Friday, 8 February 2008


Hello all,
Here are my promised presentation notes from the seminar today. At the end I have included a bibliography of some secondary reading relating to Butler - the Smithies and Zemka articles are really useful, and Shaffer's article about maps is where I found the map of Erewhon.


Samuel Butler
Born 1835, died 1902. He was a painter, musician, social critic, explorer, photographer. He came from a line of clerics, and a career in the church was a likely prospect for Butler. But in 1859 he set sail for New Zealand, and spent four years as a sheep farmer in the Canterbury Settlement, gaining financial independence. Migration to the British colonies was common in the nineteenth century (Smithies, p.203-4). While in New Zealand Butler read ‘On the Origin of the Species’, and published his satirical article ‘Darwin Among the Machines’ (this later formed the significant section in Erewhon). In New Zealand there was more freedom of thought than in England, which led to unusual acceptance of Darwinism among colonials like Butler (Smithies, p. 214).

Published in 1972. The title is an anagram for ‘nowhere’, similar to Thomas More’s wordplay ‘Utopia’. The first few chapters are modelled on Butler’s own experiences in New Zealand. Higgs, the narrator of the story, travels to a distant English colony and finds work at a sheep station. Eager to find new land, he ventures over the mountain ranges, stumbling on the undiscovered Erewhon. The rest of the novel, Higgs describes the practices and beliefs of Erewhonian society.

The positioning of Erewhonian society
The map of Erewhon superimposed on a map of New Zealand [hand out]. Similar to the positioning of More’s Utopia in the New World. Butler was interested in creating maps that led from the known to the unknown, imposing a spiritual or mental landscape on real maps (see Shaffer). Perhaps it is interesting to think about how uncharted territory could be the subject of utopian / dystopian imagining and the projection of the future?
Higgs finds the Erewhonians living in the real world, temporally in the present, and in a possible but unexplored place. This positions Erewhonian society just on ‘the limits of the possible’ (Kumar, Utopianism, 1991) - see the blog. In relation to England, Erewhonian society is an ‘image of England’s future’ (Kumar, 1987, p. 106) ; the Erewhonians have advanced further than the Victorians. They have experienced mechanical revolution five hundred years before Higgs’ arrival.

Content and the Satire on Victorian society

The satire is similar to that of Swift. Erewhonian society ‘holds the mirror up to Victorian society’ Butler is using the ‘utopian’ form to mount of criticism of the beliefs and practices which he finds ridiculous in his own society. (Krishan Kumar, 1987, p. 106). He uses a fictional form for his satire, in the same way as Thomas More, Piers Plowman in earlier weeks, perhaps to protect himself from his radical views. But although Erewhonian society is ‘alien’, it is similar in some ways to Victorian society, which makes the satire more effective. E.g. he describes their way of living as ‘quasi-European’ (Erewhon p.56), and he describes their books, pens and paper as ‘all very English’ but not ‘quite the same as ours’ (Erewhon, p.68).

The Victorians’ treatment of the ill and misfortunate in society
Disease is treated as a crime, and crime is treated as a disease. The sick are punished, embezzlers are sent to hospital, and those who have suffered misfortune are imprisoned and forced to do hard labour. This shows a denial of common humanity, in which Butler is showing how ‘strict adherence to logic will take us in the direction of cruelty or absurdity’ (Amis, p.236).

The place of the church and religion in English life.
The Musical Banks – ‘much revered but little visited’ (Krishan Kumar, 1987, p. 106), where ministers are allegorised as cashiers dealing in valueless currency, and sons are brought into the profession in infancy, when they are impressionable and unable to make the decision for themselves. (This possibly relates to Butler’s life). Criticism of strict Christianity.

The Colleges of Unreason
Hatred of originality and reason, and dedication to hypothetics. The young people waste away their time and their parents’ money by studying ‘hypothetics’ which are useless and uninteresting. This is apparently an ‘reflection of English academic life’ (Kumar, 1987, p. 106). Is Butler against education and academic institutions? Shows a different conception of the place of education to that of Plato, More.

The Book of the Machines
This book is based on earlier material written when Butler was in New Zealand. It describes how the Erewhonians became too dependant on machines, which it was feared would develop a consciousness and rival human beings, reducing them to an enslaved position. This section involves the dystopian idea of the dehumanization and mechanization of man. Butler’s views reflect Victorian concerns about the implications of Darwin’s theory in the context of the machine-age (Smithies, p. 213). This was a common fear in the age of the industrial revolution and fast mechanization (Kumar, 1987, p. 109). The Victorians saw machines as ‘vaguely malevolent in their mechanical design and directly culpable in the disappearance of folk culture and village life’. The garden became symbolic of civilization. (Smithies, p. 216). Possible influences on Butler - the modernization of the New Zealand Settlement – telegraph line and railway (Smithies, p. 212).

The Book of the Machines is well connected in its essentials to Darwin’s theories (Smithies, p.213) By the time he write Erewhon, he became critical of the implications of theory of evolution, in the sense that Darwin was ‘encouraging a mechanistic view of human nature’. (Amis, p. 236)

Is Erewhon departing from Utopian ideas in the past?
Anithumanist Materialism - Zemka has argued that Erewhon departs from a humanist view of society, and takes a scientific materialistic view of the world. Butler takes a mechanistic view of life.

‘…the possibility of rational and equitable social organisation is eclipsed by the belief, often associated with Social Darwinism, that the will for survival and domination working through all phenomenon is the sole source of the events and exchanges which comprise history.’ (Zemka, p. 468).

Butler is abandoning the idea that human society, human nature, can be an object of utopian desire – there is no individualism, no real difference, no way of culturally defining. All humans set along the same evolutionary course. This paves the way for ‘scientific fantasy’ as utopian object over humanist social projects. (Zemka, p. 469).

Relation to other Utopias
Similar fears are seen in Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871) in which the human race is about to be superseded by a superior race which has developed the machine to the fullest possible extent. Erewhon anticipated Huxley and Orwell, and the genre of science fiction. (Amis, p. 233).

Historical context: The imperial myth of expansion
Butler’s novel has a bearing on ideas about colonial lands in relation to English utopian imaginary. Imperials saw the colonies as a place where “old England” could be recreated, and heavy industrial society at home could be escaped (Zemka talks about this in relation to New Zealand). In this way, utopian images in the nineteenth century were framed by the imperial idea of returning to an agricultural England in new lands. Butler’s initial utopian picture of a distant Erewhon suggests a perfected old England in the future – it is a ‘post-mechanical agrarian paradise’ (Zemka p. 447) with apple-trees, goats, cattle, large flats, hills (Erewhon, p.61). Sue Zemka has said that in this sense Erewhon embraces the ‘myth of idyllic expansion’. (Zemka, p. 439).

Style of writing – utopian or dystopian? Can it be placed soundly within the 'utopian genre'?
Kumar has highlighted that the stance of Butler is unclear. Is he writing in a utopian or anti-utopian sense? One the one hand the Erewhonians could be seen as ‘grotesque Victorians’, but on the other he suggests that they have seen deeper into some issues than his contemporaries. (Kumar, 1987, p. 126). They are also a beautiful utopian race, well-bred, healthy, and where towns are surrounded by rich pastoral land. Butler is testing out ideas, making the reader question his or her premises about human culture.


Sue Zemka, ‘ Erewhon and the End of Utopian Humanism’ ELH - Volume 69, Number 2, Summer 2002, pp. 439-472.

James Smithies, Return Migration and the Mechanical Age: Samuel Butler in New Zealand 1860–1864, Journal of Victorian Culture - Volume 12, Number 2, Autumn 2007, pp. 203-224.

Shaffer, E. S., ‘Samuel Butler’s Fantastic Maps: Erewhon, the ‘New Jerusalem’, and the periplus of Odysseus’, Word and Image 4 (1988), 510-522.

Krishan Kumar, Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times, Oxford 1987.

Kingsley Amis, ‘Afterword’, in Erewhon in 1960 edition.

Samuel Butler, Erewhon or Over the Range, Jonathan Cape, London, revised edition 1901, small crown edition 1945.

1 comment:

Sarah Rees Jones said...

Many of the utopias (even Bellamy-if we think of him still operating within an 'America is utopia' mode?) we have looked at this week embraced 'the myth of idyllic expansion' didn't they? I thought that Butler was fascinating for questioning whether the industrial could or should be escaped, even in south island NZ. It's all a matter of scale - and suddenly NZ doesn't seem quite so far away or as 'alien' as it once had done.

That seems to fit in with the aspirations of Morris, Howard, FLW and leC thinking around different ways of managing that 'idyllic expansion' within the parameters of the old world (even in the centre of London and Paris). Alongside both Howard and FLW's desire to propel the city out into nature (using public and private mass transit systems) we didn't mention the contemporary foundation of National Park movements in both the US and the UK which aimed to create new protected 'wildernesses' right on the edge of the new projected 'garden cities'.

I think that TM's shift-working farmer citizens might have approved.