Stephen Leacock

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Stephen Leacock World Literature Analysis

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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...

(This entire section contains 2137 words.)

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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 short stories, literary parodies, and mock-serious essays by an eccentric persona.

Literary Lapses is Leacock’s first book of humor. It is not an easy volume to classify. Russel Nye calls it a collection of esssays, but only a handful of the sketches are truly essays. It is composed of twenty-six short pieces, ranging from short stories to burlesques of severely condensed romantic novels to essays that solemnly develop mad premises. Leacock’s typical narrator is established in the very first sketch, “My Financial Career.” After several ludicrous missteps, he succeeds in opening his first bank account; then, because of the bank’s intimidating ambiance, he inadvertently draws a check for the total amount of his deposit. Thereafter, he keeps his savings in a sock.

The literary parodies, although comprising only a fraction of the text, appear to give the volume its title. “Lord Oxhead’s Secret” is subtitled “A Romance in One Chapter.” The peer’s daughter, Gwendoline, is a beautiful “girl” of thirty-three who is being courted by the dashing Edwin Einstein of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. At the climactic moment, as the father and the unsuitable suitor come face to face, Lord Oxhead falls dead, taking his secret with him to the grave. It is too complicated to be of interest anyway, concludes the narrator. In “Getting the Thread of It,” the narrator’s friend Sinclair attempts, by fits and starts, to familiarize him with the plot of the historical novel that Sinclair is reading. It is set in Italy in the time of Pius the something and features such characters as Carlo Carlotti the Condottiere and the Dog of Venice. “A Lesson in Fiction” is a sort of quiz on the modern melodramatic novel. The reader is asked to predict the behavior of the hero, Gaspard de Vaux, boy lieutenant, and is able to do so at every juncture of the plot. The critic in “Saloonio: A Study of Shakespearean Criticism” is Colonel Hogshead who, after amassing a fortune from cattle trading in Wyoming, has turned to the study of William Shakespeare. Unshakably fixed in his head is the idea that a character named Saloonio is central to the action of The Merchant of Venice (pr. c. 1596-1597, pb. 1600). This notion meets such spirited resistance from the narrator and others that Colonel Hogshead is actually driven to reading the play. The fact that no Saloonio appears in the text, the Colonel finds unpersuasive—the book in hand, he insists, is unlike those that he consulted in Wyoming.

The short stories often have absurdly tragic endings. In “The New Food,” Professor Plumb of the University of Chicago has invented a highly concentrated form of food. A happy family is gathered around the small pill that represents their 350-pound Christmas dinner, when baby Gustavus Adolphus snatches the pill and swallows it. The distracted mother gives him water, a fatal error. After the explosion, only the smiling lips of a child who has had thirteen Christmas dinners remain. In “Borrowing a Match,” the passerby of whom the narrator asks this favor eventually throws away all of his possessions and rips his clothing to shreds in search of the requested item. He finally extracts from the lining of his coat—a toothpick. The narrator pushes him under the wheels of a trolley car and runs. In “An Experiment with Policeman Hogan,” as the officer walks his beat in front of the Daily Eclipse at two o’clock in the morning, journalist Scalper is at work in the office above. Scalper writes a column in which he delineates the character of readers by examining their handwriting. As he moves from one sample of handwriting to the next, he drinks from a dark bottle, which he shares with Policeman Hogan by periodically lowering it to the street on the end of a string. Scalper’s analysis of each sample coincides suspiciously with the degree of his progressive inebriation, so that by five o’clock in the morning he is telling Emily, a timid maiden in her teens, that she is on the verge of delirium tremens and that her liquor habit is so advanced as to preclude all hope.

A few of these pieces are dated, but it is a testimony to Leacock’s understanding of human nature and to the subtlety of his style that the public found sketches written twenty years earlier still fresh and amusing. Indeed, a century after their composition, most are still fresh and amusing.

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

First published: 1912

Type of work: Short stories

A deadpan narrator amusingly describes the character types and the folkways of a fictional Canadian town.

The episodic plot of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town is developed through a conversation between Leacock’s chatty narrator and another resident, or former resident, of Mariposa. The reader takes the part of the former resident, whose responses are minimal and are recorded only occasionally as the narrator repeats them. Mariposa is a sunlit town of five thousand, according to the Canadian census, or ten thousand, according to the natives, lying along a hillside next to little Lake Wissanotti. The narrator is extremely proud of the progressive nature of Mariposa, the showplace of Missinaba County. He purports to take every occurrence at face value, never challenging the way that the characters represent their actions or their motives. The discrepancy between the interpretations of the narrator and those of the reader account for much of the book’s humor.

Leacock presents a fine gallery of small-town characters. Josh Smith is a hotel keeper who possesses an imposing size and manner, as well as a shadowy past. Some of his business practices are sharp almost to the point of criminality. He is also the deus ex machina of the novel. When, during the Knights of Pythias’s Excursion Day on Lake Wissanotti, the Mariposa Belle sinks (in six feet of water), it is Mr. Smith who raises her. When the heavily mortgaged (and insured) sanctuary of the Church of England burns to the ground, it is Mr. Smith who saves the rest of Mariposa. Evidence that Mr. Smith was seen earlier carrying a can of kerosene through the streets is quite sensibly dismissed by Judge Pepperleigh, who immediately finds for the Church of England and against the insurance company. In the novel’s penultimate chapter, Mr. Smith stands as the Conservative candidate from Missinaba County. He finds his inability to read and write no true impediment and, by means of his usual skillful maneuvering, defeats the long-entrenched Liberal member, John Henry Bagshaw.

Other residents of Mariposa are Jefferson Thorpe, barber and speculator in mining stocks; Golgotha Gingham, undertaker and longtime Liberal, who announces on the day of Mr. Smith’s election that he supported Bagshaw only with the deepest misgivings; Peter Pupkin, heroic junior bank teller who, along with Gillis, the caretaker, foils a robbery of the Exchange Bank at three o’clock one morning—both men fire at the intruder, and Pupkin is slightly wounded when the robber fires back (although, strangely, only two shots are heard by witnesses); and Myra Thorpe and Zena Pepperleigh, beauties who quicken the pulses of young Mariposan males. One of the most appealing characters is the elderly Dean Drone. The dean’s poor head for arithmetic has sunk his church deep into debt. He insists that the fault lies with the mathematical professor at the Anglican college who, fifty-two years earlier, stopped the lesson right at the point where the book discussed logarithms.

The final chapter in the book is an equal mixture of humor and nostalgia. The reader has become a rich businessman in the city. At the Mausoleum Club, he nods and dreams of returning to the little sunlit town of his birth. Yet, of course, he never has—and he never will.

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