The Genius of Creative Destruction

Cover illustration for Gulliver’s Travels by Grandville, 1838

Early in the twentieth century, a collector of folklore spoke to a farmer in County Cavan, near to where Jonathan Swift had written much of Gulliver’s Travels almost two hundred years earlier. The farmer told the folklorist that there were still people called Bradley living in the area and that they were remarkably small. Their equally tiny ancestors, he said, had worked as laborers for the more prosperous landowners, the Brookes, who were in turn neighbors of Swift’s friend Thomas Sheridan. Sheridan’s laborers were unusually large men. Swift, the farmer claimed, had watched the two sets of workers laboring together and “was so amused at the contrast, and at seeing the giant Sheridans lift up the dwarf Bradleys in their hands and place them like dolls on the haycocks that he joked and laughed with Mr. Brookes at what he had seen that day in the hayfield.”

The farmer’s delightful tale, with the implication that these local dwarfs and giants became the natives of Lilliput and Brobdingnag, is a typical just-so story. It seeks to explain a great literary invention by tracing it back to a biographical incident. Few scholars would take it seriously as evidence of anything other than Swift’s remarkable presence in the Irish popular imagination, even though a version of it also appears in an early biography written by Sheridan’s son. Yet critics themselves have, for centuries, belabored Swift with just-so stories. They differ from the farmer’s lovely yarn principally in being Freudian rather than folkloric and bleak rather than warm. But their status as evidence is hardly more secure.

Swift is almost unique among great prose writers in that, as well as being admired by the literate, he was also loved by the illiterate. There is a Swift contained and explored in thousands of books; there is another Swift remembered and celebrated in Irish oral traditions that were alive up to the 1930s. The Swift of this oral tradition is not a high Tory with a bitter disposition and a streak of misanthropy. He is funny, quick-witted, humane, and human. He is often heard, as in the farmer’s story, joking and laughing. As late as 1933, an informant in County Kerry told a folklore collector of Swift that “people say he was honest, and a good friend to this country while he lived. He was witty and well-spoken, and his intellect and his learning and his cunning were better than that of anybody before him or since.”

In the large body of stories about him in the collections of the Irish Folklore Commission, Swift is almost always “the Dean”—he was dean of Saint Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin from 1713 until his death in 1745—or, in popular pronunciation, “the Dane.” The name shows immediate awareness that he was a high functionary of the established, Protestant, Church of Ireland—an…

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