Karian’s Conclusion, which Opens Doors

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In her excellent review essay, “The State of Swift Studies 2010” (Eighteenth-Century Life 34:2, 83-105), Ashley Marshall wrote that “we ought to be entering a golden age in Swift studies. Bibliographic problems are getting serious attention from several learned and meticulous critics.” Steve Karian’s Jonathan Swift in Print and Manuscript confirms that prophecy. In his “Conclusion,” Karian modestly hopes that his study “will be of value for studying the interaction between the two media in the early eighteenth century” (205). He achieves this goal, accomplishing additional goals in the process. The rich evidence Karian provides of Swift’s various reading communities, including a close-knit, educated, and in-the-know group of intimates as well as distant readers who lacked access to Swift’s intentions forces a new, more dynamic appreciation of the nature of Swift’s poems and of his collective sense of authorship. Scholars have, of course, conceived of these differing communities before, just as they understood that Swift’s poems were open texts. But Karian has lived with the manuscripts and printed versions of these poems long enough to provide credible and significantly more complex transmission histories than have been considered previously. The empirical evidence he provides regarding transmission and authorship will have to be taken into account by anyone working on Swift’s poems. He provides a vault of evidence that enriches and usefully complicates and enriches our understanding of Swift’s poetic habits of mind and particularly the view of satire that he and his circle shared.

It seems particularly fitting to have a collective review of a book that presents Swift as engaged in collective authorship. I would like to thank the reviewers for their thoughtful and informed posts. If Swift’s satire constitutes, as David Brewer calls it, the “exceptional normal,” if its “apparent oddity lays bare the norms and rules of a much more widely played game,” Karian’s book provides rich material for pursuing that claim. Indeed, the evidence Karian provides is, even with Steve’s methodical approach, both messy and conflicting. As Ashley Marshall and Randy Robertson suggest in different posts, Karian’s work is sure to inspire attempts at developing its findings even more fully. Drawing on the original sense of “manuscriptum,” Eleanor Shevlin wonders whether Swift’s efforts at counterfeiting his hand indicates “deeper cultural attitudes about agency, identity, hands, and names as rendered and negotiated by manuscript and print.” It certainly calls attention to Swift’s elusive use of masks. For Dave Mazella, Karian’s demonstration of the fluid interplay of print and manuscript calls into question the value of the unitary term “print culture.” For Al Coppola, that interplay also demonstrates the contingent nature of Swiftian satire. There are many other points to be made about the evidence presented by this book. The material Karian presents will continue to be reviewed, and it is fitting that his Conclusion closes by acknowledging the open-ended nature of such work:

All of my conclusions about the texts of these poems are based on the documentary evidence as presently available. Even one newly discovered manuscript or printed text has the potential to alter my interpretations of the textual traditiona nd thereby undermine the conclusions I present here. Such is the incomplete nature of textual study, and the key to its possible pitfalls and rewards.

That seems like the kind of open-ended conclusion that, judging from the evidence presented in Jonathan Swift in Print and Manuscript, Swift himself would enjoy.

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