Stephen Leacock World Literature Analysis - Essay

Stephen Leacock World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Leacock has often been compared to Mark Twain. Perhaps it is inevitable that any North American humorist who has won a wide reading audience and whose work is not largely urban and ethnic in nature will be compared to Twain. Moreover, it is true that superficial similarities between the two writers do exist. Both are at their best in the sketch or self-contained episode, and their books, even Twain’s novels, are usually collections of short pieces. Both gave humorous lectures that showed them to be skilled performers, as well as writers. Both use a prose that depends little upon quaintness or wordplay. The style of each is simple and straightforward, allowing the comedy to flow from the closely observed absurdities of daily life rather than from verbal pyrotechnics. Finally, of course, Leacock expressed his fascination with Twain by becoming his biographer.

The differences between the two writers, however, are as marked as the similarities. Twain’s satire, from his first book onward, is often characterized by antipathy and disgust for his subjects. Leacock’s dominant mood, on the other hand, is one of amused tolerance. Twain is more truly a writer of fiction. Leacock’s pieces are not usually short stories in the sense in which that term is traditionally applied. They are fictional to be sure, in that the reader has no illusions that those anecdotes featuring Leacock himself as protagonist recount actual occurrences. The author-narrator usually represents himself as a naïve bumbler, a persona belied by the skill of his storytelling. Apart from such anecdotes, the bulk of Leacock’s humor is parody. He wrote many hilarious spoofs of the romantic novels, detective stories, and theatrical melodramas of his day.

It could be argued that all humor is aggressive, that every joke is on someone. Humor is the result of someone’s embarrassment, discomposure, loss of status or control, however slight. The ways in which Twain and Leacock express this aggression mark the major difference between them. Leacock writes often about Prohibition in the United States, an undertaking by which he was both amused and bemused. Had Twain lived to see the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment, the reader can easily imagine the virulence with which he would have assaulted the fools, scoundrels, and hypocrites who would abridge the freedom of others through such a high-handed measure. Leacock, however, greeted the noble experiment of the Americans (and similar laws enacted in some Canadian provinces) with a feigned amazement and a gentle skepticism.

Leacock alludes obliquely to the professional stresses created by his books of humor. To his professional colleagues, he was first and foremost a political economist. To those most closely associated with him, he was the department head—the man who determined teaching assignments, who recommended raises in pay and promotions in rank. In the previously mentioned preface to Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, Leacock complains that many of his friends believe that he writes humorous trifles only in those hours during which he is too weary to perform his true work. He protests that the truth is the exact opposite of this notion, that his academic writing is easy, while his imaginative work is arduous and succeeds only upon occasion. He concludes that he would rather have written Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) than the entire Encyclopædia Britannica. There, Leacock compares himself, by implication, not to Twain but to Lewis Carroll, another gentle humorist and university professor. Leacock attests to the seriousness with which he approached the writing of humor in Humor: Its Theory and Technique and How to Write.

In typically self-deprecating fashion, Leacock writes that, immediately after he had lectured extensively on imperial organization throughout the British Empire, the Union of South Africa came into being, and riots and wars threatened the empire elsewhere. These events, he says with mock seriousness, will give the reader some idea of the importance of his addresses. The admirer of Leacock’s comic writings, however, should not make the same error in reverse that the author attributes to his academic colleagues. Leacok’s serious works are not insignificant.

In 1930, while putting together a collection of Leacock’s best comic pieces up to that time, the humorist’s editor writes that he polled more than a dozen of the wittiest minds of the day regarding what the selections should be. The single most requested piece was not humorous at all. It was a discussion of present-day education under the title, “Oxford as I See It.” Even though the volume is to be called Laugh with Leacock, the editor says that he is obliged to include this shrewd analysis in the collection. The presence of “Oxford as I See It,” surrounded by parodies, burlesques, and pieces of inspired nonsense, suggests a nice metaphor for Leacock’s work—the gift of wisdom and common sense found within the extravagantly wrapped package.

Literary Lapses

First published: 1910

Type of work: Short stories

This little book is a mixture of fanciful...

(The entire section is 2137 words.)