Leo Damrosch’s Jonathan Swift

Jonathan SwiftI have to begin by thanking my father for making a gift of this book. It was published just last year, in 2013, and I find myself amazed both at its reception – as I write this it stands in contention for a National Book Critics Circle Award – and the fact that, nearly 300 years after his death, we are still finding new things to say about Jonathan Swift.

Leo Damrosch is a Harvard professor and a graduate of Yale, Cambridge and Princeton (as glorified a triumvirate as any aspiring scholar could hope for), with previous works covering the lives of both Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Alexis de Tocqueville. He’s currently teaching a course on “Wit and Humor” that covers everything from Twain and P.G. Wodehouse to Annie Hall and Dr. Strangelove, so he clearly has the kind of credentials necessary to undertake a biography of one of history’s wittiest men. Jonathan Swift: His Life & His World takes us to late-17th and early-18th century Ireland and England, amidst religious and political turmoil, locating Swift where he most wanted to be, in the center of it all.

We learn of the mysteries surrounding Swift’s paternity, the expensive education he begrudgingly received from his uncle, his early employments, ambitions and loves, and his many bitter career disappointments. Swift was an equal opportunity offender: he was deeply religious in his own way, but his Tale of the Tub scandalized the faithful and severely limited his opportunities within the church; he began his career as a Whig before slowly transitioning to Tory sympathies, but he found enemies in both camps. He hated Ireland – the “land of slaves and fens,” as he called it in his “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift” – but ended his life as its national hero, thanks to his outspoken criticism of English rule in works like the Drapier’s Letters and A Modest Proposal.

Swift’s poetry, overshadowed by his prose and Pope’s verse, has been given less attention than it merits, and his prose works, particularly Gulliver’s Travels, are too often read as children’s fare, a bitter irony given how caustic and cynical they can be. When Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver recounts the history of England to the king of Brobdingnag, he is met with astonishment, the latter protesting that it’s merely “a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments, the very worst effects that avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice, and ambition, could produce,” from which, of course, he concludes that mankind is “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.”

Damrosch does justice to Swift’s originality, his indignation and wit, without sacrificing the flesh-and-blood man to legend or caricature. We hear of Swift’s infirmities, affairs and personal failings, the decency he was capable of exhibiting to the lowliest beggar and the unnecessary pains he caused his closest friends. This book is a beautiful insight into an incredible man, an accomplished piece of scholarship and a helpful guide to works of timeless relevance.