Archives Diary: The Curious Cunningham Collection of Swift Materials

Bust of Jonathan Swift (1667 - 1745), this item is part of the William F. Cunningham, Jr. Collection of Jonathan Swift Materials, MS2005-49, John J. Burns Library.

Bust of Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745), this item is part of the William F. Cunningham, Jr. Collection of Jonathan Swift Materials, MS.2005.049, John J. Burns Library.

Generations of readers have taken great delight in the box of curiosities created for Lemuel Gulliver in Brobdingnag.  In a land where Gulliver was quite tiny and his hosts very large, the everyday objects observed by Gulliver are seen from a new perspective.  Unable to use even the most basic cutlery on account of its monstrous size, Gulliver finds himself in a world of implements he could not possibly wield.  However, the queen of Brobdingnag has a box created to house the now Lilliputian Gulliver, and the most accomplished craftsmen of the land furnish his miniature world:

“The queen commanded her own cabinet-maker to contrive a box, that might serve me for a bedchamber, after the model that Glumdalclitch and I should agree upon.  This man was a most ingenious artist, and according to my direction, in three weeks finished for me a wooden chamber of sixteen feet square, and twelve high, with sash-windows, a door, and two closets, like a London bed-chamber.  The board, that made the ceiling, was to be lifted up and down by two hinges, to put in a bed ready furnished by her majesty’s upholsterer, which Glumdalclitch took out every day to air, made it with her own hands, and letting it down at night, locked up the roof over me.  A nice workman, who was famous for little curiosities, undertook to make me two chairs, with backs and frames, of a substance not unlike ivory, and two tables, with a cabinet to put my things in.  The room was quilted on all sides, as well as the floor and the ceiling, to prevent any accident from the carelessness of those who carried me, and to break the force of a jolt, when I went in a coach.  I desired a lock for my door, to prevent rats and mice from coming in.  The smith, after several attempts, made the smallest that ever was seen among them, for I have known a larger at the gate of a gentleman’s house in England.  I made a shift to keep the key in a pocket of my own, fearing Glumdalclitch might lose it.  The queen likewise ordered the thinnest silks that could be gotten, to make me clothes, not much thicker than an English blanket, very cumbersome till I was accustomed to them.  They were after the fashion of the kingdom, partly resembling the Persian, and partly the Chinese, and are a very grave and decent habit.” (Swift, Gulliver’s Travels)

Pictured here are two items from the William F. Cunningham, Jr. Collection of Jonathan Swift Materials:  a curio box showing Gulliver with the Lilliputians and (resting against Gulliver's knee) a miniature edition of Gulliver's Travels.

Pictured here are two items from the William F. Cunningham, Jr. Collection of Jonathan Swift Materials: a curio box showing Gulliver with the Lilliputians and (resting against Gulliver’s knee) a miniature edition of Gulliver’s Travels, MS.2005.049, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The William F. Cunningham, Jr. Collection of Jonathan Swift Materials at the Burns Library is a similar sort of box of curiosities that provides a world of information to the observant spectator.  William Cunningham Jr. is a retired Professor of English, Dean of Arts and Sciences, and Academic Vice President of Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, and his professional and personal interest in Swift led him to collect editions of Swift’s books printed from the eighteenth to the twentieth century as well as the strange and wonderful literary paraphernalia of Swift’s work and the commercial and artistic materials of modern adaptations.  Consequently, posters, advertisements, post cards, coloring books, dust jackets, playing cards, bookmarks, puzzles, glasses, shirts, magnets, life-size cut outs, snuff tins, stamps, movie stills, and theatre programs accompany the more common archival items such as poems, letters, articles, and illustrations.  The Cunningham Collection of Swift Materials is a curio box full of wonders—such as a miniature edition of Gulliver’s Travels­ and a curio box showing Gulliver with the Lilliputians (pictured above).  Yet, these items are not merely oddities to be disregarded; they chronicle the life of a literary work that has leapt off its pages into the imaginations of children and adults for almost three centuries.  The reworking of the novel’s images, characters, and themes can be carefully traced through these items by the traveler willing to stray off-course into the uncharted waters of the Burns Library and Gulliver-like observe the literary world from a new perspective.

  • Andrew Kuhn, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English,andrew.kuhn@bc.edu

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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One Response to Archives Diary: The Curious Cunningham Collection of Swift Materials

  1. Robert Stanton says:

    Very nice, Andrew. That is one tiny book!

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