Incredulity and the weary snapping open of card-indexes often greet the appearance of yet another weighty book about an already much scrutinised writer – can there really be so much new to say? With Swift, it is different: about his opinions and personality, genuine disagreement has persisted since his own lifetime, and he remains an enigma even to those thoroughly familiar with his works. Beginning with his own unreliable self-representations, filtered through myths about his marriage and his madness, magnified by certain notoriously hostile nineteenth-century writers, the image of Swift that we have today has evidently been subjected to consistent distortion. From serious political thinkers through to the bizarre fringes of psychoanalytical critics, he has fascinated the range of subsequent human intelligence.
Some modern readings of Swift seek to accommodate him into the twentieth century by making him an accessible ‘contemporary’ figure; one such example is A L Rowse’s Jonathan Swift: Major Prophet (1975) where the Dean is cast as a Promethean ‘tragic hero’ whom Rowse nonetheless refers to as ‘Jonathan’. Other