Transcendental Wordplay: America's Romantic Punsters and the Search for the Language of Nature

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Ohio University Press, 2000 - 518 pages

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.

 

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Transcendental wordplay: America's romantic punsters and the search for the language of nature

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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 ... Read full review

Contents

Ch 1Spellers Punsters and SpreadEagle Linguistics
1
Ch 2Enlightened Europeans Romantic Americans
27
Ch 3Parsing the Language of Nature
68
Ch 4Antebellum America Goes Gaga over Grammar
110
Ch 5Copyrighting Etymological Ecstasy
141
Ch 6Thoreau and the Life of Words
183
Ch 7The Ironic Drift in Antebellum Language Philosophy
219
Ch 8Go SlowMan Thinking
251
Ch 10Savoring the Wiles of Words
334
Ch 11Whitmans Experiments with Language
370
Ch 12Thoreau and the Sounds of Silence
402
Ch 13Waldens Antic Dialectic between Self and Society
427
Ch 14Scatology and Eschatology
445
Notes
481
Index
507
Copyright

Ch 9Wordplay Romantic Irony and the Forms of Antebellum Fiction
291

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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.

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