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Butler’s Way

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 remarkable conjuring act, The Authoress of the Odyssey. In both writers was the same relentless hunting instinct, the same mischievous rapture in revealing some awful truth, the same skillfully hewn and hyper-confident prose. The Authoress of the Odyssey is one of the books in the Butler canon that most excites ridicule; and the discipleship of a Muggeridge was not in itself a boon to Butler’s reputation. Readers of The Earnest Atheist were nevertheless reminded of how pervasive the influence of Butler had once been and still was. Traces of his mind and manner were to be found in such writers as Shaw himself, Lytton Strachey, H. L. Mencken, Norman Douglas, Robert Graves, and, in certain moods, Edmund Wilson. Butler, it was seen, had himself helped to father a “tradition” in twentieth-century writing, the tradition of ironic iconoclasm.

Thus began the gradual and partial rehabilitation of Samuel Butler and his writings. The recent critical literature devoted to him is extensive, and much of it is good, taking Butler on his own terms and clarifying those terms in such a way as to make them interesting in themselves. Rarely does one encounter in the Butler literature those methods of instant modernization which have been used on Dickens and other Victorians. Once only, so far as I know, has the method been tried on Butler. Ernest Pontifex has been called by someone a precursor of our contemporary antihero.

IF TRUE, the designation of anti-hero applies equally to Butler. He was by turn, or in perpetual combination, a hero and an ass. But he was a much more formidable figure than Muggeridge makes him out to be, formidable even in his foolishness. And some account of his life and personality is now due here. In Butler’s case a bit of biography can be really useful.

The legend of The Way of All Flesh includes the following considerations: how he came to write the book in the first place; why the writing of it was stretched out over so many years; why, having at last finished off the final third of it in haste and apparently with distaste, he left that part unrevised and also left the whole manuscript to be edited and published after his death by a literary executor; and finally, why the story undergoes such violent changes of substance and quality in the course of its telling. In all this we have one of those mysteries, or cases of deliberate mystification, which in Butler as in other Victorians have aroused the hunting instinct of posterity. With Butler, though, the underlying, the essential, mystery concerns the general relationship of the man Butler to his work and to his very vocation as a writer. Such relationships are proverbially complex. In Butler, the man and the writer were entangled as the drowning man is entangled with his rescuer, that is, with an urgency far beyond the average. And a few, at least, of the reasons for this extreme interdependency can be suggested here in simplified form.

Butler tried to be three different things at once: first, a critical continuator of the clerical tradition embodied in his father and grandfather, distinguished clergymen of the Church of England; second, a get-rich-quick operator; and third, an artist (painter, composer of music, writer). Each of these functions, the clerical, the financial, the artistic, had, we know, a secure existence within the fabric of Victorian society. Butler wasn’t, like such contemporaries as Sir Richard Burton, seeking to create for himself new and outré roles. His oddness consisted in his determination to combine in his own person three established ways of life which, given the increasing fluidity of late Victorian society, were becoming mutually incompatible, even antagonistic. Behind Butler’s ambition to excel in these three occupations was his extravagant ambition to excel in general. Just whom, and what, he sought to excel are much in evidence in The Way of All Flesh. They were, of course, his parents, in particular his father, and their entire mode of life.

Especially gratifying to the reader and presumably to the author of the novel are those occasions on which Theobald Pontifex is put down, whether by the headmaster of Roughborough School in whose affairs Theobald tries to interfere; or, eventually, by Ernest himself as he emerges from prison. For Butler’s reaction against his oppressive upbringing was intensified by the fact that his chief oppressor was a very limited man. Like Theobald, Canon Butler was a zealous authoritarian who proved rather obtuse when it came to exercising his authority.* That a man could be equally bossy but more imaginative, humorous, and flexible about it is shown in The Way of All Flesh, by the figure of the Roughborough headmaster, Dr. Skinner, who with his flagrant yet disarming vanity is one of Butler’s triumphs of characterization: the Victorian Public Man, educator and author in excelsis.

Unlike the tortured Theobald and—we assume—the tortured Canon Butler, Dr. Skinner is a man blessed in his responsibilities. He luxuriates in them and in the attendant habit of giving profound and conspicuous thought to decisions big and little. ” ‘What will you take for supper, Dr. Skinner?” said Mrs. Skinner in a silvery voice. He made no answer for some time, but at last, in a tone of almost superhuman solemnity, he said, first, ‘Nothing,’ and then, ‘Nothing whatever.’ ” But a mind so active as Dr. Skinner’s mind is unable to rest with this initial decision, impressively Spartan though it is. He goes on to apply the whole of his great soul to the question of supper and at length comes up with a qualification, “Stay—“ he says to Mrs. Skinner, “I may presently take a glass of cold water and a small piece of bread and butter.” And of course—the situation is as familiar in comedy as in life—he ends by consuming several substantial dishes and then calling for hot water and gin. Dr. Skinner’s jaunty mastery of life is the despair of Theobald.

The heritage of his family experience was a riot of contradictory impulses on Butler’s part. The authority he detested in his father he also coveted for himself. His distrust of sex and of love was matched by his hunger for sex and love, his hope of success by his anxiety lest success fail to materialize. In the guerrilla warfare that was his life, therefore, strategies of offense mingled curiously with those of defense and simple evasion. He was at once truculent and timid, tender and nasty, furtively feminine and aggressively masculine, brilliant and foolish. The harsher the conflicts in his soul, the more he was driven to resolve them into Ideas. Ideas were manageable as feelings were not. Ideas could be bisected into opposing principles and played off against one another, divided and ruled. In the best parts of The Way of All Flesh such dualities make for more or less realistic drama; Old Pontifex v. his descendants, Theobald v. Dr. Skinner. In the later stretches of the novel the pairing tendency becomes mechanical. The relations of Towneley to Pryer, of Miss Maitland to Miss Snow are those of Morality figures, and the last third of the novel is chiefly parable or didactic allegory.

To see Butler’s situation in this way is to overintellectualize it. Butler suffered. For much of his life he was in Hell, the kind of Hell that we partly make for ourselves. His evasive maneuvers render him at times ridiculous. His torments nevertheless refuse to be scoffed away. So do his very evasions and compromises, even though he did invite the derision of posterity by giving those maneuvers the Darwin-derived term of “adaptations,” thus transferring them from the realm of morals and aesthetics to that of biological necessity.

IN CERTAIN CRITICAL SITUATIONS he was the hero. He performed what Henry James would have called, with appropriate solemnity, “acts of life.” I shall here deal briefly with two such acts, and with a third that seems to me a caricature of the whole procedure. They are, first, his flight from England and its consequences on his return; second, his writing of The Way of All Flesh; and third, his preoccupation in later years with what he expected to be his post-mortem fame.

  1. *

    Butler’s correspondence with his father, much of which survives, shows Canon Butler to have been distinctly lacking in affection but generally more patient and reasonable than his embattled son realized.

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