 Nonfiction: A First Year in Canterbury Settlement, 1863 The Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as Contained in the Four Evangelists Critically Examined, 1865 Life and Habit: An Essay after a Completer View of Evolution, 1877 Evolution, Old and New; or, The Theories of Buffon, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, and Lamarck, as Compared with That of Mr. Charles Darwin, 1879 God the Known and God the Unknown, 1879 (articles), 1909 (book) Unconscious Memory: A Comparison between the Theory of Dr. Ewald Hering, Professor of Physiology at the University of Prague, and the “Philosophy of the Unconscious” of Dr. Edward von Hartman, 1880 Alps and Sanctuaries of Piedmont and the Canton Ticino, 1881 Selections from Previous Works: With Remarks on Mr. G. J. Romanes’ “Mental Evolution in Animals” and a Psalm of Montreal, 1884 Luck, or Cunning, as the Main Means of Organic Modification? An Attempt to Throw Additional Light upon the Late Mr. Charles Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection, 1887 Ex Voto: An Account of the Sacro Monte or New Jerusalem at Varallo-Sesia, 1888 A Lecture on the Humour of Homer: Delivered at the Working Men’s College, Great Ormond Street, London, January 30th, 1892, 1892 The Life and Letters of Dr. Samuel Butler, Head-Master of Shrewsbury School, 1798–1836, and Afterwards Bishop of Lichfield, in So Far as They Illustrate the Scholastic, Religious, and Social Life of England, 1790–1840, 1896 (2 volumes) The Authoress of the Odyssey, Where and When She Wrote, Who She Was, the Use She Made of the Iliad, and How the Poem Grew under Her Hands, 1897 Shakespeare’s Sonnets Reconsidered, and in Part Rearranged, with Introductory Chapters, Notes, and a Reprint of the Original 1609 Edition, 1899 Essays on Life, Art and Science, 1904 (R. A. Streatfeild, editor) The Note-Books of Samuel Butler, Author of Erewhon, 1912 (Henry Festing Jones, editor) The Humour of Homer, and Other Essays, 1913 (R. A. Streatfeild, editor) Poetry: Seven Sonnets and a Psalm of Montreal, 1904 (R. A. Streatfeild, editor) Music: Gavottes, Minuets, Fugues and Other Short Pieces for the Piano, 1885 (with Henry Festing Jones) Narcissus: A Dramatic Cantata in Vocal Score, 1888 (with Henry Festing Jones) Ulysses: An Oratorio, 1904 (with Henry Festing Jones) Translations: The Iliad of Homer, Rendered into English Prose for the Use of Those Who Cannot Read the Original, 1898 (of Homer’s Iliad) The Odyssey, Rendered into English Prose for the Use of Those Who Cannot Read the Original, 1900 (of Homer’s Odyssey) Bibliography Bekker, Willem Gerard. An Historical and Critical Review of Samuel Butler’s Literary Works. 1925. Russell & Russell, 1964. Full-length study of Butler written by a native of Holland, where Erewhon found popularity and immediate acceptance. Argues for the unity in Butler’s works. Breuer, Hans-Peter, and Roger Parsell, editors. Samuel Butler: An Annotated Bibliography of Writings about Him. Garland Publishing, 1990. A valuable source. Daniels, Anthony. “Butler’s Unhappy Youth.” New Criterion, vol. 23, no. 5, 2005, pp. 11–17. Academic Search Complete, Accessed 13 Sept. 2017. Discusses The Way of All Flesh, Butler’s autobiographical novel, arguing that it may be the most devastating literary assault on a father ever written by a son. Describes how Butler’s father, Thomas, and the father in the novel, Theobald Pontifex, stand accused of committing odious acts. Henderson, Philip. Samuel Butler: The Incarnate Bachelor. 1953. Barnes & Noble, 1968. One of the best biographies of Butler available. Focuses on his personality rather than his work, and argues against the prevailing view that Butler hated his father. Includes a detailed chronology. Holt, Lee E. Samuel Butler. Rev. ed., Twayne Publishers, 1989. Provides a good introduction to Butler and his writings. Includes chapters on Butler’s major fiction, a chronology, and an annotated bibliography. Jeffers, Thomas L. Samuel Butler Revalued. Pennsylvania State UP, 1981. A critical study focused on The Way of All Flesh, composed during the period when Butler thought most creatively about evolution, his religion, and his family. Contains lengthy notes, a selected bibliography, and an index. Jones, Henry Festing. Samuel Butler, Author of Erewhon (1835–1902): A Memoir. 1919. Octagon Books, 1968. 2 vols. Remains the standard biography, presenting a wealth of detail about the events of Butler’s life, his personal characteristics, and the creation and reception of his literary works. Jones, Joseph. The Cradle of Erewhon: Samuel Butler in New Zealand. U of Texas P, 1959. A valuable account of Butler’s five years in New Zealand and the origins of his later Erewhon books. Paradis, James G., editor. Samuel Butler, Victorian against the Grain: A Critical Overview. U of Toronto P, 2007. Essay collection. Includes discussions of Butler’s views on evolution, the relationship between evolutionary psychology and The Way of All Flesh, Butler’s bachelorhood, his travel writing, and his photography. Parrinder, Patrick. “Entering Dystopia, Entering Erewhon.” Critical Survey, vol. 17, no.1, 2005, pp. 6–21. Academic Search Complete, Accessed 13 Sept. 2017. Describes the characteristics of dystopian romances written in the late Victorian era, focusing on the representations of dystopia in Erewhon and W. H. Hudson’s A Crystal Age (1887). Raby, Peter. Samuel Butler: A Biography. U of Iowa P, 1991. A comprehensive, scholarly biography that intelligently recounts the details of Butler’s personal life and career. Includes detailed notes, bibliography, photographs, and drawings.

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