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Book Review:
Transcendental Wordplay

Michael West, Transcendental Wordplay: America's Romantic Punsters and the Search for the Language of Nature. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000. 502 pp. $59.95. Cloth.

Reviewed by Randall Conrad. Reprinted with permission from Thoreau Society Bulletin, No. 231 (Spring 2000), p. 5.

Readers who have encountered Michael West's often-cited 1974 study of Thoreauvian pun-making [1] probably remember its elevating itinerary. Beginning in the bog of an excremental vision he ascribes to Thoreau, West argues persuasively that Thoreau's horror at his own consumptive constitution led him to develop strategies for purifying body and spirit, for living life "as a heroic game" in the face of death. His foremost strategy, of course, was to write. Forging an idiom to sustain his undying voice was the culmination of Thoreau's "ascetic heroism against dirt, disease, and death." Viewing language as "the mode of man's immortality," Thoreau would re-create American English, extending its resonance with an extraordinary seasoning of etymological joking.

Transcendental Wordplay is a double feature-length version of that influential article, now expanded to account for the wide-ranging wordplay in all American Renaissance authors (core, fringe, pre- and post-). Joining Thoreau in the lineup are Emerson (the "gentle twists" in his prose were "not quite puns in themselves but akin to satiric wit"), Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and Dickinson, with cameos by Poe as well as Irving, Cooper, and others.

Yet if this extraordinary book has a central figure, it is still the philosopher of Walden and the masterwork he wrote. (In fact, West's 1974 piece reappears, updated, as the concluding chapter.) West argues, and few will disagree, that "Walden cannot be fully understood except as the chief literary monument of the etymological fervor that permeated the American Renaissance."

Beneath that monument, West's patient excavations uncover a foundation. To sample the full "etymological fervor" sweeping the nation, Transcendental Wordplay devotes exhaustive, sometimes exhausting, pages to the eighteenth-century European philosophers who originated modern linguistic thought. Even more pages are dedicated to the minor philologist-pedagogues who flooded early-nineteenth century America with competing spellers, grammars, dictionaries, thesauri, joke books, lexicons, "synonymies," etymologies, and modest proposals to remake the mother tongue or invent a new one. (I will not soon forget meeting James Ruggles, an Ohio thinker whose proto-esperanto - "Viszpxns langzdxr hcktyonpxs skriptzport spegszbxr felhxr" - never caught on.)

Established criticism tends to discount these rustic bookworms, whose speculations on words and their origins fed faddish philologies far and wide. To the contrary, West insists that it was precisely the degree of fantasy, of illogic, in their pre-scientific theories of language that opened American Renaissance minds to the poetic potential of American speech.

America's decades-long "pundemic" originated, West explains, in a fertile matrix - the mechanistic language lessons inflicted on schoolchildren; the new republic's impulse to create a fresh national language (variously imagined); philologists' "unscientific yet imaginative" (and theologically tendentious) search for the Ur-language of humankind; vivid folk etymologies; and a consuming passion for wordplay shared by citizens in every walk of life.

"Shall I not have words as fresh as my thoughts?" Thoreau pondered during the revision of Walden.[2] Exploring Thoreau's fascination with comparative philology, West documents the strong influences of Scottish common-sense philosophy, French Enlightenment intellectuals like Charles DeBrosses ("Though many of his etymologies were erroneous, just as many were true and illuminating"), and the British philologists Tooke, Trench and Whiter. (Whiter's 2,700-page demonstration "that languages… are derived from the Earth and the operations, accidents, and properties belonging to it" influenced Thoreau's treatment of the clay-and-sand railroad cut in Walden.)

This hefty book offers none of the usual checklists, makes no effort to systematize system-resistant domains of verbal fun. Larded with authorial drollery, Transcendental Wordplay is an organic, dynamic summa punnologica that practices what it analyzes.

In the latter case, West acknowledges the lead of pickerel passage pioneer Gordon Boudreau, whose 1974 explication[4] is credited in the book's copious endnotes. (West is grandly open about acknowledging specific debts to pun-dissecting predecessors.)

Did I mention humor? Transcendental Wordplay offers puns, squibs, jokes, and every so often an unruly set-piece. For reading aloud, try West's word-perfect imitation of a sportscaster's play-by-play narration as quarterback R. W. Emerson fields a winning touchdown for America. West's most focused satire, however, is reserved for the bookworms he knows best - twentieth-century Homo academicus. With sly humor, he depicts Perry Miller eternally obliging American Studies scholarship by grafting the American Renaissance onto New England Puritan roots in place of its natural European ones: "At a stroke the terrors and icy beauties of Calvinism were decorously muted for undergraduates, while by marinating that old-time religion in typology and [Jonathan] Edwardsean aesthetics Miller made it palatable to literati leery of church."

The humorless we shall always have with us; for the rest, there is West's verbidextrous contribution to literature.

1. Michael West, "Scatology and Eschatology: The Heroic Dimensions of Thoreau's Wordplay," PMLA 89 (October 1974).
Back to text.
2. Thoreau, Journal, 7 Sept. 1851.
Back to text.
3. Thoreau, "The Pond in Winter," Walden, 5.
4. Gordon V. Boudreau, "Thoreau and Richard C. Trench: Conjectures on the Pickerel Passage in Walden," ESQ 20, p. 120. Read this fascinating article right here! Click the pickerel:

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Updated Feb. 20, 2010