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Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World Hardcover – November 12, 2013

4.7 out of 5 stars 26 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“[A] commanding new biography . . . Damrosch is gifted with a fluent style, sturdy sense of humor."—John Simon, New York Times Book Review (Editor's Choice)
(John Simon New York Times Book Review)

“Damrosch tells this story . . . with great energy and elegantly worn erudition. He restores to Swift the dignity he deserves, reminding us that the really shocking things about him lie not in his life but in his work.”—Fintan O'Toole, New York Review of Books
(Fintan O'Toole New York Review of Books)

“[S]uperb. . . . Damrosch’s outstanding book has raised Swift’s provocative genius to life. . . . Damrosch has brought [Swift’s] vision into sharp focus and exposed its disquieting relevance.”—Jeffrey Collins, Wall Street Journal
(Jeffrey Collins Wall Street Journal)

A Best Book of 2013, The Daily Beast, literary editor Lucas Wittmann
(The Daily Beast)

Received an Honorable Mention for the 2013 American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence (PROSE), in the Biography & Autobiography category.
(PROSE Awards American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence 2014-02-07)

“Leo Damrosch conjures up Jonathan Swift with hallucinatory vividness, allowing the contradictions of this baffling, elusive genius full rein. He recovers in rich detail the world in which Gulliver's Travels and other enduring masterpieces were created.  This is a brilliant and humane biography.”—Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
(Stephen Greenblatt)

"Thoroughly researched, vividly written and convincingly argued, Leo Damrosch's new biography of Jonathan Swift more than holds its own among such great predecessors as Walter Scott and Irvin Ehrenpreis, and presents a standard that contemporary scholarly prose is rarely capable of matching."—Robert Mahony, The Catholic University of America
(Robert Mahony)

"Immensely enjoyable and fast-paced."—Louis Menand, author of The Metaphysical Club
(Louis Menand)

This “lively new biography” by “the immensely talented biographer Leo Damrosch” is “piercingly intelligent . . . [and] will surely be the definitive one-volume Swift biography of our time.”—Steve Donoghue, Open Letters Monthly (Steve Donoghue Open Letters Monthly 2013-10-24)

“Damrosch is incisive about Swift’s personality . . . and writes with fine Swiftian clarity, but does not simplify. He acknowledges that, investigating Swift, you run into a revolving door of contradictions. . . . But Damrosch sees him, rightly, not just as a tragic figure but as a fearless thinker whose works are an antidote to optimism's happy lies.” — John Carey, London Sunday Times
(John Carey The Sunday Times 2013-11-17)

"A fine biography. . . . Damrosch is an ingenious, learned hypothesizer on matters lost to history and an adept guide to Swift's works. . . . Even Swift's contemporaries were, often enough, not sure what to make of them. One such called Swift 'my hieroglyphic friend.' And that's fine with me. Let the mystery continue, the interpretations and speculations flourish, and the greatest ironist in the English language continue to be read and puzzled over."—Katherine A. Powers, Barnes & Noble Review
(Barnes & Noble Review)

“Damrosch’s approach is forensic. . .For me the Swift who emerges from these patient investigations is a more rounded personality.”—George Walden, The Times
(George Walden The Times 2013-11-30)

“We live in an age when we sorely need a Swift; instead we have Jon Stewart. Modest recompense is to be found in Leo Damrosch’s new life of Swift.”—Lucas Wittmann, The Daily Beast
(Lucas Wittmann The Daily Beast)

“A feisty, first-class life of the sage and scourge of English literature. . . . Damrosch is bent on both correcting the record and adding to it, creating a fresh and vivid life even as he wrestles with previous biographers. . . . This is the kind of biography where you come to feel you know the subject personally. A rich and rewarding portrait of an irreplaceable genius.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
(Kirkus Reviews)

“[C]onvincing and vivid. . .Damrosch has. . .let us glimpse the human roots of Swift’s sometimes inhuman irony.”—John Mullan, The Guardian
(John Mullan The Guardian 2014-01-04)

“The enigma of Swift’s life and character continues to tease us. This magisterial biography reminded me how much, in his writings, there is to relish – even outside the mainstream of the great, the immortal, works.”—A. N. Wilson, The Tablet
(A. N. Wilson The Tablet 2013-12-21)

“Leo Damrosch's. . . wonderful and absorbing biography of Swift . . [is] by far the most balanced, nuanced and persuasive biography of Swift so far. Damrosch is a fine scholar who knows Swift’s works and his age very well indeed. . .It should remind the reader what a wonderful writer Swift is and send us enthusiastically back to the texts – something few biographies ever succeed in doing.”—Andrew Carpenter, Irish Times
(Andrew Carpenter Irish Times 2014-01-18)

'Leo Damrosch has written a conscientious and worthy book, full of meat and handsomely illustrated.'—Paul Johnson, Literary Review
(Paul Johnson Literary Review 2014-02-01)

“Masterly in its control of the material, . . . contriving to blend informality with solid argumentation. . . . Excellent passages are devoted to A Tale of a Tub, The Drapier’s Letters, A Modest Proposal, and above all Gulliver’s Travels. . . . What Damrosch has given us is superior to anything that has gone before, in its mastery of all aspects of the subject, . . . a work where everyone will find a fascinating store of information and enjoyment.” — Pat Rogers, New Criterion
(Pat Rogers New Criterion)

“An excellent book. Leo Damrosch . . . writes entertainingly and is comfortable with political and philosophical ideas as well as with literary matters."—Michael Dirda, Washington Post
(Michael Dirda Washington Post)

Winner of the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award in the category of Biography.
(NBCC National book critics circle 2014-03-14)

“Damrosch’s tolerance for mystery is one of the outstanding features of his spellbinding biography. . . . Such questions are a sign of scrupulous intellectual integrity. They also deepen Damrosch’s narrative, giving us a visceral sense of biography’s essential tasks, which are not only to solve a life’s puzzles but to remark them. . . . Swift’s passions still burn through Gulliver’s uncanny adventures, and in Damrosch’s exceptional book.”—Marcela Valdes, Critical Mass: The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle
(Marcela Valdes Critical Mass)

"Damrosch writes with wit and constructs a compelling portrait of the Irish clergyman, whose satires delighted and scandalized eighteenth-century Britain." —New Yorker, "Briefly Noted"
(New Yorker)

“Masterly in its control, . . . contriving to blend informality with solid argumentation. . . . What Damrosch has given us is superior to anything that has gone before, in . . . a work where everyone will find a fascinating store of information and enjoyment.”—Pat Rogers, New Criterion
(Pat Rogers New Criterion)

“Convincing and vivid. . . . Damrosch has . . . let us glimpse the human roots of Swift’s sometimes inhuman irony.”—John Mullan, The Guardian
(John Mullan Guardian)

Columbia University 2014 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in the Biography/Autobiography category.
(Pulitzer Prize, Finalist Columbia University 2014-04-15)

Finalist for the Biographers International Organization 2014 Plutarch Award for Best Biography of the Year, Selected by other biographers.
(Plutarch Award, Finalist Biographers International Organization 2014-04-15)

‘If Damrosch follows Ehrenpreis in anything, it’s in the ambition, indicated by his ‘life and world’ subtitle, to ground biography in social context. He does that job with efficiency and a sure touch.’—Thomas Keymer, London Review of Books
(Thomas Keymer London Review of Books 2014-04-17)

“Do read Leo Damrosch’s compelling biography. . . . Here is a book to delight and instruct both the general reader and the specialist. Damrosch masterfully fleshes out the fascinating and complex life of this Anglican clergyman, champion of the oppressed Irish, and brilliant satirist who lived in an age equally fascinating and complex.”—Karen Swallow Prior, Books & Culture
(Karen Swallow Prior Books & Culture)

About the Author

Leo Damrosch is Ernest Bernbaum Research Professor of Literature at Harvard University. He is the author of nine books, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius, a National Book Award Finalist. He lives in Newton, MA.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; First Edition edition (November 12, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300164998
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300164992
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.5 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #205,241 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

For photos and information about all of my books, particularly "Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius" (National Book Award finalist in nonfiction, 2005) and "Tocqueville's Discovery of America" (2010), please visit my web site:


Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I've always noticed how very many reviews by noted reviewers in top drawer publications - the NYRB, Times, New Yorker - hit the first sections of the book, even the preface or introduction, very hard and then kind of skim the rest. Kind of like, as I recall, doing a high school or college paper. Mea culpa.

But I am enjoying this book so much I had to weigh in. I agree with the reviewer who says there are too many 5 star reviews, however that's one of the pernicous effects of grade inflation...the system changes and what is the grader now to do? I was a teacher. I don't agree with the reviewer who commented on the lack of style or flair in the author's style. One of the engaging aspects of the book to me is exactly Damrosh's ongoing droll humor. I like Swift, but I'm hardly a scholar on his life, and that's a second thing I like about this book. Damrosh is constantly testing his interpretations against earlier biographies and monographs. Therefore, agree or not, the reader gets not only a bio but at the same time a review of previous works and can - so far as possible - form her own judgements on cloudy issues.

And there are a lot of cloudy issues. Biography pre-Boswell was not a genre as we have come to understand in the last couple hundred years. Especially the last hundred. Not just for lack of written records but from a lack of interest in recording the minutiae of a well known person's private life. Shakespear and Jesus are not exceptions, they're the norm. So there's a lot of Swift that is controversial and (educated) guesswork. Damrosh is very clear about this and couches it in a modern style that is quite refreshing - and easy to read.

Additionally, the book is profusely illustrated with black and whites throughout the text.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a superb biography, a perfect balance of scholarship and story-telling. Damrosch has skilfully managed that most difficult challenge of literary history writing--to be both erudite and entertaining, comprehensive and compelling. His style is at times almost novelistic, and like a good novel, "Swift" is hard to put down. The life and work of this complex and controversial writer is presented with a depth of psychological insight and a humanity of judgment that make the reader feel that it's possible to know the man--his rage, his humor, his boundless energy--as well as his contemporaries could have, and sometimes better. We enjoy the privilege (and the often guilty pleasure) of peeling back the layers of time and secrecy guarding the private life of a very public man.
Damrosch's approach to the many mysteries of Swift's life and character, including his origins, his political and artistic motivations, and especially his relationships with women, is subtle and suggestive rather than didactic. Unlike some previous biographers, Damrosch doesn't insist on his own opinions and interpretations, but presents the known facts (some discussed here for the first time) and lays out all the possibilities, leaving us to decide what to believe. The overall effect is of entering a world quite unlike our own, yet disturbingly familiar, and meeting a figure fully realized and three-dimensional, one who inspires our admiration and awe, as well as our delight.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
A fine book for new enthusiasts of Swift. It merits only four stars because it is not perfect (there should be fewer five star reviews in general, in my view, with the fifth reserved for especially brilliant work). The author catches us up in Swift's world and reanimates his circle of friends (and enemies) with a palatable amount of court detail and political history. It's a quick read, perfect for stowing away on your Kindle while commuting to work. Especially prized is mention of Swift's bawdy, which is overlooked in a many general Swiftian studies. His obsession with the alimentary canal was not his alone for his time, and the author gives us a good cross-section of his scandalous verse. Recommendation: if you haven't read "Gulliver's Travels" or a "A Modest Proposal" before taking up this biography, do: it will be a richer experience for you.
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Format: Hardcover
I expected much more about Gulliver's Travels in a biography of Swift, but I found much more that was interesting and informative. Damrosch gives us a detailed insight into what city life was like in Swift's time. He creates the odors, noise, and colors surrounding Swift better than many novelists. Indeed the text reads much like a good novel so it is hard to put down.

Perhaps what was most informative for me was the description of the political polarization between Ireland and England. Damrosch gives us insights from historical perspective while adding a view of it from an Irish, Anglican pastor whose writings must have caused as much uproar as the political rhetoric of the times.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Before I knew little about the life of Jonathan Swift, and this book served to help me correct this deficiency.

Professor Damrosch gives the modern reader a good, positive one-volume biography, while adding informative asides that help explain some of the more obscure political or social references contained in the numerous poems, pamphlets, and letters cited in the text.

If you are interested in the history of Irish/English political relations; the English language; political/social satire; the close female and male friends (for instance, Alexander Pope) of Dean Swift; or just want to know more about the guy who wrote "Gulliver's Travels"-- I commend this book to you.
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