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Reviewed by:
  • Samuel Butler: Victorian Against the Grain
  • Sue Zemka (bio)
Samuel Butler: Victorian Against the Grain, edited by James G. Paradis; pp. xii + 423. Toronto, Buffalo, and London: University of Toronto Press, 2007, $70.00, £45.00.

"The flow of research on Butler is currently at a low point" (5), notes James G. Paradis in his introduction to this collection of essays. And yet few Victorians invite exploration from such a variety of critical interests. There is Samuel Butler the colonial sheep farmer, the travel writer, the painter, the novelist, the photographer, and the renegade theorist of evolution. There is also the man whose mental constitution and "inheritance" were the subjects of his own cold-blooded analysis and the man who chose intimacies with other men during years that spanned a jolting transition in social attitudes toward same-sex relationships. In all of these regards, the decline of Samuel Butler scholarship seems in inverse proportion to the current relevance of Butler's life and work. This opportune collection of essays goes some distance in filling this void, offering studies of Butler in all of the above aspects.

Paradis has enlisted some notable scholars of nineteenth-century literature, among them Gillian Beer, Elinor Shaffer, Sally Shuttleworth, and Herbert Sussman. In addition, established scholars of classics, music, photography, and the history of science contribute articles on these areas of Butler's activity. This number of topics and approaches might have resulted in a confused book, but instead it produces a coherent portrait. Butler emerges as a complex man who falls short of genius, for all the breadth of his talents, and one who puts on all of his works the same signature of disaffection from Victorian society. He appears to have understood his feeling of not belonging to late-nineteenth-century culture as an intellectual destiny. There were benefits to this belief. It enabled Butler to write about Victorian institutions with a detachment that was almost anthropological. It might also explain his debate with Charles Darwin, where he demonstrated a blithe disregard for the reigning precepts of scientific plausibility. The separatist stance thus gave a bite to his satire and freed his creativity in matters of evolutionary speculation. But Butler's relative freedom from the assumptions of his age cost him popularity. One of the most telling incidents in his life, cited by several of the contributors, involves the records he kept of his meager book sales. In the 1890s, Paradis relates, "the net losses mount, and Butler's audience diminishes to zero" (343). Failure, however, did not move Butler to change the discomfiting tone of his writings. Instead, he retrenched behind it; he seems to have courted unpopularity. His writings seem addressed not to his contemporaries but to posterity, with the implicit message that he writes to future readers from the prison-house of the nineteenth century.

Several of the contributors analyze Butler's satiric project rhetorically. Shaffer argues that his writing strategies reach back to eighteenth-century rationalism, when religious skeptics crafted ironic guises for their thinly veiled attacks on scriptural authority. From this perspective, Butler is less an anomaly than a late installment in a long-standing tradition of free thought. Tackling the religious writings, Shaffer easily demonstrates Butler's debt to the legacy of Higher Criticism, but she gives additional traction to her argument by suggesting that Butler employed the same anti-authoritative critique against the nascent scientific hegemony of his day. Bernard Lightman furthers this idea by arguing that Butler turned evolution theory into a weapon aimed at the edifice of scientific professionalism. In Lightman's account, Butler deployed his theory of inherited memory to level the playing field between laymen and trained experts, for in a world [End Page 378] where experiential knowledge is transmitted across generations, everyone is born an expert on evolution. Like other contributors, Lightman sees a serious intention behind Butler's court-jester appropriation of evolution theory, a point where his irony dovetails into a belief devoutly maintained. Namely, this is his belief that human culture is an ongoing experiment in Lamarckian laws of nature. But drawing the line between Butlerian seriousness and Butlerian irony is a tricky matter. Beer makes...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2052
Print ISSN
0042-5222
Pages
pp. 378-380
Launched on MUSE
2009-06-06
Open Access
No
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