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Book Review: Jonathan Swift

By (October 24, 2013) No Comment

Jonathan Swift: His Life and Worldjonathan swift leo damrosch

by Leo Damrosch

Yale University Press, 2013


The immensely talented biographer Leo Damrosch (whose 2010 book Tocqueville’s Discovery of America was fascinating, and whose 2005 biography of Rousseau was a work of sustained genius) has a monument to overcome in his new biography of Jonathan Swift, and that monument isn’t Samuel Johnson, whose dislike of Swift was so reflexive and unremitting that Boswell actually asked him at one point if Swift had somehow personally offended him. The reactions of one bookish autodidact genius to another are seldom plottable, after all, and Dr. Johnson is entitled to his opinions. No, the real monument in this case comes not from one of Damrosch’s favorite authors but from one of his former academic colleagues: Irvin Ehrenpreis, over the course of twenty years, published his massive 3-volume Swift: The Man, His Works, and the Age and thus raised a veritable Everest in the landscape of Swift studies.

Damrosch’s book, Jonathan Swift: His Life and World isn’t as exhaustive as Ehrenpreis’ work – it’s hard to imagine a book that would be, or would want to be – but it’s piercingly intelligent and about ten times as readable. And it gets in all the good bits, the licentious, libelous anecdotes about Swift that fill the correspondence of his friends and enemies and accumulated over the long years of his fame as a poet, satirist, and Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Ehrenpreis sternly warns his readers that they won’t find such idle stories re-hashed in his book, and Damrosch quite rightly finds this puzzlingly unacceptable. “”He doesn’t discuss them in order to dismiss them,” he writes, “he doesn’t even mention them in passing; he simply ignores them.”

They don’t get ignored in the pages of this new book, which will surely be the definitive one-volume Swift biography of our time (it’s more intellectually curious than Ehrenpreis, more balanced than David Nokes’ hilariously entertaining 1986 hachet-job, and less aphoristic than Victoria Glendinning’s quite good 1998 life). Instead, here Damrosch delves into every rumor and aspect of Swift’s life, from John Dryden’s infamous quip that he probably didn’t have the makings of a poet to the byzantine complications of his relationship with Esther Johnson, the “Stella” of his literary immortalizing to the attestations of Swift’s own illegitimacy. These discussions are endlessly fascinating, as are Damrosch’s frequent expoundings on Swift’s personal qualities – his secrecy, his odd tics (“obsessive-compulsive disorder” is invoked), the playfulness of his company, and, movingly evoked, his life-long struggle with Meniere’s syndrome, a disturbance of the inner ear. Meniere’s is scarcely better understood today than it was three hundred years ago, but the picture Damrosch paints is a stark one:

As a sufferer from Meniere’s, Swift was the victim of a condition that was always unpleasant and at times overwhelming. It would be difficult to exaggerate the lifelong burden this became. In the words of a modern medical expert, “The sufferer feels as though he is being violently seasick in the middle of an earthquake … A disease in which one can fall out of a chair, which may make it necessary to lie prostrate to avoid injury through falling, while a world whirling in giddy circles mingles with a background of violent nausea, will leave its mark on any man.”

Likewise Swift’s political world is drawn in all its daunting detail, and his position as Dean of St. Patrick’s (the best preferment his London friends could obtain for him, considering the implacable dislike his early satires had aroused in Queen Anne) here takes center stage as a position that called forth some of Swift’s deepest talents:

Some brilliant clergymen in those days became famous preachers or theologians. Swifts’s interests and talents didn’t run that way. His gift as as an administrator: running a big establishment efficiently, expanding its influence in the city and the nation, and helping the needy poor who inhabited the immediate neighborhood. By his own estimate he had to manage a budget of [10,000 pounds] a year. It has been said of Samuel Pepys the civil servant who played a major role in shaping the Royal Navy, “He had the mental powers, the physical vitality, and the love of order which go to the making of a great administrator.” Exactly the same is true of Swift.

This is quintessential Damrosch, this eye-opening comparison of two such diametrically different figures as the scintillating wit of Gulliver’s Travels and the lovably quotidian compiler of the most famous diary in history, and this biography is full of such casual illuminations. If the literary works that are the foundation of Swift’s immortality are given less extensive attention than they’ve had in other biographies, the man himself is brought more fully to life than ever before. Swift was a voracious reader (“When I am reading a book, whether wise or silly, it seemeth to me to be a alive and talking to me”) and a life-long living contradiction, at once devoted to “Stella” and yet callous toward her, at once the kindest person any of his friends ever met and yet capable of the biting misanthropy behind such comments as he puts into the mouth of the king of Brobdingnag in Gulliver’s Travels: “I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives [of England] to be the most pernicious rage of little odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” Damrosch brings it all together with cunning skill and a great deal of insight, and since he’s so careful about the weight he places on all those “Swiftiana” anecdotes Ehrenpreis discounted, we’re free to enjoy them all for what they’re worth, including the flagrantly apocryphal story with which Damrosch closes out his book:

A curious incident confirms how far from dated Swift still is. In 1969, a science writer read Gulliver’s Travels, assumed it was a recent publication, and decided to request permission to quote from it. He addressed his letter to “Dr. Jonathan Swift, Dean, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland.” The then dean, V. G. Griffin, sent this courteous reply: “Dr. Swift departed from here on 19th October 1741. He left no forwarding address. Since that date, as far as I know, he has not communicated with friend or foe. Where he is at present God only knows.”