Cover image for Transcendental wordplay : America's romantic punsters and the search for the language of nature
Transcendental wordplay : America's romantic punsters and the search for the language of nature
West, Michael, 1937-
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Publication Information:
Athens : Ohio University Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
xxiv, 518 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Spellers, punsters, and spread-eagle linguistics -- Enlightened Europeans, romantic Americans: origins of our transcendental quest for the language of nature -- Parsing the language of nature -- Antebellum America goes gaga over grammar -- Copyrighting etymological ecstasy -- Thoreau and the life of words -- The ironic drift in Antebellum language philosophy -- Go slow: man thinking -- Wordplay, romantic irony, and the forms of Antebellum fiction -- Savoring the wiles of words -- Whitman's experiments with language -- Thoreau and the sounds of silence -- Walden's antic dialectic between self and society -- Scatology and eschatology: the heroic dimensions of Thoreau's wordplay.
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PS217.P85 W47 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, America was captivated by a muddled notion of "etymology." New England Transcendentalism was only one outcropping of a nationwide movement in which schoolmasters across small-town America taught students the roots of words in ways that dramatized religious issues and sparked wordplay.

Shaped by this ferment, our major romantic authors shared the sensibility that Friedrich Schlegel linked to punning and christened "romantic irony." Notable punsters or etymologists all, they gleefully set up as sages, creating jocular masterpieces from their zest for oracular wordplay. Their search for a primal language lurking beneath all natural languages provided them with something like a secret language that encodes their meanings. To fathom their essentially comic masterpieces we must decipher it.

Interpreting Thoreau as an ironic moralist, satirist, and social critic rather than a nature-loving mystic, Transcendental Wordplay suggests that the major American Romantics shared a surprising conservatism. In this award-winning study, Professor West rescues the pun from critical contempt and allows readers to enjoy it as a serious form of American humor.

Author Notes

Michael West is a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of more than fifty articles on subjects ranging from Homer to Joyce. He has a particular interest in the Classical tradition, comedy, and satire.

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

Nineteenth-century Americans were fascinated by the meanings and origins of words and also loved a good joke. In this impressive work of scholarship, West (English, Univ. of Pittsburgh) explores the intense interest in etymology and verbal jesting that informed the writings of the era's major authors. Well-known passages from classic books are reinterpreted by West to show how they are rife with puns, off-color innuendoes, and jocularity. With his main emphasis on Thoreau and other transcendentalists, West also examines works by Edgar Allan Poe, Washington Irving, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman. His extensive discussion of early figures in philology and language theory, and their impact upon the American curriculum, is especially noteworthy. Highly recommended for larger collections of literary criticism, linguistics, or American studies.--Ellen Sullivan, Ferguson Lib., Stamford, CT (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

West's long, detailed book revolves around the question of what made puns a 19th-century art form relished by ordinary folk and cultivated with genius in the literature of the American Renaissance. West's answers to this question take the reader on a long and often tiresome journey through 19th-century epistemology and etymology. Though the book is invaluable for its research on etymological dictionaries and manuals and for its explanations of 19th-century obsessions with linguistic classification, the reader must put up with West's disrupting attempts at humor and his chafing puns ("this derivation of the woodchuck would eventually be chucked," "Thoreau found himself paying rapt attention to a raptor"). West discusses many major works but pays closest attention to Walden, "the chief literary monument of the etymological fervor that permeated the American Renaissance." His discussion of Dickinson is at times insightful--he points out that in more than 100 of her poems Dickinson attempts to "grasp and state the essence of some word"--but his references to her as "Emily" and "Little Emily" and his infantilizing reading of poem #824 mar his argument. Not for undergraduate collections. D. J. Rosenthal; John Carroll University

Table of Contents

Illustrationsp. ix
Preface: Punsters, Philosophers, Philologues, Pedagogues, and Other Grammatis Personaep. xi
Acknowledgmentsp. xix
Abbreviated Referencesp. xxiii
1. Spellers, Punsters, and Spread-Eagle Linguisticsp. 1
From Every Mountainside Let Fredish Ringp. 1
Webster's Speller Casts a Spell--and Breeds Rebellionp. 3
Lexicographers, Journalists, and the Roots of Our Jocular Slangp. 10
Gentlemen Punsters Off on a Spreep. 14
Professional Jesters and the Wordplay of "Jest Plain Folks"p. 19
Further Etiology of America's Punning Epidemicp. 23
2. Enlightened Europeans, Romantic Americans: Origins of Our Transcendental Quest for the Language of Naturep. 27
Dreaming Philosophical Dreams about a Language of Naturep. 27
How Enlightened French Savants Enlighten Thoreau's Wordplayp. 32
Volatile Words: The Ironic Materialism of Tooke's Diverting Etymologiesp. 42
Scottish Commonsense Philosophy of Language Charms American Collegesp. 46
The Birth of Comedy from the Spirit of Philology--Romantic Irony Germinates in Germanyp. 50
Moonshine in Vermont: Coleridge as America's First Punning Transcendental Sagep. 57
3. Parsing the Language of Naturep. 68
Murray's Grammar and the Mania for Etymological Parsingp. 68
The Lurking Transcendentalism of William Cardell's "Philosophic Parsing"p. 72
Sherman's Attack on Cardell: Grammar Enters Politics--and Vice Versap. 79
Unequivocal Eminence Achieved!!! The Language of Nature Mechanized!!!p. 91
Brown's English Syntax Institution and the Peripatetic Tradition, 1836-1856p. 102
4. Antebellum America Goes Gaga over Grammarp. 110
The Heirs of Cardell, Legal and Illegalp. 110
Beautiful Dreamers: Philosophical Grammarians and Their Homespun Hermeneuticsp. 120
Thoreau and the Educational Establishmentp. 125
Verbal Fever Rages on the Ohio--and Elsewherep. 130
5. Copyrighting Etymological Ecstasyp. 141
Pop Philology: The Vogue of American Etymological Manualsp. 141
Native Roots--Walt Whitman and America's Anglo-Saxon Zealotsp. 147
The Scholar's Companion (1836) Becomes the Businessman's Friendp. 155
Treasuries of Words: From Roget to John Williams of Lancaster, Ohiop. 159
Picking Flowers from Florilegia--Thoreau and the Etymological Entertainersp. 163
Three Ramblers among Words--Whitman, Thoreau, and William Swintonp. 171
6. Thoreau and the Life of Wordsp. 183
Sporting with Etymological Metaphysics on a Sandbankp. 183
Walden's Dirty Language and Walter Whiter's Geocentric Etymologyp. 189
Thoreau's Hydraulic Psychology of Humorp. 196
Elizabethans, Indians, and Animated Nature-Writingp. 200
Making Prose Spring from the Earthp. 206
Getting the Point of Thoreau's Punsp. 211
7. The Ironic Drift in Antebellum Language Philosophyp. 219
Alexander Bryan Johnson: Utica's Philosophical Emperor of Empiricismp. 219
Ironing Out Utica's Antinomies with Ironyp. 227
Rational Theology and Its Discontentsp. 238
From Paradigm to Paradox: Horace Bushnell Shakes Up American Protestantismp. 242
8. Go Slow--Man Thinkingp. 251
Emerson Whips Words Until the Silence Reverberatesp. 251
Exploding the Correspondence Theory of Nature (1836)p. 259
The Playthings in the Playhouse of the Childrenp. 268
The Inarticulacy of Old Man Eloquentp. 276
Man Thinking about American Scholarsp. 283
9. Wordplay, Romantic Irony, and the Forms of Antebellum Fictionp. 291
Irving's Bawdy Double Entendresp. 291
Leatherstocking and the Languages of Naturep. 296
The Gothic Grotesquerie of Poe's Grinning Skullp. 303
The Spell of a Scarlet Letterp. 315
The Whale's Tale and Other Literary Flukesp. 323
10. Savoring the Wiles of Wordsp. 334
Dickinson's Love Affair with Dictionariesp. 334
A Punning Humorist Grows Up in Amherstp. 344
The Paradoxical Power of Webster's Primal Wordsp. 354
Little Emily's Romantic Ironiesp. 362
11. Whitman's Experiments with Languagep. 370
The Allure of Native American Namesp. 370
Body Language and the Adamic Mystique of Voicep. 376
The Mock Epic of the Elastic Selfp. 385
Ebbing Afflatus--and Unspeakable Ironiesp. 393
12. Thoreau and the Sounds of Silencep. 402
Harvard Harkens to the Music of a Spherep. 402
A Mediocre Lecturer Flirts with Acoustic Mysticismp. 406
Floating from Concord to the Heart of Silencep. 411
Unraveling the Rhetoric of Walden's "Reading"p. 417
The Social Reverberations of Walden's "Sounds"p. 421
13. Walden's Antic Dialectic between Self and Societyp. 427
Fusing Polarities with Coleridgean Imaginationp. 427
The Duplicity of Solitudep. 430
Clowning for Visitorsp. 433
Bean-Field or Battlefield?p. 437
A World Reintegrated in Transcendental Sportp. 440
14. Scatology and Eschatology: The Heroic Dimensions of Thoreau's Wordplayp. 445
Thoreau's Excremental Cosmologyp. 445
Men, Women, and the Pollution of Sympathyp. 454
Ascetic Heroism against Dirt, Disease, and Deathp. 460
Heroic Language Games: Romantic Irony, Art, and the Play of Lifep. 466
Concluding Unscientific Postscriptp. 478
Notesp. 481
Indexp. 507