Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), dean of St. Patrick’s Church of Ireland cathedral in Dublin, was a most remarkable man.  To begin with, he wrote two of the cleverest, most original books in English, Gulliver’s Travels and A Tale of a Tub, in prose that David Hume described as “the first polite prose we have,” i.e., the first really stylish, polished prose to be written in England.  For about four years, from 1710 until 1714, that same prose in the form of political pamphlets put him in a position of power as a writer for the Tory ministry of Robert Harley and Henry St. John.  Back in Ireland as dean of his cathedral after the ministry’s fall, he began writing against English misgovernment of Ireland, and when his pamphlets written under the name M.B. Drapier defeated Prime Minister Walpole’s attempt to introduce “Wood’s ha’pence” into Ireland, he became a national hero and once again a figure of real power, this time in Dublin.  When Walpole, exasperated by Swift’s opposition, wished to prosecute him for sedition, he was told that he would need 10,000 men to take Swift from Dublin.

At the same time, he was an entirely orthodox high-churchman who ran his cathedral and the city “liberty” around it with the effectiveness of a born administrator.  Most unusually, too, for an Anglican priest at the time, he celebrated Holy Communion or Mass every Sunday when he was in residence, a very rare practice among Anglicans until the days of the Oxford Movement a century later.  He saw to it that musical standards were kept up, and he devoted a large part of his income to personal charity.  He even founded a hospital for the mentally ill, St. Patrick’s, which is still there in Dublin.

As if all that were not enough originality for one lifetime, he believed in keeping himself fit by physical exercise, running, riding, and walking regularly.  Most surprisingly, living as he did in an unsanitary, odorous world, he insisted on personal cleanliness.  He bathed regularly and changed his linen daily, and he expected those close to him to do the same.  His one great misfortune was that from about the age of 20 he suffered attacks of an affection of the inner ear called, after the French physician who described it for the first time in 1861, Ménière’s disease.  The condition, which is still with us, still unexplained and still incurable, causes temporary vertigo, nausea, tinnitus, and deafness.  When one considers how badly Swift suffered from Ménière’s, his lifetime of achievement is all the more amazing, even heroic.

The story of such an unusual life fairly begs to be told sympathetically, and every generation has produced its biographies.  Yet Swift has proved to be a difficult subject.  This is partly because—as with most older candidates for biography—there is a shortage of personal information, especially for the early years.  But the chief reason for Swift’s biographers’ difficulties is explained by a sentence he wrote in a letter to his friend the poet Alexander Pope: “The chief end I propose to myself in all my labours is to vex the world rather than divert it.”

Writing as a high-church Anglo-Irish priest of the Church of Ireland, Swift began his career by vexing nonconforming or dissenting Protestants and their Whig supporters, but by the end of his life his writing included something to vex just about everyone, including some of his fellow Tories.  His most vexing offense was to introduce readers in a period calling itself an age of reason to an imaginary country where the rational citizens were horses and the humans were the filthy yahoos, but joking poems about natural functions and aging ladies of the night vexed people as well.  People are still being vexed, too, because the one big object underlying all the lesser objects of Swift’s satire was and remains the whole progressive project inaugurated in the 17th century by the English political party called the Whigs.  Swift, who attacked the great Duke of Marlborough, did not like the Whigs’ wars, their imperialism, their central banking and national debt, their irreligion, or their incipient materialism, and he thought the implied arrogance of their humanism was ridiculous.

Whiggery, of course, triumphed, and the Whigs are still with us, calling themselves liberals and progressives.  That is why virtually all the biographers of this high-church Tory satirist begin with an animus against him even as they admit the power and fascination of his writing, which in the end they can only explain by explaining it away—which brings us to this latest in the long series of Whig biographies of Swift.

The first thing to be said about this book is that, at over 700 pages, it is not a quick read.  The reason for its great length, besides editorial indulgence, is that the author has filled out the necessarily scanty details of Swift’s personal life with accounts of his friends, of the places where he lived and stayed, and of the political circumstances in which he wrote.  These passages, in which readers familiar with the outline of Swift’s life will probably find information that is new to them, are the best in the book even as they are the cause of its length.

The author is—using the word in its most general sense—a Whig who cannot understand how any intelligent person could be a high-church Tory on principle.  Like all his predecessors, therefore, he sets about explaining the necessarily pathological, hence unconscious, sources of Swift’s motivation to write.  To his credit, like his recent predecessor Leo Damrosch, he has abandoned completely the first Whig hypothesis, that Swift was mad, and writes well and sympathetically about his sad last years.  Nor does he make much play with the once-fashionable Freudian approach, although he suspects that an anal personality underlies the bathroom poems, and is prepared to speculate that Swift might present an 18th-century case of Asperger’s syndrome.  Mostly, though, he tracks Swift’s peculiarities, including his literary genius, to his mysteriously troubled infancy—to the prenatal death of his father, caused by dirty sheets at an inn, to his nurse’s removal of him to England in a bandbox, and to his mother’s near-abandonment of him.

Application of this idea recurs throughout the book.  One sees why someone who thinks this way would relate Swift’s dislike of soiled linen to his father’s dirty sheets, but other applications are more far-fetched.  For example, it is hard to see a connection between Swift’s courageous disposal of a parcel bomb sent to Robert Harley in a bandbox and his own infantile journey to England in a bandbox.

The summing up of the approach appears toward the book’s end:

Speaking crudely, there was Swift the conformist and Swift the anarchic humorist, and together they produced the satirical writer.  The psychology of our own age indicates there must have been a third and silent element to Swift; one that grieved at lack of love and a sense of belonging nowhere, craving status, stability and recognition to offset the gnawing effects of shame and insecurity.

“Must have been.”  No one has any way of knowing whether there was or there wasn’t a third Swift, but there must have been one, because otherwise Swift’s writing is inexplicable to 21st-century progressives.  A book like Gulliver’s Travels may satirize contemporary politicians here and there, but it is really Swift’s way of purging his rage at a world that treated baby Swift so unworthily.  That is why the book exists; otherwise, it makes no sense.  Applied seriously, this way of thinking implies that if Swift had not lost his father to soiled linen or been smuggled off to England in a bandbox, he would have grown up as normal as everyone else and either not written a word or, if he did, would have satirized the Tories on behalf of the Whigs like every other sensible Englishman—or Anglo-Irishman—since.

Sometime, somewhere, it is just possible that a Tory with high-church sympathies will succeed in taking Swift as he finds him, and write a biography that explains just what it was in the world that Swift was satirizing in the Travels.  Meanwhile here is a large, compendious book, filled with often fascinating information about Swift and his friends.  It is decently written, too, except for the odd substitution of Carolean for Caroline and some clumsy passages that needed an editor’s pencil.  But it leaves its reader as much in the dark as ever about the thinking behind Gulliver’s Travels.



[Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel, by John Stubbs (New York: W.W. Norton & Company) 739 pp., $39.95]