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Saturday, April 29, 2017

“‘A Modest Proposal’ and Other Satirical Works”, by Jonathan Swift


59 pages, Dover Publications, ISBN-13: 978-0486287591

As with most people I image, I was familiar with Jonathan Swift’s famous work of satire A Modest Proposal in passing, but had never actually read the whole thing until it was assigned in class. Doing so was easy enough: it’s short, and a quick Google search will bring up dozens of sites where it is reproduced, with annotations, context, etc. The first page of Swift’s 1729 essay describes the problem: the ever-increasing number of destitute Irish, the economic hardships imposed on the nation, and the numerous inadequate and ineffective schemes that had been attempted to address it. There is no alteration in Swift’s very serious and thoughtful tone when he delivers his zinger:

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragoust.

The rest of the essay continues in an absolutely straight-faced manner, laying out economic and dietary calculations, never once hinting that a proposal to raise Irish children for their meat might be anything less than serious. It is the sober, analytical tone that makes this such a brilliant and famous work of satire. For the exceptionally dense and humor-impaired (of whom there were apparently quite a few people back when Swift published it), the only clue may be his bitterly ironic conclusion:

Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: Of using neither clothes, nor household furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance: Of learning to love our country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders, and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: Of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken: Of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing: Of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants. Lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shop-keepers, who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure, and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.

It amused me to find essays posted even today by people who didn't seem to be quite sure whether Swift was seriously advocating cannibalism. Reading a bit about the publication’s social context does make A Modest Proposal more interesting: Swift wasn’t just condemning the heartlessness of English landlords and expressing sympathy for the bitter plight of the poor, but mocking specific remedies and alternate proposals that were popular at the time. But just reading the essay all the way through is an educational experience, because the imitators and “modest proposals” that have been proposed ever since generally fail to be nearly as witty or intelligent. The whole point of Swift’s satire was that he constructed a very careful argument that invites earnest debate if you just…consider it a serious proposal. While a short piece that is now synonymous with satire, A Modest Proposal is still a perfect example of the form.

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