Friday, October 28, 2011

From Houynhnms to Blifil

Gulliver's Travels: An Authoritative Text, the Correspondence of Swift, Pope's Verses on Gulliver's Travels and Critical Essays (A Norton Critical)
Gulliver's Travels: 
An Authoritative Text

"Upon the whole, the behavior of these animals was so orderly and rational, so acute and judicious, that I at last concluded, they must needs be magicians, who thus had metamorphosed themselves upon some design, and seeing a stranger in the way, were resolved to divert themselves with him;  or perhaps were really amazed at the sight of a man . . . " 

The first volume of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was published on October 28th in 1726. This was part of the onset of a literary tidal wave that included the novels of Daniel Defoe and would pick up speed by mid-century with the appearance of Fielding's masterpiece, Tom Jones.
Swift clearly relished the hoax aspect of his book, taking pains (under a pseudonym) to give his hero a genealogy and history, and a reputation for veracity so legendary “that it became a sort of proverb among his neighbours at Redriff, when any one affirmed a thing, to say, it was as true as if Mr. Gulliver had spoken it.” This kept up through the publication of subsequent volumes and editions, Gulliver himself now going on record to quibble over misprinted facts, or chortle over those “so bold as to think my book of travels a mere fiction out of mine own brain, and have gone so far as to drop hints, that the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos have no more existence than the inhabitants of Utopia.”  
This was just one of the literary milestones early in a century that would, by its midpoint, see the publishing of Fielding's Tom Jones which I am currently reading.  In that novel, young Blifill -- note the anagram for ill fib -- is more of a Yahoo than a Houynhnm, but Fielding's satire, populated with characters like Thwackum and Square, demonstrates the strength of Swift blended with a willingness to present humane characters from Town and Country that are presented for the reader's delight.

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