Reading Serendipitously, or the Passing Strangeness of Gulliver’s Travels

Recently I have been teaching Gulliver’s Travels in an undergraduate class—and in the process learning the pleasures of serendipitous reading.

I love teaching Jonathan Swift’s great book, and indeed have written about it in multiple ways (both my first novel and first critical book engage it extensively). What is not to love? Here is a novel—okay, proto-novel—that is at one and the same time hilarious, ruthless, prescient, wrong-headed (see debates over its treatment of women), moral and provocative. It is a brilliant if troubling work, rightly regarded as influential on a host of later writers because of its marvelous feats of imagination and wit. There are many ways to teach such a multifaceted book. I teach it as a furious and in some ways surprising indictment of contemporary Europe, an insider-outsider critique (Swift was an ambitious player in the London literary scene for a time but from colonized Ireland) of a horrific slave-trading, genocidal colonialism that was well underway but had not yet reached its apogee.

Imagine my gratification then when a student in the class, who had acquired an early 1960s edition of the book, showed me a yellowed newspaper clipping she had found within the book’s equally yellowed pages. The clipping is an undated report on John Howard Griffin, a white man who had taken pigmentation-altering drugs as well as colored his skin in order to spend six weeks as a black man in the American south (the clipping does not mention the well-known memoir Black Like Me that Griffin published out of this experience in 1961).

What provoked someone to cut out this newspaper story and file it away in a copy of Gulliver’s Travels? We can only surmise. Scholars have long understood that Gulliver’s Travels explores race and racial ideas. But the conjunction of the newspaper clipping and the book brings to mind a nuance that I have not previously considered. Isn’t Swift’s book really an account of Gulliver’s increasingly tragic desire to, like Griffin, “pass” (as a horse, no less, at the end of the narrative)? Alas for Gulliver, who would rather be a horse than a man! Gulliver serves as a sad caution against the transgression of racial boundaries, or else as a brave invitation. Racial passing is not a simple matter, and certainly not a theme to be exhausted in a brief blog. All I do here is record a reading pleasure—how serendipity makes strange again a book that I thought I knew so well.