Stephen Leacock 1869–-1944
(Full name Stephen Butler Leacock) Canadian humorist, short story writer, essayist, biographer, and political economist.
The author of thirty-five volumes of humor and twenty-seven works on history, biography, criticism, economics, and political science, Leacock is best known for satirical sketches that poke fun at human foibles. Leacock's acknowledged masterpiece, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, is a collection of related stories that satirize the provinciality and pettiness of the inhabitants of a small Canadian town. It is the best example of his craft, and uses humor to contemplate the incongruities of life as well as human hypocrisy and pretense. The tone of Leacock's other major work, the collection Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich, is slightly darker but still uses amiable humor to attack corruption, self-interest, and concern with money and power in big city in North America. Leacock's conservative political stance is reflected in his humorous sketches of individualism, materialism, and worship of technology. Leacock's distinctive comic style, with its combination of British nonsense humor and understatement and American wit and exaggeration, made him the most popular humorist writing in English between 1910 and 1925. However, for many years his literary importance was overlooked by scholars, and some commentators considered his work lacking in seriousness and complexity. Critical reevaluation of his work has shifted this opinion, earning Leacock the reputation of Canada's comic master. Author and critic J. B. Priestly found Leacock's humor to express an essential Canadian quality, and the novelist Robertson Davies has called him “a humorist of distinguished gifts, with a range and brilliance not often equaled.”
Leacock was born in 1869 in Hampshire, England. In 1876 he moved with his family to a 100-acre farm a few miles south of Lake Simcoe near the village of Sutton, Ontario. Life on the farm with his ten brothers and sisters was strenuous. Leacock's father's heavy drinking, wanderings, and eventual disappearance compounded the family's financial difficulties. Leacock's mother, however, was determined to give her children a good education, and Leacock attended Upper Canada College in Toronto. Leacock then entered the University of Toronto on scholarship in 1887 to study modern and classical languages and literature. However, his studies were cut short because his mother needed financial assistance to help raise eight siblings. In 1888 Leacock enrolled in a three-month training course to qualify for teaching high school. After his training he taught first at Oxbridge High School then at Upper Canada College—an engagement that allowed him to continue his studies at the University of Toronto—where he completed his B.A. in 1891.
After earning his degree, Leacock began publishing humorous articles in periodicals. His first piece appeared in the Toronto humor magazine Grip, in 1894. He continued to publish humorous sketches in Canadian and American magazines throughout the 1890s. Leacock's interest in the writings of Thorsten Veblen led him to pursue graduate studies in political science and economics under Veblen at the University of Chicago in 1899. While a student at Chicago, Leacock married Beatrix Hamilton, an aspiring actress from Toronto. He completed his Ph.D. in 1903 and began lecturing at McGill University in Montreal. He was appointed full professor and chair of the political science and economics department in 1908, a post he held until his retirement in 1936.
In 1910, with the financial assistance of his brother George, Leacock published Literary Lapses, a collection of previously published writings. The volume sold extremely well and was followed the next year with Nonsense Novels, a compilation of parodies of some of the most popular genres of literature, which established his fame. In 1912 Leacock published Sunshine Sketches of Little Town, a work based in part on his summers spent in Orillia and on his own childhood experiences. It was immensely popular in Canada and the United States, and cemented Leacock's reputation as the foremost humorist in Canada. Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich, published in 1914 was also a major critical and popular success. In 1925, Leacock's wife died of breast cancer, and he thereafter committed himself to fundraising drives for cancer research.
Leacock also enjoyed a distinguished career as an academic, publishing works in political science, history, and economics and lecturing widely in Canada and abroad. He was known as a great lecturer and raconteur. Leacock also wrote two biographies, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens, His Life and Work. In 1935, he published Humour: Its Theory and Technique. After his retirement from McGill in 1936 Leacock went on a speaking tour in the west of Canada. The notes and speeches made on this month-long journey were published in My Discovery of the West: A Discussion of East and West in Canada, for which he won the Governor General's Award. In the following years, Leacock wrote various books about Canada, including Canada: The Foundations of Its Future, Montreal: Seaport and City, and Canada and the Sea. In late 1943 Leacock began writing his autobiography, but his work was cut short due to failing health. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in late 1943 and died on March 28, 1944.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Most of Leacock's collections of stories include pieces that appeared previously in various magazines. The pieces in his first published work, Literary Lapses, include stories, anecdotes, monologues, dialogues, parodies of literary works, and reflections on a variety of topics. The volume is full of lighthearted nonsense stories as well as one of Leacock's best-known and more serious pieces, “My Financial Career,” about a prototypical “little man” confronted by a an intimidating institution as he opens a bank account. In the story, Leacock treats with characteristic sympathy the honest and decent but powerless victim of an absurd and hostile world. Leacock's second volume, Nonsense Novels, a collection of burlesques of the popular fiction of his day, continues in the vein of the first collection. Among its inspired absurdities are the much-anthologized story “Gertrude the Governess; or, Simple Seventeen,” in which the hero Lord Ronald is said to have “flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.”
Leacock's two most important works stand apart from his other books of humor in their artistic unity and seriousness of purpose, as they move from burlesque and absurdity to more ambitious satire. Both are collections of interrelated stories about lives in fictional towns. In Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, Leacock's masterpiece, the narrator sets a tone of genial deprecation and bemusement as he comments on this lives of the inhabitants of Mariposa, with all their self-importance, pretensions, and hypocrisy. He barely conceals his glee at their follies and imperfections, but in the end the manner of the stories is kindly even as it depicts human weakness and imperfection. The most famous piece in the volume is “L'Envoi: The Train to Mariposa,” in which former residents, now urbanized, remember their “sunshine town.” The story captures Leacock's concern for the passing of human communities and the dangers that accompany the embracing of new technology and materialism. Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich, Leacock's second important volume, dissects life in an American city with sharper satire, and his portraits of corruption and self-deception have a sharp edge of criticism not found in Sunshine Sketches. The two collections together reveal Leacock's nostalgia and regret for the passing of simpler times and his concern for what results when human social ties are undermined by materialism.
Leacock produced hundreds of sketches in more than a dozen volumes of short fiction, but none have enjoyed the popularity or critical acclaim of Sunshine Sketches and Arcadian Adventures. Some critics have maintained that Leacock's work showed little sign of intellectual or artistic development after these two successes. Many of his later pieces, like those in his first two volumes, are exuberant nonsense, parodies, or light sketches that undermine popular stereotypes, ideas, institutions, and personalities. However, he did continue to produce excellent sketches throughout his career, notably “The Great Detective,” which parodies the detective-story genre, and “Boom Times,” a fictional story about this uncle, E. P. Leacock.
Leacock enjoyed enormous popular success with his short stories and sketches. Beginning with the publication of short pieces in magazines, he quickly found a large audience that appreciated his down-to-earth comic sensibility with its elements of silliness and absurdity. After the publication of Nonsense Novels, Leacock became North America's most popular humorist. After the publication of this book, Leacock published about one book of humor a year. Reviewers as well as readers appreciated his work, although some complained that his sketches relied too heavily on formula for their comic effect. Scholarly interest in Leacock's stories was minimal in the years following his death, and many who did study his work felt a sense of unfulfilled potential in his work. Some critics argued that because of his impoverished childhood Leacock felt he had to use uncritically the formulas that brought him commercial success. Others speculated that his insistence on using only kindly humor arrested his development as an artist. They suggested that Leacock backed away from the darker and more cynical view of humanity that is latent in Arcadian Adventures and returned instead to the lighthearted optimism of his earlier works. His inability to develop his pessimistic vision of humanity in the industrial age, it was argued, served to thwart his full development as an artist. Beginning in the 1960s, critics began to reassess Leacock's place in Canadian literature, and many found his work, particularly the pieces in Sunshine Sketches and Arcadian Adventures, to be more serious and modern than had been formerly perceived. Critical interest in Leacock's work has tended to concentrate on Sunshine Sketches, and scholars have examined the tales to understand, among other things, Leacock's use of satire, the relationship of the narrator to Leacock himself, and the unity of structure among the sketches. Other subjects of interest to critics of Leacock's work have been the persona of the “little man” or “common uncommon man” in his works and his ironic intent.