Author to speak on Jonathan Swift’s shocking proposal

05/10/2014 9:16 PM

05/10/2014 9:16 PM

At first glance Jonathan Swift, the 18th-century Irish satirist, might have generated plenty of clicks in today’s Age of Snark.

Or maybe not, given how so many online contributors to the “Comments” column so often dispense with subtlety.

In contrast, the irony on display in Swift’s most outrageous pamphlet, “A Modest Proposal,” was subterranean, making the reader’s sense of shock all the more so when the light bulb went on, realizing the author apparently was arguing that the eating of children represented one step toward the alleviation of rural poverty in Ireland.

“He sucks you in and then, suddenly, this isn’t someone’s horrible version of cannibalism, but a writer’s version of how the landlords and the British government already were devouring the Irish people,” said Leo Damrosch, author of “Jonathan Swift: His Life and World,” which in March received the National Book Critics Circle award for biography.

The kind of sarcasm online, Damrosch added, often seems posted by contributors who insist they see through everything.

“But Swift was not like that,” Damrosch said.

“Like Mark Twain, he had a very bleak sense of human behavior, in that he believed that it fell so far short of what he thought it should be. The irony comes when he impersonates someone who otherwise would be considered contemptible.”

Swift did employ a measure of stealth, said Damrosch, a Harvard University literature professor.

The pamphlet in which “A Modest Proposal” first appeared was crudely printed and bore the look of just one of the many through which the bloggers of the time offered their learned suggestions regarding economic issues. Swift also wrote in the same detached language.

Ultimately it proved a savage protest of what Swift considered England’s exploitation of Ireland in which he believed many Irish to be complicit.

“So, in fact, this was Swift’s desperate plea with his own countrymen,” Damrosch said.

Even in contemporary times, the piece retains the power to shock. When Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre reopened in 1984, actor Peter O’Toole gave a reading of “A Modest Proposal,” promising the audience that he had selected an essay “with a little something to offend everybody.”

He wasn’t kidding, Damrosch said. The audience walked out.

Damrosch speaks at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. For more information, go to

KCLibrary.org.

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