Censorship, libel and self-censorship

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    Jonathan Swift wrote under conditions of censorship. He was a proponent of censorship, of the regulation of public discourse by official power, but also a brilliant exponent of the practical and rhetorical means of evading legal prosecution. The irony and obliquity of this politico-religious writer owe much to the regulatory environment in which his satire and polemic were produced. As a censor Swift was an extremist. As an artful libeller he was scandalous. In the years when Swift was the premier propagandist for the Tory government, he instigated the arrest of Whig journalists and pamphleteers for libelling the ministers or himself, hoping 'to swinge' them, and complained when they got out on bail or evaded prosecution. Swift's call in The Examiner of 17 May 1711 for action to be taken against the author of The Medley for libel prompted the intended victim, the Whig author Arthur Mainwaring, to point out that Swift 'mistakes the Reign we live in', that under Queen Anne there is liberty to write against 'so notorious a Libeller' as The Examiner. A libel is a publication of what is blasphemous, obscene, seditious or treasonable. The intention of a libel is to defame its target. The literature of libel, the art of slander, could mobilize public opinion. As Robert Darnton observes, by 'destroying reputations, it helped delegitimize regimes and bring down governments in many times and places'. For Whigs, Swift was 'the most scandalous and most flagitious of all Libellers'. This chapter considers Swift as censor and libeller and will conclude with some witness of Swift negotiating the perils of the treason statutes as the publicist of the Memoirs of a Jacobite. In Swift's authorial career we witness the triumph of the imaginative libeller over the ideological censor.

    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationJonathan Swift and the Eighteenth-Century Book
    EditorsPaddy Bullard, James McLaverty
    PublisherCambridge University Press
    Number of pages20
    ISBN (Electronic)9781139060899
    ISBN (Print)9781107016262
    Publication statusPublished - 2013


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