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Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

Gulliver's Travels - Jonathan Swift
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Gulliver’s Travels

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Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, as it is popularly known, is actually titled Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships. Swift’s classic was published by Benjamin Motte in London on October 28, 1726 in two volumes and four parts, under the pseudonym Lemuel Gulliver. Acclaim was instantaneous. The English dramatist and poet John Gay, wrote: “… it is universally read, from the Cabinet-council to the Nursery.” In response to demand Motte issued two more editions in 1726 and a fourth in 1727. 

The bibliographer Herman Teerink (1880-1961) designated the three London editions from 1726 as A, AA, and B with the A edition being the first issue, and therefore the most valuable. It is also common to find far more affordable editions of Travels in a mixed state, assembled from parts of several different early editions. Teerink noted the edition points between the three 1726 London editions to distinguish them, based on stylistic differences and typographic errors particular to each of the three editions.

The subject volumes are the first issue of Gulliver’s Travels from the Teerink A edition published on October 28, 1726. They are in a later binding by Zaehnsdorf in a fine red morocco leather, gilt filet and blind stamp border, and marbled endpapers. Zaehnsdorf was a premiere custom binder in the golden age of British bookbinding in the mid 19th century to early 20th century, in the company of firms such as Riviere & Sons, Birdsall, and Sangorski & Sutcliffe.

Swift lived most of his life in Ireland, although he also spent part of his career in England. Politically he was a Tory, and theologically an Anglican. Swift’s satire exposes the foolishness, pettiness, and cruelty of the human species. His writing also has political and religious dimensions. Swift attacks both European and English politics and politicians. A Voyage to Lilliput has been interpreted as a lampooning of members of the opposing Whig party. Much of his satire that was of a topical nature is lost upon us now, although it delighted his 18th century audience. Swift repudiates Deism, a revisionist religious philosophy rooted in the writings of the rationalists in the 17th and 18th centuries. He had strong religious and spiritual views that serve as the fulcrum for his tales, expecially in Part 3 and Part 4, but these views are never explicitly laid out. Swift is a satirist after all, not a writer of religious tracts.

The book is presented as a true account of a voyage in plain and factual language, a popular literary form in the 18th century. Swift employs a structure composed of a series of opposites, both physical and moral. Gulliver is an everyman whose physical journey mirrors a spiritual one, from innocence to disenchantment to despair.

In Part 1, A Voyage to Lilliput, Gulliver travels to the land of the miniature Lilliputians, whom he ultimately finds to be cowardly, petty, deceitful, and treacherous. Part 2 is a counterpoint. Gulliver visits the giant Brobdinagians who are inherently moral, and therefore morally beautiful, but also physically gross from the magnification of flaws their large size reveals.

Gulliver then journeys to several lands in Part 3, where Swift ridicules the scientists, academics, utopians, and philosophers. Gulliver himself, an ordinary man grounded in common sense and practicality, serves as their foil. In the final part Gulliver lives among the Houyhnhnms, noble and intelligent horses. Gulliver so admires the Houyhnhnms that he wishes to become a horse. He is repelled and disgusted by their enemies, the savage human Yahoos. Gulliver then returns to England disillusioned, surrounded by those who remind him of the Yahoos. To this day Swift’s Travels stands as one of the greatest satires ever written alongside Cervante’s Don Quixote and Voltaire’s Candide.

Motte’s London editions were followed by several editions by Dublin publishers. The first of these was by David Hyde in 1726, a corrected version of the Motte edition, in the same year as the original publication in London. In 1727 Risk, Ewing, and Smith in Dublin reprinted the Motte edition with only minor corrections.

Faulkner had published several of Swift’s earlier writings, and in 1733 announced the publication of Swift’s collected works including the Travels. Faulkner’s is the most controversial of the Irish editions, containing over 500 corrections as well as over 50 passages that are expanded, or simply absent, from the original text published by Motte. Swift’s role and motivation in the revisions of the Faulkner edition remains unclear and the subject of debate. Motte sued Faulkner for copyright infringement in 1735 but Swift refused to support the lawsuit, causing it to fail since the copyright laws protected the author rather than the publisher.

Originally, Travels was not illustrated except for the portrait of Gulliver on the frontispiece, and the maps or plans at the beginnings of the different parts. But illustrated editions soon followed. Our office had previously appraised for a different client, an interesting and unusual mixed stateTravels that had been finely bound and extra-illustrated by the addition of 36 engraved and etched plates from various early illustrated editions. These included a number of plates from an 18th century French edition. Although considerably less valuable than the first issue Teerink A copy described and pictured in this article, the fine mixed state version sold for our client at auction for $4150.