Michael Seidel is Jesse and George Siegel Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. He has written widely on eighteenth-century literature. His books include Satiric Inheritance: Rabelais to Sterne (1979), Exile and the Narrative Imagination (1986), and Robinson Crusoe: Island Myths and the Novel (1991).
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