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Stephen Leacock was one of the most popular humorists of his time, along with Robert Benchley, James Thurber, and E. B. White, all of whom wrote about their personal foibles and phobias. They were all indebted to Mark Twain, who wrote many humorous essays about his personal idiosyncracies; and Twain was probably indebeted to Charles Lamb, the English essayist best remembered now for his "Essays of Elia."
Here is the beginning of one of Mark Twain's humor pieces which shows how closely he is resembled by Stephen Leacock.
All things change except barbers, the ways of barbers, and the surroundings of barbers. These never change. What one experiences in a barber's shop the first time he enters one is what he always experiences in barbers' shops afterward till the end of his days. I got shaved this morning as usual. A man approached the door from Jones Street as I approached it from Main -- a thing that always happens. I hurried up, but it was of no use; he entered the door one little step ahead of me, and I followed in on his heels and saw him take the only vacant chair, the one presided over by the best barber.
In Leacock's confession about his banking phobia, "My Financial Career," he is describing feelings that many of us experience in such places as banks.
When I go into a bank I get rattled. The clerks rattle me; the wickets rattle me; the sight of the money rattles me; everything rattles me.
The moment I cross the threshold of a bank and attempt to transact business there, I become an irresponsible idiot.
One of the things that make this essay funny is the fact that he is dealing with such a trivial transaction as opening an account with an initial deposit of only $56.00. It is probably the contrast between our own petty financial affairs and the imposing appearance of many banks that makes all of us feel somewhat rattled. The banks used to be built to seem massive and solid because they wanted their depositers to feel secure about their money.
Leacock's essay was published in 1910. Nowadays the banking experience is not so intimidating because of ATMs and other electronic innovations. Many old-time banks, with their thick walls, Grecian columns and armed guards, have been torn down because it is no longer necessary to give an impression of impregnability. We are all insured by the FDIC, and most of us can do our banking without even going inside--although It is still a somewhat unnerving experience for some of us to go in and out of a big vault to get to our safe-deposit box.
Most humorists, including Leacock, Twain, Benchley, and Thurber, get their effects through exaggeration. Leacock must have been exaggerating his confusion in "My Financial Career," because he was a professor of economics and had a long academic career at the prestigious McGill University in Montreal.
Leacock wrote a biography of Mark Twain, and he wrote an excellent study of Charles Dickens, whom he considered the greatest English writer after Shakespeare. As can be obserbed in "My Financial Career," Stephen Leacock is an unpretentious, reader-friendly, deceptively simplistic author.
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