Famous Classics and What They’re Worth – ‘Gulliver’s Travels’

Frontispiece and title page for the first edition of Jonathan Swift’s most famous work, “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World,” more commonly known as “Gulliver’s Travels,” published in 1726.

Books that can sell for $100,000 or more at auction are rare indeed. They are purchased by museums, libraries and the wealthiest of bibliophiles. Among these treasures is the first issue of “Gulliver’s Travels” (as it is now called). What makes the book so valuable? Part of the reason lies in the story behind the story, beginning with the author.

Jonathan Swift was born in 1667 under dire circumstances. His Irish father was a lawyer but died seven months before he was born. His English mother was left in poverty and Swift, who was a sickly child (suffering from a dizziness and vertigo, now diagnosed as Meniere’s disease), was mostly raised by relatives. Throughout his life, he alternately lived in England and Ireland.

Swift eventually earned a doctorate degree in divinity and became a priest. He was very active politically, publishing dozens of pamphlets and essays criticizing various aspects of the British government and supporting Irish patriotism. Although much of his work was printed anonymously or using pseudonyms, Queen Anne disliked him and made it difficult for him to advance in his career in England. Instead, he became dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.

It took Swift five years to write his masterpiece, “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World.” In 1726 he had the manuscript delivered to a publisher anonymously, with negotiations handled by a third party. The story, originally intended for adults, was a long, scathing political satire and a parody of the exaggerated travel journals that were popular at the time.

Yahoos pulling a sled by artist Milo Winter, 1912.

Gulliver in the giant land of Brobdingnag, artist unknown, circa 1920s.

“Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World,” in four parts, was ostensibly written by the moral English surgeon “Lemuel Gulliver,” and covered a period from 1699 to 1715. Almost everyone is familiar with the first voyage to Lilliput, a kingdom of people less than 6 inches tall. That story has been retold countless times (and most children’s books contain only the Lilliputian story.) But there were also three other voyages.

In Gulliver’s other adventures, he traveled to a kingdom of giants, visited a flying island and met the immortal struldbrugs, who became frail and senile but could never die. He was left by his mutinying crew in a land of barbaric humanoid creatures called Yahoos, who were enslaved by intelligent horses. Gulliver finally returned to England but he was unable to acclimate with his long-suffering family and turned into a mad recluse.

When the book was released (in two volumes) in October of 1726, it became instantly popular with both children and adults. It was almost immediately translated into other languages and serialized in magazines. For the most part, the story reflected the conservative Swift’s disdain of social trends and attitudes, as well as his harsh criticism of the British government. Characters that Gulliver encountered on his travels were metaphors for politicians, philosophers and members of the Royal Academy (with their shortcomings emphasized). In one famous example, Gulliver helped the Lilliputians put out a raging fire in the bedroom of their empress by standing over the palace and urinating. Not surprisingly, this episode is usually omitted from modern children’s versions, as are several other offensive descriptions of bodily functions and sexual behavior. In fact, abridged and censored versions appeared fairly quickly after the first publication. Today, the story has been drastically cut into a shorter classic of children’s literature and most versions are mere outlines of the original text.

Jonathan Swift (1667–1745).

The original publisher (Benjamin Motte) altered Swift’s text before it went to press, removing some of the more controversial symbolism to avoid prosecution. Variants and states of that first edition are sometimes disputed because the popular book was published using several different printing companies. It sold out within a week and was reprinted multiple times in the first few months alone. Minor differences ensued, with mixed states common. Nonetheless, these earliest printings are extremely rare and thus highly valued. They can sell for $75,000 to $150,000 today.

In 1735, a new version appeared (published as part of a complete set of all of Swift’s works). It contained several allegories that were not in the original issue and also included “A Letter from Captain Gulliver to his Cousin Sympson,” complaining about the changes that Motte had made to his story. Scholars believe this is the more authoritative edition and modern publications are usually transcribed from this text.

Swift suffered from severe dementia for many years before his death, but lived to be almost 78 in spite of his poor health, dying in 1745. He had no children, and the bulk of his fortune was left to found an Irish hospital for the mentally ill.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books.


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