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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 3 Sep 2002 13:26:45 -0500
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I am posting this review on behalf of Michael J. Kiskis who wrote it.




_Literary Wit_.  By Bruce Michelson.  University of Massachusetts Press,
2000.  Cloth.  192 pages. 9 1/2 by 6 inches.  $35.00.  ISBN 1558492739.
Paper. 9 by 6 inches.  $15.95.  ISBN 1558492747.

Many books reviewed on the Forum are available at discounted prices from
the TwainWeb Bookstore, and purchases from this site generate commissions
that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Michael J. Kiskis

Copyright (c) 2002 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

In his earlier study of Mark Twain's humor _Mark Twain on the Loose:  A
Comic Writer and the American Self_ (Massachusetts, 1995), Bruce Michelson
took us beyond a conventional, and therefore boundaried, examination of
Twain's comic practice and the relationship between that practice and the
self that is exposed and shaped and defined by humor created within a
dynamic cultural soup.  Of Twain and of his interpreters, According to
Michelson:  "After decades of informed argument about Mark Twain's
concealed organizing principles, it still seems possible that his most
exciting narratives exemplify no formal strategy as yet defined or
conceived by published criticism.  Temples will not crash down on us if as
readers we pay more respect to this penchant for anarchy in Mark Twain's
comic art" (4).  A little later, we find this comment:  "In Mark Twain's
humor, what must often be contained is potentially absolute fluidity, a
danger of setting everything afire" (8).  Later still, we come to this:
"[T]he habit of insisting on Mark Twain's moral steadiness and artistic
shapeliness is an interesting cultural phenomenon itself, a long-term and
many-handed project to tame a cultural hero and a body of work that from
some perspectives stays inherently wild, and hinting perhaps of an
unshapely side to American cultural life:  something that we are, perhaps,
rather than something we feel we ought to be" (226-227). Recharging Twain's
pyrotechnics adjusts our sights so that we begin to appreciate (again or,
maybe for many of us, for the first time) a Mark Twain freed from
constraints created by decades of academic and cultural interpretation.
Michelson's argument pushes us to acquaint ourselves with the power of a
comic mind to challenge cultural perceptions and, by that challenging, to
gain a radically different perspective on experience and, perhaps more
importantly, on ourselves.

Michelson is at it again in _Literary Wit_.  This time, his target is more
ambitious (which is saying a great deal given the previous paragraph).  If
his earlier work aimed to get critics to look beyond (or perhaps beneath)
the accumulation of conventional wisdom on Twain, this newer project argues
that we reconsider our approach to and ideas about literary wit and its
value as a tool to shape our intellectual and (even more interestingly)
psychological and, therefore, emotional lives.  Michelson's point is that
we have too long and uncritically accepted simplistic notions that define
wit as a subset of a humor; instead, wit (and here that means literary wit
especially) should be seen as a strategy whose final goal is not
atomization and facile analysis but, rather, integration and synthesis and,
most importantly, insight.  In his opening comments, Michelson points the
way:  "Modern literary wit can liberate worldly experience and
consciousness from false absolutes and suffocating patterns.  It can offer
'agency' of a special kind, for it can make possible expansion of literary
discourse, in aesthetics, in poetics, even in the possibilities of
identity.  It can adapt superbly to 'writing' so much that is changing
around us and within us:  our cultural, psychological, and moral experience
and our understanding of consciousness itself" (2).  Wit is "a significant
dimension of serious writing....a transformed way of seeing and telling
rather than as relief from seriousness, or as digression, or as some other
kind of dilution or subversion of intense response" (2-3).

To get to this more complete and more complex description of and argument
for literary wit, Michelson takes readers on a tour of the history of wit
within western literary history.  Chapter one, "A Description of Literary
Wit," takes us through the European definitions of wit beginning in the
17th and 18th centuries.  The review helps not only to place "wit" along a
longitudinal line but also helps introduce us to the relationship between
concepts of wit and the changes in how western Renaissance and later
Enlightenment ideas about thinking and the processes of thought influenced
definitions and appreciation of wit.  "Wit" ultimately was set among a
variety of paired words or concepts as reason took hold and sponsored
attempts to categorize thinking.  The 19th century's penchant for assigning
relational pairs to explain human thought and experience within easily
defined dichotomies (head vs. heart, reason vs. imagination) places wit as
the counter to seriousness or wisdom.  And there begins the cultural
practice of diminishing wit by limiting it to moments of diversion, flashes
of facile thought meant to be a departure from seriousness.  Wit becomes a
subset of humor.

Michelson argues that we need to break with that conventional and too staid
and simplistic definition.  Wit needs to be appreciated not as verbal joust
but as a strategy for interpreting the complexities of the world.  It is a
way to integrate thinking about the seriousness and the worries and
challenges of life.  He demonstrates the value of wit as integrative
thought in subsequent chapters.  Chapter two examines Mark Twain's epigrams
in Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar as well as their impact on Twain's
storytelling is _Pudd'nhead Wilson_.  Michelson pairs Twain's work with
Oscar Wilde's preface to _The Portrait of Dorian Gray_.  That unusual
relationship is inspired both because it forces us to consider the epigram
as much more than a verbal joke and because it underscores the way that
literary wit transforms our understanding of our cultural and aesthetic
assumptions.  Chapters three and four continue this examination: chapter
three offers careful and compelling readings of Tom Stoppard's _Arcadia_
and Richard Wilbur's poetry; chapter four gives us a wonderfully poignant
discussion of two plays, John Redford's _The Play of Wyt and Science_,
written in 1530, and Margaret Edson's 1999 Pulitzer Prize winning _Wit_.

While all of Michelson's comments are immensely worthy, his commentary on
Edson's play is especially insightful and important for those of us who
struggle to find a way to bring literature to the question of how we live.
Edson's Vivian Bearing is a prime example of cultural and academic
assumptions that limit wit only to intellectual analysis and preclude its
power to integrate and enhance understanding: only at her death is she free
from overly constraining intellectual practice.  Michelson's comment:
"Margaret Edson's play can be understood as witty in a better, more
literary, and more obstreperous way than Vivian Bearing in her classroom
prime could appreciate.  For no matter how many embedded ironies in this
text can be totted up, this text mingles its own wit with humility, with a
quiet, pervasive recognition that no arrangement of scenes and clever words
and clever thoughts can evade for long the deeper mysteries about our
experience: what it is for and whether any arrangement of modern life, or
modern thinking, or modern drama can be surely other than a wasteful
passing of time" (135).  Wit is not simply an end to itself, a
classification for verbal play, a comedic interlude, a joke; it is a means
to find and to understand what is important in and about our lives.

Literary wit is, in Michelson's final comments, "celebration of thinking"
(143) and "a nemesis of certainty" (145).  Those comments aptly describe
these crisply written pages.  Michelson's _Literary Wit_ is an important