The Punishing 18th Century

by Tracy R. Walsh

Reviewing Leo Damrosch’s Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, James Ward considers the misanthropic writer as a product of his times:

This [biography’s] dual perspective helps avoid a pathologizing mode, something which is very easy to slip into when writing about Swift: if some features of the life look unusually mordant or morbid by our standards, they were not out of place in that world. A Modest Proposal’s baby-eating humor still has the capacity to shock, but in the week of its publication, one Dublin shop made a window display of a mummified corpse to attract passers-by, likening the skin’s texture to a freshly-baked cake of puff pastry. On a similarly gruesome note, Damrosch informs us that the original of the Tale’s flayed woman may have been the desiccated corpse of a convict displayed under glass in the library of Trinity College during the time Swift studied there. When its face was eaten by rats, a new one was duly peeled from another more recently executed body and mounted on the faceless cadaver. We tend to think of grotesque fascination with bodily degradation and its public display as peculiarly Swiftian, but perhaps he just used the materials that came to hand around him. He seems to have been an early adopter of the mantras of modern creative writing – “write what you know” and “show, don’t tell” – and they led him to some interesting places.