The Family Letters of Samuel Butler, 1841-1886

The Family Letters of Samuel Butler, 1841-1886

The Family Letters of Samuel Butler, 1841-1886

The Family Letters of Samuel Butler, 1841-1886

Excerpt

The letters in this collection form a miniature biography of the major part of Butler's life. They span the years from 1841 to 1886, from his sixth to his fifty-first year. By the time the last letter was written, Butler had completed his most important work. He had warned, in the satiric fantasy of Erewhon, that machines follow an evolutionary development, one in which man creates a species whose abilities often transcend his own and in whose service he becomes a parasite. In the same volume Butler had anticipated both Freud and modern penology by showing that physical sickness can be unconsciously willed and that criminal behaviour, if regarded as illness, can be permanently cured. In his four books on science, Butler had offered an alternative to Darwin's theory of Natural Selection and had attacked the new religion which usurped the name of science in the latter half of the century, when Darwin was deified and Thomas Henry Huxley militantly propagated the new gospel. During the final decade covered by this correspondence, Butler had written his most famous and most influential book, The Way of All Flesh.

It is especially in connection with this partially autobiographical novel that these family letters acquire their greatest value, for they supply us with many additional facts about the real history of the family relationship. With this correspondence we are able to measure the extent to which Butler created a self-portrait in the character of the novel's protagonist, Ernest Pontifex, and the extent to which the father-and-son relationship as presented in the novel faithfully reflected Butler's own experiences. We are able to sense the tone of the Butler household and to compare it to the one in which Ernest was raised. We are able to gauge the varying intensity of the family quarrel throughout Butler's manhood and to realize why he could not forget either the pains of his early years or the importance of saving future generations of children from enduring similar pains. Had this measuring rod been available in the past, Butler's detractors would certainly have . . .

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