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Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World    by Leo Damrosch order for
Jonathan Swift
by Leo Damrosch
Order:  USA  Can
Yale University Press, 2013 (2013)
* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

The distinguished literary critic Leo Damrosch, in his latest book, explains his motivation for writing this highly recommended new biography of Jonathan Swift, one of English literature's most remarkable authors: Damrosch points out that he is determined to give readers a correction to two previously published books on Swift.

Drawing upon relatively new scholarship that has been collected during the past thirty years, Damrosch offers a valuable correction to Irvin Ehrenpreis's giant three-volume study. Completed in 1983, Ehrenpreis's 2,000-page door-stopper, Swift: The Man, His Works, and The Age, has long been one of the standard biographies of Swift. However, as Damrosch explains throughout his 573-page critical and cultural biography, Ehrenpreis's work is seriously hampered by some 'very real limitations' and 'distortions.'

Moreover, Damrosch sets out also to correct and clarify David Noke's 1985 study, Jonathan Swift: A Hypocrite Reversed. As a 'story of Swift's life as told by an enemy,' according to a reviewer Ashley Marshall in a 2010 article in Journal: Eighteenth Century Life, Noke's book also has important limitations.

Damrosch's central thesis is clear: 'Swift still matters ... because he was a great writer and a great man.' In fact, Swift, almost always intolerant of the Yahoos in his world, was the 'sternly conservative ... hero of an oppressed nation and he could empathize profoundly with the mistreatment of others.' The portrait that clearly emerges in Damrosch's book is one of a charming 'man with powerful emotions' who 'loved secrecy and disguise' as a 'strategy of self-protection.' At the same time, the 'complex, enigmatic, and challenging' Swift, always 'strange, various, and perplexed,' was a 'playful man' with a 'magnetic personality.'

I must confess to a bias in favor of anything by or about Jonathan Swift because of my career as a teacher of literature, but all readers who have enjoyed Gulliver's Travels, A Modest Proposal, and Swift's many other works, will be fascinated to read about the real man behind the Anglo-Irishman's literary masterpieces. Even though Swift, according to his own godson, 'always appeared to the world in a mask,' Leo Damrosch finally gives 21st century readers a memorable and corrected view of the great writer behind the mask.

Finally, here is the bottom line: If you were to read only one book about Jonathan Swift, this must be the one. In fact, my old copies of Ehrenpreis and Noke have been moved from my bookshelf to the floor - they are now campus office door-stops.

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