This book offers a fresh examination of literary wit as a distinct variety of discourse - one that is fundamentally different from wit, humour and laughter in nonliterary contexts. Bruce Michelson moves beyond outmoded assumptions and canonical authorities to explore how wit can transform fiction, plays and poetry, providing "a fire that keeps our imaginative literature hot". Michelson argues that to achieve a modernized and less-reductive understanding of the comic mode, conventional ideas must be extended, refreshed, qualified and ultimately left behind. Revisiting Bergson, Freud, Bakhtin and other authorities, he develops a new description of literary wit, with an emphasis on brevity, eloquence and surprise, and gives special attention to the power and provenance of the modern epigram. To develop this new approach, Michelson explores Mark Twain's "Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar" and Oscar Wilde's "Preface" to "The Picture of Dorian Gray". He also offers an extended discussion of two more recent celebrated dramas - Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" and Margaret Edson's Pulitzer-winning "Wit" - as well as insightful readings of major poems by Richard Wilbur.
He concludes with a suggestive look at the contemporary revolution in cognitive science and its implications for our understanding of the comic dimension in modern literature.
Bruce Michelson is professor of English and director of the Campus Honors Program at the University of Illinois. His previous books include Mark Twain on the Loose (1995) and Wilbur's Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time (1991), both published by the University of Massachusetts Press.
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