An irreverent, ongoing treatment of the Modern Library’s 100 best novels of the twentieth century.
Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh satisfies the letter of the Modern Library’s list – “best novels of the twentieth century” – but seems to violate its spirit. The novel was published in 1903, but written entirely in the 1870s and 1880s, and the language shows its age. It’s got that sound of, I don’t know, post-chaises and swishing crinolines. That’s not a value judgment, it’s just true. Still, though the facts tether it to the Victorian Age, the novel’s narrator, Edward Overton, and its hero, Ernest Pontifex, get to the heart of our pet rebellions. The Way of All Flesh is The Catcher in the Rye, as written by Charles Dickens; it manages to anticipate the Twentieth Century, while not quite being of it.
The story begins with Ernest’s great-grandfather, who is a nice poor man. He begets a son who becomes a nasty rich man, who begets a son who becomes a nasty comfortably well-off man, who begets Ernest, who ends up being better and richer than all of them combined. Before he can get to this state of grace, he must overcome his religion, shake off his parents, and leave his awful, boring, somewhat violent childhood behind.
The real pleasure of reading this novel, though, lies in the narration. Overton, Ernest’s sardonic godfather (chronicling the story after the fact) is a disapproving contemporary of Ernest’s father. He watches more or less dispassionately as Ernest’s parents raise him without fun or affection, and then as Ernest flounders into and then out of Religion, Immorality, Prison, and Matrimony. All the while he husbands Ernest’s secret bequest from a benevolent aunt, and hands over the life-changing fortune when Ernest turns twenty-eight.
Like Holden Caulfield, Overton makes known his opinions on Phonies. In chapter four he writes of Ernest’s nasty grandfather:
Mr. George Pontifex went abroad more than once. I remember seeing . . . the diary which he kept on the first of these occasions. It is a characteristic document. I felt as I read it that the author before starting had made up his mind to admire only what he thought it would be creditable in him to admire, to look at nature and art only through the spectacles that had been handed down to him by generation after generation of prigs and impostors. The first glimpse of Mont Blanc threw Mr. Pontifex into a conventional ecstasy.
It would be so easy to turn this post into a child’s garden of Overton’s elegant take-downs, but I will just give another favorite:
I was vexed at Ernest’s having been ordained. I was not ordained myself and I did not like my friends to be ordained, nor did I like having to be on my best behaviour and to look as if butter would not melt in my mouth, and all for a boy whom I remembered when he knew yesterday and to-morrow and Tuesday, but not a day of the week more – not even Sunday itself – and when he said he did not like the kitten because it had pins in his toes.
Overton concedes that Ernest’s father Theobald’s nastiness stems from grandfather George, who insisted that his Theobald become ordained against his will. Circumstances were against Theobald to begin with, and then, as an unwilling a clergyman, says Overton, he “is expected to be a kind of human Sunday.” The end result of his upbringing and his professional requirements is nevertheless “horrid,” and poor Ernest feels the effects of Theobald’s unhappiness on his person and on his psyche.
One of Butler’s assertions is that mental and spiritual suffering are awful and against nature, just as physical suffering is. Ernest, like Holden Caulfield a hundred years later, gets plenty to eat. His parents send him to an ostensibly good school. He goes to prison for a pathetic bit of immorality, but his experience there is really quite pleasant. In the grand scheme of things, Ernest is doing okay. But his parents are assholes and his spirit is hurt and sex is confusing, and if this experience were uncommon we wouldn’t have the cult of Salinger, or most of post-War American literature.
After his prison holiday, Ernest takes a stand and cuts his parents out of his life, but once he has the money to do as he pleases he makes marginal concessions to decency without sacrificing the integrity of his dislike. He doesn’t let his mother die without seeing him. He visits his father when the old tyrant is in his dotage, as people do – even ones who don’t like their parents. Having money of his own keeps him pure, so his father doesn’t die feeling his son’s curse. Butler, whose money eventually came from his own despised father, may not have been able to claim the same purity of motive in his continued relation with his own family, but that’s conjecture. Anyone who is alive or who has read The Corrections knows that the complex and sometimes awful nature of filial piety is still part of human experience.
In that sense, and in others, The Way of All Flesh is sensible in its attacks. Although Overton makes some shocking, impious remarks about religion, they can’t have been very different from what many people were thinking. Ernest settles down to a pretty quiet middle age, and no one pays much attention to him. He doesn’t grow an unorthodox mustache, or become a performance artist. He doesn’t spit in his father’s face. If Salinger had covered a few more decades of his story we might have seen Holden drop into Pencey for an awkward but cordial sit-down with his headmaster, just like Ernest does in his middle age. Maybe he bought American, and became a Rotarian. I guess the difference is that Salinger didn’t have to write about what happened after Holden’s little voyage of discovery.
When The Way of All Flesh was published after Butler’s death, it was the posthumous making of a career that in life was marked by an eccentric mediocrity. I have not read a biography of Samuel Butler, but my limited research indicates that, while the publication of a satire called Erewhon brought him some notoriety, he remained a fairly minor figure in late Victorian letters. After his death, he became a sensation. In the century which brought us psychoanalysis, support groups, and SSIRs, people marveled at Butler’s modernity. V. S. Pritchett called The Way of All Flesh “one of the time-bombs of literature.” His point was that it sat in a drawer making quick work of a century of ideas about Children and the Church, without anyone knowing about it. Had it been published during Butler’s life it would have, one imagines, brought the house down. But it strikes me that the very fact of its Twentieth Century publication confirms, in a sense, its status as a nineteenth century novel. It is said that the novel was autobiographical. It is also suggested by some that Butler did not publish the work upon its completion because he worried it was too scathing. Of course, refraining from doing things so as not to offend one’s family and peers is not strictly a Victorian phenomenon. But it’s kind of a neat coincidence that Butler died one year after Victoria herself, and that The Way of All Flesh came out just as a new, ostensibly freer age was getting started.