The Biographer as Historian

In: Reading Swift
J. A. Downie Goldsmiths’ College, University of London

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In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift offered a cynical account of how history comes to be written. Yet in his own attempts at writing memoirs and history, he claimed “to write with the utmost impartiality … as a faithful historian.” Contemporaries were not so sure, Chesterfield describing Swift’s History of the Four Last Years of the Queen as “a party pamphlet, founded on the lie of the day.” One of the problems with Swift’s accounts of events was that most of the information he was relaying to his readers as factual was second-hand at best. This would appear to raise serious issues for Swift’s biographers and critics. Propagandists are under no obligation to be factually accurate, let alone tell the truth. Almost all of the evidence for his influence with the ministers originates from Swift himself. In such circumstances, it is incumbent upon biographers to acquire detailed knowledge of the primary sources for themselves rather than merely relying upon the available secondary sources for their understanding of the political and social contexts of the age in which Swift lived.

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Reading Swift

Papers from The Seventh Münster Symposium on Jonathan Swift


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