Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 735
Literary Lapses is Leacock’s first book of humor. It is not an easy volume to classify. Russel Nye calls it a collection of esssays, but only a handful of the sketches are truly essays. It is composed of twenty-six short pieces, ranging from short stories to burlesques of severely condensed romantic novels to essays that solemnly develop mad premises. Leacock’s typical narrator is established in the very first sketch, “My Financial Career.” After several ludicrous missteps, he succeeds in opening his first bank account; then, because of the bank’s intimidating ambiance, he inadvertently draws a check for the total amount of his deposit. Thereafter, he keeps his savings in a sock.
The literary parodies, although comprising only a fraction of the text, appear to give the volume its title. “Lord Oxhead’s Secret” is subtitled “A Romance in One Chapter.” The peer’s daughter, Gwendoline, is a beautiful “girl” of thirty-three who is being courted by the dashing Edwin Einstein of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. At the climactic moment, as the father and the unsuitable suitor come face to face, Lord Oxhead falls dead, taking his secret with him to the grave. It is too complicated to be of interest anyway, concludes the narrator. In “Getting the Thread of It,” the narrator’s friend Sinclair attempts, by fits and starts, to familiarize him with the plot of the historical novel that Sinclair is reading. It is set in Italy in the time of Pius the something and features such characters as Carlo Carlotti the Condottiere and the Dog of Venice. “A Lesson in Fiction” is a sort of quiz on the modern melodramatic novel. The reader is asked to predict the behavior of the hero, Gaspard de Vaux, boy lieutenant, and is able to do so at every juncture of the plot. The critic in “Saloonio: A Study of Shakespearean Criticism” is Colonel Hogshead who, after amassing a fortune from cattle trading in Wyoming, has turned to the study of William Shakespeare. Unshakably fixed in his head is the idea that a character named Saloonio is central to the action of The Merchant of Venice (pr. c. 1596-1597, pb. 1600). This notion meets such spirited resistance from the narrator and others that Colonel Hogshead is actually driven to reading the play. The fact that no Saloonio appears in the text, the Colonel finds unpersuasive—the book in hand, he insists, is unlike those that he consulted in Wyoming.
The short stories often have absurdly tragic endings. In “The New Food,” Professor Plumb of the University of Chicago has invented a highly concentrated form of food. A happy family is gathered around the small pill that represents their 350-pound Christmas dinner, when baby Gustavus Adolphus snatches the pill and swallows it. The distracted mother gives him water, a fatal error. After the explosion, only the smiling lips of a child who has had thirteen Christmas dinners remain. In “Borrowing a Match,” the passerby of whom the narrator asks this favor eventually throws away all of his possessions and rips his clothing to shreds in search of the requested item. He finally extracts from the lining of his coat—a toothpick. The narrator pushes him under the wheels of a trolley car and runs. In “An Experiment with Policeman Hogan,” as the officer walks his beat in front of the Daily Eclipse at two o’clock in the morning, journalist Scalper is at work in the office above. Scalper writes a column in which he delineates the character of readers by examining their handwriting. As he moves from one sample of handwriting to the next, he drinks from a dark bottle, which he shares with Policeman Hogan by periodically lowering it to the street on the end of a string. Scalper’s analysis of each sample coincides suspiciously with the degree of his progressive inebriation, so that by five o’clock in the morning he is telling Emily, a timid maiden in her teens, that she is on the verge of delirium tremens and that her liquor habit is so advanced as to preclude all hope.
A few of these pieces are dated, but it is a testimony to Leacock’s understanding of human nature and to the subtlety of his style that the public found sketches written twenty years earlier still fresh and amusing. Indeed, a century after their composition, most are still fresh and amusing.
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