The Background: Gulliver #1

Though it may not appear so here in Western PA, Summer reading is upon us! I have been eagerly awaiting this week, the launch for Gulliver’s Travels. Let this post serve as an additional invitation to check out the Summer Reading page and join an adventure or two! I hope to provide thoughts throughout the summer, fodder for conversation and maybe a question or two to spark the kiddos to use their thinker! I started reading Gulliver to my wife last night. Reading together is something of a summer luxury! We’ll be sharing the book with our kiddos as well, once they finish the audio book of Mr. Popper’s Penguins. 

The Norton Critical Edition of Gulliver (heretofore affectionately referred to as the nerd version) contains a number of extras spanning the 290 years since Swift’s novel was first published. Though I had read the book before, I had no idea that the history of the book itself is just as interesting as the story contained within. Swift penned the work over a period of years, largely in secret. He sought publication under the pseudonym Richard Sympson, who “spoke on behalf of” his friend and cousin, Lemuel Gulliver. Swift would write correspondence as Sympson and even, on occasion, as Gulliver himself. As a result, he left behind a number of interesting notes and letters.

On one occasion, after receiving a letter from a Mrs. Howard which was heavily steeped in Gulliver references, Swift replied as though he had never seen the book:

“When I received your letter I thought it the most unaccountable one I ever saw in my life, and was not able to comprehend three words of it together… I continued four days at a loss for your meaning, till a Bookseller sent me the Travells of on Cap Gulliver, who proved a very good Explainer, although at the same time I thought it hard to be forced to read a Book of seven hundred Pages in order to understand a Letter of fifty lines;”

He carried on this manner with friends and acquaintances for some time, never explicitly admitting that he had written the heavily admired publication.

About the Publication

Gulliver was perceived as an instant classic. Alexander Pope, the great poet and friend of Swift, deemed in a letter the work to be “in the future the admiration of all men.” Pope was not far off! Correspondence indicates that the work was an immediate success, enjoyed by every age and stratum of society. Gulliver sparked conversation and, for some, controversy.

The publication itself was soaking in controversy from Swift, who held adamantly that the original publisher, Benjamin Motte, had taken far too many liberties in editing the work through both addition and subtraction. At one point, Swift wrote that his copy was “basely mangled, and abused, and added to, and blotted out by the printer.” Motte was concerned over some of the more biting human commentary offered by Swift and he tried to soften the work. In a letter from Captain Gulliver to Richard Sympson (interesting, right?!), he complained that aspects of the work were changed to such an extent that the Captain hardly recognized his own work!

“When I formerly hinted to you something of this in a letter, you were pleased to answer, that you were afraid of giving Offense; that People in Power were very watchful over the Press; and apt not only to interpret, but to punish everything which looked like an Inuendo (as I think you called it.)…” 

This controversy has kept literary scholars busy, attempting to piece together the original wording and intention of Gulliver. Obviously the broader stories are in tact, though paragraphs have certainly been changed, added, and omitted here and there. Every modern text is some variation of the original. How interesting to see such dispute over a work of fiction – even if it is overflowing with satire and commentary on human nature.

About Human Nature

Obviously, written centuries ago, Gulliver has a context. And a vocabulary (my goodness, the vocabulary – consider briefly that this story was read to children in the 18th century… and here we as adults struggle to get through a paragraph without having to retrace our steps! How glorious!). As such, it is expected – and quite honestly, it is OK – that some aspects and references of the book will seem foreign to us today. This is another reason I chose to read the nerd version… the footnotes alone are worth the extra dollars when the story takes a complicated turn. Do not be discouraged by the foreign references! I promise, you will see something of human nature in work, even if you don’t understand the historical context in which the story was first told.

In order to provide some hopefully helpful insights as you begin, I thought I would share a number of quotes from Swift’s correspondence that might shine a broader light on the book:


“… the Truth immediately strikes every Reader with Conviction.”  (Swift responding to critics of his satire)


“… You should think and deal with every Man as a Villain, without calling him so, or flying from him, or valuing him less. This is an old true Lesson.”  (to his friend, the Anglican Rev. Thomas Sheridan)


“… the chief end I propose to my self in all my labors is to vex the world rather than divert it.”  (to the poet Alexander Pope)


“… I tell you after all that I do not hate Mankind, it is vous autres who hate them because you would have them reasonable Animals, and are Angry for being disappointed.”  (also to Pope)


“… The Duchess Dowager of Marlborough is in raptures at (Gulliver); she says she can dream of nothing else since she read it; she declares… that if she knew Gulliver, tho’ he had been the worst enemy she ever had, she would give up all her present acquaintance for his friendship.”  (from the poet John Gay)


As I jump back into Gulliver, I am sparked by words like these. Swift had an eye to challenge the world by holding up a rather large mirror. He does not shy away from critical words regarding people, but it would appear that he does so with a certain love for the person. He speaks of despising tribes even as he loves the members of the tribe.

I am excited to be challenged this summer by the adventures of Lemuel Gulliver. I am walking into this somewhat blind, having a love for the story and little knowledge of the man, the circumstances, the voice that spoke the story so many years ago. But that’s the point of a good summer read: to enjoy, to be challenged, to grow. I hope I am able to share some fruitful thoughts along the way!

Above all, I hope you enjoy a good book!



Visit the Summer Reading page for more on the adventure!

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