Though remembered today mainly as the author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift was known to his contemporaries for much more than that. In this biography, David Nokes details the span of Swift’s eventful life, from his childhood in Dublin to his time as a propagandist and disappointed placeseeker in England, through to his later years as an author and Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. The Swift that emerges from these pages is a frustrated man, filled with disappointment at receiving less than his perceived due. Yet such disappointment provided the acidic edge to the satirical writings that made him famous from his day to ours.
Nokes’s biography is an admirable study of Swift’s life and times, one that attempts to penetrate the mystery that surrounded much of his life. He does not hesitate in hypothesizing about the many decisions he made and speculating on such persistent questions as his possible marriage to Esther Johnson. Though Nokes does not address every work that Swift produced, he does analyze his subject’s major writings for the insights they possess into Swift’s personality and views. He supports his arguments with frequent quotes from his subject’s many writings, though reading the book alongside a collection such as the Oxford World Classics edition of his writings as a supplement helps to understand Swift better still, as well as providing exposure to some unjustly neglected classics from this great author. For anyone seeking a perceptive study of Swift’s life that is more digestible than Irvin Ehrenpreis’s monumental three-volume study, this is the book to read.