A Modest Reponse

Sonnet XVIII, by Lou FCD @ Flickr

Sonnet XVIII, by Lou FCD @ Flickr

Back in the days of yore when I went to high school, there were two kinds of Literature classes: British and American. With few exceptions, our reading selections were confined to the standard pantheon of a select few dead white guys from England or the United States. Both classes were as predictable as the sunrise; Brit Lit started with Beowulf, then Chaucer‘s The Canterbury Tales, then one of Shakespeare‘s plays, and probably finished with DickensA Tale of Two Cities. Variety was defined by whether the class read Hamlet or Macbeth. Poetry hit the five or ten standards like an old country church. Not comparing thee to a summer’s day would have been like not singing “Amazing Grace”. American Lit did the same thing for literature on this side of the pond, with Poe standing in for the Bard (“The Tell Tale Heart” and “The Raven” were the old standards).

To round out my English requirements, lo these many eons hence, I took English 262 this semester. World Lit II looked like it would give me something new and fresh, and it’s already doing just that. Among our first selections was “A Modest Proposal: For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public“, the 1729 political satire by Jonathan Swift. Of course, in my mind to this point, Swift = Gulliver’s Travels. No matter how hard pressed I might have been, that would have been his only work I could have named, his being Irish and all. I’d read it on my own time as a kid. We’ve since moved a bit further from jolly old England and are now reading pieces by Russians and Germans and (gasp!) some of them are even women not named Dickinson or Bronte.

Our first written assignment of the class was to write a response to A Modest Proposal, organically incorporating the answers to five of the six following questions in the response.

Smoothies for cannibals from DavidDMuir

Smoothies for cannibals, by DavidDMuir @ Flickr

  1. What is “the reading” about? Give the simple and most obvious answer. (Substitute title for “reading”).

  2. Is there an experience of your own of which “the reading” has reminded you? Describe it.

  3. What is the most important “word” in the “reading”? Look it up in the dictionary and define it. Explain your choice.

  4. What is the most important statement or line in the “reading”? Directly quote the line if it is short, and paraphrase if the quote is long. Use an in-text citation that lists the page number (or line number). Explain your choice.

  5. What word, not in the “reading,” would you say best explains the “reading”? Define the word and explain your choice.

  6. Pretend that the “reading” is not about the subject you mentioned in #1. Pretend that there is something else, less obvious, that the “reading” is about. What is this “something else”? Define the word and explain your choice.

My response, for which I received a grade of “check +” (oh how I loathe this system already!), lies below the fold. I suggest you read “A Modest Proposal” first, if you’re not familiar with it, to really understand what’s going on.

Louis Shackleton
English 262 Section 1
Ms. C.
August 20, 2009

A Modest Response

Swift’s contribution to the Republican Party Platform titled “A Modest Proposal” is appropriate and only surprising in that he managed to write it so long after his own death. It’s quite a feat for a man 264 years in his grave. It will fit rather snugly between the “Rich People Shouldn’t Have to Pay Taxes” and the “Only True Americans ™ Who Were Born Here and Love Jesus Deserve Jobs and Health Care” points. It’s a testament to the grand idea that great writers will always be relevant.

By dressing the dining tables of the uber-wealthy with the freshly fattened haunches of the lower class yearlings, Swift’s proposal will cull the herds of beggars and homeless vermin that sully American loafers and clutter the cramped quarters of Wall Street. (Perhaps proper oxidation will even return to the testes of the Merrill Lynch bull in New York City. It’s about time somebody put a stop to the unseemly and shameless behavior of the poverty stricken tourists out there.) After all, there are only so many Mexican gardeners and homosexual sommeliers required in a civilized society. The rest are just overkill.

Swift rests his entire case on the following premise:

I think it is agreed by all parties that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom a very great additional grievance; and, therefore, whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of making these children sound, useful members of the commonwealth, would deserve so well of the public as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.

Clearly, the word parties is the key to the entire essay. In his use of this word, Swift of course does not in any way refer to the entire body of humanity within the borders of This Great Nation (under God ™ ), or even the entirety of the citizenry. While a dictionary might define “all parties” as fully inclusive, such an encompassing usage would be ridiculous. He certainly means only the whole of the people who matter. One can hardly be disposed to give the time of day to the sheep earning less than seven figures per annum. Such plebes contribute little to the free market or the Gross Domestic Product and are fit only to assist the illusion of conformity to the founding documents of The Nation (under God ™ ). A kind and generous reading might extrapolate “all parties” to include the sheep herding dogs down to a quarter of seven figures, but such an interpretation seems without merit. Seven figures is the Traditional Cutoff ™ like one man and one woman is a Traditional Marriage ™ . Extending the benefits of a voice too far would set a dangerous precedent on a very slippery slope. Who would demand a say next? The barely-six-figure earners who inherited nothing? Perish that egalitarian thought before it leads to socialism, communism, and Nazis!

What’s that you say? Swift’s piece was meant as satire? So you are seriously suggesting that this monument to present day Republican Party Values ™ was meant to ridicule through the use of irony? Hogwash, I say. Further, True American Republicans Who Love Jesus ™ don’t even know the meaning of such words, as anyone with half a brain can see from our Well Thought Out and Well Supported Rhetoric ™ .

Works Cited

Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 2nd ed. Ed. Sarah Lawall and Maynard Mack. Vol. D. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002. 483 – 489.

From whence came the art:

The first image is titled Sonnet XVIII, by LouFCD and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license.

The second image is titled Smoothies for cannibals, by DavidDMuir and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works license.

4 Responses to “A Modest Reponse”

  1. Kym Says:

    I loved Swift’s essay and your way of twisting it into modern culture was delightful. I wish I had your way of seeing things from such a sharp viewpoint.

    • Lou FCD Says:

      Thank you, Kym.

      Believe it or not, I try to see the nuance in most things. There are however, some things that really are sharp-edged when you boil away all the obscuring crap.

      Like the Creationism wars, there are not always two equally valid sides, despite the media’s penchant for always delivering a “balanced” piece, and it’s usually when religion shows up that these sharp edges become glaringly obvious to me. With the fundamentalists’ take-over of the Republican Party, and their very vocal idiocy, those self-inflicted sharp distinctions from reality and common decency are not all that difficult to see almost everywhere nowadays.

  2. Rystefn Says:

    I read A Modest Proposal during my senior English course, I think… I may be wrong, as I took Junior and Senior English at the same time. Regardless, I found it endlessly entertaining that we could sit and discuss the obviousness of the satire and the foolishness of those who thought for a moment Swift was serious (as more than a few did) at the same time as I was being investigated for my own essay that we had fallen so far behind in academics anyway, we should just teach students how to go to foreign countries and shoot brown people instead, as it’s a more useful life skill… Poe’s Law strikes again, yeah?

    (In the end, nothing came of it except that I was forced to write another essay and stop wearing a trench coat to school. This was in the pr-Columbine days, when some people were allowed to own such things in public.)

    • Lou FCD Says:

      Yes, I got the distinct impression that several of my classmates did not get the whole satire thing. It does surprise me that a teacher missed your satire in response, though I suppose it shouldn’t.

      Given the number of students taught similar things entirely seriously, it was probably inevitable that something like that would happen.

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