Even in an age of outsize literary biographies, Irvin Ehrenpreis’s life of Jonathan Swift counts as a superdreadnought. The first two volumes occupied more than a thousand pages, exclusive of apparatus; the third, which has now appeared, almost equals in size the previous two. This is by no means a record, but it’s impressive. Swift’s life was long, rich, and extraordinarily complicated; it spanned seventy-eight years of turbulent history in the growth of two nations, stretching across the reigns of six monarchs, and saw the transformation of England from a distant island kingdom barely recovering from the effects of an indecisive civil war to the first power of Europe.

Born under Charles II (1667), Swift lived halfway through the reign of George II, dying in 1745. During much of this time, he was actively involved in public affairs, some of great historical importance, some less significant, but almost all complex. There is remarkably little stuffing in Professor Ehrenpreis’s enormous volumes; what used to be called “laundry lists” are remarkably absent, and so are a great many fanciful, picturesque, but extremely dubious legends that grew up around the dean’s memory in the centuries after his death. The biography is a product of indefatigable industry, careful discrimination, and a crisp, impartial judgment that resists all temptations to uninformative hero worship. Ehrenpreis’s three volumes merit a place on the shelves between David Masson’s monolithic Life of John Milton and the great thicket of biographical timber that has grown up around Doctor Johnson. They are a monumental achievement, an ultimate resource, and an accomplishment that on this scale will never have to be undertaken again. Yet, as in all books, there are better parts and worse, some to be accepted without much question and others where revisionary criticism seems likely to flourish.

The range of materials covered is formidable, and there can be no complaint of foreshortening or omission. The big events of Volume I, which takes us up to about 1699, were Swift’s association with Sir William Temple and the complex composition (though not the publication) of A Tale of a Tub. The highlight of the second volume (1699–1714) was the final period, during which Swift was a confidential intimate of Harley, Bolingbroke, and the Tory government of Queen Anne’s last four years. The first main episode of Volume III is the publication of the Drapier’s Letters (1724–1725), in which Swift, taking as his occasion the proposed issue of some small copper coins for use in Ireland, voiced the indignation of the entire indigenous population at the systematic exploitation of Ireland in England’s interests. The second is the publication of Gulliver’s Travels, 1726. This universal masterpiece is much less closely tied to current events than most of Swift’s writings; it combines in a unique way his sense of detachment from the accepted forms of common life with the delight in play and foolery which was one of his chief resources against that alienation.

Around these five focal events cluster hundreds of lesser episodes, personalities, and contretemps. Both in England and in Ireland Swift had friends and enemies galore (in equal numbers, and sometimes the same person in both capacities). He was a voluminous occasional writer, and the occasions as well as the writings require dissection to be understood. All his life long he was given to disguises, subterfuges, anonymities, ironic masqueradings, and mystifications. Though never married, he maintained in extended equivocal intimacy three different ladies, two of them simultaneously. He was idealized and despised; he was cruel and tender, noble and base, generous and stingy, a brutal political liar, a devoted friend, a patriotic defender of the oppressed Irish and a party to their systematic exploitation, by turns wrong-headed and inspired, a man of quivering sensitivity and of bristling pride verging on gross rudeness. A man with an infinite sense of fun and play, a man of more severe, narrow, and repressive principles than we today can readily conceive—in short, he was an animated paradox, whose entire life was a provocation to study him.

Likely few readers will approach Ehrenpreis’s volumes as it behooves a reviewer to approach them, by reading straight through from beginning to end. Thus it’s probably important to say first of all that as exposition the volumes hold up remarkably well. Political, theological, ecclesiastical, and social intricacies are painstakingly explained; and if the explanations create occasional longueurs, no reader who hefts the volumes beforehand will be much surprised or daunted. Here and there, to be sure, there are repetitions of ideas and even specific quotations, creating a brief sensation of déjà vu.

Occasionally, the author, deep in his subject, takes for granted more polysyllabic expertise than an unprofessional reader is likely to have. On pages 251 and 252 of Volume I, for example, one is asked to digest without present explanation such terms as “Socinianism,” “Sabellianism,” “Arianism,” “Tritheism,” the “Country” and “Church” parties, the “Place” and “Triennial” bills, and the “Court Whigs,” whose relation to the “old Whigs” and the “new Whigs,” frequently mentioned elsewhere in the biography, a reader must work out for himself. Explanations do not always arrive on time; at the beginning of Volume II we edge into a discussion of the Junto and efforts to impeach it without being clearly informed what it was. We hear about the South Sea Bubble on page 124 of Volume III, though it’s explained only on page 153.


The major displacement of the biography is, however, amply justified; it is the pathetic story of the decline and demise of Esther Vanhomrigh (“Vanessa”)—she died June 2, 1723—which is postponed to follow the ruckus over the Drapier’s Letters (1724–1725). That brings the unfortunate lady’s last days into closer proximity with those of Esther Johnson (“Stella”), who in fact died almost five years later (January 28, 1728). But it also makes a tidier story, is carefully explained, and so does not come under the heading of loose ends.

As one would expect, the biography of Swift himself, forming the central part of Ehrenpreis’s work, makes the most solid and sustained part of the story. Figures who touch on Swift’s life only peripherally or temporarily, even though of major historical importance, are not always strongly represented. The Duke and Duchess of Marlborough remain little more than outlines; the duke himself, like Lord Somers (very influential in the early part of Swift’s life), does not even die, he is just allowed to fade away. The account of Congreve, though he was a schoolboy friend of Swift and an early idol, does not mention his great plays, slights the significant Jeremy Collier controversy, and dismisses without comment Congreve’s retirement from literature, at the height of his powers, aged just thirty. The Jacobite rising/invasion of 1715 makes no stir in the life of Swift, being mentioned (III, 118) only after it was safely over.

Again (to complete the nitpicking), certain figures, being seen mainly through Swift’s invidiously partisan eyes, are plastered with epithets never justified by particular evidence. Why is Benjamin Hoadly the Bishop of Bangor “egregious” (III, 53)? Why are the followers of Sir Edward Seymour and Sir John Howe referred to as a “gang” (II, 54)? Were they really a gang, or just a set of high-churchmen from whom Swift at the moment disagreed? One doesn’t know quite how to take these epithets. Sometimes Swift’s motivation seems so immediately present to the biographer that he does not need to explain it to the reader. Scholars have wondered for a long time why Swift (whose idea of a major poet was, in the 1690s, Abraham Cowley) should have felt so unremittingly hostile all his life to John Dryden—not only a far better poet than Cowley, but a kinsman. The old story that Dryden once said, “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet,” must now be relegated to myth; Ehrenpreis quietly omits it. But why then the sneering, malignant hatred, as bitter after Dryden’s death as during his life? We are never advised.

Ehrenpreis is particularly deft in handling the complex ambiguities of Swift’s early relations with Sir William Temple and his later dealings with Archbishop William King. Both these men were older than Swift, better established in life, and in broad sympathy with most of his views; both were happy to make use of his talent, but it cannot be said that either was generous in rewarding his merits. Swift was outwardly respectful of both, but with an undertone of resentment that he was never very good at concealing. His liking for any person of superior status was most often a matter of disliking that person’s enemies, real or presumed—and these mechanisms Ehrenpreis is shrewd indeed in uncovering.

He does not seem to me so skillful in laying bare the roots of Swift’s outright political hatreds. For this indistinctness Swift himself was in good part to blame. Once he had made up his mind to loathe someone, he could not resist the impulse to read that person out of the human race by imputing to him every disgusting trait, every obscene action, and every degrading motive of which a villain is capable. In 1710, for example, Swift wanted to be named chaplain to Lord Wharton, and probably moved Lord Somers to beg the post for him. But something in the way it was denied stirred his vindictive rage, and thereafter he had nothing but vituperation and furious calumnies for his lordship. 1 Wharton may indeed have been as bad as Swift said (defecating on the high altar of Gloucester Cathedral was only one of the charges: II, 440), but Addison, a less excitable man, shows no signs of thinking him a monster, quite the contrary.


Similarly in his discussion of Swift’s literary works: Ehrenpreis seems to me at his best in dealing with the softer side of Swift. He is sensible and lucid in sorting out the conflicting overtones and glancing implications of Gulliver’s Travels. On Swift’s jokes, games, and parodies, like the “Isaac Bickerstaff” assault on Partridge the astrologer, he is both entertaining and informative. And he does full justice to the narrow but brilliant “Argument against the Abolishing of Christianity” and its paradoxical homogeneity with the leaden “Project for the Advancement of Religion and the Reformation of Manners.” The contrast between these two pieces illustrates what one could call the litotic habit of Swift’s mind; he worked at highest tension mainly through a process of denying the contrary of what he may not have been unwilling to have us suppose he meant.

But in translating the most jagged and ferocious of these reversals, Ehrenpreis is less successful than in dealing with the gentler indirections. I will instance primarily A Tale of a Tub and A Modest Proposal. These are wonderfully keen, cruel, and cutting works; and unfortunately Ehrenpreis approaches them through interpretations that seem to muffle their edges in cotton wool. This is against his better knowledge, for on page 463 of Volume III, in connection with the satire in Gulliver, he explicitly protests against trying to synthesize Swift’s various satiric negatives into a coherent positive:

It is the way Swift naturally works. He inculcates his opinions one by one, and does not try to erect a synthesis that will encompass all of them. Not merely in Gulliver’s Travels but in his writings generally, he pushes separate arguments to extremes without regarding the inferences that persistent and learned readers might elicit from them.

Exactly so: and this is why Ehrenpreis seems to me to present A Tale of a Tub upside down and inside out when he begins:

Swift sets before us the Christian gentleman, a landed proprietor educated in humanist culture, conscious of his duties as a subject and a master. This model conforms cheerfully to the Established Church; he willingly supports the government of England as redesigned in 1688–9, and he is a responsible head of a family. As a father and as a landlord, he lives by the rules of Christian morality and labours to improve the condition of those who depend upon him (I, 190).

None of this is visible to me in A Tale of a Tub, except by the sort of remote indirection which would argue that an attack on green beans is implicitly a panegyric of sweet potatoes.

Basically, the Tale is a satire on abuses in religion and learning. It lashes Calvinists and Catholics and (only a little less savagely) Lutherans. It ridicules pretentious modern authors, booksellers, and miscellany-writers, projectors, virtuosi, scientists, and critics, the shallow, the pseudoprofound, the commercial spirit, the satirist himself, and his own book. It’s an anti-book writhing with resentments; and approaching it from the direction of positive thinking leads to papering over a good many cutting ironies.

There is, for example, a dedication to Lord Somers which Ehrenpreis represents as Swift’s, but which actually asserts itself as the work of the bookseller, who wants to make money and become an alderman.2 He dedicates to Somers as a money man with patronage to dispense; the dedication shows itself to be venal and vulgar throughout. (By contrast, the author has his own dedication, to Prince Posterity, a potentate to whom the bookseller is completely unknown, and who, he says, is not at all regarded or thought on by any of our present writers.)

The body of the bookseller’s dedication is full of covert jeers and invidious allusions—to Somers’s pedigree “traced in a lineal descent from the house of Austria” (in Examiner 26, Swift would speak of him with open contempt as “descended from the dregs of the people”); to his “undaunted courage in mounting a breach” (he was widely known as an indiscriminate libertine); and to his “wonderful talent at dress and dancing” (he was small and sickly).

The latent malignant tone holds throughout. The satire expresses bitter jealousy of vulgar wits and pretentious writers of patchy trivialities—miscellanies, in a word—who are shoving away the truly learned and humble clergy, as money men are shoving out the landed gentry, and as occasional conformists are intruding on the privileges of the establishment. This tone of outraged resentment, of barely controlled fury, seems to me to predominate by an enormous margin over the Christian gentleman, father, and landlord—who, if he’s present at all, peeps only occasionally around the corner of an implication.

Interpreting A Modest Proposal is a rather different matter, since it forms part of Ehrenpreis’s recurrent concern to bring Freudian insights to bear. Noting the theme of motherhood as recurrent in the Proposal (as it surely and inevitably is), he adds a suggestion:

I suspect that the theme reflects an unconscious preoccupation with Stella’s failure to marry and have children. It certainly becomes a device for satirizing ladies of fashion who ruin their husbands and their country. But it might perhaps also be Swift’s way of excusing himself for keeping Stella a spinster; for the representation he gives of motherhood makes it seem the grimmest of unrewarding ordeals. At least, Swift could think, he saved her from this. (III, 630)

The attack on “pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women” is visibly present in the Modest Proposal; everything else about this interpretation is speculation concerning Swift’s unconscious, and pretty insubstantial speculation at that. Why he should have thought of Stella—or Rebecca Dingley, or Esther Vanhomrigh, or Jane Waring (Varina), all of them English Protestant ladies with decent incomes—in connection with an imagined degradation of Irish paupers is unclear, and that he did so is unlikely. He might more appropriately have thought of Queen Anne, with her awful record of ten miscarriages, four infant mortalities, and only one child who lived to the age of eleven. But that he thought of anyone but the sodden, sorry, spawning derelicts that he had to encounter daily on the streets of Dublin seems an unnecessary presumption. And if he was actually trying to take credit for all the maternal anguish he had not visited on the world (it’s a statistic that must give the most profligate male pause for speculation), the less Swift he.3

On the whole, then, it is the literary-interpretative aspects of Ehrenpreis’s biography that seem most open to question, and generally in connection with those parts of Swift’s oeuvre that are most shrill, most pointed. Why did the great writer feel so embittered—and not simply at the end of his life, but when he was no more than thirty? This is not very easy to explain nowadays, when the “Whig interpretation of history” (shrewdly given that label by Professor Butterfield a full half-century ago) is so prevalent as to be largely unconscious. But such a view of the world was a novelty in Swift’s youth, and for him an oppressively unwelcome one. He was the partisan of a garrison church, besieged in Ireland by swarms of Catholics and threatened in England by shoals of encroaching, aggressive dissenters.

The gentry’s contempt for the Anglican clergy (to which the very different works of Dr. John Eachard and Mr. Thomas Brown bear equal witness) cut deeply into Swift’s consciousness, because it seemed to him a direct betrayal on the part of those who had most interest in defending the establishment, the greatest duty to do so. His sting was sharpened by awareness that King William’s bishops, appointed to replace nonjurors, were not very eager to defend the church they ostensibly headed against its sectarian rivals. Jonathan’s biographer and cousin, Deane Swift, writing about another cousin, Thomas, the rector of Puttenham, has a telling phrase to explain the feelings of the lower clergy at the turn of the century. Thomas Swift, he says, was

a man of Learning and Abilities; but unfortunately bred up like his Father and Grandfather, with an abhorrence and contempt for all the puritanical sectaries; [and therefore] continued Rector of Putenham, without any the least hope of rising in the Church for the space of three score years.4

To be so deeply attached to the church in which one holds office as to be forever denied advancement within her is a bitter fate. Jonathan and his cousin Thomas shared that fate, Jonathan in even fuller measure than Thomas. For Thomas in 1694 received from Lord Somers the rectory of Puttenham, near Moor Park and not far from London. (“Those to whom every Body allows the second place have an undoubted Title to the First”—so the snide bookseller assures Lord Somers, in his dedication.)

But the only preferment Jonathan received till he was forty-six years old was the vicarage of Laracor, near Trim in the country Meath, where he was privileged to preach occasionally to an auditory of ten persons. And while he languished there, for years on end, patronage in the form of deaneries and rectories, chaplaincies and prebendaries, sinecures and secretaryships, bishoprics and diplomatic posts, dropped within easy reach of Swift’s impatient hand—dropped upon men of inferior talents, more dubious characters, and lesser connections—but never, never upon Swift. Even had he not begun with an embittered disposition, such a history could hardly help producing it.

Ehrenpreis points shrewdly to certain traits and habits of thought that made a narrow, defiant, distrustful attitude natural for Swift. He learned early to think of history as shaped by dominant personalities directed only partially by intriguers. He habitually saw slight deviations from a strict line as leading directly to ultimate and generally disastrous consequences. He idealized very few men (most influential among them his grandfather Thomas, “martyr” to Cromwell’s Puritans); having elected an idol, he was wholly incapable of recognizing a flaw in him. Hardly any of the world’s great writers have been less tolerant of literature, less indulgent of the tragic flaw, the genial rogue. Milton’s Satan and Shakespeare’s Falstaff both lay far outside his range of sympathy.

What is remarkable is that with so much of the picturesque mythology stripped away, even with most of the traditional grounds for sympathy undermined, Jonathan Swift remains such a fascinating figure. The new biography will certainly make itself known to Prince Posterity. Whether the wits of that distant monarchy will accept all the literary judgments of Professor Ehrenpreis may be doubted, but their own opinions cannot fail to rest on the factual foundations he has laid. Though each reader will make his own discounts, no one can fail to recognize the enormous contribution that remains.

This Issue

October 25, 1984