When I first heard about Karian’s book, I was intrigued, because ever since Hugh Kenner’s Stoic Comedians (1963) Swift has been the beneficiary of numerous studies that invoked an Enlightenment-era, democratizing “print culture” as one of the chief motivators behind his satire. For both Swift and these 20th century critics, “Grub Street” stood for all the democratized (and therefore degraded) knowledge-production, communications, and political behavior that Swift seemed to both loathe and formally imitate in his own writings.
Consequently, Swift, like Sterne, has always seemed to be an author particularly conscious of the ways in which the forms and conventions of print help to shape its meanings for readers, fostering what Kenner, under the influence of Walter Ong, termed his awareness of “book as book.” Swift’s consciousness of print, as evidenced by his parodies of print conventions like Dedications, Prefaces, and footnotes in works like a Tale of a Tub, helped make him an emblematic figure more generally for the literary implications of print culture from the ’60s and ’70s onward.
During that time, however, our knowledge of both print culture and its larger social, economic, and cultural contexts has expanded enormously. Since 1963, for example, historians like Eisenstein, Johns and many others have amassed, synthesized, and debated the significance of a vast amount of information concerning the historical emergence and distinctive features of print culture, while scholars like McKenzie, Ezell, Love, and now McKitterick have contributed their own appreciation for the interrelatedness of manuscript and print production during the early modern period, including the long eighteenth century.
In his very lucid introduction to Swift in Print and Manuscript, Karian helpfully outlines his methodological debts to this “second wave” of historical scholarship that stresses the “interactivity and fluidity” of print and manuscript, while noting that this scholarship is influenced by “our contemporary existence as members of an emerging digital culture that is still very much immersed in print” (2).
With an impressive rigor and thoroughness, Karian extends this notion of Swift’s emblematic status from a unitary and over-idealized “print culture” to our emerging sense of the “interactivity and fluidity” of print and manuscript during the long eighteenth century. Of course, with this refinement of the concept of “print culture,” we no longer have a single, easy term for what Swift is representative of, but this seems like a small loss compared to what we have gained by pursuing this particular line of thought about Swift’s relation to the history of the book.
The first effect of this refinement of the Swift and print culture thesis is to create what seems to me a very useful periodization for Swift’s career, determined not just by Swift’s own biographical circumstances but his proximity to a network of loyal and trustworthy printers. Hence, we first get the London-based publications of 1701-1714; second, the Dublin-based publications of his Irish pamphlets from 1720-27, with the significant exception of Gulliver’s Travels; and finally the indirect, London-based publications of 1727-39 through a set of intermediaries who introduced their own complexities into the process.
Karian’s first chapter, “Print Publication,” surveys these three periods of Swift’s career, and pays particularly close attention to the circumstances surrounding Faulkner’s Dublin edition of the Works (1735), which (ever since its championing by Harold Williams) has long been treated as reflecting the close personal involvement of Swift. The effect of this subdivision is to reveal the constraints operating upon Swift during this time even as his fame grew, and to show how Swift responded creatively to these challenges, often through what we might term his collaborations with friends and booksellers throughout the process of composition, printing, and distribution.
It is worth recalling that this second wave of scholarship in the history of the book emerged to counterbalance the Whiggish, teleological tendencies of some of the print culture argument, by showing not just the persistence, but the continued vitality of practices like manuscript circulation among particular subcultures, particularly aristocratic coteries. It also had the useful effect of highlighting the social dimension of such authorship and its practices of circulation, in the century prior to the Romantic conceptualization of authorship. Finally, it has had the interesting consequence of highlighting the importance of censorship and other institutional constraints upon writers in this period, something which literary scholars are often vaguely aware of, but whose details are often left obscure except in a few well-known cases of outright prosecution. Prosecution, however, is a clear sign of someone not understanding “the rules of the game,” and it seems equally important to note how writers like Swift managed to avoid prosecution while still publishing quite pointed satires on prominent political figures.
Karian’s approach pays off handsomely for each of the periods he surveys: in the first portion, Karian explains the significance of the “trade publisher,” whose name appeared in the imprints, but who did not own copyright in the works he helped print (17). This strategy allowed Swift to add a layer of intermediaries between himself and his printers, thereby helping to conceal his own authorship, or at least add an element of plausible deniability to controversial works. Karian is able to show that Swift’s proximity to his London printers’ social network enabled him to print controversial works with relatively little exposure to risk and with considerable control over the final form of the works, unlike in later phases of his career (18-19). Karian is also able to show how Swift prized the printers like Tooke who withstood threats of prosecution, and rewarded them with continued work.
The second phase (1720-7) surveyed by Karian describes Swift’s relations with his Dublin printers, who appear quite steadfast in their loyalty to him, and who were rewarded in turn (20). Yet his experience with Motte’s printing of Gulliver’s Travels showed the contemporary difficulties of printing political satire: Motte, for whatever reason, chose to print GT under his own name rather than a trade publisher, and consequently made his own omissions and additions to the text out of fear of prosecution, much to Swift’s irritation (21-22). This section serves to demonstrate the importance of such stratagems for successful publication of satires, because both authors and booksellers needed to strike a balance between what was printable and what would appeal to an audience eager for controversy.
The last phase (1727-39) takes us deep into Faulkner’s edition, and the reasons for Williams’s championing of it as reflective of Swift’s input. Karian stresses the notion (initially aired by A.C. Elias) that Faulkner relied as much on Swift’s friends as on Swift himself for collecting the works that were included in these volumes, and that these friends may have engaged in group revisions of the proof sheets of both the 1735 Faulkner edition as well as the 1732 Fairbrother edition. None of this refutes Williams’s claims for the priority of the 1735 edition, but should make us more cautious about assuming Swift’s total absorption in the work involved in this edition.
This eminently social view of authorship, including the tasks of editing and revision, should render us more conscious of the collaborative nature of authorship for genres like political pamphlets, lampoons, satires, etc. for this period. More importantly, Swift complains a great deal about intermediaries and parasites throughout his satires, but they were also essential for his ability to publish and circulate his work to the public. Consequently, he quite generously rewarded those who demonstrated their loyal to him. Karian–quite rightly, in my view–considers this a form of “patronage” that Swift directs towards what amounts to his dependents (30).
I have a few related questions for Karian or the others reading this book for EMOB:
- First of all, is there a single term we could now use to signify this fluid interchange of print and manuscript culture? In other words, do we have, or need, an alternative to the unitary term “print culture” in our analysis of the eighteenth century?
- Second, is there a critical law of diminishing returns for this kind of collaborative view of textual production? What Karian is practicing looks to me more and more like our treatment of performance or cinema than our usual “auteur” models of solo production. In other words, I would say that the usefulness of the distinction between “trade publishers” and copyright holders is that it reveals the genuinely important people in Swift’s collaborative practices.
- Finally, how important is the ubiquity of censorship, or the genre expectations of satire, to this kind of analysis of textual production? Could we learn as much from writers when they are not deliberately trying to skirt the law? In other words, how generalizable is this kind of approach to other kinds of writers, genres, or periods of literary or cultural history?
Thanks, everyone, for giving me the opportunity to engage with this impressive piece of scholarship. I am eager to hear what others make of this.