His Life and His World

By Leo Damrosch

Yale Univ. 573 pp. $35

To achieve real literary immortality, there’s nothing to match writing a book that children love. While most of Jonathan Swift’s political and satirical tracts — all published anonymously or under assumed names — might be called ephemera of genius, “Gulliver’s Travels” (1726) is a permanent contribution to our literature and a part of the common culture of childhood. The image of shipwrecked Gulliver, awakening on a strange shore to find himself tightly bound by innumerable threads and surrounded by the six-inch-high Lilliputians, is as unforgettable as Robinson Crusoe discovering a footprint in the sand, Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence or the confused Alice joining the Mad Tea Party.

Nonetheless, Samuel Johnson grouchily maintained that “once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest.” Johnson was wrong, if only for overlooking the blistering satire of contemporary science in Gulliver’s visit to Laputa and the blanket misanthropy of the fourth and last voyage to the land of the gentle equine Houyhnhnms and the disgusting humanoid Yahoos. The fact is, Johnson simply didn’t like Swift, and I suspect that few readers of this biography will like him either.

That’s not to say that “Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World” isn’t an excellent book. Leo Damrosch is a distinguished Harvard professor of English and the author of, among other works, an exceptional critical biography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He writes entertainingly and is comfortable with political and philosophical ideas as well as with literary matters. But his latest book is, by necessity, too speculative to be wholly satisfying.

First of all, much of Swift’s life remains clouded by uncertainty, partly because little documentation survives about his early years. The future writer was born in Dublin in 1667, seven months after his father’s death, and, it has been suspected, might well have been illegitimate. His mother, for some reason, allowed a wet nurse to take the baby away to England for three years and later completely absented herself from his upbringing. But where did the money for young Jonathan’s education come from? And how, when grown up, did this ambitious nobody secure a position as secretary to the aristocratic essayist Sir William Temple? One line of speculation posits that Swift’s mother might have been intimate with Sir William’s late father, who spent a lot of time in Dublin and seems to have known the Swift family.

All this, of course, is just rumor and conjecture. But similar riddles recur throughout Swift’s life, and most remain insoluble. Consider his sex life. Did he have one? Was his relationship with Hester Johnson — nicknamed Stella — merely one of lifelong platonic friendship, or did they secretly marry in 1716? Did he two-time Stella with the beautiful Esther Vanhomrigh, whom he called Vanessa? Damrosch quotes from passages in letters in which phrases about “drinking coffee” appear to be code for lovemaking. Yet other biographers tend to see Swift as a confirmed bachelor and point to his repellent late poems, in which women are merely gruesome vessels of corruption and filth, as indicative of his deep-seated misogyny.

Swift was ordained in the Irish branch of the Church of England, but how devout was he? At times, he appears to have taken his clerical duties quite seriously, but if Damrosch is right, he may have lived in sin with Stella, toyed with Vanessa’s affections (and probably more than that), and certainly displayed, with some frequency, un-Christian anger, a killer instinct for cruel raillery and a penchant for lifelong grudges. His first major book, “A Tale of a Tub,” (1704) learnedly mocks Catholics, Anglicans and Dissenters and quite probably ruined his chances for a bishopric in England. Eventually, Swift had to settle for the deanship of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, where he spent much of the second half of his life.

As everyone knows, Swift’s writing is pervasively ironic, but sometimes it seems his life is, too. What did he really think of the Irish? In his most famous pamphlet, “A Modest Proposal,” Swift suggested that the starving poor of Ireland should sell their babies to the English as culinary delicacies. Yet in other writings, Swift displays contempt for the poor and beggared, who he argues probably brought their impoverishment on themselves through drink or lack of industry.

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.

Swift once wrote in a letter that “the chief end I propose to myself in all my labours is to vex the world rather than divert it.” As so often, he slightly mistook his own genius. What we now value in Swift is, essentially, his style, that delicious combination of clarity, force and ironic wit. As Somerset Maugham once declared, “I cannot imagine that English can be better written. Here are no flowery periods, fantastic turns of phrase, or high-flown images. It is a civilized prose, natural, discreet and pointed. There is no attempt to surprise by an extravagant vocabulary. It looks as though Swift made do with the first word that came to hand, but since he had an acute and logical brain it was always the right one, and he put it in the right place.”

Still, the irony is what we most recall from Swift: “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse.” Nothing, though, can beat the astonishing final paragraph of “A Modest Proposal.” After making the case for succulent Irish infants as a luxury food, Swift concludes:

“I Profess in the sincerity of my Heart that I have not the least personal Interest in endeavouring to promote this necessary Work having no other Motive than the public Good of my Country. . . . I have no Children, by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine Years old, and my Wife past Childbearing.”

Swift used to worry that he would die “in a rage, like a poisoned rat in a hole.” Instead, he suffered from vertigo and nausea all his life (almost certainly Meniere’s disease) and during his last 10 or 15 years lost his mental faculties to either Alzheimer’s or vascular dementia, finally dying in 1745 at age 77. His self-composed epitaph proclaims that he has gone — in the poet W.B. Yeats’s version of the Latin — “where savage indignation can lacerate his heart no more.” Certainly, Leo Damrosch’s biography makes clear that savage indignation, or some psychological deficit, left a large hole in Swift’s irascible and enigmatic soul. But without it, would we have been given “Gulliver’s Travels”?

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.