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.

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The following review appeared 3 September 2002 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed by
Michael J. Kiskis

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 book.