If you want to know how different the world was in 1729, consider Jonathan Swift's case for cannibalism in A Modest Proposal. Okay, stop and take a moment to pick your collective jaws off the ground. The 18th century may have been a wild time, but Swift's proposal wasn't for real. A self-appointed shock jock, Swift was just satirizing the stingy British approach to dealing with their Irish subjects.
If you thought Swift was serious about boiling babies, you wouldn't be the first. By the time Swift published A Modest Proposal, he'd already had his work misinterpreted by the Queen of England and countless other humorless readers who didn't understand irony. Swift wasn't winning any popularity contests in England, that's for sure.
The feeling was mutual: Swift was no fan of the English rule, as he made abundantly clear in a series of political pamphlets. Although he spent plenty of time gallivanting around the London literary scene with buddies Joseph Addison, Alexander Pope, and John Gay, he was a reluctant Irishman who made his home in "wretched Dublin, in miserable Ireland" (source). Despite occasionally trashing his stomping grounds, Swift was equally critical of the British. In short, he was a crotchety guy who was often accused of hating on just about everybody.
But why, you might ask, would Swift suggest something as bizarre as chowing down on children? He never shied away from the tough stuff, and in the words of Samuel Johnson, took "delight in revolting ideas from which every other mind shrinks with disgust" (source). In fact, he was perfectly fine with grossing out the literary elite to make his point about the very real problems of famine and overpopulation affecting Ireland. That, or he was just a thirteen-year-old boy at heart.
Long before Jon Stewart's witty political commentary dominated The Daily Show, another Jon had a knack for sticking it to the Man. Just like his 21st-century twin, Jonathan Swift brought a healthy helping of over-the-top comedy to A Modest Proposal. Studio audiences aside, Swift's irreverent take on politics is the same kind of entertainment we tune in to on weeknights.
Swift might not have headlined on Comedy Central, but his funnyman routine was pretty well-known in the London coffeehouses. He wasn't always getting the laughs, though. Before going the satire route, Swift wrote a couple sermons on the conditions in Ireland that weren't nearly as entertaining as advocating for cannibalism. You might say his work got the ultimate boost in ratings when he turned to satire.
Don't be fooled by Swift's lighthearted irony: After he gets through detailing the nutritional value of a one-year-old, he gets in a couple of jabs about England's greed. And even though The Daily Show calls itself a "fake news program," you're just as likely to see an interview with a presidential candidate alongside a celebrity spoof. That's the thing with good satire—if you don't pay attention, you might get a recipe instead of a moral.
Breaking Down Swift's Religious Beliefs
Religious was kind of a big deal back then.
Swift is on Twitter
If you ever wondered what Mr. Swift might say about today's satire, look no further. In latest news, he's lost his wig.
The Whole Shebang
Reading A Modest Proposal won't cost you a cent.
It was only a matter of time before Swift's satire of cannibalism inspired a horror movie. In true Swiftian style, Boneboys is a comedy-horror hybrid.
Swift and Pope
One of Swift's closest buddies was Alexander Pope, another heavy hitter in the eighteenth-century literary world. Here's a comparison of their work.
Colbert on Swift
Here's proof that Swift's satire holds up in the twenty-first century: Stephen Colbert reads a passage of A Modest Proposal to support Ted Turner's ideas on reducing overpopulation.
More photos of Swift's famous wig than you'd ever wanted to see.
BBC's In Our Time
What does A Modest Proposal reveal about the wacky mind of Jonathan Swift? This radio program has it covered.
Project Gutenberg Audiobook
For your listening pleasure.
Check out Swift's excellent hairstyle.