The Plot to Print a Masterpiece: Gulliver's Travels


Mr. Markowitz is business editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, in 1726, a half century before the United States was born, England’s brightest literary men were playing midwife to a different sort of enduring political classic. Its author was one of the wittiest (which did not preserve him from being one of the angriest) geniuses who ever lived: a priest of the Church of England who would have healed the world by making it laugh at itself. A quarter of a millennium has not dulled the bite of his salubrious masterpiece, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World.

Never heard of it? Yes you have. The supposed author, described on the title page as "first a Surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships," was a restless sailor called Lemuel Gulliver.

The real author was a landlubber with a deep-grooved habit of never putting his name on title pages. The sheltering tree that would become freedom of the press was in those days still a sprig. A "scandalmonger" could lose slices of his ears; and practically anything Jonathan Swift ever wrote might have earned him bed in prison or a drubbing in some alley. He was that sort of writer. Damnably contrary, to the wreck of his own ambitions.

And Gulliver’s Travels — the title bestowed by word of mouth — was his most contrary book. Unabridged, it reads as tough on the establishment as the Declaration of Independence, for which indeed it may have been a literary ancestor. Three years after the book came out Swift received from an admirer in Philadelphia the honest frontier gift of a cured ham, and Gulliver undoubtedly was popular reading in the colonies when young shavers named Washington, Jefferson, and Adams were forming their own tender notions of politics.

That anyone might charge Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Divinity, with fomenting revolution would of course have scandalized him. He hated war, was profoundly loyal to governing institutions consistent with law and liberty; but he detested those vices and excesses of power which eternally blight the happiness of men. In short, he was torn by the conflicts between freedom and a corrupted order that Americans would resolve a half century later in favor of revolution.

Seeds of Bitterness

Gulliver could only have come from a soul rich in grievances, and Swift started collecting his early in life. At his birth, one might say, in 1667. He came into this world seven months after his father left it. The elder Swift having been employed as an estate manager in Ireland, the posthumous son grew up in a land energized to lyricism by ancient feelings of injury and alienation. He was educated, grudgingly, as he believed, by the bounty of relatives. All his adult life he was subject to prostrating attacks of dizziness, deafness, and fears of insanity, against which, in later years, he furiously exercised, walking or riding miles every day or, in bad weather, tramping the stairs of his house. Despising yet also craving wealth, he set out on two contradictory careers: the church and the writing of satires.

His verses and essays in the Tatler and other papers of literary London made him one of the luminaries of the dawn of modern journalism, though he was "famous" only to people in the know. A fashionable painting of the time, now in the London Portrait Gallery, shows him an alert, businesslike parson, elegantly wigged and double-chinned, looking up from his writing desk. "The most agreeable companion, the truest friend, and the greatest genius of the age," Joseph Addison called him. He had a prose style as lean, accurate, and keen for cutting as a scalpel. The bloated politics of his time begged for such a knife. It was his surgical journalism that turned public opinion against a bleeding series of wars in France, tumbled from power the glamorous Duke of Marlborough, and helped effect the Peace of Utrecht in 1713.

For this service a grateful crown awarded him the deanery of a cathedral. Not Wells, Salisbury or another of the influential English churches, but St. Patrick’s in Dublin, separated merely by the breadth of England and the Irish Sea from a court that had enjoyed quite enough of his close scrutiny of public affairs.

So back to his native city he went, to the exile, in his own gentle phrase, of "a poisoned rat in a hole." Though he took up his cathedral duties with a surprising piety, in time the sheer flagrancy of the exploitation of Ireland goaded him to the risky old habit of anonymous pamphleteering. He became an underground hero to the Irish, whose plight, he once said, came down simply to this, almost a thumbnail of our own Declaration of 1776: "Freedom consists in a People being governed by Laws made with their own Consent, and Slavery in the contrary."

In 1721 he suddenly announced in a letter that he was "writing a History of my Travells [giving] Account of Countryes hitherto unknown." Not real travels, certainly. These would be voyages of the mind. The idea had popped up at some dinner of the Martin Scriblerus Club, a literary society to which Swift had belonged in his great London years. How fortunate for literature that he never got round to the project till his bile had sufficiently ripened in failure and banishment.

The moody labor took four years. Then, triumphantly, in a letter of August 14, 1725: "I have finished my Travells… They are admirable Things, and will wonderfully mend the World."

To Alexander Pope, a friend of Scriblerus days and by then England’s reigning poet, he confided that his aim was "to vex the world rather than divert it." But he was more entertaining than he knew. The artist in him kept the preacher under control, and his rage and wit, his suffering and indignation fused into a book that is one of the greatest ever written.

Irresistible Adventures

The Travels are, first of all, irresistible adventures. They run along fantastic but temptingly believable trains of plot, loaded with a vast freight of critical observations, commentary, digs, jabs, slashes, and thrusts. Swift is the most tireless of satirists. His blade is always cutting, forward and back, nicking the observer as well as the observed.

There is no safe place to stand against him. Gulliver — humanity’s "gullible traveler" keeps getting marooned in fascinating countries. Lilliput: where the people are six inches tall but where incessant faction, greed and war seem the more deplorably vicious just for being so small. Then Brobdingnag, a land of giants, where Gulliver gets one pride-killing lesson after another in how small we are. The third voyage (past the point where many children’s editions leave off) takes the traveler to a "flying island" where human intelligence, the one gift that might amend the chronic botch of history, utterly wastes itself upon worthless "projects" and idle aspirations. Finally, the ironic utopia of Houyhnhnms and Yahoos: civilization itself hopelessly lost to a brutalized humanity and taken up by a species more qualified, the horse.

Like the best science fiction, it all comes off with precise, credible details and with what George Saintsbury called "the dexterous relief of the satirist’s lash with the mere tickling of the humorist." And the cream of the jest is that every queer country Gulliver visits is unmistakably one’s own.

In March of 1726 Swift took ship with his manuscript to England. He was 58 now and wore what Dr. Johnson calls "a countenance sour and severe, which he seldom softened by any appearance of gaiety." Yet he must have enjoyed that spring and summer 250 years ago as a guest at Pope’s villa in Twickenham, near London. There were country excursions and dinners, long evenings spent over a good bottle and good talk with old friends still near the center of things: among others John Gay, author of The Beggar’s Opera, and John Arbuthnot, who had been physician to Queen Anne.

Selling the Manuscript

The survivors of Martin Scriblerus were well content with the "Travells" — and determined to bring it to market. Not only would they find Dean Swift a publisher but also wangle a fee for him, the first — and as it happened, the last — that the greatest satirist in the English language ever pocketed for a piece of writing.

Soon afterward Benjamin Motte, a printer in Fleet Street, received a letter from someone claiming the name Richard Sympson. He announced that as "manager for my friend and cousin," a certain retired Captain Gulliver, he, Sympson, had been entrusted with the memoirs of marvellous voyages. "I know the author intends the profit for the use of poor seamen," the letter said, "and I am advised to say that two hundred pounds is the least sum I will receive on his account."

Motte was not duped. He was the successor to Swift’s old publisher and he undoubtedly had been warned to expect the dean’s "Travells" one day in some such melodramatic disguise. He only balked at a demand that within three days he "deliver a bankbill of two hundred pounds, wrapped up so as to make a parcel, to the hand from whence you receive this." He counter-offered payment six months after publication and won the point.

The manuscript probably was recopied to remove any trace of the real author’s hand, and Swift departed for Ireland, home, church, and alibi. Then one September night a hackney coach stopped at the printer’s door and a package of copy sheets changed hands in the dark. Motte never saw Cousin Sympson’s face.

About a month later — the date deserves remembrance: October 28, 1726 — the book went on sale.

The Sales Continue

The rest, it is fair to say, is history: a publishing history that shows no sign of ending, with some two dozen editions currently in print in English, scores of others in languages around the globe, and Gulliver sailing off in translation each year on new voyages, viaggi, viajes, podroze, and reisen unnumbered.

Happily the author had a glimpse of this immortality while alive. (He died 19 years later at age 77 in 1745, senile, modern scholars and medical experts now agree, rather than "mad," as his detractors long alleged.) The book’s first printing sold in a week and "hath been the conversation of the whole town," John Gay wrote to Swift from London. "Gulliver is a happy man that at his age can write such a merry work," chimed in Dr. Arbuthnot, predicting "as good a run" as that of Pilgrim’s Progress. "’Tis generally said that you are the Author," slyly reported Gay, but "you are not much injur’d by [this]… From the highest to the lowest it is universally read, from the Cabinet-Council to the Nursery."

There was prophecy in that, too. By chopping so extensively that many people who think they have read Gulliver’s Travels actually have read perhaps half of it, editors succeeded in hacking a "children’s classic" out of a work thought to be so politically loaded it required publication by secret plot.

And it is still loaded. The essential political vision of the Rev. Dr. Swift has dated astonishingly little. To our Bicentennial celebrations he would bring the sobering perspective that changes in governmental form do not, for very long, improve the political behavior of man himself. The whole cannot be a great deal more than the sum of its not terribly noble parts. Lilliputian meanness will lower the quality of public life under presidents as well as kings, in parliaments as easily as palaces.

A century in which the sheer amount of destruction, decadence and despotism actually perceived has outflown the farthest reach of Swiftian imagination can get a special shock of recognition out of Gulliver’s ultimate judgment on mankind. Driven mad (but super-shrewdly mad) by a society of humane animals and brutish humans, the traveler perceives that man is, after all, merely a designing beast — "a sort of animals to whose share, by what accident he could not conjecture, some small pittance of reason had fallen, whereof we made no other use than by its assistance to aggravate our natural corruptions, and to acquire new ones which Nature had not given us."

There, in a few words, is the human dilemma: as challenging in 1976 as it was in 1726. The men who plotted to print a masterpiece 250 years ago, like those others who plotted to found a nation 200 years ago, never meant to leave us perfectly comfortable with ourselves as we are.



The Planners of Balnibarbi

IN THESE COLLEGES the professors contrive new rules and methods of agriculture and building, and new instruments and tools for all trades and manufactures, whereby, as they undertake, one man shall do the work of ten; a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable as to last for ever without repairing. All the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity at whatever season we think fit to choose, and increase an hundred fold more than they do at present, with innumerable other happy proposals. The only inconvenience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection, and in the mean time, the whole country lies miserably waste, the houses in ruins, and the people without food or clothes. By all which, instead of being discouraged, they are fifty times more violently bent upon prosecuting their schemes, driven equally on by hope and despair…

From Gulliver’s Travels, JONATHAN SWIFT