In "My Financial Career," why did Leacock go to the bank?

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Stephen Leacock grew up on a farm, so it is understandable that he might have been awkward and self-conscious when he got his first job in a city and decided to open a bank account because his modest salary seemed too big for him to keep in cash. "My Financial Career" was one of his earlier humor pieces, meaning that he was still young and inexperienced in many things. That is something we all have to go through in our youth, so it is easy to empathize with him.

The one-hundred-acre farm near Lake Simcoe in Ontario where the family settled and where Leacock passed his boyhood was, by his own account, an unpleasant place where he and his brothers worked long and hard, always in the face of financial difficulty.

Food is usually plentiful on farms. Leacock was one of eleven children, and they always had enough to eat. But cash money is hard to come by. That explains why Leacock's income seemed so important. He confesses at the beginning that he has a phobia about banks.

I knew this beforehand, but my salary had been raised to fifty dollars a month and I felt that the bank was the only place for it.

Fifty dollars a month was a raise. His salary was even smaller before that, possibly forty dollars a month. This suggests how much inflation has affected the value of money since Leacock's day. After Leacock succeeds in establishing a bank account, he wishes to withdraw six dollars "for present use." Will six dollars cover his food and shelter for a week? He was obviously a bachelor at the time he went through his first banking experience.

Much of Leacock's writing was what used to be caused "light summer reading." He is obviously exaggerating, but exaggeration was the staple of older American humor, as E. B. White explains in his excellent anthology titled A Subtreasury of American Humor. White himself was one of America's foremost humorists in his day, but now he is best known for his two children's books, Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. Stephen Leacock's popularity is a thing of the past, but at one time he ranked with Robert Benchley and James Thurber as a foremost writer of light personal humor essays. There was a bigger market for this kind of material in the past.

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Although Stephen Leacock received a Ph.D. magna cum laude from Canada's prestigious MaGill University and was a specialist in political science, history, and economics, he must have been an absent-minded professor who was incompetent in practical matters. At least he makes himself sound this way, although he is undoubtedly exaggerating for the sake of humor. Exaggeration has always been a prime component of humor writing.

In "My Financial Career," Leacock explains why he went to the bank:

The moment I cross the threshold of a bank and attempt to transact business there, I become an irresponsible idiot.

I knew this beforehand, but my salary had been raised to fifty dollars a month and I felt that a bank was the only place for it.

Fifty dollars a month does not seem like much of a salary, but everything was much cheaper in 1910, when Leacock published this humor piece in his Literary Lapses.

One of the secrets of Leacock's popularity is apparent in "My Financial Career." He prose was always easy to read, and he enlivened his essays with dialogue. Notice how he breaks his text up into extremely short paragraphs. Most paragraphs consist of only two or three very short sentences, and there are some that contain only a single sentence. For example:

I rose.

A big iron door stood open at the side of the room.

"Good morning," I said, and stepped into the safe.

Short sentences, short paragraphs, and lots of dialogue help to make essays reader-friendly, and Leacock and Benchley were probably the most reader-friendly authors of their era.

Leacock's clarity and simplicity are especially remarkable in the writing of a professor who had such deep knowledge in so many subjects. The humorist whom Leacock most closely resembles is Robert Benchley, who was the most popular humor writer in America for many years, as well as a popular movie personality. Both Benchley and Leacock wrote "light" humor which people read for amusement and relaxation rather than edification. Both enjoyed their heydays in the years before World War II, when America was a smaller, quieter, safer and more isolated place, without the heavy international burdens and worries it has since assumed.

Bank accounts in Leacock's day were not the same as they have become in our own times. There was no distinction between checking accounts, savings accounts, and other accounts. The checks were not numbered or sorted electronically. Evidently they did not even use withdrawal slips at Leacock's bank. He had to write a check to himself in order to withdraw six dollars from his account. A typical check only had a place for the date, the words "Pay to the order of," and a line for the depositor's signature.

Like Robert Benchley, Stephen Leacock never took himself too seriously. Both these men had the endearing capacity to laugh at themselves. Humor is a rarer commodity in the dark days we live in now, and writers like Leacock seem to be living in a simpler, sunnier world.

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