From gentle lessons and polite admonitions on the level of a Dr. Seuss to violent and fiery anti-everybody rhetoric pounded out by vicious haters, the satire’s sarcastic and ironic writing style encompasses a wide range of authors, eras, social milieus, and styles. Today, publications such as The Onion and television productions like The Colbert Report set standards for modern society’s idea of what satire should be like. But there is so much more.
Satire: the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc. (dictionary.com)
The history of satire (both the genre and the word itself) is a little complicated, but basically the term comes from the Latin satura, used to denote a “mixed” form of writing that the rhetorician Quintilian decided was “wholly Roman.” Satire was certainly a Roman trademark, but as a genre it also hearkens back to the ancient Greek comedic dramas in which men dressed as satyrs and made fun of people during play intermissions.
Satire is often intended to be funny, but strictly speaking it doesn’t have to be funny at all – it can actually be quite horrifying at times. Furthermore, because it mocks people and ideas by pretending to support them, satire is extremely subtle and is often easily misunderstood. It can get really preachy, too, so many satirists like to weave more direct forms of comedy/humor into their writing to give readers a break.
Here’s some background on ten writers – some famous, some not so famous – who enjoyed using satire.
10. Henry Louis (H. L.) Mencken (1880 – 1956)
H. L. Mencken peppered his journalism with sarcastic humor, cynicism, and cutting social criticism that earned him a name as one of the more polemical voices of the 20th century. Known for satirically reporting the Scopes “Monkey” trial, Mencken heaped verbal abuse on everything and everyone he didn’t like – ignorance, public officials, and fundamentalist Christianity, for instance.
Mencken wrote for The Baltimore Sun throughout most of his career and often made use of satire in his syndicated editorial pieces. He wasn’t afraid of controversy, either. After an issue of his magazine The American Mercury led to a Boston peddler’s arrest on the charge of selling obscene material, Mencken visited Boston himself and sold a copy of the exact same issue to the same watchdog reverend who had instigated the original arrest. Mencken was arrested, but in the process he did make a point about freedom of the press.
9. Gaius Lucilius (c. 180 BC? – 103/2 BC)
One of the chief examples of early Roman satire is Lucilius, a man who was, according to Quintilian, the first Roman to write satire and do it well.
Hot-tempered and direct, Lucilius happily criticized people, literature, and society in general with his signature, satirical hexameter verses. At a time when many of his contemporaries were distracted with Greek culture, Lucilius preferred to find his inspiration in the political scandals and current events of his own people. Very little of his writing has been passed down to us, but from what others have preserved we know that he was famous enough in his own time to enjoy popularity and even the uncommon honor of a public burial.
8. Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466/9? – 1536)
The influential Dutch Renaissance scholar, humanist, and Catholic theologian Erasmus played an important role during the upheavals of the Protestant Reformation, engaging Martin Luther and others as attempts were being made to cleanse the church of its corruption and rediscover the essence of Christianity. Erasmus is known for being the first to publish a complete Greek New Testament in 1516.
Although he preferred to avoid taking sides in the Catholic/Protestant debate, Erasmus agreed that the church did need to be reformed. He wasn’t shy about making his point, either – The Praise of Folly, published in 1511, is a biting satire of church tradition and superstition. Written from the point of view of “Folly,” the manuscript goes through a series of ridiculous orations that address everything from science to the educated clergy to happiness to the gods themselves.
7. Ubayd Zakani (d. 1370?)
A 14th-century Persian poet and brutal satirist from the town of Qazvin, Ubayd Zakani was educated in Shiraz, and became extremely well-versed in just about every area of study available. So notable were his intellectual accomplishments, in fact, that he managed to gain a position in the court of Shah Abu Ishaq, where he served as a court poet and became renowned for his violently acerbic writing style.
Zakani wrote excellent “serious” verses as well, and these are considered some of the greatest works of Persian literature. However, he had plenty to say about the rampant social injustices and corruptions of his time, and he made frequent use of satire, homoeroticism, and obscenity to get his point across. Because of this, his work has often been censored.
A classic example of his political satire is the story “The Mice and the Cat.” As the fable unfolds, the mice (oppressed minions) discover that one of the cats (powerful leaders) has repented of his evil ways. The mice take him a peace offering – but the cat eats them. War breaks out. Mice army defeats cat army. But as the mice are preparing to hang the cat, he escapes, scatters the mice forces, and the oppressors return to power.
What’s even better than the bad guys winning is the fact that “The Mice and the Cat” was written for young readers. Yep – it’s a children’s book.
6. François Rabelais (c. 1494 – 1553)
French Renaissance humanist, writer, and doctor François Rabelais used a mish-mash of bawdy jokes, sexual double entendres, vulgarities, and violent satire in his writing, which succeeded in getting his books banned almost as fast as he wrote them. His choice to express his observations of society in what were often quite grotesque terms ended up winning him the “heretic” label. He may have even spent time in hiding at one time.
His major work is probably Gargantua and Pantagruel, a series of books that chronicle the fantastic and absurd life of a giant named Pantagruel and his father Gargantua. The works were popular during Rabelais’s time, although naturally the Sorbonne and the olic Church trashed them for being anti-establishment, unorthodox, and generally just chock-full of obscene awesomeness.
“Burn ‘em, tear ‘em, nip ‘em with hot pincers, drown ‘em, hang ‘em, spit ‘em at the bunghole, pelt ‘em, paut ‘em, bruise ‘em, beat ‘em, cripple ‘em, dismember ‘em, cut ‘em, gut ‘em, bowel ‘em, paunch ‘em, thrash ‘em, slash ‘em, gash ‘em, chop ‘em, slice ‘em, slit ‘em, carve ‘em, saw ‘em, bethwack ‘em, pare ‘em, hack ‘em, hew ‘em, mince ‘em, flay ‘em, boil ‘em, broil ‘em, roast ‘em, toast ‘em, bake ‘em, fry ‘em, crucify ‘em, crush ‘em, squeeze ‘em, grind ‘em, batter ‘em, burst ‘em, quarter ‘em, unlimb ‘em, behump ‘em, bethump ‘em, belam ‘em, belabour ‘em, pepper ‘em, spitchcock ‘em, and carbonade ‘em on gridirons, these wicked heretics! Decretalifuges, decretalicides, worse than homicides, worse than patricides, decretalictones of the devil of hell.” (Rabelais, The Fourth Book of Pantagruel)
5. Ambrose Bierce (1842 – 1914?)
The American journalist, short story writer, and poet Ambrose Bierce is probably most well known for his ability to completely vanish and offer not a single clue about where or how he died. He is also popular for being an awesome satirist.
A Union soldier who was wounded and applauded for his bravery, Bierce held various positions in the world of journalism, and he was to later become a regular columnist for the San Francisco Examiner. His writing style earned him the nickname “bitter Bierce.” The Devil’s Dictionary (1911) is his most noted piece of satire. It was a concept developed over a period of many years, and in its 1911 publication (the first edition that contained entries from A all the way to Z) it contained 1,000 reinterpreted definitions of English words. In 1967, research unearthed an additional 850-odd definitions to Bierce’s original work.
In October 1913, Bierce left on a tour of his old Civil War battlefields. He ended up crossing into Mexico, where he joined Pancho Villa’s revolutionary troops as an observer. After a last letter to a friend dated December 26, 1913, he was never heard from again.
4. Jane Austen (1775 – 1817)
Austen’s novels are some of the best-known and most beloved in English literature, although in her own time she only enjoyed popularity toward the end of her life.
Jane Austen was born in the small village of Steventon. From an early age, she enjoyed writing and exploring her artistic talents – and the lifestyle led by her family did a lot to help encourage these pursuits. Much of her education was received at home via her father and brothers, mainly because her family couldn’t afford to send her and her sister Cassandra to school.
Austen often wrote poems and stories that she would read aloud to her family. An example of her early satirical work is Love and Freindship (1789; yes, the misspelling is original), which poked fun at the mainstream sensibility/romantic novels of the time. Austen’s The History of England (1791) is a parody of popular textbooks of her time. Sample text: “Henry the 4th ascended the throne of England much to his own satisfaction in the year 1399, after having prevailed on his cousin & predecessor Richard the 2nd, to resign it to him, & to retire for the rest of his Life to Pomfret Castle, where he happened to be murdered.”
It is her later novels, however, for which Austen is primarily known – Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1816). Her themes often explore the plight of women in her time, who generally had to depend on marriage for any kind of security in life. In this regard, Austen’s novels tend to satirize the romantic comedies of her time, preferring instead a severe, humor-laced realism.
3. Aristophanes (ca. 446 BC – ca. 386 BC)
The Athenian comic playwright Aristophanes has been referred to as “the father of comedy” and “the prince of ancient comedy.” In fact, the drama style now known as Old Comedy is primarily defined by his 11 surviving plays, several of which took first prize at local festivals.
Like any good comedian, Aristophanes skillfully poked fun at everything and everyone possible. The Clouds satirized the teachings of Socrates, and Plato even wrote later that the play could be considered partially responsible for the eventual trial and execution of the philosopher. The Babylonians, which won first place at the City Dionysia in 427, had the leaders of Athens slaving away in a mill – a political attack that led the demagogue Cleon and others to prosecute Aristophanes for contempt. Because of this, Aristophanes brutally satirized Cleon in his later plays (The Knights, for example).
Compared to the gentler forms of New Comedy, which developed shortly after Athens fell to Sparta and its allies in the Peloponnesian Wars, Old Comedy knew no restraints. Attacks on specific people, works of art, and aspects of society were the norm. Not even gods were exempt. In The Frogs, Aristophanes refers to the tragedian Aeschylus as composing verses “in the manner of a horse rolling in a sandpit” (lines 902-04).
2. Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)
I would probably get yelled at in the comments if this guy didn’t make my list. Faulkner called him “the father of American literature.” Hemingway believed that all modern American literature was derived from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Regardless of what you think about Samuel Clemens, he made a serious impact as one of the greatest American humorists of all time.
A native of Missouri, Clemens began working as a printer’s apprentice before he was even a teenager. At the age of 18, he left home and traveled around from city to city, working as a printer. His later experiences as a steamboat pilot and travels with his brother Orion inspired some of his earliest stories. One such story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, was published in 1865 and won Clemens immediate national recognition.
After this initial success, Clemens went on to write travel literature (e.g., Roughing It), his first novel attempt (The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, written with Charles Dudley Warner) – which satirized Washington, D.C.’s political and social situation – and various other sketches and journalistic pieces.
However, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of his most significant works. The book satirizes the attitudes and traditions of Southern society, touching especially on the issues of racism and slavery. It was one of the first examples of American literature that employed plain everyday language and slang. Its use of racial slurs like “nigger” and its approach to racial stereotypes created no small controversy, and even prompted many libraries to ban it.
1. Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745)
Yes, of course you knew that Swift’s masterpiece Gulliver’s Travels (1726) was a satire of Enlightenment modernism. But did you know that Swift suffered from spells of vertigo due to Ménière’s disease, and eventually went insane at the end of his life? No, you didn’t. You’re welcome.
Known as one of the greatest English prose satirists, the Dublin native had quite an interesting career. Thanks to Ireland’s Glorious Revolution, Swift moved to England and got a job as a secretary to the statesman and diplomat Sir William Temple. Over the years, Swift bounced back and forth between Ireland and England, for a time even becoming closely connected to the inner circle of the Tory government until the Whigs returned to power in 1714.
But forget the politics. You want to know about A Modest Proposal (1729). In this shining example of satire, Swift presents an elaborate argument for how the Irish could potentially deal with their poverty issues – sell their kids as food for the rich. “A young healthy child, well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled,” wrote Swift, “and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.”