Literary Wit

An incisive look at the role of wit in modern literature

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Written with verve and clarity, this book offers a fresh examination of literary wit as a distinct variety of discourse—one that is fundamentally different from wit, humor, 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 the first extended discussion of two celebrated recent 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.

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