MU English professor receives grant to edit works of Jonathan Swift

Wednesday, October 17, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Irish writer Jonathan Swift wrote more than 350 poems in his lifetime, and Stephen Karian, associate professor of English at MU, is going to edit all of them.

Karian was awarded a three-year National Endowment for the Humanities Scholarly Editions grant to edit the poems of Swift in collaboration with James Woolley, a professor at Lafayette College.


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The $225,000 grant will assist two complementary projects aimed to make Swift’s work more accessible to the public. The funds help the partners’ ability to focus entirely on the projects, Karian said. 

"We want to enable the reader to read and understand the poems as someone in Swift’s time could," he said.

The first project is working toward the completion of the printed Cambridge Edition of Swift's work, whose better-known works today include "Gulliver's Travels" and "A Modest Proposal," in which he ironically suggested that the Irish eat their children.

Poems edited by Karian will make up four of the 18-volume series. This initiative was launched in 2008, and Karian has been active in contributing since 2009.

Launching stage one of the online archive is the second project. Karian expects this to happen a couple of years down the road.

Aside from Swift's confirmed poems, Karian will analyze about 140 others and present evidence for and against Swift's authorship. He will also look at an additional 100 or so poems that served as prompts and replies to his work. All together, the partners will edit about 600 poems for the project.

Karian’s interest in the project was piqued when he was studying a poem through the lens of people reading it in the ­­­­­­18th century, which was Swift's era. He noticed that there were words or chunks of text missing from the writings and that people had filled them in.

"I was curious: How did people know what to fill in?" he recalled wondering. 

Karian’s role in editing the poems is integral to answering that question. His first task involves annotating any reference that might need explanation, including mythical allusions and changes in word meanings over time.

He is also responsible for textual editing, which Karian compared to the children’s game telephone in which a message is passed through numerous people, getting garbled in the process.

"There are so many different sources of information and versions that we have to look at everything and ask: What did we start with?" Karian said.

Censorship in the 18th century left many works incomplete, he said, and it wasn’t common for Swift to claim his writings — making identifying legitimate sources a challenge.

Karian stays passionate about dedicating his time to this project because he believes that Swift’s pointed, ironic and satirical writing is still relevant.

"Swift said that someone who writes only for one place and time doesn’t deserve to be published or read," Karian said. 

Swift’s opinions were strongly held and can also be controversial, Karian said. In the face of corruption, Swift made it his responsibility to try and bring the truth to light. To support Swift's continued relevance, Karian points to news outlets as evidence:

"As long as people in power behave badly, he will remain timely."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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