The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 9. Erewhon
Butler’s place in literature, however, must be finally determined by his genius as satirist and essayist, as illustrated in Erewhon, Erewhon Revisited, A Psalm of Montreal, The Way of all Flesh, Alps and Sanctuaries and The Note-Books. Erewhon was published in 1872; Butler’s was not a solitary voice; Carlyle had thundered; Ruskin and Morris had entered the plea for beauty; Matthew Arnold, in Friendship’s Garland (1871), and Meredith had given warning of the shadow looming from the continent upon complacent prosperity in England. But the appeal, in these cases, is to the nation collectively; some practical reform is in view. Butler’s attitude is different; he does not vaticinate; he has little to say to industry or of democracy. But he is struck by evidences on all sides of the stagnation of thought. In religion, thought, emptied of its propulsive energy, has sunk into the moribund system of the musical banks; in education, the universities are busied in suppressing originality and cultivating evasion; youthful mental vigour is dulled by grinding for many years at the hypothetical language; professors are afflicted with the “fear-of-giving-themselves-away-disease.” In science, there has been a promising up-heaval in the coming of Darwinism; but the English aversion from mental effort is in process of making Darwinism into a pontifical system for comfortable acceptance. Butler carried on a ceaseless crusade to save science from the fate of the musical banks. In the family, schools and churches, tyrannies have been set up which have vested interests in mental stupor and convention, and which permeate the atmosphere with cant and hypocrisy convenient to themselves. These things are the customary targets for the satirist of the Victorian compromise; and, when that phase has passed away as completely as the commonwealth phase, Erewhon will need a commentary as Hudibras does. But there is a profounder criticism in Erewhon; it is embodied in the paradoxical interchange of moral misdemeanour with physical ailment. This is the basis of a classic piece of ironical prose, descriptive of the trial of a youth, who, after being convicted of aggravated bronchitis, is, a year later, condemned on a charge of pulmonary consumption. An obvious interpretation is that the passage is a plea against the puritanic morality which isolates and condemns the individual without consideration of environment, heredity or other uncontrollable factors. This would be the position of a modern humanitarian, who would acknowledge a deep intellectual debt to Butler. Behind this interpretation, however, lies a conception which gives a clue to a large portion of Butler’s writing. “Good-breeding” is the corner-stone of his system, and, in implication, he identifies morality with health; he draws a contrast between puritanism and paganism, if the word may be applied to the ideal of grace, strength and courtesy which gives Erewhon its resemblance to Utopia. The same idea comes out in his comment on The Pilgrim’s Progress, which, he says, “consists mainly of a series of infamous libels upon men and things.” The same opposition, fundamentally that between [char] and [char], between spirit and letter, is set forth in sardonic form in his masterpiece A Psalm of Montreal; the Discobolus, the emblem of pagan grace, is thrust aside in deference to a person who boasts of his second-hand morality and thrives by a craft which simulates life.