The Blistering Satire Of Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift wrote “Gulliver’s Travels” and blistering satire on human nature. He’s relevant again. We’ll bring back Jonathan Swift.

Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, pictured in a 1710 portrait. (Charles Jervas / Creative Commons)

Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, pictured in a 1710 portrait. (Charles Jervas / Creative Commons)

Jonathan Swift could wield satire like maybe no one else in the history of the English language.  He put Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians in “Gulliver’s Travels” and sent up the mean, absurd smallness of so much human nature.  He put the bones of children in stewpots in “A Modest Proposal” and skewered human immorality.  That essay, nearly 300 years old, still hurts to read today.  Still cuts.  “I hate and detest the animal called man,” Swift wrote.  And what made him?  This hour On Point:  a new biography shares the life and times and view of Jonathan Swift.

— Tom Ashbrook


Leo Damrosch, professor of literature at Harvard University. Author of the new book, “Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World.” Also author of “Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius” and “Tocqueville’s Discovery of America.”

From Tom’s Reading List

New York Times: A Giant Among Men — “Although basically a traditionalist, he was in many ways ahead of his time. Thus he was all for the learning and writing of women (who were then forbidden the university); he was active in promoting the cause of Ireland, though he hated it; and he advocated religious tolerance despite his own firm Anglicanism. The contemporary medical stance to the contrary, he was a hearty practitioner of physical exercise, often traveling on foot or horseback rather than by the customary coach or sedan chair. He opposed slavery, which was generally — even by Daniel Defoe — approved of.”

The Guardian: “Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World” by Leo Damrosch – review — “All Swift’s satires were written in some invented first person – the clever economist with ‘A Modest Proposal’ to make the Irish eat their babies, the up‑to-date hack who narrates ‘A Tale of a Tub,’ gullible Gulliver, tumbling from pride to self-disgust; all were published anonymously. Swift is not “there” in any of them. All the more reason for trying to find the author, whom none of us can quite detach from Gulliver in his final dark enlightenment, realising that he is but a Yahoo: sly, vicious and lecherous.”

Washington Post: Swift’s brilliance shines through his life’s mysteries in new biography — “Much of Damrosch’s book is devoted to Swift’s political affiliations. He started out as a Whig, but switched to the Tories after that party’s leader, Robert Harley, seeking a propagandist and pamphleteer for his cause, flattered him with compliments and personal attention. Soon the upstart Swift was hobnobbing with England’s ruling class — until the Whigs, under Robert Walpole, regained power. While these post-Restoration political shifts and betrayals were of seismic importance in British history, 21st-century American readers are likely to find them tedious.”

Read An Excerpt Of “Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World” by Leo Damrosch

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