Stephen Leacock Essay - Critical Essays

Stephen Leacock American Literature Analysis

Leacock’s literary achievement is largely in the mastery of the comic sketch. With the exception of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, all his full-length humorous books are really compilations of short pieces that are unrelated to each other. His art is basically that of the miniaturist, the literary material honed to a fine detail. His subject matter is wide-ranging, but always there is the appeal to the middle-class sensibility. The humor is often based on some form of frustration or mild victimization: the befuddlement of the little man in confronting the large, faceless corporate structure, as in “My Financial Career” (from Literary Lapses) or “How to Borrow Money”(from Short Circuits, 1928); the arch satire of the rich man’s sadness over the resignation of his butler, as in “Are the Rich Happy?” (from Further Foolishness); and even self-parody, as in “We Have with Us To-night” (from My Discovery of England, 1922), in which the narrator relates his annoyance at being misnamed or mistaken as the speaker on a lecture tour.

The typical sketch often begins with a calm, commonsense observation, as in the manner of a personal essay, but within the course of a few sentences, the piece starts to take off, unfurling into amiable nonsense.

Amiability is a key characteristic of the Leacock manner. The narrator is a genuinely kindhearted character in the piece. Never cruel or savage, the narrative voice is one of gentle bemusement, of benign recognition of life’s follies, with a compassion for those who fall victim to them. As a satirist, Leacock lacks the bite of anger. His humor does not seek to point out the ills of society, least of all to redress them.

If classic satire is curative in intention, Leacock’s is palliative. His narrative voice wants simply to exhibit and laugh at the silly side of human experience.

Part of Leacock’s narrative technique is the use of malapropisms and other forms of wordplay. In one of his classic literary parodies, for instance, titled “The Russian Drama” (from Over the Footlights, 1923), the narrator describes the setting of a post station in Siberia, a cold, bleak landscape where peasants drive “one-horse tarantulas” over the vast, “endless samovars.” Such parodies as this and others such “Cast Up by the Sea,” a spoof of a nineteenth century melodrama, were quite popular in their time but seem rather dated to modern readers. However, the cleverly selective use of malapropisms heightens the effect of irony already implicit in the tone.

Wordplay of a different kind is evident in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. The role of the narrator is a central element in the narrative structure. The voice is at times gently sarcastic, at times naïve, so that the effect is a balanced subtlety between personal involvement and controlled objectivity—between sympathy, even admiration, for the citizenry of the little town and a gentle archness at their doings.

Another distinguishing feature of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town is its unity. Unlike his other humorous books, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town is not a discontinuous collection of sketches on various subjects but a cycle of interrelated short stories. The stories are clustered around a common theme or central character, and the unifying principle is enhanced both by the narrative voice and by the fictional location of Mariposa, the small Canadian town in which the characters live.

Interestingly, Leacock’s technique of establishing a single setting in which characters enact their stories anticipates by several years similar devices. American poet Edgar Lee Masters, for example, produced his Spoon River Anthology three years later, in 1915. In this collection of poems, all the speakers are fellow townspeople, now dead, telling their verse dramas from their graves in the town cemetery. Sherwood Anderson published his influential Winesburg, Ohio in 1919, a collection of stories...

(The entire section is 1679 words.)