Literary Wit

Paperback (Print)
Buy New
Buy New from
Used and New from Other Sellers
Used and New from Other Sellers
from $5.48
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
(Save 75%)
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (7) from $5.48   
  • New (3) from $19.38   
  • Used (4) from $5.48   


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 be-yond 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.

About the Author:
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.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In our historical moment flush with Seinfeldian irony, wit seems a perfect antidote to resigned cynicism or sclerotic habits of thought. Michelson (English, Univ. of Illinois), the author of books on Mark Twain and Richard Wilbur, hopes to give a boost to wit as a way of seeing things newly. He proposes to mothball the theories of humor and laughter developed by Freud, Bergson, and Bakhtin to cast wit as the "life-saving affirmation of the certainty that we know nothing for certain." Once Michelson has unmoored wit from its allegedly stodgy explications, however, he yields to naively premodernist assertions that wit "can keep us spiritually alive." When he reduces Wilde's, Twain's, and Stoppard's wit to such vague and starry-eyed jingles, however, he overlooks the capacity of wit to pierce precisely the empty celebration of human potential with which Michelson concludes his book. Recommended for specialized collections only.--Ulrich Baer, New York Univ. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Michelson (English, U. of Illinois) begins with a general discussion of literary wit, before investigating its specific application in various genres and texts. Attention is given to the use of wit in Twain's , Wilde's Preface to , Stoppard's , Wilbur's poems, Edson's , and Redford's . These texts span from 1530 to 1999. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781558492745
  • Publisher: University of Massachusetts Press
  • Publication date: 1/11/2001
  • Pages: 200
  • Product dimensions: 6.05 (w) x 9.23 (h) x 0.62 (d)

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)