Jonathan Swift: man of mystery

When Harold Bloom got busy defining the Western canon for us some twenty years ago, his short list of the main men and women in literature included only one figure from the high eighteenth century. That was Samuel Johnson, whom Bloom later admitted he read all the time “because he is my great hero as a literary critic and I have tried to model myself upon him all my life.” No Voltaire, Diderot, or Rousseau. No Defoe, Fielding, or Sterne. And no Swift. But the ship has sailed, and now even Johnson can do little more than cling on to canonical status in the place where it really matters most—the corpus of student texts. Like Pope, he didn’t write anything deemed worthy of admission to the Norton Critical Editions—a publishing decision no doubt based on canny sales forecasts. Only Swift holds secure, thanks mainly to Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal. These remain living classics, influential on writers and readers alike. Gulliver morphs easily into popular culture and science fiction. And Swift sometimes manages to rate among the British authors on whom graduates are writing the most dissertations, not too far behind Shakespeare and Angela Carter. He’s almost become Swift Our Contemporary.

As a result, scholars and devoted readers, as well as marketing people, can see there is room for a good new biography. Luckily, the gap has been filled by Leo Damrosch in a book that is more than good—it is masterly in its control of the material, its neat formal organization, and its deft unbuttoned style.1 To understand just what Damrosch has achieved, we need to explore the biographic context a little. He isn’t a professed Swiftian like some of his predecessors, although he has written excellent books on subjects such as Blake, Hume, Johnson, Pope, Rousseau, and Tocqueville. Understandably, he shows some impatience here with the hitters designated by Swift’s academic team, accusing them of closing their minds to the work of independent scholars and “amateur” researchers. But there is a more prominent, if cumbrous, elephant in the room, and in almost every chapter of the new life the author has to confront the issues that arise.

Long domiciled at Harvard, Damrosch spent the earlier part of his career teaching at the University of Virginia. His span there coincided with the major production of a senior colleague, Irvin Ehrenpreis, at that time engaged in a monumental triptych of volumes devoted to Swift: The Man, His Works, and the Age, published between 1962 and 1983. Damrosch has waited until now to deliver his opinions on the version of Swift that emerges from this set of doorstoppers (Ehrenpreis died from a fall in 1985, while teaching at the University of Münster, a powerhouse for research into the Dean of St. Patrick’s). The critical verdict on Ehrenpreis’s work is distinctly negative. Among “the very real limitations” that according to Damrosch impair its claims to authoritative status is “a now very dated Freudian interpretation of personality.” This charge is irrefutable: The work buries amidst an impressive body of hard research a rather crude psychobiography. It might be added that Ehrenpreis didn’t have much gift for narrative and wrote undistinguished prose. Forty years ago a writer (me, as it happens) foolishly wrote that a measure of dullness is respectable in a standard life, like sobriety in a banker. The analogy looks bizarrely inapt today, but it remains true that some classic biographical enquiries suffer from turgid expression. Damrosch tells a pacier tale, with chapters on particular topics, such as Dublin life, cleverly integrated into the chronological account. And he writes with far more verve, contriving to blend informality with solid argumentation.

The book prompts questions about what kind of biographer a given subject requires, and about the kind of evidence that needs to be deployed. Most people these days lead an open life, especially on social media, with their capacity to circulate rumors and untruths in a nanosecond. But it wasn’t like that in the past, and some individuals made a virtue of their caginess. Does Swift fall into this category? Early on, Damrosch admits that “hidden though he wanted his inner life to be, he was anything but a recluse.” Near the end, he quotes Johnson’s remark that Pope “hardly drank tea without a stratagem,” and adds a comment by Swift’s friend Lord Orrery that the Dean, for all his ironical teasing, “was undisguised and perfectly sincere.” In between, Damrosch has been forced to trawl through a mass of stories about his subject, some reliable, some highly implausible. He gives them all a decent hearing, even down to the yarn of an aged bell-ringer that Swift had a son by his great friend Esther Johnson (always known as Stella). While he accuses Ehrenpreis of overconfidence in pushing psychoanalytic speculations, he thinks his former colleague was too skeptical with regard to many of these rumors. It is true that, just as one in a hundred conspiracy theories may have something behind it, so occasionally tall tales will warrant a fresh look. With men and women who lived in earlier centuries, you can hardly make biographic bricks without anecdotal straw.

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