Stephen Leacock

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Stephen Butler Leacock was the third child of eleven. His father, Peter, though of a respectable middle-class background, was a rootless man, a failure, moving his large family from one place to another, finally emigrating to Canada in 1876. 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. Late in 1878, Leacock’s father left the family behind and went west, seeking a fortune that never came. By the time Stephen was in his late teens, his father had disappeared and was never heard from again.

Meanwhile, Leacock’s mother was determined to give her children a good education. She sacrificed enough to send her sons to Upper Canada College in Toronto (the equivalent of high school), and Stephen enrolled in the institution in 1882, when he was thirteen. Here he evinced an interest in and aptitude for writing and became coeditor of the school paper.

Awarded a partial scholarship, Leacock entered the University of Toronto in 1887 and studied modern languages and literature, but financial stress at home caused him to withdraw the following year. Needing to earn money to help support his eight brothers and sisters, Stephen took a three-month course at a teacher training institute in Ontario and in 1889 accepted a position as a language teacher back at Upper Canada College. While teaching, he continued his studies part time at the University of Toronto, receiving his bachelor’s degree, with honors, in 1891.

By this time, Leacock was becoming aware of the possibility of supplementing his income by writing. He began to submit short articles to various magazines, and his first humorous sketch was published in a Toronto humor magazine in 1894. Though his major work was still fifteen years in the future, these early minor successes throughout the 1890’s gave him confidence in his ability to write fluidly and easily. Meanwhile, he was spending his summers by Lake Simcoe in the village of Orillia, the “little town” that was to serve as the model for the fictional Mariposa of his masterpiece, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912).

During this period, he also developed an interest in economics and political science. Influenced by his reading of Thorstein Veblin’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), he enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Chicago in 1899. He married Beatrix Hamilton, an aspiring actress, in 1900 and in the same year was appointed adjunct lecturer of economics and political science at McGill University. His association with McGill was to be a crucial event in his life. After taking his Ph.D. in 1903, he was appointed to the full-time faculty and by 1908 was promoted to full professor and chair of the department of economics and political science. He was to remain at McGill for the next three decades, secure enough to begin a long career both as a professor and, in literature, as a prolific writer of humorous sketches and essays, filling more than sixty books.

By 1905, while he was honing his craft with his early humorous work, Leacock was also developing another aspect of his art that would make him equally famous. A political conservative, he began to give public lectures, mainly on the topic of the state of the British Empire. His easy manner, his knowledge of political and economic issues, and his ability to use clear, concise language prompted an offer by the Canadian government for Leacock to go on...

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a one-year lecture tour to speak on behalf of British imperialism. The subject was treated seriously, but the experience of this first early lecture tour proved to him his ability to hold an audience and eventually to profit by it.

Throughout the first decade of the twentieth century, Leacock had been submitting comic pieces to various magazines, including the then-popular New York periodicals Truth and Life. In 1910, he gathered some of these works and privately published them under the title Literary Lapses. The book caught on, finally coming to the attention of a British publisher who quickly bought the rights. Containing clever sketches like “My Financial Career” and “The Awful Fate of Melpomenus Jones,” about a visitor who stayed forever as a houseguest because he did not know how to take his proper leave, Literary Lapses was Leacock’s first published humorous book and signaled the beginning of his career as one of the most popular humorists in the English-speaking world.

Over the next thirty years, Leacock published dozens of books, though critical opinion suggests that his early ones were his best. His third book, SunshineSketches of a Little Town, is regarded as the first of his two masterpieces. It was followed in 1914 by Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich, critically viewed as a kind of sequel. Together, the two works form the apex of his literary achievement.

As World War I raged in Europe, Leacock determined to do his part by delivering humorous lectures on behalf of Belgian refugees. Throughout Canada and the United States, Leacock culled from his writings his funniest and most popular material and gave public readings. Throughout the war he continued to produce sketch after sketch, collecting them in such volumes as Moonbeams from the Larger Lunacy (1915), Further Foolishness: Sketches and Satires on the Follies of the Day (1916), and The Hohenzollerns in America: With the Bolsheviks in Berlin, and Other Impossibilities (1919). After the war, Leacock continued to produce almost a book a year throughout the 1920’s.

His wife died of cancer in 1925, and for many years thereafter, he involved himself in speaking and fund-raising for cancer research. He was also engaged in an almost ceaseless round of lecture tours. Between 1915 and 1937, in fact, Leacock delivered his humorous talks all across the United States and Canada and throughout England and Scotland, all this while he was teaching three days a week at McGill and serving as chair of the department of economics and political science.

His busy schedule prompted him in 1927 to hire his niece as secretary and housekeeper. She eventually became his literary executor and left behind a charming sketch of her uncle, noting that in the United States, he would often make four or five trips a month to deliver lectures, sometimes three or four given on each trip.

By the 1930’s, the quality of Leacock’s writing began to decline, and he often turned to more serious work. His biographies of Mark Twain (1932) and Charles Dickens (1933) were workmanlike and academically sound but added little to his reputation. By 1943, Leacock began his autobiography, but it was to be left unfinished. He died of throat cancer on March 28, 1944. His autobiography, The Boy I Left Behind Me, was published posthumously in 1946.


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Stephen Leacock’s achievement lies in his ability to tell a humorous tale in a unique narrative voice. The tone of his work is one of balance, understanding, and compassion. Even his most absurd literary parodies reveal a gentle tolerance of the subject matter, a kind of live-and-let-live attitude. His best work manages to sustain a subtle tension between sarcasm and naïveté.


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Stephen Butler Leacock (LEE-kahk) was born at Swanmore, Hampshire, England, in the Isle of Wight, on December 30, 1869, the son of W. P. Leacock and Agnes Butler Leacock. He was taken in 1876 to live on a farm near Lake Simcoe in Ontario, Canada. Leacock was educated at Upper Canada College in Toronto, where he was head boy in 1887. He graduated from the University of Toronto in 1891 and earned a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago in 1903. He then began a distinguished academic career that was to last until he was past sixty-five years of age. From 1891 to 1899, he taught at his old preparatory school and found the job of schoolmaster deeply depressing. He joined the faculty at McGill University in Montreal as a temporary lecturer, however, and eventually became professor of political economy. He was named head of the department of economics and political science in 1908 and taught at the university until 1936.

Leacock was widely known for his professional writings, publishing many learned studies in economics. Elements of Political Science (1906) was an early academic work, and Economic Prosperity in the British Empire (1930) was a major late work. Their author whimsically observed that he hoped that no one would ever have to read them. Certainly, the larger reading audience knew him as the author of humorous essays and burlesques. In fact, so enormously successful were his books of humor and his lectures that, in time, his scholarly writings may have been unjustly neglected.

Leacock made his appearance as a humorist in Literary Lapses (1910). This well-received collection was followed in rapid succession by Nonsense Novels (1911), Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912), and Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich (1914). Volumes with similarly playful and alliterative titles are Moonbeams from the Larger Lunacy (1915) and Frenzied Fiction (1918).

Works from the latter half of Leacock’s career are Laugh with Leacock (1930), Afternoons in Utopia: Tales of the New Time (1932), Mark Twain (1932), Charles Dickens: His Life and Work (1933), Humor: Its Theory and Technique (1935), and Funny Pieces: A Book of Random Sketches (1936). His books on Twain and Dickens are studies of other writers who made liberal use of humor in their work. In Humor: Its Theory and Technique, the college professor brings his analytic powers to the study of comic writing. Books from the prolific writer’s last decade are Laugh Parade (1940), Our British Empire: Its Structure, Its History, Its Strength (1940), My Remarkable Uncle, and Other Sketches (1942), How to Write (1943), Last Leaves (1945), and The Boy I Left Behind Me (1946).

The sketches in Literary Lapses were actually written between 1891 and 1899, Leacock’s period as an unhappy schoolmaster, and had appeared in various periodicals. When he offered them to the publishers of his Elements of Political Science, they did not take the proposal seriously. He then printed the sketches at his own expense and, using a news company as distributor, sold three thousand copies in two months. Soon thereafter, the book was published in more conventional form, and Leacock’s career as a popular writer was launched.

In August, 1900, Leacock married Beatrix Hamilton of Toronto at the Little Church Around the Corner in New York City. He joined the University Club and, as he became more prosperous, established a summer home in Orillia, Ontario, Canada. Leacock’s humor is gently teasing (as opposed to the blistering satire of Twain, to whom he is often compared), but the residents of Orillia were deeply offended by Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. In August, 1915, his only son, Stephen Lushington Leacock, was born. Leacock’s wife died in 1925. Gradually, Leacock accumulated a host of honorary degrees: Litt.D., LL.D., and D.C.L.

Leacock’s comments on himself are usually so playful and self-mocking as to warn the reader against taking them at face value. For example, in the preface to Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, he offers his membership in the Political Science Association of America, the Royal Colonial Institute, and the Church of England as a proof of his respectability. He goes on to say that he is a member of the Canadian Conservative Party but has failed utterly at politics, since he has never been awarded a contract to build a bridge or anything else.

Following a throat operation, Leacock died in the General Hospital at Toronto on March 28, 1944. He was seventy-four years of age and left behind four chapters of his autobiography.