The many voices and raging wit of the amazing Jonathan Swift

In the 350th year since his birth, the popular satirist, clergyman, and author Jonathan Swift will be celebrated this month at the Penn Libraries with an exhibition and conference.

Swift is best-known for his 1726 satire “Gulliver’s Travels,” but he also wrote other influential works, including “A Modest Proposal” and “A Tale of a Tub,” as well as poetry, political pamphlets, and journal pieces.

Featuring more than 150 items from Penn’s extensive Swift collections, the exhibition “A Raging Wit: The Life and Legacy of Jonathan Swift” is on display in the Goldstein Family Gallery on the sixth floor of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library through May 16.

The Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts holds several important collections relating to Swift, including early editions of his works, illustrated editions of “Gulliver’s Travels,” and a collection of books—though not Swift’s own copies—known to have been read by him or to have been in his library.

The first of Penn’s major acquisitions relating to Swift was the private library of the Dutch scholar Herman Teerink in the 1950s. The second was from the independent Swift scholar Archibald C. Elias, Jr., who collected books and manuscripts by Swift and his circle. The third was from Geoffrey Denison, who collected illustrated editions and recordings of “Gulliver’s Travels” and related ephemera. The most recent was a 2016 gift of early works by Swift, given by Panthea Reid in memory of her late husband John Irwin Fischer, a Swift scholar and collector.

Spanning Swift’s lifetime, the exhibition explores his years in England and Ireland, and his careers as secretary, political operative, and clergyman in the Church of Ireland. It also examines his many friendships, as well as his relationships with the two women he referred to as “Stella” and “Vanessa” in his poetry and other writings.

“The idea of the exhibition is not to focus only on a few well-known pieces, but to present his larger life and the political world in which he lived,” says Lynne Farrington, senior curator of special collections at the Kislak Center. “It should give people a better sense of who he was, and why he was, and remains, important.”

Travels real and imagined feature prominently throughout the exhibition, including a case highlighting “Gulliver’s Travels,” looking at its adaptations and translations over the centuries, and another with pop-up and miniature versions of this work. An interactive kiosk with images from illustrated editions of “Gulliver’s Travels” sits just outside the gallery.

Farrington and her colleagues created a 45-foot long map made by piecing together scans of engravings from John Ogilby’s road map of England and Wales, first published in 1675, to illustrate the route that Swift would have traveled on his way to London from Holyhead off the coast of Wales, where he got off ships arriving from Dublin.

“I hope the exhibition engages the public both visually and intellectually,” says Farrington, “and stimulates further interest in Swift the man and Swift the satirist, leading people to explore other works in his corpus and to reflect on the ongoing relevance of his insights into the human condition.”

From Feb. 22-24, an international conference, “Jonathan Swift in the 21st Century,” at the Kislak Center will explore Swift’s many voices, including his complicated relationships, his politics, his extensive travels, and his views on the role of religion in society. Scholars from universities in the U.S., France, and England will be presenting papers.

Faculty from Penn’s Department of English participating in the conference include Toni Bowers, Michael Gamer, Suvir Kaul, and Zachary Lesser, along with several University graduate students.

“The Penn collection of printed Swift materials is arguably the best in the world. And Swift—because he spent so much of this life in both London and Dublin, and because he wrote so brilliantly across so many genres—has attracted the interest of many of the best young scholars writing about the 18th century,” Gamer says.

Farrington says the conference is a unique opportunity to bring scholars together to discuss Swift’s importance today.

“Swift grapples with issues that resonate today, like corruption in the political realm, and he tries to expose how destructive it can be for the larger society,” she says.

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