The art of biography, as it is practiced today, nearly always involves the biographer as mediator between past and present, a bridge over the ever-widening gap between the two. As history has more and more become the record of what we feel we ought to be ashamed of our ancestors for, the biography-worthy great men of centuries gone by require new champions to explain why they, at least, weren’t so bad as most of their benighted contemporaries.
The biographical apologia, like the debunking, was already well-established 30 years ago, when Irvin Ehrenpreis completed his three-volume biography of Jonathan Swift after two decades of work. The vogue in the 1960s, when Ehrenpreis began his work, was for psychological, often Freudian, analysis of one’s subject, and the undoubtedly weird figure of the 18th-century dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin and author of Gulliver’s Travels (1726) must have offered one of the more tempting subjects in English literature for such treatment.
Yet, since Freudianism lost favor and patronizing the past in other ways became popular, it has taken another generation for Ehrenpreis’s sometime-colleague at the University of Virginia, Leo Damrosch, now of Harvard, to write a Swift biography in the more up-to-date manner. The result is enlightening and amusing, and it is enlivened by the inclusion of stories and anecdotes about Swift that Ehrenpreis had omitted because they were insufficiently well-attested in his overscrupulous view. But there is no denying the challenge Damrosch has taken on in trying to make Swift a more palatable subject for the 21st century.
Take, for instance, his penultimate chapter, called simply “The Disgusting Poems.” Here, his sympathy for his subject is more evident than his conviction in advancing any of the multiple excuses for Swiftian scatology that have occurred to previous biographers and commentators. The reader may presumably pick his own favorite. For what it’s worth, mine is the one separately suggested by two different writers who, though neither mentions the comparison, seem to see the poems of excrement and sexual disgust as ironic anticipations of Winnie Verloc in Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent, who “felt profoundly that things do not stand much looking into.”
Swift’s staunch Tory politics, which made him the most feared pamphleteer of his own age, also make him a dubious character in ours. Recently, congressman Paul Ryan got into trouble for saying that people in “inner cities” were somewhat lacking in “the culture of work” and had to apologize for his remark, calling it “inarticulate.” His critics called it racist. Not being around to apologize or defend himself for want of feeling, Swift has to rely on his latest biographer to explain that a similar statement of his should be put down to the fact that “sensibilities were different then”—in case you didn’t know it. Swift was hardly the only one among his contemporaries who “tended to see moral explanations for all kinds of social problems” even though “this moral emphasis neglected some deep structural causes of poverty.” Which, by the way, is all the more remarkable if we are to believe Edmund Wilson’s observation that “Swift shared with Marx a deadly sense of the infinite capacity of human nature for remaining oblivious or indifferent to the pains we inflict on others, when we have a chance to get something out of them for ourselves.”
This is said about A Modest Proposal (1729), which, after Gulliver’s Travels, may be Swift’s best known work for its savage satire in proposing that Irish babies be sold as food for the rich of England. But even apart from the gratuitous reference to Marx—who didn’t have such a view, or, indeed, any view of “human nature” in the classical sense—I find it hard to believe that Swift could have written A Modest Proposal, or any of his other appeals to conscience, without a belief in some limit to that human capacity for obliviousness short of infinity.
Perhaps a more delicate subject than even “The Disgusting Poems” was Swift’s attitude toward women. Evidence that, compared with his swinish and chauvinistic contemporaries, he “was ahead of his time in his attitude toward gender” comes from the fact that
He wanted to refute the assumption, then held by most women and nearly all men, that the last things to look for in a wife were “good natural sense, some taste of wit and humour, sufficiently versed in her own natural language, able to read and relish history, books of travels, moral or entertaining discourses, and be a tolerable judge of the beauties in poetry.”
I’m not sure that this will strike everyone as enough of an exception from the “attitude toward gender” of his times, especially in view of the fact that Swift never married. Or did he? To the question of whether he secretly wed either of the two women with whom he had intimate, even passionate, relationships—Esther Johnson (known to him as “Stella”) and Esther Vanhomrigh (known to him as “Vanessa”)—Damrosch takes a necessarily cautious, agnostic approach, though he repeats the apocryphal story of Stella’s begging Swift on her deathbed for a public acknowledgment of their union and Swift’s refusing. It may be true that “keeping his intimate relationships mysterious was an essential strategy of self-protection,” but it’s not exactly up to our high standards as a progressive “attitude toward gender.”
One of the problems with reimagining Swift as “our contemporary”—as the late Jan Kott tried to do with Shakespeare—is that it makes him much harder to read. We are constantly having to abandon our delight in what he wrote in order to get our minds around what he really must have meant by it, especially when he is at his most misanthropic or moralistic. One example comes in Damrosch’s discussion of Swift’s pseudonymous A Project for the Advancement of Religion, and the Reformation of Manners (1709). In it he proposes rigid enforcement of morality on the part of those in government offices, even though he recognizes that this will produce hypocrisy, which at least “wears the livery of religion . . . acknowledgeth her authority, and is cautious of giving scandal.” Most shockingly, Swift wrote: “I believe it is with religion as it is with love, which by much dissembling at last grows real.”
“Can Swift possibly have meant all this?” asks Damrosch. “Some distinguished Swiftians have thought he did. But it’s hard to believe that the author of the Argument to Abolish Christianity , with its mordant critique of ‘nominal Christianity,’ could call for obligatory hypocrisy in a police state founded on censorship and spying.”
Yet Swift often wrote in favor of an outward conformity to established practices, especially those of the established church of which he was a clergy-man, in spite of inward doubts and even contrary convictions. As the king of Brobdingnag says to Gulliver:
He knew no reason why those, who entertain [religious or political] opinions prejudicial to the public, should be obliged to change, or should not be obliged to conceal them. And as it was tyranny in any government to require the first, so it was weakness not to enforce the second: for a man may be allowed to keep poisons in his closet, but not to vend them about for cordials.
Damrosch concludes that A Project for the Advancement of Religion was a satire on the recent revival of Puritanism among the Whigs (who were his political enemies), but that it was so cleverly camouflaged they could not take exception to it, since it pretended to adopt the views of Queen Anne, lately fallen under their influence. This may be so—though such subtlety must always find its limit at the point where the satire becomes indistinguishable from the thing satirized. That Swift was always bumping up against that limit can hardly be an accident, and it must surely be the final word on all questions of his sincerity, or lack thereof, in what he wrote—questions which even the most ingenious biographer should relegate to the closet of his secrets.
Without the anxiety of having to prove Swift the kind of man who today’s politically decent people would would choose to know, he emerges as the sort of amusing companion his contemporaries found him to be, a man his cousin Deane Swift described as one who “equally loved to speak, and loved to hearken,” a man who could write in a letter of consolation to a woman who had lost a child, just as he himself was feeling anguished at the imminent death of Stella, that “Life is a tragedy, wherein we sit as spectators awhile, and then act our own part in it.”
That sort of humanity is different from Damrosch’s view that “Swift still matters, three and a half centuries after his birth, because he was a great writer and a great man.” This irritating modern habit of writing about “why X matters” is one indication that we are now expected to look for excuses, in the onward march of progress, to discard such figures from the past who need the help of their biographers to tell us why they continue to hang on to some shred of relevance.
James Bowman, the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.