On this day in 1667, the great writer Jonathan Swift was born. He is best known for his satire in the novel Gulliver’s Travels and the essay A Modest Proposal. At less than 3,500 words, the latter makes the outrageous suggestion that the poor be able to sell their children as a food source to the wealthy — simultaneously reducing the parents’ burden and providing them with extra income. What particularly strikes me is that the proposal really isn’t that much different from what I hear from conservatives today. While it is certainly true that conservatives are hysterical in their commitment to protecting fetuses, most show little or no interest in offspring outside the womb. The bad condition of children is met with claims that the poor should not have had children they could not afford to keep. Today, a satirist would have to go to greater extremes, because conservatives today offer proposals that are too close to Swift’s.
Swift was English, but born in Ireland. And he spent most of the first half of his life trying make a living in England, only to be forced back to Ireland again and again. He was very good at making enemies. It was Queen Anne’s great hatred for Swift that finally got him to embrace Ireland. A Modest Proposal is, of course, explicitly about Ireland. Another of his essays, A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture, got his publisher charged with sedition. The criminal idea was that the Irish should use their own natural resources to produce products rather than simply sending them to England. This is still an issue today where the United States hates countries that want to actually use their natural resources rather than just sending them to us to exploit.
In 1726 — at the age of 59 (roughly the same age as Cervantes when he wrote the first book of Don Quixote) — Swift published his masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels. At the time, it was a biting satire of government and religion. Now, I think it comes off more as a satire of human foibles. And it is also a good adventure story — proto-science fiction, very much as Jules Verne would write a century and a half later. Like much of his work, Gulliver’s Travels was published anonymously, although it was eventually published under his name in his lifetime. And regardless, it was generally known what works were his. He had a distinct style.
Happy birthday Jonathan Swift!