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...
(The entire section is 1127 words.)