- Samuel Butler's Reputation
Writing in June 1895 of "the life we live in others by reason of work that we have left behind us," Samuel Butler hoped for himself "a good average three score years and ten of immortality" as posthumous compensation for a writing life marked by neglect and controversy. He had good reason to place his reputational fate in the hands of posterity. At the time of his death in 1902, his worldly success might have been bleakly summarized in the tabular "Analysis of the Sales of My Books" he had drawn up three years earlier. This shows a total profit from his publications of £77 2s 11½d, most of it deriving from the early satirical travel fantasy Erewhon. The adjacent column shows a total loss of £779 18s 1½d. What had kept him going was money from the father against whose authority he had struggled for most of his life, a struggle that he turned into the subject matter of his most famous book, The Way of All Flesh, which for fear of disinheritance he could not publish in his father's lifetime: "I could work my way better if I were cut off from any hope save from my own exertions—for example, I could publish my novel which is all ready for the press, and so keep myself before the public, but as long as my father lives how can I do this?" In the event, it was not published until the year after Butler's own death. The paternal inheritance for which he had waited so long had finally come to him in December 1886, and the more than comfortable £33,000 left at his death was due to this, rather than to the profitability of any of his books.
His posthumous reputation was dramatically boosted by the appearance of The Way of All Flesh, whose undermining of Victorian shibboleths struck an enthusiastic answering response from younger writers only recently released by the death of the nation's mother from the [End Page 98] long shadow cast, both intellectually and socially, by their parents' and grandparents' generations. It was deemed by George Bernard Shaw to be "one of the great books of the world," and its author "the greatest English writer of the latter half of the 19th century." Ford Madox Ford praised Butler as "the greatest Englishman the nineteenth century produced, and The Way of All Flesh … one of the four great imaginative works in the English language." And while everyone remembers Virginia Woolf's famous declaration that "on or about December, 1910, human character changed," fewer may recall that she saw "the first signs of it … recorded in the books of Samuel Butler, in The Way of All Flesh in particular."
For much of the twentieth century, Butler retained this status, enjoying a secure niche in the academic canon and continuing to attract a readership responsive to his astonishing range of intellectual interests and his penchant for ironic puncturing of period sobrieties: many students of English used his work, perhaps self-deceivingly, as their routes in to the intellectual, religious, and emotional crises—and generational tussles—of high Victorianism. Thus before The French Lieutenant's Woman there was The Way of All Flesh, whose readers could be confident that Butler (unlike Fowles, whose Victorian pastiche carried the stamp of a quick, albeit very clever, study) had lived whereof he wrote and had therefore earned the right to judge, generalize and debunk.
From the partial evidence of the infrequency with which Butler's name appears on current university course lists and the small quantity of published scholarship he has attracted recently, that seventy years of immortality for which he had hoped may be about what he got. By the closing decades of the twentieth century, he was rarely taught, and he is now a figure largely unknown to undergraduate students of English, and probably not much more than a vaguely familiar name to many graduate students. His recent neglect makes especially welcome this...