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Writer as Reader Workshops

A Modest Proposal: Reading Jonathan Swift in the Age of Stephen Colbert

November 2, 2012

For many consumers of popular culture, the work of writers and comedians from Colbert to Tina Fey to Dave Chappelle to Seth MacFarlane is hilarious—but unexamined. The tradition of satire dates back to the Romans, but perhaps the most widely taught work of satire is Swift’s “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick.” This brief but brilliant satirical essay from 1729 is the foundation of our workshop.

Swift was working in the tradition of Juvenal, a Roman poet whose satire was biting. In contrast, much contemporary satire is more Horatian in style, with a gentle, finger-in-the-ribs tone. We might think of this as the difference between satire that targets vice and satire that targets folly. Together, we study this distinction and wrestle with the questions of how satire works, whether it has to be funny, whether it’s still satire if the audience doesn’t get it, and finally, whether anything is off limits. Swift’s answer to this last question seems to be “no,” that no joke could possibly be as offensive as the moral atrocity of the British treatment of the Irish poor. What is our answer?

In this workshop, participants explore how drawing on both the ancient history of satire and its contemporary expressions in film, in television, and online can help illuminate Swift. Our approaches will be both analytical and generative: we dig into “A Modest Proposal,” pair it with other short texts, and create our own works of satire as a way to understand the form more fully.

Text: A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift (any edition)

Workshop fee: $150 (includes morning coffee, lunch, and 
workshop materials)