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Jonathan Swift in Print and Manuscript by Stephen Karian (review)

From: The Scriblerian and the Kit-Cats
Volume 46, Number 1, Autumn 2013
pp. 39-41 | 10.1353/scb.2013.0056

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Mr. Karian’s monograph is a welcome companion to Cambridge University Press’s new edition of Swift’s works. His blunt basic premise is that “our understanding of Swift as an author is incomplete without attending to both print publication and manuscript circulation as well as to their complex intersection.” His meticulous reconstruction of Swift’s involvement with both his printers and contemporary manuscript readers successfully makes a compelling case for the importance of manuscript studies as part of Swift scholarship and the history of reading practices.

The book is divided into two sections. The opening one looks first at the stages of his print publication career and then more specifically at his early involvement with manuscript circulation. The second part looks in depth at the handwritten and print circulation of three of Swift’s poems, “On Poetry: A Rhapsody,” “The Legion Club,” and “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift,” suggesting the ways in which the presence of manuscript copies in circulation simultaneously with the print ones complicate both an editor’s and a literary critic’s jobs. Mr. Karian is candid about the limitations of attempting to reconstruct Swift’s manuscript circulation, as Swift apparently never used a professional scribe, and thus many of the surviving handwritten copies exist in undated versions, done by unknown hands: “any discussion about the manuscript circulation of Swift’s writings will be, in certain respects, conjectural and far less thorough than an examination of print publication.” Yet enough examples permit him to argue that while Swift’s writings initially had very limited circulation in manuscript, as his literary fame spread through his published works, he turned in the latter part of his career to strategically controlled manuscript circulation, both in loose sheets and manuscript volumes.

Having returned to Ireland, Swift made use of handwritten and oral transmission for his more controversial writings such as his lampoons. Some pieces, such as “A Wicked Treasonable Libel,” in which Swift describes both the Queen and the King’s mistresses as whores, he restricted to a single copy—the circulation of which was tightly restricted to a circle of friends. For others, he used more extensive manuscript circulation to find a readership for texts that could not find a publisher, such as The History of the Four Last Years of the Queen, which was not published until 1758, thirteen years after his death, in spite of Swift’s efforts to see it in print. Mr. Karian uses Swift’s letter to Pope, March 6, 1729, when Swift was visiting Sir Arthur and Lady Acheson to describe how access to the author’s satiric poems on his hostess were kept under control: the poems “never went farther,” Swift declares, “as my Lady Acheson made me give her up all the foul copies, and never gave the fair ones out of her hands, or suffered them to be copied.” Instead, “they were sometimes shown to intimate friends, to occasion mirth, and that was all.”

Ironically, Swift’s growing reputation following the publication of A Tale of a Tub led to the temporary proliferation of copies of some of his early manuscript poems. The bookseller Edmund Curll seized a commercial opportunity by gathering and printing these loose copies to exploit Swift’s growing fame without his knowledge or consent. This early unauthorized use of handwritten copies perhaps prompted Swift’s irate maxim, first published in 1745 Miscellanies, that a “Copy of Verses kept in the Cabinet, and only shewn to a few Friends, is like a Virgin much sought after and admired; but when printed and published, is like a common Whore, whom any body may purchase for half a Crown.” As Mr. Karian points out, however, Swift was not at all averse to publishing some of his writings and established long and loyal relationships with his London printers and booksellers, so one must consider what Swift may have viewed as being appropriate for friends versus a common reader, as well as how Swift used manuscript transmission alongside print publication.

In the second part of his study, Mr. Karian turns to three specific case studies to demonstrate how an understanding of Swift as a manuscript author can affect how...

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