The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler

by |April 21, 2010

Some classics demand to be read. We hear of them incessantly. We feel we must read them before we die.

I’m thinking now of War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Les Miserables, David Copperfield, Hamlet, Gulliver’s Travels, Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe.

Then there are classics which are pivotal in the history of literature but rarely mentioned, never recommended and almost always overlooked by readers hurrying to read the former group.

I’m now thinking of Clarissa, The Egoist, New Grub Street, Parade’s End and The Way of All Flesh. (If it were not for Universities many of these would not now be read.)

The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler’s masterpiece, was brought to my attention when talking with a wise old reader I used to know – I was expressing my love for Sons and Lovers and Of Human Bondage at the time. The old man suggested I read The Way of All Flesh, for it was his belief that the modern autobiographical novel was born in its pages.

Soon after this conversation I bought myself a copy of The Way of All Flesh. It had a very dull cover and I was unenthused. I started reading it as I rode home on the bus. It was impenetrable. I was very disappointed. I tried again and again to get through the first twenty or so pages, never venturing very far, before finally casting it aside and picking up another book, the breathtakingly beautiful Gertrude by Herman Hesse. Samuel Butler was shunted aside.

It was the first great failure of my reading life. The Way of All Flesh was shelved. Over the years my library grew around it. I moved from my parent’s home and then from flat to flat. The Way of All Flesh was duly packed up with the rest of my ever expanding library.

Pure Genius!

For years I worked in bookshops, I spoke with customers, I listened to writers and my reading ranged over the vast seas of literature, like an albatross, dipping and feeding according to no plan, carried by the winds of recommendation.  I grew accustomed to the sea of literature. I traversed its length and breadth and learnt what fare to expect and in what season to expect it. My reading had changed me.

I next picked up The Way of All Flesh in a swaggering mood. Ten years had passed since my failure. I chided the thing for having defeated me in the past and like an old hand I determined to wrestle the book into submission.

How strange the changes time had wrought upon the book! Sentences which were tangled formerly were now straightened. Scenes which had been painted in dull grey now burst forth in colour. The mute book now sang.

I took the book onto my balcony and read. I quickly saw how many of my favourites were but echoes of this marvellous novel. I found the original of many scenes and thoughts. Samuel Butler was a brilliant essayist and the book is filled with brilliant set pieces and striking aphorisms.

It is far safer to know too little than too much. People will condemn the one, though they will resent being called upon to exert themselves to follow the other. Samuel Butler – The Way of All Flesh

I read much of the book in that one sitting. I felt real anger at having to leave it to eat, to sleep and to work.

The Way of All Flesh had leapt from the nineteenth century into the twentieth century. The Modernists read it, emulated it, drew from it and created works from its soil. But I was tired of modernity and used The Way of All Flesh to cross back into the nineteenth century.

Butler was my guide to the nineteenth century. He introduced me to the notables. He eased me into their company.

We all have our life changing books. Some are disruptive, some inspiring, some unsettling and some have plainly shocked us into change. The book which influenced me the most was The Way of All Flesh.

Apart from dazzling me from the first till the last – Samuel Butler taught me to expect more from my reading and from writers.

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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