Swift, Satire, and BC Students

Does Swift’s searing satire lose its keen edge as the story is re-represented over time, country and culture?  This was a question that arose last spring as students in Colleen Taylor’s English Literature class, Satire and Society, explored editions of Gulliver’s Travels at the John J. Burns Library.

The key objective was to discover how the satiric mode operates in each text and what it enables the writer to express, expose, or critique about his or her world. Ms. Taylor offered the further instruction: each time ask what does this satire make visible that might otherwise be invisible?

The visit to the Burns Library offered students the opportunity to analyse original texts in this fashion. Students, arranged in groups of two, viewed editions of Swift’s well known work –  from the first 1726 edition published in London, to a Baronet Books Great Illustrated Classic Series edition published in New York  in 1995. The selections even included Walt Disney’s Gulliver Mickey published by Random House, New York in 1975, demonstrating the continued popularity of the work.

Three students examining books

The Burns Library copy of the first edition, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World in Four Parts by Lemuel Gulliver, first a Surgeon, and Then a Captain of Several Ships, printed for Benjamin Mott in London in 1726 features the bookplates of Sir Alfred Beit and of Sir Otto Beit. Students took note of the fact that one bookplate is an engraved illustration of a manor, while the other is an engraving of an interior room of a house.

After examining an edition within a pair, the students merged into groups of four and shared the texts.  This offered more content for analysis. Guiding questions provided prompts such as what is it made of, can you read the text, are there illustrations? In order to tie the analysis experience to the class topic, further questions provoked thoughts on how the book as an object enhances what the student already knows about the historical period of study and what inferences they can make from analyzing the books apply to the topic.

Over 15 editions, spanning from the 18th to 20th centuries, provided material for thought and visual analysis. While all the editions offered for viewing are quite special, several deserve highlighting: an edition published in 1930 features illustrations by famed artist, Rex Whistler who was killed during WWII; the 1865 edition, published in London with explanatory notes and a life of the author by John Francis Waller, was owned by Irish author Flann O’Brien; the 1962 Macmillan Classics edition is a retelling of the story by Irish author, Padraic Colum, and illustrated by Willy Pogany.

Pop-up book on table

Students viewing the French edition and the Hallmark Pop-Up edition.

Students who visit the Burns Library invariably ask how the Library acquires material. In this case, it was easy to explain.  Many of the Swift materials came from one man, William F. Cunningham, who collected not only printed texts, but artifacts related to Swift’s most popular work.  We displayed a few, which included a blouse, playing cards, a coloring book, a drinking glass, and a movie advertisement.

Selection of materials on table

Selection of artifacts from the William F. Cunningham collection at Burns Library

Does Swift’s searing satire lose its keen edge as the story is re-represented over time, country and culture?  You must come and analyze the Swift titles in the Burns collection as the students in Ms. Taylor’s class did, and come to your own conclusion!

–Kathleen Williams, Senior Reference Librarian and Bibliographer for Irish Studies

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

Located in the original Bapst Library building on Boston College's Chestnut Hill campus, the John J. Burns Library offers students, scholars, and the general public opportunities to engage with rare books, special collections, and archives.
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