It is difficult merely imagining Swift, the Doctor and Dean, the terror of ministers and magnates, as a baby: the image is almost absurd. Picturing it means endowing him with a vulnerability, a physical and emotional need he cancelled altogether from his adult personality. But then, what should we expect? At an early stage in his career, Swift ridiculed the idea of understanding writers through biography…

—from The Reluctant Rebel (76)

Literary biography doesn’t get much better than the book pictured at left. In fact, I’d put John Stubbs’ Jonathan Swift, the Reluctant Rebel up there with Richard Ellman’s James Joyce or Deirdre Bair’s Samuel Beckett—it’s that good. Or to put it another way, I’d gladly read it again, which is not something I’d normally say about a biography. Its sheer length allows author John Stubbs to do just about everything you’d want, i.e. go deeply enough into those formative personal experiences that helped to shape the vision, for good and ill, of his subject, and provide a deftly-rendered tour of Swift’s times, such as to make Swift’s works (not always accessible to the modern reader) come fully alive. And as for the man himself, there are just too many delicious details to mention, so I’ll limit myself to just two:

Whenever he moved, he would box up all the books he had acquired since arriving – except for a half-shelf of essential works – and send them off to Ireland. Thus he arrived at each new address ‘naked’ of clutter – until his love of bookshops led to volumes heaping up again. (374)

[Samuel] Johnson was often presumptuously haughty when writing of Swift; but his moments of subsequent dismissiveness may in fact indicate a nagging sense of inadequacy – of dissatisfaction with his early imitations of the Swiftian mode. His intellect and certainly his scholarship might have been the greater, and he was possibly the wiser man, but as a writer overall he trails far behind Swift…” (724)

I would not have wanted to attempt A Tale of a TubThe Battle of the Books, or those of the poems that I’ve read, without Mr. Stubbs’ assistance. I do think that Leo Damrosch’s Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World (also very good, albeit with a lighter touch) was a bit better at putting the spotlight on Gulliver, but that is quibbling. This is monument to scholarship that somehow manages to marry careful discernment to compulsive readability, and I will definitely read his books on the 17th century in future.

Speaking of Leo Damrosch’s book, it is not only quite useful, it is also less of an investment in terms of your time: though it still clocks in at 592 pages, that’s still a fair bit shy of Stubbs’ at 739pp! I found it to be a careful examination of a complex figure, paced and written in an exceedingly deft and entertaining fashion, replete with (but not suffocated by) a mountain of detailed research. Damrosch resists those temptations which bedevil all biographers (projection, unbridled speculation, confirmation bias…) admirably as well, asking questions where his predecessors rushed in to provide answers.

Some tidbits that I learned from this book include Swift’s hilariously dubious attitude towards the Scots…

When in later years he read a history of that period [1649], he filled the margins with exclamations: “a Scotch dog,” “cursed Scottish hellhounds forever,” “a rogue, half as bad as a Scot,” “cursed, abominable, hellish Scottish villains everlasting traitors.” The only good he ever said of the Presbyterians was to acknowledge their work ethic, which he described in terms that foreshadow Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism: “These people, by their extreme parsimony, wonderful dexterity in dealing [that is, business], and firm adherence to one another, soon grow into wealth from the smallest beginnings. (75)

…as well as an early awareness of himself:

“When I come To Be Old” (Resolutions made upon being about to leave his first employer, Sir Wm Temple):
Not to marry a young Woman
Not to keep young Company unless they reely desire it
Not to be peevish or morose, or suspicious
Not to scorn present Ways, or Wits, or Fashions… &c
Not to be fond of Children, or let them come near me hardly [struck out]
Not to tell the same Story over &over again to the same People

I also greatly enjoyed Damrosch’s book The Club (on Samuel Johnson, James Boswell and their circle of clever friends), and greatly look forward to his book on Rousseau