Stephen Leacock 1869–-1944
(Full name Stephen Butler Leacock) Canadian humorist, short story writer, essayist, biographer, and political economist.
The author of thirty-five volumes of humor and twenty-seven works on history, biography, criticism, economics, and political science, Leacock is best known for satirical sketches that poke fun at human foibles. Leacock's acknowledged masterpiece, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, is a collection of related stories that satirize the provinciality and pettiness of the inhabitants of a small Canadian town. It is the best example of his craft, and uses humor to contemplate the incongruities of life as well as human hypocrisy and pretense. The tone of Leacock's other major work, the collection Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich, is slightly darker but still uses amiable humor to attack corruption, self-interest, and concern with money and power in big city in North America. Leacock's conservative political stance is reflected in his humorous sketches of individualism, materialism, and worship of technology. Leacock's distinctive comic style, with its combination of British nonsense humor and understatement and American wit and exaggeration, made him the most popular humorist writing in English between 1910 and 1925. However, for many years his literary importance was overlooked by scholars, and some commentators considered his work lacking in seriousness and complexity. Critical reevaluation of his work has shifted this opinion, earning Leacock the reputation of Canada's comic master. Author and critic J. B. Priestly found Leacock's humor to express an essential Canadian quality, and the novelist Robertson Davies has called him “a humorist of distinguished gifts, with a range and brilliance not often equaled.”
Leacock was born in 1869 in Hampshire, England. In 1876 he moved with his family to a 100-acre farm a few miles south of Lake Simcoe near the village of Sutton, Ontario. Life on the farm with his ten brothers and sisters was strenuous. Leacock's father's heavy drinking, wanderings, and eventual disappearance compounded the family's financial difficulties. Leacock's mother, however, was determined to give her children a good education, and Leacock attended Upper Canada College in Toronto. Leacock then entered the University of Toronto on scholarship in 1887 to study modern and classical languages and literature. However, his studies were cut short because his mother needed financial assistance to help raise eight siblings. In 1888 Leacock enrolled in a three-month training course to qualify for teaching high school. After his training he taught first at Oxbridge High School then at Upper Canada College—an engagement that allowed him to continue his studies at the University of Toronto—where he completed his B.A. in 1891.
After earning his degree, Leacock began publishing humorous articles in periodicals. His first piece appeared in the Toronto humor magazine Grip, in 1894. He continued to publish humorous sketches in Canadian and American magazines throughout the 1890s. Leacock's interest in the writings of Thorsten Veblen led him to pursue graduate studies in political science and economics under Veblen at the University of Chicago in 1899. While a student at Chicago, Leacock married Beatrix Hamilton, an aspiring actress from Toronto. He completed his Ph.D. in 1903 and began lecturing at McGill University in Montreal. He was appointed full professor and chair of the political science and economics department in 1908, a post he held until his retirement in 1936.
In 1910, with the financial assistance of his brother George, Leacock published Literary Lapses, a collection of previously published writings. The volume sold extremely well and was followed the next year with Nonsense Novels, a compilation of parodies of some of the most popular genres of literature, which established his fame. In 1912 Leacock published Sunshine Sketches of Little Town, a work based in part on his summers spent in Orillia and on his own childhood experiences. It was immensely popular in Canada and the United States, and cemented Leacock's reputation as the foremost humorist in Canada. Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich, published in 1914 was also a major critical and popular success. In 1925, Leacock's wife died of breast cancer, and he thereafter committed himself to fundraising drives for cancer research.
Leacock also enjoyed a distinguished career as an academic, publishing works in political science, history, and economics and lecturing widely in Canada and abroad. He was known as a great lecturer and raconteur. Leacock also wrote two biographies, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens, His Life and Work. In 1935, he published Humour: Its Theory and Technique. After his retirement from McGill in 1936 Leacock went on a speaking tour in the west of Canada. The notes and speeches made on this month-long journey were published in My Discovery of the West: A Discussion of East and West in Canada, for which he won the Governor General's Award. In the following years, Leacock wrote various books about Canada, including Canada: The Foundations of Its Future, Montreal: Seaport and City, and Canada and the Sea. In late 1943 Leacock began writing his autobiography, but his work was cut short due to failing health. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in late 1943 and died on March 28, 1944.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Most of Leacock's collections of stories include pieces that appeared previously in various magazines. The pieces in his first published work, Literary Lapses, include stories, anecdotes, monologues, dialogues, parodies of literary works, and reflections on a variety of topics. The volume is full of lighthearted nonsense stories as well as one of Leacock's best-known and more serious pieces, “My Financial Career,” about a prototypical “little man” confronted by a an intimidating institution as he opens a bank account. In the story, Leacock treats with characteristic sympathy the honest and decent but powerless victim of an absurd and hostile world. Leacock's second volume, Nonsense Novels, a collection of burlesques of the popular fiction of his day, continues in the vein of the first collection. Among its inspired absurdities are the much-anthologized story “Gertrude the Governess; or, Simple Seventeen,” in which the hero Lord Ronald is said to have “flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.”
Leacock's two most important works stand apart from his other books of humor in their artistic unity and seriousness of purpose, as they move from burlesque and absurdity to more ambitious satire. Both are collections of interrelated stories about lives in fictional towns. In Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, Leacock's masterpiece, the narrator sets a tone of genial deprecation and bemusement as he comments on this lives of the inhabitants of Mariposa, with all their self-importance, pretensions, and hypocrisy. He barely conceals his glee at their follies and imperfections, but in the end the manner of the stories is kindly even as it depicts human weakness and imperfection. The most famous piece in the volume is “L'Envoi: The Train to Mariposa,” in which former residents, now urbanized, remember their “sunshine town.” The story captures Leacock's concern for the passing of human communities and the dangers that accompany the embracing of new technology and materialism. Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich, Leacock's second important volume, dissects life in an American city with sharper satire, and his portraits of corruption and self-deception have a sharp edge of criticism not found in Sunshine Sketches. The two collections together reveal Leacock's nostalgia and regret for the passing of simpler times and his concern for what results when human social ties are undermined by materialism.
Leacock produced hundreds of sketches in more than a dozen volumes of short fiction, but none have enjoyed the popularity or critical acclaim of Sunshine Sketches and Arcadian Adventures. Some critics have maintained that Leacock's work showed little sign of intellectual or artistic development after these two successes. Many of his later pieces, like those in his first two volumes, are exuberant nonsense, parodies, or light sketches that undermine popular stereotypes, ideas, institutions, and personalities. However, he did continue to produce excellent sketches throughout his career, notably “The Great Detective,” which parodies the detective-story genre, and “Boom Times,” a fictional story about this uncle, E. P. Leacock.
Leacock enjoyed enormous popular success with his short stories and sketches. Beginning with the publication of short pieces in magazines, he quickly found a large audience that appreciated his down-to-earth comic sensibility with its elements of silliness and absurdity. After the publication of Nonsense Novels, Leacock became North America's most popular humorist. After the publication of this book, Leacock published about one book of humor a year. Reviewers as well as readers appreciated his work, although some complained that his sketches relied too heavily on formula for their comic effect. Scholarly interest in Leacock's stories was minimal in the years following his death, and many who did study his work felt a sense of unfulfilled potential in his work. Some critics argued that because of his impoverished childhood Leacock felt he had to use uncritically the formulas that brought him commercial success. Others speculated that his insistence on using only kindly humor arrested his development as an artist. They suggested that Leacock backed away from the darker and more cynical view of humanity that is latent in Arcadian Adventures and returned instead to the lighthearted optimism of his earlier works. His inability to develop his pessimistic vision of humanity in the industrial age, it was argued, served to thwart his full development as an artist. Beginning in the 1960s, critics began to reassess Leacock's place in Canadian literature, and many found his work, particularly the pieces in Sunshine Sketches and Arcadian Adventures, to be more serious and modern than had been formerly perceived. Critical interest in Leacock's work has tended to concentrate on Sunshine Sketches, and scholars have examined the tales to understand, among other things, Leacock's use of satire, the relationship of the narrator to Leacock himself, and the unity of structure among the sketches. Other subjects of interest to critics of Leacock's work have been the persona of the “little man” or “common uncommon man” in his works and his ironic intent.
Literary Lapses: A Book of Sketches 1910
Nonsense Novels 1911
Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town 1912
Behind the Beyond, and Other Contributions to Human Knowledge 1913
Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich 1914
Further Foolishness: Sketches and Satires on the Follies of the Day 1916
Frenzied Fiction 1918
The Hohenzollerns in America, with the Bolsheviks in Berlin and Other Impossibilities 1919
Winsome Winnie and Other New Nonsense Novels 1920
The Garden of Folly 1924
The Iron Man and the Tin Woman, with Other Such Futurities 1929
Laugh with Leacock: An Anthology 1930
The Dry Pickwick and Other Incongruities 1932
Funny Pieces 1936
Here Are My Lectures and Stories 1937
Model Memoirs and Other Sketches from Simple to Serious 1938
My Remarkable Uncle and Other Sketches 1942
Happy Stories, Just to Laugh 1943
Elements of Political Science (nonfiction) 1906; revised 1921
Baldwin, Lafontaine, Hincks: Responsible Government (biography) 1907
The Methods of Mr....
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SOURCE: “Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town,” in The Spectator, Vol. 109, No. 4391, August 24, 1912, pp. 277-78.
[In the following review of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, the critic calls the work an “exhilarating volume” that breaks new ground as Leacock moves away from “irresponsible fantasies and burlesques” to works that show a fresh and familiar look at humanity.]
Mr. Stephen Leacock, in a delightful autobiographical preface to his new volume, tells us that many of his friends are under the erroneous impression that he writes his humorous nothings in idle moments when the wearied brain is unable to perform the serious labours of the economist. (Mr. Leacock is head of the Department of Economics and Political Science at McGill University, Montreal.) His own experience is exactly the other way. “The writing of solid, instructive stuff, fortified by facts and figures, is easy enough. There is no trouble in writing a scientific treatise on the folk-lore of Central China, or a statistical inquiry into the declining population of Prince Edward's Island. But to write something out of one's own mind, worth reading for its own sake, is an arduous contrivance only to be achieved in fortunate moments, few and far between. Personally I would sooner have written Alice in Wonderland than the whole Encyclopædia Britannica.” Such sentiments are entirely reassuring, and...
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SOURCE: “Leacock at Large,” in New York Herald Tribune Books, Vol. 12, No. 6, December 1, 1929, p. 40.
[In the following review of The Iron Man and the Tin Woman, With Other Such Futurities, Cuppy remarks that the tales contain a great deal of satiric intent but that they allow for serious thinking between laughs.]
Anything by Stephen Leacock has the very considerable advantage to start with of being by Stephen Leacock. Otherwise Mr. Leacock doesn't seem to do very much about it here lately—and why, his legions of fans may well ask, should he? Isn't he the granddaddy of most of the young speed demons whose humorous essays. If faster and more furious, are not really much better, if the truth were known? Which is by no means to say that Mr. Leacock is slow—perish the thought!
Indeed loyal Leacockians are not likely to complain because their favorite author sets a more decorous pace than sometimes of old. These forty-four “little sketches of today and tomorrow” contain a deal of satiric intent which can do with occasional resting spots between laughs—and the fun is that you may take them as purposeful or not, even to the point of doing a little serious thinking in the clinches. If you are worried about the machine age you may accept “The Iron Man and the Tin Woman” as an entertaining prophecy of what we are coming to if not, it's just a typically gay hit or miss...
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SOURCE: “The Enchanted Houses: Leacock's Irony,” in Canadian Literature, No. 23, Winter, 1965, pp. 31-44.
[In the following essay, Cameron examines how Leacock sees the characters and their actions in Sunshine Sketches.]
Critical discussions of Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town revolve about two central questions, upon each of which the critics are sharply divided. The first of these deals with the book's distinctive flavour: is it sharply satiric, or is it composed of kind and fundamentally affectionate comedy? The second question is concerned more with characterization and structure, and with the mind and motives of Leacock himself, the issue being whether or not the book is a tentative, exploratory step in the direction of the fully articulated novel, and therefore whether Leacock achieved his full potentialities as a writer.
Obviously, the two questions are logically related. The first turns on Leacock's relation to his material, on the way in which he saw the material and the way in which he intended his reader to see it. So, essentially, does the second: the novelist's concern is with plot and character treated in terms of certain conventions for which Professor Ian Watt has suggested the term “formal realism”.1 Those who feel that Leacock could never have been a novelist commonly maintain that Leacock did not see his characters, or...
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SOURCE: “The Preposterous and the Profound: A New Look at the Envoi of Sunshine Sketches,” in Journal of Canadian Fiction, No. 19, 1977, pp. 95-105.
[In the following essay, Mantz urges us to read Leacock not only for his genial nonsense or bitter satire but for his “ontological awareness”; he then examines the envoi in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town to show how Leacock moves toward the profound by way of the commonplace.]
“Personally, I would sooner have written Alice in Wonderland than the whole Encyclopedia Britannica.”1 This remark, in the preface to Sunshine Sketches, suggests Leacock should be taken seriously as an artist, that his work—or some of it, at any rate—has what E. R. Wassermann used to call the “ontological seriousness” of a work of art.2 Of course, Alice in Wonderland has long since been rehabilitated for intellectual study, and the same dignity might be accorded Leacock's work since he seems to be associating his work with Dodgson's. But as Donald Cameron pointed out, one is compelled to apologize whenever one attempts to take Leacock seriously.3 It is true that the very passage in which Leacock defends Alice in Wonderland contains philistine satire of scholarly research. But this is surely ironic. Leacock spends a large proportion of the preface wittily detailing his academic...
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SOURCE: “The Face in the Window: Sunshine Sketches Reconsidered,” Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 3, No. 2, Summer, 1978, pp. 178-85.
[In the following essay, Ferris argues that Sunshine Sketches of Little Town is a more serious and modern work than commentators have perceived and that the power of the work is found in its narrative voice. However, Ferris also points out that Leacock fails to develop the sketches to their full artistic potential.]
In the final chapter of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, the narrator turns to a “you” who is simultaneously himself and the reader and offers this advice: “No, don't bother to look at the reflection of your face in the window-pane shadowed by the night outside. Nobody could tell you now after all these years. Your face has changed. …”1 This act of self-scrutiny, implicating both narrator and reader, is the central event of Sunshine Sketches. Through his anonymous but intimate narrator Leacock generalizes less the collective, external experience of small-town life than the individual, internal experience of recognizing and attempting to integrate a self fragmented through time. “L'Envoi” redefines the focus of the entire narrative, exposing the internal nature of its ostensibly external journey and firmly establishing the narrator as the locus of concern. Through the ending Leacock builds into his...
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SOURCE: “Mariposa Revisited,” in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 4, No. 1, Winter, 1979, pp. 167-76.
[In the following essay, MacLulich responds to the critic Ina Ferris's assessment of Sunshine Sketches of Little Town, arguing that the collection does not show that Leacock lacked faith in his imaginative power as Ferris claims.]
In her article “The Face in the Window: Sunshine Sketches Reconsidered” (Studies in Canadian Literature, 3 [Summer 1978], 178-85), Ina Ferris draws a provocative conclusion. She argues that the ending of Sunshine Sketches shows that Leacock lacked faith in his own imaginative powers:
Throughout Sunshine Sketches … the operation of the imagination is identified with fantasy, retreat, delusion. … The train of the imagination may be “the fastest train in the whole world,” but it can offer no sustaining insight into the narrator's existential condition. … Indulging in the freedom and release that the imagination offers, Leacock yet exposes these as illusory. The view of the imagination implicit in Sunshine Sketches is thus sceptical and limited.
Ferris makes her case forcefully. Nonetheless, I wish to disagree. In the first place, the town's uses of the imagination are not ridiculed in Leacock's book; they are...
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SOURCE: “The Leacock Persona and the Canadian Character,” in Mosaic, Vol. XIV, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 77-92.
[In the following essay, Raspovich examines the “little man” or “uncommon common man” persona in some of Leacock's most important works, including Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich, and Behind the Beyond.]
Because Canada has often been interpreted as a puritan and sober culture—a country where survival has depended on hard work and where celebration has been at a premium—Canadian humor has seemed almost not to exist. In fact, among Canadians, “the myth of the mirthless Canadian” is a well worn phrase. It is, of course, a carefully rehearsed self-deprecating joke, proving not that the typical Canadian is dour but that he is capable of devious disguises and ironic, detached postures. As a matter of history, at least two Canadian humorists have been instrumental in brilliantly shaping the direction of North American humor by partly stepping outside of their own regional or national mythologies. In the nineteenth century, the Nova Scotian Thomas Haliburton created the resonant comic prototype of the enterprising Yankee in Sam Slick, a character who eclipsed the native U.S. version, Seba Smith's Jack Downing. Similarly, Canada's most famed humorist, Stephen Leacock, is applauded by literary critics south of the border as an...
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SOURCE: “The Narrator, the Reader, and the Mariposa: The Cost of Preserving the Status Quo in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town,” in Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol. 22, No. 1 Spring, 1987, pp. 51-65.
[In the following essay, Zichy argues that a “special kind of equivocation” on the part of the narrator rules in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, and that the work's purpose is not to satirize the town of Mariposa but to convince the narrator himself that the town, with all its faults, is the best world after all.]
Since the first signs of a considered criticism of Leacock's comic writing in the late 1950s, much of the discussion of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town has focussed on the narrator's relation to his subject and his somewhat equivocal tone in presenting it. Some readers have judged Sunshine Sketches to be a satire, a telling exposé of the folly and even the corruption of small town life; others have described it as a work of genial humour by a writer who, in the words of Malcolm Ross, “loves what he hates.”1 The uncertainty in the telling is paralleled by an uncertainty about the character and position of the narrator, vis-à-vis Mariposa, which has also been widely noticed: at times, he appears to be sophisticated and well-informed about the great world; at other times, he speaks as if he shared the limited vision of the Mariposans. Some...
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Spadoni, Carl. Stephen Leacock: A Bibliography. Toronto: ECW Press, 1998. 622 p.
Detailed record of all of Leacock's published work, including details on their publication history, plus a listing of secondary sources.
Davies, Robertson. Stephen Leacock. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970. 63 p.
Short appraisal of Leacock's life and work by a well-known Canadian fiction writer.
Lynch, Gerald. Stephen Leacock: Humour and Humanity, Montreal: McGill's-Queen's University Press, 1988, 211 p.
Considers Leacock's satire to be the result of a combination of two traditions—toryism and humanism—and examines the relation between his theory of humor and his view of the world in Sunshine Sketches and Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich.
———. “Sunshine Sketches: Mariposa versus Mr. Smith.” Studies in Canadian Literature 9, No. 2, 1984, pp. 169-205.
Intensive analysis of the opposition between Mariposa and the individualist Josh Smith.
Moritz, Albert. “Return to Mariposa.” Southwest Review 77, Nos. 2 & 3, Spring/Summer, 1992, pp. 309-404.
Reflections on Leacock's work and influences by a critic who visits...
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