- Rethinking Jonathan Swift
The collective virtue of these five books—each illuminating and useful in its own right—is that they are largely devoted to something other than interpretation of much-studied Swift works. They are not just yet more re-readings of A Tale of a Tub and Gulliver's Travels. These studies attempt to see Swift in relationship to particular sets of contexts—events, milieux, people—and they involve either mapping largely uncharted territories or revisiting familiar subjects in refreshingly new ways.
Stephen Karian's Jonathan Swift in Print and Manuscript is clear evidence of new directions. Karian's welcome study is the first to pay serious attention to the complex origins and transmission of Swift's texts; its object is in part to demonstrate "how the material existence of his texts affected their circulation and reception" (4). The Dean, as Karian bluntly concludes, "cannot be identified simply as a print author" (98). Karian's opening chapter explores what he identifies as three phases in Swift's career in print; chapters 2 and 3 are devoted to describing the various ways in which Swift's manuscripts circulated, as well as the different reasons and audiences for nonprint transmission. The last three chapters—on the complicated print and manuscript circulation of On Poetry: A Rapsody, The Legion Club, and Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift—demonstrate the utility of Karian's approach. In chapter 4, he explains that On Poetry as printed in 1733 was significantly censored, seeks to identify the most authorial version of the poem, and describes the variants in manuscript copies. Chapter 5 convincingly demonstrates that Swift was solely responsible for minor textual revisions of and additions to The Legion Club, arguing that the later revisions were Swift's own attempt to qualify his satire. In chapter 6, Karian calls attention to the "material text" of Verses on the Death, to the gaps and blanks (filled in by modern editors) that invited contemporary readers to infer meaning for themselves. Swift's (or Faulkner's?) use of this "device of textual absence" leaves us with an "open" text, and the implications are sobering: "parts of this poem existed in either no authoritative form or in multiple authoritative forms" (198, 196). Along the way, Karian challenges the usual attitude toward print versus manuscript culture, the tendency to regard print as "authoritative, public, stable, variable, and author-centered," and manuscript as "ephemeral, private, variable, and reader-centered" (5).
Karian's study is learned and meticulous, and no interpretation of particular Swift works or groups of works can afford to ignore the textual issues to which he calls attention. One could wish that the book were a bit less cautious. The care with which Karian handles a complicated set of materials is vital to the utility of the enterprise. But his findings have major implications for how we talk about Swift's output and his self-definition as an author, and I would have loved to see Karian exercising his critical imagination and exploring the kinds of conclusions we might draw about Swift-as-writer. What does Swift's decision not to supervise, even indirectly, the publication of Gulliver's Travels suggest? How many major writers do not try to ensure that future readers would have correct and authorized versions of their works? Swift represents a different kind of author from most of the canonical figures we study, and attempting to apply to him our usual concepts of "textual authority" and "literary reputation" somehow never...