Butler’s Way

Samuel Butler
Samuel Butler; drawing by David Levine

The Way of All Flesh is one of those books that come down to us trailing a legend. In this case the legend has a real bearing on the nature of the book. One of the features of the legend has to do with the manner of the book’s composition and belated appearance in print. The Way of All Flesh was written in spurts during the years 1873-84. It was not published until 1903, the year following its author’s death at the age of sixty-seven. Once in print The Way of All Flesh was pronounced by Bernard Shaw “a great book.” Alive, Samuel Butler had been known, insofar as he was known at all, as a sort of curiosity-about-town (the town of London). The deceased now became abruptly famous.

In all the English-speaking countries (the book has had no great reputation elsewhere), advanced young men and women devoured The Way of All Flesh. Certain of them went on to write their own novels of adolescence. These novels were mostly inferior imitations of Butler. Only in Sons and Lovers and more directly in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man were Butler’s materials—religion and family, repression and freedom—made into finer stuff. These greater books did not “supercede” The Way of All Flesh: supercession is rare in literature, which is ideally made up of entities unique and hence irreplaceable by definition. Butler’s book thrived on what Mr. V. S. Pritchett has called the “parricidal fury” released by the First World War, and its fame continued on into the early 1920s. After that, as I make out, The Way of All Flesh faded somewhat. Fatigued by so much attention, it became a book with a past. It was retired to the sanctuary reserved for minor classics. More complex novels, such as those by Joyce and Lawrence mentioned above, captured the estimation of advanced people. Butler himself, formerly admired for his cranky independence of mind, fell victim to the new tyranny of “tradition,” Marxist or Eliotist.

By the mid-1930s Butler and his works were carrion for the debunker, who appeared in the person of the English writer, Malcolm Muggeridge. Mr. Muggeridge’s biography of Butler, The Earnest Atheist, made of its subject a dreary fool. Butler’s sufferings, which had been extreme, were made to look painfully absurd, like those of some clown, Malvolio or Caliban, whose sensibility exceeds the requirements of his station; while the scandal, as it then was, of Butler’s probable homosexuality was summed up in the image of two gray beards wagging under a single sheet. The Earnest Atheist carried debunking so far that it ended by debunking itself. It excited more disbelief than indignation. For the knowing, moreover, the book concealed an inside joke of some positive consequence for Butler’s standing: the author of The Earnest Atheist was himself in the line of descent from Butler—the Butler, for example, of that…

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