A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

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George Wittkowsky (essay date January-October 1943)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Wittkowsky, George. “Swift's Modest Proposal: The Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet.” Journal of the History of Ideas 4 (January-October 1943): 75-104.

[In one of the first major critical essays on A Modest Proposal, Wittkowsky remarks on the work within its contemporary economic context.]

There is an almost complete absence of sustained scholarship on the subject of Swift's Modest Proposal. The lesser works even of most major writers in English have been investigated with Gestapo-like thoroughness. Even the minor works of minor writers have received loving attention. And yet toward the Modest Proposal, a major work by a major English writer, scholars have been definitely coy. One searches in vain for a serious critical article on this pamphlet. No book on Swift which I have read has dignified it with a separate chapter. The usual practice in such books is to write a sentence or two of superlative praise: the rest, for the most part, is silence. The agnostic comment of Bertram Newman may be taken as the theme-song of most critics. Before the Modest Proposal, he says, “comment is dumb; … there is nothing with which to compare it.”1 Leslie Stephen, who happens to have written some of the most perceptive of all comments on the Modest Proposal,2 really devotes to the subject less than two pages; while Churton Collins spares only one sentence.3 Although Taine observes that it deserves quotation almost as a whole, because he knows nothing like it in all literature, all he adds by way of critical comment, after extensive quotation, is the remark that beside the Modest Proposal, the cries and anguish of Pascal are faint.4 Taine's compatriots, Legouis and Cazamian, in their distinguished study of English literature, do not even mention it. Quintana asserts that in this tract Swiftian irony “attained its most perfect expression”;5 that it is “not only the greatest of Swift's Irish tracts; it is also the best introduction to his satiric art.”6 Yet if Quintana's five scattered references to the Modest Proposal were brought together,7 they could be printed on one page.

And yet this neglect, possibly unparalleled in English literary studies, can be simply explained. Critics of the Modest Proposal, with few exceptions,8 have regarded this tract as satire directed against conditions in Ireland rather than against a set of theories and attitudes which rendered such conditions possible. In a moment of crisis, President Grover Cleveland once growled that the country was facing a condition, not a theory. Swift, on the other hand, in writing the Modest Proposal, was contemplating theories as well as a condition. Why have scholars ignored or dealt inadequately with the theoretical background of the Modest Proposal? Simply because the economists themselves, until very recently, have ignored or treated lightly economic thought before Adam Smith. With the exception of a lone scholar here and there, they seem to have regarded economic theory before the publication of The Wealth of Nations as a sort of Miltonic chaos, “a vast vacuity.” Mercantilist theories about labor, with which we are chiefly concerned in this chapter, remained, for many generations, particularly obscure. Furniss, who has done much to clear up this obscurity, has offered a cogent explanation for its existence. He points out that there have been semantic barriers. “Habitual use of words in certain meanings,” he says, “closes the mind to the reception of their connotations.”9 It is hard for two people with different points of view to reach an agreement on terms. This difficulty is magnified when we try to comprehend the theories of a remote age, “cut off still more completely by a revolution in economic, political and social institutions.” Under such circumstances, it is “a positive disadvantage” if a common language has served to convey the thought of both periods. “This semantic barrier,” Furniss says, “is the source of most of the difficulty of understanding the...

(The entire section is 99,476 words.)