An unheralded aspect of Jonathan Swift’s genius is his use of print to make himself a legend in his own time and, it seems, forever after. The myths and legends (I use these two terms interchangeably) are legion and contradictory Typically their truth cannot be verified with historical evidence, and their origins are forgotten, obscure, or suspect. Almost magically, they tend to reproduce, mutate, or stimulate entirely new narratives. Attributing to Swift thoughts, words, and actions, these stories, situated in an indefinite relationship to provable fact, primarily focus on his mysterious relationships with the women in his life, his madness, his religious apostasy, and his humorous eccentricities. Some of the stories evolve into chestnuts, retold time after time; other stories are more evanescent. Some have a cogent verisimilitude; others are overtly fictional.1 The circulation of these stories in a wide variety of popular literature made Swift familiar to virtually every reader in the English-speaking world.2 Swift’s extraordinary celebrity results from several canny decisions he made about managing his career as an author: to write for the broadest possible audience rather than a discriminating elite, and to create an enigmatic and provocative print identity.3 These two strategies reinforced one another. Strangely reluctant to write like a pious gentleman as befitted his class and vocation, Swift evoked constant criticism of his character that kept him in the public eye.4


Popular Culture Public Image Popular Literature Early Eighteenth Century Life Narrative 
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  1. 4.
    I benefited from the discussion of notoriety, history, and fame by Linda Charnes, Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1993).Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    Daniel Boorstin makes a distinction between celebrity, which he identifies with ephemeral prominence given to essentially unworthy persons, and fame, which memorializes the worthy. I, however, use fame, renown, and celebrity synonymously, a more standard practice. Daniel Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1961; rpt. 1992), 57. With an emphasis different from mine, Alan Chalmers discusses Swift’s consuming interest in fame and posterity in Jonathan Swift and the Burden of the Future (Newark, DE: University of Delaware, 1995).Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    Lawrence Klein, Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness: Moral Discourse and Cultural Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 4–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 7.
    E. S. Turner’s Unholy Pursuits: The Wayward Parsons of Grub Street (Lewes, Sussex, England: Book Guild, 1998) recounts the careers of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Anglican clergymen, whose inappropriate publications led some of them to the gibbet.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    Laetitia Pilkington claims that Swift gave himself this title. The Memoirs of Mrs. Laetitia Pilkington, ed. A. C. Elias, 2 vols. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997), 1: 35. Further citations to this work will be included parenthetically in my text.Google Scholar
  6. 12.
    Bartholomew Gill, The Death of an Ardent Bibliophile (New York: William Morrow, 1995), 187–8.Google Scholar
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    Irvin Ehrenpreis, Swift: The Man, His Work, and the Age, 3 vols. (London: Methuen, 1962–83), 1: ix. My debt to Ehrenpreis is profound and pervasive. I have depended on him for the facts of Swift’s life.Google Scholar
  8. 14.
    I am indebted for much of my understanding of print culture to Elizabeth Eisenstein’s work, especially The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe, 2 vols. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979).Google Scholar
  9. 15.
    Lord Raglan, FitzRoy Richard Somerset, Baron, The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama (London: Methuen, 1936), 179–84.Google Scholar
  10. 17.
    The Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) denies that Robin Hood was a living person and notes that multiple candidates have been put forth as the prototype for his character. Other sources offer evidence that Robin Hood was an actual person. In Robin Hood: An Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism, ed. Stephen Knight (Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1999), see W. F. Prideaux, “Who was Robin Hood?,” 51–58; R. H. Hilton, “The Origins of Robin Hood,” 197–210; and “The Birth and Setting of the Ballads of Robin Hood,” 233–56.Google Scholar
  11. In Robin Hood in Popular Culture: Violence, Transgression, and Justice, ed. Thomas Hahn (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000), see essays by R. B. Dobson, “Robin Hood: The Genesis of a Popular Hero,” 61–78 and Stephen Knight, “Which Way to the Forest? Directions in Robin Hood Studies,” 111–28.Google Scholar
  12. 18.
    Victoria Glendinning, Jonathan Swift: A Portrait (New York: Henry Holt, 1998), 3–4.Google Scholar
  13. 20.
    I take this phrase from the title of Susan Stewarts Crimes of Writing: Problems in the Containment of Representation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994).Google Scholar
  14. 21.
    John B. Vickery, Myths and Texts: Strategies of Incorporation and Displacement (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1983), pp. 173–4.Google Scholar
  15. 22.
    Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller with a note on the text by Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), 20–1;Google Scholar
  16. and Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995), 117–19.Google Scholar
  17. 24.
    Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, Jovanich, 1975) quoted by Charnes, Notorious Identity, 48.Google Scholar
  18. 25.
    S. Elizabeth Bird, For Enquiring Minds: A Cultural Study of Supermarket Tabloids (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992), 39.Google Scholar
  19. 27.
    The following works offer useful discussions of the process by which narratives such as rumor and myth are generated and shaped. Elizabeth Bird, For Enquiring Minds, op. cit.; Frederick Koenig, Rumor in the Marketplace: The Social Psychology of Commercial Hearsay (Dover, MA: Auburn House, 1985), 19–20;Google Scholar
  20. Linda Degh, Chapter 1 “The Variant and the Folklorization Process in the Basic Forms of Narration,” American Folklore in the Mass Media (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1994, 12–33;Google Scholar
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  23. 28.
    Leo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown: The History of Fame (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 15.Google Scholar

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© Ann Cline Kelly 2002

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