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Communication breakdown

Stutter Marc Shell Harvard University Press: 342 pp., $27.95

January 22, 2006|Ward Harkavy | Ward Harkavy is a senior editor at the Village Voice.

MAYBE only a stutterer like myself who has spent a lifetime playing with words as if he were playing with fire would fixate on the difference between "defective" and "detective." The difference is only a single letter, but it's enough to result in blocked sounds, strangled silences or any one of the other signs commonly associated with stuttering.

Those who stutter know it's a mysterious malady. Its cause is not firmly known and may be different for different people, but it's believed to be a mixture of neurophysiology (crossed wires) and genetic predisposition, overlaid with social pressures. As the Stuttering Foundation of America notes, "It is probable that what causes stuttering differs from what makes it continue or get worse." Literary scholar Marc Shell's "Stutter" doesn't attempt to solve the mystery. Instead, he enriches it, embroiders it and anchors stuttering and the people who d-d-do it -- and laugh at it -- firmly to literature and culture: Our fixation on words and language is couched within society as a whole.

With wit, he extracts example after example from pop culture and high culture. Forgive him if he seems to have OD'd on the OED. His purpose for poring through the Oxford English Dictionary is provocative:

"Few literary critics and humanists deal directly with [stuttering's] relevance.... The pan-global and pan-cultural phenomenon of stuttering 'literalizes' in the human body and spirit many of the key notions that humanists deal with -- imitation, representation, doubling, synonymy, punning, inexpressibility, and metrics. Yet stuttering is not much looked into. Why not? One answer is that literary criticism and book lovers prefer literature featuring characters that the reader can pity. Even the most 'politically correct' person, however, would have to admit that at times he has laughed at the stutterer. Stuttering thus gives us 'sensitive souls' a problem -- as in the case of Porky Pig. It gives us 'ugly feelings' about ourselves that we do not want to face."

There are an estimated 3 million stutterers in the U.S., in varying degrees of struggle, fear or acceptance. After what Shell has unearthed about stuttering, however, never again should they feel isolated. And those who don't stutter can feel freer to talk about stuttering without feeling like they are walking on eggshells.

Hams like Porky Pig are still part of the story, but so is Hamlet. Shell's close reading of Shakespeare reveals the Dane to be a stutterer. And you have to love any book that teaches you Serbo-Croatian tongue-twisters. Playing with words, riffing on their sounds, meanings and interconnections, Shell blurs the line between stuttering as metaphor and stuttering as, well, just plain stuttering.

The malady finally has a melody.

Ranging through the centuries, Shell touches on two of my personal heroes of stuttering: writers Michael Caggiano and the late political activist Marty Jezer, both of whom are well known among those stutterers who have banded together to help themselves and others. There's also the mellifluous James Earl Jones, who has become one of America's most sought after and admired voices. Moses and Winston Churchill forged ahead, despite the shame that most stutterers experience, and dealt with the burning bush and the burning of London.

You've laughed at stutterers, but you may not realize you've been turned on by them. As Shell points out, Marilyn Monroe shimmied around her stuttering by adopting the breathy "dumb blond" persona. On the last page of Shell's tour de force, he simply says that "stuttering is the mystery where language and culture meet." That intersection of language and culture is busy. Also included in Shell's analysis are such stutterers as the novelists Somerset Maugham, John Updike and Henry James, and various Darwins.

Shell's book has a memoirish aspect, describing how he became a detective early on, examining his "crab walk" and cramped talk. Born in 1947, Shell struggled with both polio and stuttering. Reared as a Jew in Canada, he had to deal with speaking (or not speaking) in French, English and Hebrew. His "Polio and Its Aftermath: The Paralysis of Culture" was published last summer. It's no surprise he followed that up with "Stutter." He edited 2002's "American Babel: Literatures of the United States From Abnaki to Zuni" and has written about the languages of art and money. The Irving Babbitt professor of comparative literature and professor of English at Harvard and winner of a MacArthur Foundation grant in 1990, Shell has spent his career studying collisions of language and culture.

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