TS Heavy Hitters: Powerhouses of Prose (knife-drawer edition): Jonathan Swift vs Mark Twain

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Same birthday(*); big children's books; nice one-liners; wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of them; seem to be a bit down on mankind from time to time. There's more to Twain – does Swift stand a chance?

(*) Elisha Cuthbert too.

Poll Results

OptionVotes
Mark Twain 12
Jonathan Swift 8


you don't exist in the database (woof), Monday, 23 January 2012 17:04 (eight years ago) link

Feel like I've missed a Taylor Swift/Shania Twain thing here somewhere.

I'll be voting Swift.

you don't exist in the database (woof), Monday, 23 January 2012 17:05 (eight years ago) link

I've read Twain far more often for pleasure but Swift's scatological poems are musts.

Exile in lolville (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Monday, 23 January 2012 17:06 (eight years ago) link

& to expand, basically Swift is my favourite prose writer. I will reread Gulliver's Travels at the drop of a h, remain in awe of Tale of a Tub, think the shorter pamphlets are mostly as good as they possibly can be, & think he's a really remarkable poet, not just for the poo & grotesquerie, but also his little city scenes & the late self-dramatising stuff.

I like Twain a great deal, but this is one-sided for me.

you don't exist in the database (woof), Monday, 23 January 2012 17:18 (eight years ago) link

Swift is my idol, this isn't a contest for me.

summer sun, something's begun, but uh-oh those tumblr whites (Noodle Vague), Monday, 23 January 2012 17:23 (eight years ago) link

Swift for me, too, mainly just for 'A Modest Proposal'.

emil.y, Monday, 23 January 2012 17:40 (eight years ago) link

swift's the greater writer for sure, but twain's more fun to read.

(The Other) J.D. (J.D.), Monday, 23 January 2012 17:54 (eight years ago) link

ha, again one where i've read half of one half of the poll and none of the other

well, gulliver's travels. but i was a kid.

voting twain because blah blah 'the project of american letters', i guess, i don't know

junior dada (thomp), Monday, 23 January 2012 18:48 (eight years ago) link

yeah, swift is great, but this thread is making me defensive about *america* so i might vote twain.

horseshoe, Monday, 23 January 2012 18:50 (eight years ago) link

Swift is my idol, this isn't a contest for me.

― summer sun, something's begun, but uh-oh those tumblr whites (Noodle Vague), Monday, January 23, 2012 12:23 PM (1 hour ago) Bookmark Suggest Ban Permalink

not the most surprising admission <3

horseshoe, Monday, 23 January 2012 18:50 (eight years ago) link

Damn! Imma gonna hafta think a bit on this one.

Aimless, Monday, 23 January 2012 18:52 (eight years ago) link

Gulliver's Travels was odd to read as an adult, when it's so often used as a kid's parable. I mean, not just the political stuff, but, for instance, the bit where it's made pretty clear he's been used as a dildo for Brobdingnagian women.

emil.y, Monday, 23 January 2012 19:13 (eight years ago) link

an abridged version of gullivers travels was my favourite book when i was five or six

poorly abridged judging by that omission

I mean, not just the political stuff, but, for instance, the bit where it's made pretty clear he's been used as a dildo for Brobdingnagian women.

wtf? i missed that!

(The Other) J.D. (J.D.), Monday, 23 January 2012 20:00 (eight years ago) link

speaking of, here's what I insert my annual plug for The Mysterious Stranger.

Exile in lolville (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Monday, 23 January 2012 20:04 (eight years ago) link

Twain by leagues, though I've only read a few things by Swift (GT & Modest Proposal, & some poems I think). But Twain's short stories are such fun, & Innocents Abroad is a classic, in addition to the usual suspects which are obv great too.

Euler, Monday, 23 January 2012 20:09 (eight years ago) link

Speaking as a Twain stan from way back, he has signifigant tendencies toward soppy sentimentalism that are completely at odds with his satirical and cynical side and his prose can sometimes lapse into some very flowery passages that are just treacly. Swift's arc started on the side of jollity (Tale of a Tub), just like Twain's (Innocents Abroad) and moved toward hardened satire (Gulliver vs. Mysterious Stranger), but he never fell into sentimentality at any time.

Aimless, Monday, 23 January 2012 20:49 (eight years ago) link

No surprise: cynicism and sentimentality are two sides of the same coin.

Exile in lolville (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Monday, 23 January 2012 22:32 (eight years ago) link

Which fails to explain the lack of it in Swift. With him it is just the progress of a savage indignation that lacerated his breast.

Aimless, Monday, 23 January 2012 23:34 (eight years ago) link

i think i cd dig up some sentimentality from Swift with a little thought. the last chapter of Gulliver's Travels is hugely sentimental if you read Gulliver as a destroyed mind; but there are less arguable examples i'm sure.

i believe Twain is a great and important (and beautiful) writer, don't get me wrong. it's not that i'm dismissing the breadth of his ability. but i think i'd argue that the 17th/18th century English that Swift inhabits is the most beautiful era of the language, even sweet as Twain's American is.

and i'd definitely insist on Gulliver's Travels inventing and destroying the idea of the novel in 4 ever-escalating movements, even after Tale of a Tub had already foreseen the entire history of lol "Literature" (and orthodoxy). the Bickerstaff papers and the Modest Proposal are minor asides that stay perma-relevantfor the nailing of a human nature that's barely shifted since 1720-odd.

summer sun, something's begun, but uh-oh those tumblr whites (Noodle Vague), Tuesday, 24 January 2012 02:32 (eight years ago) link

For quality of prose, Swift's easily the greater of the two. Twain had a good ear and knew how to construct his sentences with many different rhythms, cunningly contrived to suit his current subject. Swift's prose just cuts to the heart of the matter, consistently, with a beautifully controlled eye, ear and intelligence. My problem in deciding how to vote is simple. I admire Swift extravagently, but I love Twain. I don't think I can vote against my heart.

Aimless, Tuesday, 24 January 2012 04:15 (eight years ago) link

i believe Twain is a great and important (and beautiful) writer, don't get me wrong. it's not that i'm dismissing the breadth of his ability. but i think i'd argue that the 17th/18th century English that Swift inhabits is the most beautiful era of the language, even sweet as Twain's American is.

would totally concur with this. i should probably give 'gulliver' another read before deciding.

(The Other) J.D. (J.D.), Tuesday, 24 January 2012 06:27 (eight years ago) link

Automatic thread bump. This poll is closing tomorrow.

System, Monday, 30 January 2012 00:01 (eight years ago) link

I haven't read Swift in years but when I was reading him in college I felt like if I devoted my entire life to reading him it would be a life well spent. I think Twain's greater in several ways - certainly he's capable of more interesting plots, Swift's plots are mainly there to give him a space for his pyrotechnics imo - but...I don't know. I don't know that I can bring myself to vote here tbh

unlistenable in philly (underrated aerosmith bootlegs I have owned), Monday, 30 January 2012 00:24 (eight years ago) link

going for swift. he was more punk rock.

Michael B Higgins (Michael B), Monday, 30 January 2012 02:05 (eight years ago) link

Huck Finn is visionary picaresque. Mailer (among others) claimed it was the secret origin of Hemingway's style. I've read others claim that HF is the secret literary antecedent to Catcher in the Rye. Between Hemingway and Salinger, that's an enormous (& admittedly unfortunate) body of writing to ancestor

I probably don't have as good an idea of the scope of Swift's impact, but he undoubtedly kicks ass too

non, je ned raggette rien (Drugs A. Money), Monday, 30 January 2012 05:28 (eight years ago) link

Hemingway claimed it was the not-so-secret origin of his style.

Exile in lolville (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Monday, 30 January 2012 11:57 (eight years ago) link

I thought I'd posted here already. Can't see it though. It started "Swift, Swift, Swift."

Then went on about how the punishment of vice/reward of virtue equation of satire in him became something else entirely. Admittedly in others satire had become the unpleasant presentation of vice solely, to mock it out of existence, leaving virtue. But in Swift, especially by the end of Gulliver, you increasingly get the sense that beyond the presentation of vice is... well madness, or nothing.

I think that's even there in Tale of a Tub. The control over individual words - there's so much going on sentence by sentence - belies an almost uncontrollable energy for mockery and irony.

He seems to me unusually good at the effective harnessing of his satiric talent for specific campaigns as well - only Dryden has a similar clarity to his satire? Poetry also excellent.

I've only read Huck Finn by Twain, something I should rectify sooner rather than later, but I'm ok with that for the moment. Swift, Swift, Swift.

Fizzles, Monday, 30 January 2012 14:24 (eight years ago) link

on Swift and sentimentality, I do struggle to think of examples - he's softest on his friends, but even that's almost always expressed by mockery and teasing; maybe the eulogy on himself by "One quite indiff'rent in the Cause" at the end of 'Verses on the Death'? But even that is hemmed in by jokes.

(feel like I can see a red herring going down a rabbit hole w/r/t uses of 'sentiment' in the early c18th, going to ignore it).

Fizzles, yes, agree 100% about that being there from Tale of a Tub onwards - he's got his targets & goes for them, but you aren't left with anywhere solid to come back to afterwards - he was blessed/cursed with an alkahest imagination.

& I think, yes, he's one of the best at putting his talents to use for causes. Dryden can't quite measure up - it's only really the Exclusion Crisis/Monmouth where you feel he's properly in the game, & even then The Medall is badly misjudged compared to Absalom. Even in little things like the Partridge affair, Swift likes messing around with reality.

(fwiw I'd say Defoe is maybe the most practically successful satirist of the period, but outside the groves of .ac/.edu no-one bothers too much about that side of him now.)

you don't exist in the database (woof), Monday, 30 January 2012 16:09 (eight years ago) link

actually wtf am i talking about, all the 'little language' baby talk in Journal to Stella must count w/r/t sentimentality. He virtually invents twee.

you don't exist in the database (woof), Monday, 30 January 2012 16:28 (eight years ago) link

Swift's Stella journal was a wholly private enterprise he kept buried deeply out of public view. Twain proudly exposed his sentimentality to the mass market. I still voted Twain, even though my intellect says Swift is the greater of the two.

Aimless, Monday, 30 January 2012 19:56 (eight years ago) link

Automatic thread bump. This poll's results are now in.

System, Tuesday, 31 January 2012 00:01 (eight years ago) link

Wow!

I'm one of the 60% but I do think the rapturous cataloguing of the myriad manifestations of Swift's genius itt is probably of more worth than any sort of poll results tbh...

non, je ned raggette rien (Drugs A. Money), Tuesday, 31 January 2012 00:42 (eight years ago) link

Missed this poll. Like woof, Swift is my favourite prose writer. I don't care so much for his verse. But Modest Proposal, Tale of a Tub and Part IV are staggeringly great. Twain is wonderful too, but he's ridiculously overmatched in this company.

frankiemachine, Tuesday, 31 January 2012 14:49 (eight years ago) link

Part iV of Gulliver I meant.

frankiemachine, Tuesday, 31 January 2012 14:52 (eight years ago) link

eight years pass...

but i think i'd argue that the 17th/18th century English that Swift inhabits is the most beautiful era of the language

Really loved the discussion and -- as I am marvelling at the prose in Oxford's Swift compilation (The Major Works) -- I just wanted to 'fave' this comment. And I've yet to tackle Gulliver's Travels (should start tomorrow, although I might need a bit of a break). A Tale of a Tub is just utterly unclassifiable, like what is it really? Starts as parable, then the digressions pile on, a theory or two, each sentence seems to go in three directions at once. As a reading experience its pretty unique, strange bit of text.

Then you've got the pamphlets, the invectives are brutal although you need to work hard to bring the context to life. Then again there is a bit or two that just hits at what's going right now and you just fucking despair lol.

A really good poet too.

xyzzzz__, Thursday, 21 May 2020 20:49 (five months ago) link


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