Marc Shell, a Harvard comp lit professor with a stutter, made a high school foray into literary criticism by comparing the speech patterns of Hamlet to those of Porky Pig. Both figures are “scant of breath” and speak “trippingly on the tongue.” Shell, whose principal told him that a speech defect was a “sure sign” of being “retarded,” invoked the fumbling pig (“Th-th-that’s all folks!”) to convince his classmates that the paralyzed prince had a medical condition as well as an emotional one. “Words, words, words,” Hamlet stammers. “Except my life, except my life, except my life.”
In Stutter, his impressive survey of cultural figures with “cloven tongues” (including God), Shell describes the trauma of being unable to speak right. If you can’t pronounce your name, he says, people will assume you don’t know it. One partial remedy for stammering is to take on a new persona: sing, act, learn a new language. Henry James dealt with his impediment by speaking French. Carly Simon “felt so strangulated talking” that she “did the natural thing”—perform music. For the more than 50 million people in the world with a “handicap in the mouth,” picking the right words becomes an emotional process. (When Somerset Maugham, also tongue-tied, read his novels out loud, he’d replace “difficult” terms with their synonyms.) Anxious and isolated, stutterers often find more creative modes of expression. It’s one way out of what Roger Rabbit calls “p-p-p-p-p-p-p . . . jail!” The other option is silence.