No major figure of the English Augustan period has generated stronger and more contradictory views than Jonathan Swift. Scourge of the Whig ascendancy in his own day, vilified by the Victorians, celebrated by Yeats, he has in recent years become a significant bone of contention for prominent figures on the left like E.P. Thompson and Perry Anderson.
In this highly original and subtle new study, Warren Montag situates Swift in relation to the ideological and political currents of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries—in particular to what Montag perspicaciously identifies as the long crisis of the British state. Swift’s perspective, he argues, was determined less by his personality or psychology than by his position as an Anglican cleric. The church, an instrument of the Tudor and Stuart absolutist state, lapsed into institutional and ideological crisis after the Stuart’s fall. In Montag’s view, Swift’s writings were a defense of this increasingly indefensible institution. Swift employed satire because only in the negative representations of this literary form could the now effectively ‘unthinkable’ doctrines of the Church be made to appear.
Opening with a historical survey of the crisis of English absolutism and the Anglican Church, Montag then gives a definitive account of the specific conflicts in philosophy against which Swift’s Anglican orthodoxy was aligned. Detailed examinations of Swift’s two prose masterpieces, A Tale of a Tub and Gulliver’s Travels, follow.
Historically and philosophically informed, The Unthinkable Swift contributes not only to our understanding of a seminal figure in English literary history but also to the study of historical ideologies, in particular the once dominant religious tradition at the dawn of the first modern capitalist state.