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  • "There Is No Such Man as Isaack Bickerstaff":Partridge, Pittis, and Jonathan Swift
  • John McTague

John Partridge was the most prominent almanac maker of the early eighteenth century.1 He was also the victim of Swift's Bickerstaff hoax. The pamphlet initiating the joke, Predictions for the Year 1708, announced itself as the work of one Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., and on the front page declared its purpose: "to prevent People from being further Impos'd on by Vulgar Almanack Makers."2 Bickerstaff appears as a disgruntled but gentlemanly practitioner of astrology, proposing to reform the profession by way of polite example. Thus he embarks upon a series of prognostications for the remainder of the year, the rather serious implications of which belie his aloof and casual tone.3 The coup de grâce, however, is his first prediction, declaring itself to be "but a trifle": "It relates to Partridge the Almanac-maker; I have consulted the Star of his Nativity by my own Rules, and find he will infallibly dye upon the 29th of March next, about Eleven at Night, of a raging fever" (4). To put Partridge into his misery, Swift published on the appointed day a pamphlet, entitled The Accomplishment of the First of Mr. Bickerstaff's Predictions (1708), in which an independent observer confirmed the astrologer's death. A broadside elegy ensued, concluding with the now infamous epitaph that brands the astrologer-physician as "a cobler, star-monger and quack."4 When Partridge insisted in his almanac for 1709 [End Page 83] that he was actually alive, Swift retorted with A Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff (1709), containing a series of logical proofs to the contrary.5 The literary success of the hoax was such, as is well known, that Addison and Steele adopted the Bickerstaff persona for The Tatler in 1709. Bickerstaff's extended life in The Tatler obscures some of the ways in which the hoax was conceived and read by contemporaries as a political escapade.

Partridge's life and work are now viewed through the prism of Swift's hoax, a fate not dissimilar to that endured by Pope's dunces. In addition, the hoax itself is often read by those looking for "background" on The Tatler, to little profit. These misreadings are worth addressing not just because they leave us with a distorted view of Partridge, but also because that distorted view leads in turn to misinterpreting Swift's hoax. Such appraisals plague the critical reception of the Bickerstaff papers, which has been lauded as a well-executed joke, another chapter in the familiar string of victories apparently enjoyed by the usually Tory "wits" over their usually Whig gulls.6 Not only do such assessments fail to take into account the muddied nature of Swift's political allegiances in 1708, they also grossly underestimate the cultural and political significance of the Anglican cleric's target. Where critics have paid attention to Partridge on his own terms—as Herbert Davis does in his introduction to the second volume of Swift's Prose Works, or N. F. Lowe does in his excellent article, "Why Swift Killed Partridge"—the implications of Partridge's celebrity have still not been fully prosecuted.7 By the end of this article, it should be clear that there is more than one version of John Partridge available to the literary historian. More important than this is Partridge's observation in a letter to Isaac Manley: "There is no such man as Isaack Bickerstaff."8 A textual invention, Isaac Bickerstaff's disembodied status means that there are also a great many contemporary "Bickerstaffs" to contend with.9 Our knowledge that Swift was Bickerstaff obscures these alternatives. The hoax was conducted pseudonymously, and thus to ignore that "there is no such man as Isaack Bickerstaff " is to ignore the potentiality that faced contemporary readers of Predictions for the Year 1708. Partridge faced that potentiality, and his reaction is available to us in a letter. Pursuing this epistolary response enables us to imagine a situation in which Swift did not write the Predictions. [End Page 84]

"The Protestant Almanack-Maker"

The customary image of Partridge is that of a bigoted anti-Catholic Whig, and a...