English Language and Literature ETDs

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A study of Johnson's part in the Swiftian tradition begins with his Life of Swift, because his portrayal of Swift's life and work indicates the extent he is able to accept the permanence of Swift's work. His picture of Swift is not damaging as many believe. Johnson made use of earlier eighteenth-century biographical sketches, such as those written by Orrery, Delany, Pilkington, and Hawkesworth. In his synthesis of the early sketches, Hawkesworth is objective, sympathetic, and often close to Johnson's own style and sentiments. Though Johnson's Swift is a man of genius, unable to renounce his childish impulses and acute sense of observation, he is also a man who vigorously champions the right causes.

Rather than reflecting a prejudice, Johnson's criticism of Swift's writing is based on literary principle. Johnson highly praises some of Swift's best satire, such as An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity, because he sees in it "wit confederated with truth." Johnson, who tries to restrain his lash, often attacks snobbery, cruelty, and pettiness in ways that recall Swift's wit. In his own compositions, he occasionally uses the Swiftian device of the character who argues on the wrong side of a question. There are also serious implications in his ridicule of social, scientific and scholarly attitudes, even in his lighter satire.

Behind Swift's and Johnson's moral assumptions lies a basic similarity in their understanding of the terms nature and reason as it applies to individual conduct and society. For the individual, reason is the product of training and precepts which urge control of the passions and appetite. The conflicts engendered by this control are reconciled through friendship. In their concern for the appropriate roles of women, they are both searching for a delicate balance in the woman's training that does not deny her nature, and yet makes her more companionable to men. They see marriage as the highest and most exacting form of friendship. Swift's Stella serves as a model for the eighteenth-century gentlewoman for both of them.

Applied to the state, reason is the just application of rule. In his political actions man must respond to the laws of religion, which urge charity, humility, and forgiveness. The essential connection between religion and politics is illustrated by comparing those sermons of Swift and Johnson which deal with political problems. The comparison demonstrates that they are both of the same mind in the way they present and organize the details of these sermons. Both are for a strong church protected by the state, which allows the monarch his prerogatives and the legislative power its liberties. The alternatives of tyranny and savagery can only be avoided by the proper balance of the forces of nature and reason. Johnson follows Swift in his disbelief in social innovation as a basis for human happiness, and his reluctance to submerge individual morality to either political expediency or abstraction.

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First Committee Member (Chair)

James L. [Unknown]

Second Committee Member

Joseph Frank

Third Committee Member

Mary Whidden



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