My Financial Career

by Stephen Leacock

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Discussion Topic

Leacock's experience and emotions upon entering the bank in "My Financial Career."

Summary:

In "My Financial Career," Leacock experiences anxiety and nervousness upon entering the bank. His emotions are characterized by a sense of intimidation and confusion, leading to humorous and awkward interactions with the bank staff.

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Why did Leacock go to the bank in "My Financial Career"?

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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Why did Leacock go to the bank in "My Financial Career"?

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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How does Leacock feel when entering the bank in his essay "My Financial Career"?

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.         

                                About Barbers
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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How does Leacock feel when entering the bank in his essay "My Financial Career"?

The narrator of "My Financial Career" is immediately overwhelmed as soon as he enters the bank, and he is ill at ease. He knew that this would be his reaction even before he entered the bank (as he tells it: "the clerks rattle me; the wickets rattle me; the sight of the money rattles me; everything rattles me"), but he felt that, as he had recently seen an increase in his monetary income, it was necessary to start depositing money in the bank. However, he's clearly not comfortable, as we see across the course of this short story. His anxiety affects his voice and mannerisms, and he is continuously thinking about his own behavior, that other people in the bank must be making of that behavior, and what assumptions they must be making about himself. At the end of the story, he withdraws the money he had deposited and determines not to go to the bank again.

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