Gulliver’s Travels, or Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships is Jonathan Swift’s best known work, and a classic of English literature but the Irish writer and clergyman didn’t write his “traveler’s tale” as a children’s book. Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels in 1726 “to vex the world rather than divert it“. In this book he satirizes both human nature and the “travelers’ tales” literary subgenre but is transparently anti-Whig satire, it is likely that Swift had the manuscript copied so that his handwriting could not be used as evidence if a prosecution should arise, as had happened in the case of some of his Irish pamphlets (the Drapier’s Letters).
In March 1726 Swift travelled to London to have his work published; the manuscript was secretly delivered to the publisher Benjamin Motte, who used five printing houses to speed production and avoid piracy. Motte, knowing Gulliver’s Travels would be a best-seller but also fearing prosecution by the Whig government, cut out those passages that would most offend the aristocracy and added some material in defense of Queen Anne. The first edition was released in two volumes on October 28, 1726.
With fine ladies, pompous gentlemen and Lilliputs; Gulliver’s Travels is “a satirical masterpiece.” Like many of the utopian novels of the day (Utopia, Wolfaria, New Atlantis, Robinson Crusoe, etc.), it is deceptively comic depicting the various races and societies Gulliver encounters in his travels with their many of the errors, follies, and frailties but this is biting criticism of the party backbiting and politics of the Whigs and Tories. The warlike, disputatious, but essentially trivial Lilliputians in the first section and the deranged impractical pedants and intellectuals in the third segment are shown as imbalanced beings lacking common sense and even decency. The Houyhnhnms, by contrast, are the epitome of reason and virtuous simplicity. However, Gulliver’s own proud identification with these horses and his subsequent disdain for his fellow humans indicates that he too has become imbalanced and that human beings are simply incapable of aspiring to the virtuous rationality that Gulliver has glimpsed. Change the names and you could apply this to today’s discord between Democrats and Republican.
Alas, it takes great mental prowess, an understanding of philosophy and religion, and true gall to be a real revolutionary. Any idiot can scream and lambast but a true agitator and reformer must use wit. Fifty years from now, we will have forgotten Marjorie Green and Donald Trump but we will still be enthralled by Swift’s 350-year-old Gulliver.