When Peter O’Toole died in December, the obituaries dutifully mentioned his starring role in Lawrence of Arabia as well as his other achievements on screen and stage. Most overlooked one of the stranger episodes in his career. In 1984, he read “A Modest Proposal,” the famous essay by Jonathan Swift, at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. The performance startled many in the audience, as O’Toole urged them to solve the problem of Irish poverty by eating the children of the poor. A few dozen listeners walked out. More heckled. They didn’t know they were hearing a satire.
Swift would have laughed at the confusion, partly because he held a low opinion of the Irish but mostly because he held a low opinion of everyone. He was also a comic genius who made a career of puzzling people. In this excellent new biography, Leo Damrosch calls him a “man of mystery.” It’s amazing how much we don’t know about Swift, who lived from 1667 to 1745. His father may have shared his name and died before he was born (the official story), or he may have been a prominent British politician who sired a son out of wedlock (a persuasive theory). Swift may have married a lifelong friend in secret, or perhaps not. He may have romanced a different woman, with whom he maintained a coded correspondence that has perplexed everyone who has tried to peek into his private affairs. Swift didn’t even like to put his own name on his writings: Most of his work appeared in print anonymously or with aliases. He was so determined to hide his authorship of Gulliver’s Travels that he had the manuscript tossed to the printer from a hackney coach in the dark. Among the personal facts that we know for certain about Swift is that, as a friend put it, he had “blue eyes very piercing.” Just like Peter O’Toole!