From Michael Seidel’s Introduction to Gulliver’s Travels
When pressed to write up his own account of his travels by the captain who rescued him from Brobdingnag, Lemuel Gulliver says, “I thought we were already overstocked with books of travels: that nothing could now pass which was not extraordinary”. Gulliver has an odd sense of his experiences if he thinks they would pass for anything but extraordinary, and extraordinary they certainly are. Gulliver’s Travels was a phenomenal success upon its publication in October 1726, read as eagerly and voraciously by all classes of English society as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe had been a few years before, in 1719. The poet and dramatist John Gay wrote Swift about the reception of the Travels in London: “From the highest to the lowest it is universally read, from the cabinet-council to the nursery” (October 28, 1726). Within a year of its publication, editions of Gulliver’s Travels were pirated and translated on the European continent. Its famous episodes and its nomenclature—Lilliputians, Brobdingnagians, Yahoos—are to this day recognized all over the world, from Gulliver theme parks in Japan to the most up-to-date dictionaries of modern slang.
How did Gulliver’s Travels get written and what were Jonathan Swift’s motives in writing it? In the first decade of the eighteenth century, Swift shared certain obsessions with others, namely a group of writers, statesmen, and professionals who called themselves the Scriblerus Club, consisting of the poets Alexander Pope, Thomas Parnell, and John Gay, the Queen’s physician, John Arbuthnot, and the chief minister of state, Robert Harley. Under the general direction of Pope, one of the club’s primary projects was a volume of memoirs written purportedly by the invented character who gave the club its name, Martin Scriblerus, a modern hack-writer or scribbler (the terms were interchangeable) who embodied all the cultural, intellectual, and political vacuities of the early eighteenth century as Pope, Swift, and their friends saw them.
In 1713 Pope assigned Swift the sixteenth chapter of a proposed satiric memoir on Scriblerus’s various journeys, intending to capitalize on the immensely popular genre of travel writing. He encouraged Swift to detail Martin’s travels to four different lands, mapping voyages to distant continents along the sea-lanes of known and unknown worlds: “to the Remains of the Pygmaean Empire,” to “the Land of the Giants,” to the “Kingdom of Philosophers, who govern by the Mathematicks,” and to a land in which “he discovers a Vein of Melancholy proceeding almost to a Disgust of his Species” (Pope, The Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works, and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus, p. 165).
Pope must have sensed he had assigned Swift what amounted to a labor of love in parodying the travel literature of the time because, as is often true for satirists, Swift thrilled at making fun of those things that he found appalling. And there is little doubt Swift found appalling the sorry lot of characters Gulliver describes in the Travels as crisscrossing the world: “fellows of desperate fortunes,” some of whom “were undone by lawsuits; others spent all they had in drinking, whoring, and gaming; others fled for treason; many for murder, theft, poisoning, robbery, perjury, forgery, coining false money; for committing rapes or sodomy; for flying from their colours, or deserting to the enemy; and most of them had broken prison”. Memoirs by these sorts and their more sanitized brethren filled Swift’s personal library, which, in lots cataloged at his death, contained more than 600 travel accounts.
When Swift began the assignment given him by Pope, he sketched out some material for what would become the first and third books of the Travels, the Lilliputian and Laputian voyages. But he shelved the rest of the assignment before the end of 1713 at a time when the high-ranking political ministers for whom he worked in England fell out of power. Swift felt it prudent to abscond to Ireland, and although he held the position of Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin—which seemed to him a booby prize for his larger ambitions—he considered himself a virtual exile in Ireland for the rest of his life.
The political situation soured for Swift to an even greater extent in the early 1720s. With his patrons dead, still out of power, or in exile, and with some of his friends under scrutiny for treason, he decided to reprise his notes for the Scriblerus project and convert them into a four-part book. He completed the first and third voyages and supplemented them by composing what is now the fourth voyage to the land of horses, Houyhnhnmland, and then returning to what is now the second voyage, to the land of giants, Brobdingnag. By 1725 he was boasting in letters to Pope that he thought he had something truly splendid on his hands, and he asked his friend to arrange for publication. Pope handled all the necessary details in England. After a decade and a half, Swift made good on his original commitment, though Martinus Scriblerus fell out and Lemuel Gulliver dropped in.