Damrosch takes a self-consciously revisionary stance as he re-discovers and re-writes Jonathan Swift for a new generation. Traditionally the misanthropic, pessimistic and cynical poet, here Swift is revitalised and given a more human face which is compellingly argued if not always totally convincing.
Damrosch reviews the evidence for Swift's life and, especially, takes issue with Ehrenpreis' standard multi-volume biography from the 1960s. Much of this book is a speaking back to Ehrenpreis, from Swift's parentage to his tantalisingly odd relationships with women.
I have to admit that I don't know the literature on Swift so was quite happy to be guided fairly uncritically by Damrosch's readings. His apologia, however, for Swift feels a little heavy-handed towards the end where he reads the scatological `disgusting poems' as a kick back at Swift's own sense of mortality as he grew older. Despite the iterations of how excremental poetry was not so unusual in the time, and that Swift didn't necessarily mean the poems in a misogynistic sense, we do sense Damrosch rather grasping at straws here...
That apart, this is a detailed biography of an interesting poet about whom I knew little other than the standard contexts for his writings. For a modern, complicated view of Swift, this is worth reading.
(This review is from an ARC courtesy of the publisher).
This latest biography of Jonathan Swift is both an academic study and immensely readable book. With painstaking and meticulous research, acclaimed academic and biographer Leo Damrosch has left no stone unturned in his effort to make this most intriguing of characters come alive. And in this he succeeds, so that the reader is left with a vivid portrait of a complex and fascinating man of politics, religion and literature. Best known today for his book Gulliver's Travels, Swift was active not only in the world of letters, but also in the church and in politics. He had a vast network of friends and acquaintances, and Damrosch examines all these aspects of his life and puts them into their historical context. It's a long book, and sometimes feels a bit overwhelming with so many facts and figures to take in, but the style remains accessible throughout, and accompanied as it is with a wealth of illustrations, this is a perceptive and enjoyable biography, and will be of interest to both scholars and the general reader.