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.”