Stephen Leacock

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Stephen Leacock American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1679

Leacock’s literary achievement is largely in the mastery of the comic sketch. With the exception of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, all his full-length humorous books are really compilations of short pieces that are unrelated to each other. His art is basically that of the miniaturist, the literary material honed to a fine detail. His subject matter is wide-ranging, but always there is the appeal to the middle-class sensibility. The humor is often based on some form of frustration or mild victimization: the befuddlement of the little man in confronting the large, faceless corporate structure, as in “My Financial Career” (from Literary Lapses) or “How to Borrow Money”(from Short Circuits, 1928); the arch satire of the rich man’s sadness over the resignation of his butler, as in “Are the Rich Happy?” (from Further Foolishness); and even self-parody, as in “We Have with Us To-night” (from My Discovery of England, 1922), in which the narrator relates his annoyance at being misnamed or mistaken as the speaker on a lecture tour.

The typical sketch often begins with a calm, commonsense observation, as in the manner of a personal essay, but within the course of a few sentences, the piece starts to take off, unfurling into amiable nonsense.

Amiability is a key characteristic of the Leacock manner. The narrator is a genuinely kindhearted character in the piece. Never cruel or savage, the narrative voice is one of gentle bemusement, of benign recognition of life’s follies, with a compassion for those who fall victim to them. As a satirist, Leacock lacks the bite of anger. His humor does not seek to point out the ills of society, least of all to redress them.

If classic satire is curative in intention, Leacock’s is palliative. His narrative voice wants simply to exhibit and laugh at the silly side of human experience.

Part of Leacock’s narrative technique is the use of malapropisms and other forms of wordplay. In one of his classic literary parodies, for instance, titled “The Russian Drama” (from Over the Footlights, 1923), the narrator describes the setting of a post station in Siberia, a cold, bleak landscape where peasants drive “one-horse tarantulas” over the vast, “endless samovars.” Such parodies as this and others such “Cast Up by the Sea,” a spoof of a nineteenth century melodrama, were quite popular in their time but seem rather dated to modern readers. However, the cleverly selective use of malapropisms heightens the effect of irony already implicit in the tone.

Wordplay of a different kind is evident in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. The role of the narrator is a central element in the narrative structure. The voice is at times gently sarcastic, at times naïve, so that the effect is a balanced subtlety between personal involvement and controlled objectivity—between sympathy, even admiration, for the citizenry of the little town and a gentle archness at their doings.

Another distinguishing feature of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town is its unity. Unlike his other humorous books, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town is not a discontinuous collection of sketches on various subjects but a cycle of interrelated short stories. The stories are clustered around a common theme or central character, and the unifying principle is enhanced both by the narrative voice and by the fictional location of Mariposa, the small Canadian town in which the characters live.

Interestingly, Leacock’s technique of establishing a single setting in which characters enact their stories anticipates by several years similar devices. American poet Edgar Lee Masters, for example, produced his Spoon River Anthology three years later, in 1915. In this collection of poems, all the speakers are fellow townspeople, now dead, telling their verse dramas from their graves in the town cemetery. Sherwood Anderson published his influential Winesburg, Ohio in 1919, a collection of stories concerning tortured, frustrated men and women living in Winesburg who tell their stories to the putative narrator, the young newspaperman. Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town differs from its successors not only in subject matter and spirit—the stories are much more genial, as the title suggests—but also in narrative complexity, the narrator by his ambivalent position as both observer and participant playing a more active role in the book.

“My Financial Career”

First published: 1910 (collected in Literary Lapses, 1910)

Type of work: Comic sketch

An ordinary fellow trembles at the thought of going into a bank but gets up the nerve to open—and then close—an account.

“My Financial Career” is one of Leacock’s earliest pieces, appearing in his first published humorous book, Literary Lapses. One of his most anthologized works, this short sketch of less than two thousand words already treats one of Leacock’s favorite themes: the effect of economics on the lives of men. When one remembers that Leacock took his doctorate in economics, it is not surprising that this piece illustrates the Everyman’s fear and mistrust of the bank as institution. Typical of his best work, the sketch opens quickly with the narrator’s frank admission that banks and everything about them “rattle” him.

He confesses to falling into a state of near idiocy at any attempt to transact business but is determined, now that he has more than fifty dollars in his pocket, to open an account. Timidly, he asks to speak to the manager. The manager takes him into a private room, locks the door, and proceeds to assure the narrator of utmost security. Because of the narrator’s air of confidentiality and distrust, the manager assumes he is a private detective or that he has a large sum to invest. Learning that the narrator has only fifty-six dollars, he “unkindly” turns him over to a clerk.

The narrator is now flustered, mistakenly walks into the safe, and is eventually led to the clerk’s window, into which he thrusts the money. When assured that it had been deposited, the narrator quickly asks for a withdrawal slip. Meanwhile he feels that people in the bank are staring at him, thinking him a millionaire. Intimidated and miserable, he quickly withdraws his fifty-six dollars and rushes out. The sketch concludes with the narrator’s observation that he keeps his money in his pants pocket and his life savings in a sock.

The humor of the piece is achieved not only by the exaggerated situation but also by a skillful use of short clips of dialogue. The narrator’s psychological intimidation is clearly presented by an economy of detail in which the scene richly suggests more than it relates.

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

First published: 1912

Type of work: Short-story cycle

A fellow townsman of Mariposa relates the “adventures” of half a dozen characters, from the town’s richest man, Mr. Smith, to Mariposa’s shy little “hero,” Mr. Pupkin.

In his masterpiece Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, Leacock’s lifelong interests in economics and political science merge, resulting in a thematic unity not found in most of his other books. After a genial preface in which Leacock provides some autobiographical information—and in so doing prepares the reader for the narrative tone of naïveté mixed with sarcasm—the narrator, a fellow townsperson, establishes himself as the observer from whose point of view the reader is able to make a judgment about the characters.

The first of these is Mr. Josh Smith. Weighing in at three hundred pounds, Smith owns the town’s only hotel. Shrewd and slyly gregarious, Smith is reputed to be the richest man in Mariposa. He knows how to turn a profit and has even been fined by the License Commission for selling liquor after hours. In a financial venture intended to appease the commission while increasing business, he hires a French chef and opens a café in the hotel. The narrator’s tone suggests admiration at Smith’s business acumen.

Just down the street from the hotel is Jefferson Thorpe’s barber shop. Thorpe is talkative and enjoys the notoriety of being a shrewd investor. The narrator admires the fact that though “Jeff” has “Cuban lands” and even gold mines, he continues shaving his customers without raising his prices. By the end of the story, Jeff has obviously lost his money on scams, but the narrator still admires the town barber’s professional dedication.

In “The Marine Excursion of the Knights of Pythias,” the steamboat Mariposa Belle sinks in Lake Wissanotti—the depth was only a few feet—and Josh Smith “rescues” the passengers—and makes a huge profit—by providing rowboats by which they get safely ashore.

The town minister, Reverend Drone, is a dull preacher, delivering sermons spiced with Greek allusions and irrelevant details. His constant worry is that he cannot make the mortgage payments on the church. The town decides to raise money by a “Whirlwind Campaign,” a series of lunches at which money is pledged but never donated—a kind of pyramid scheme of promises. In the end, the church burns down, and Drone discovers that the church was insured for twice its value. The narrator is amazed at the coincidence.

Mr. Pupkin, the town banker, is in love with romance-reading Zena Pepperleigh, the judge’s daughter. Shy and mousy, as his name implies, Mr. Pupkin is embarrassed by his family. His father is a millionaire who has sent his son to remote Mariposa to get the taste of luxury out of his mouth. Zena expects Mr. Pupkin to be a storybook hero, free of the trappings of wealth. The young man’s problem is solved when he unexpectedly becomes a hero. He is knocked unconscious by a bank robber, and though the mystery of the Mariposa bank robbery is never solved, Mr. Pupkin’s “bravery” is rewarded with Zena’s hand in marriage.

The final segment ends with Mr. Smith running for mayor. He wins largely because he campaigned against a candidate who represented honesty and clean government.

The book closes with a nostalgic paeon to the little town, still as vivid to the narrator as it was thirty years earlier.

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Stephen Leacock World Literature Analysis