Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1863
SOURCE: “Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town,” in The Spectator, Vol. 109, No. 4391, August 24, 1912, pp. 277-78.
[In the following review of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, the critic calls the work an “exhilarating volume” that breaks new ground as Leacock moves away from “irresponsible fantasies and burlesques” to works that show a fresh and familiar look at humanity.]
Mr. Stephen Leacock, in a delightful autobiographical preface to his new volume, tells us that many of his friends are under the erroneous impression that he writes his humorous nothings in idle moments when the wearied brain is unable to perform the serious labours of the economist. (Mr. Leacock is head of the Department of Economics and Political Science at McGill University, Montreal.) His own experience is exactly the other way. “The writing of solid, instructive stuff, fortified by facts and figures, is easy enough. There is no trouble in writing a scientific treatise on the folk-lore of Central China, or a statistical inquiry into the declining population of Prince Edward's Island. But to write something out of one's own mind, worth reading for its own sake, is an arduous contrivance only to be achieved in fortunate moments, few and far between. Personally I would sooner have written Alice in Wonderland than the whole Encyclopædia Britannica.” Such sentiments are entirely reassuring, and afford a convincing earnest of the joys of perusing these jocund pages. At the same time we demur to Mr. Leacock's estimate of the frequency of his “fortunate moments.” This is not the first but the third volume in which he has contributed to the gaiety of the Old as well as the New World, and for a professor of two dismal sciences the contribution strikes us as decidedly liberal.
Hitherto Mr. Leacock has devoted his fortunate moments to irresponsible fantasies and burlesques. Here he breaks new ground as a chronicler of the annals of a small Canadian provincial town. But he is careful to tell us that Mariposa, on the shores of Lake Wissanotti, is not a real town: “on the contrary, it is about seventy or eighty of them.” Similarly the characters engaged are not portraits but composite photographs: they represent types, not individuals. We are quite content to accept Mr. Leacock's caveat: the important thing, from the point of view of the reader, is that they combine certain local characteristics with a great deal of essential humanity—freshness with familiarity. The peculiar attribute of the Mariposans is their youth and hopefulness. He does well to call his chapters Sunshine Sketches, for they have a most welcome freedom from the fashionable pessimism of old-world fiction. The Mariposans have their ups and downs, but they have an invincible resilience; an unquenchable belief in their town and its future; an inexhaustible fund of public spirit. They combine ferocious political partisanship with a complete social solidarity. When the Knights of Pythias—a society nominally devoted to the Temperance cause—give their annual picnic everybody joins in:—
“In Mariposa practically everybody belongs to the Knights of Pythias just as they do to everything else. That's the great thing about the town and that's what makes it so different from the city. Everybody is in everything. You should see them on the seventeenth of March, for example, when everybody wears a green ribbon and they're all laughing and glad,—you know what the Celtic nature is,—and talking about Home Rule. On St. Andrew's Day every man in town wears a thistle and shakes hand with everybody else and you see the fine old Scotch honesty beaming out of their eyes. And on St. George's Day!—well, there's no heartiness like the good old English spirit after all; why shouldn't a man feel glad that he's an Englishman? Then on the Fourth of July there are stars and stripes flying over half the stores in town, and suddenly all the men are seen to smoke cigars, and to know all about Roosevelt and Bryan and the Philippine Islands. Then you learn for the first time that Jeff Thorpe's people came from Massachusetts and that his uncle fought at Bunker Hill (it must have been Bunker Hill—any way Jefferson will swear it was in Dakota all right enough); and you find that George Duff has a married sister in Rochester and that her husband is all right; in fact, George was down there as recently as eight years ago. Oh, it's the most American town imaginable is Mariposa—on the Fourth of July. But wait, just wait, if you feel anxious about the solidity of the British connexion, till the twelfth of the month, when everybody is wearing an orange streamer in his coat and the Orangemen (every man in town) walk in the big procession. Allegiance! Well, perhaps you remember the address they gave to the Prince of Wales on the platform of the Mariposa station as he went through on his tour to the west. I think that pretty well settled that question.”
In one sense the Mariposans recall the attitude of the Irishman who said, “I love action, but I hate work.” Their social, convivial, and political activities are immense, but they seem to have no regular business hours. The centre of the town is Josh Smith's Hotel, and the central figure of these pages is Josh Smith himself, a man who started life as a cook in the lumber shanties, who could not read, and who looked like an overdressed pirate. His methods were Napoleonic in their unscrupulousness, but underneath a rough exterior he concealed a kind heart. In any emergency Smith took command and inspired universal confidence. He was at once lavish and shrewd: “never drunk, and, as a point of chivalry to his customers, never quite sober”; finally, as a political candidate, he was irresistible, as the following passage sufficiently proves:—
“I wish that I were able to narrate all the phases and the turns of the great contest from the opening of the campaign till the final polling day. But it would take volumes. First of all, of course, the trade question was hotly discussed in the two newspapers of Mariposa, and the Newspacket and the Times-Herald literally bristled with statistics. Then came interviews with the candidates and the expression of their convictions in regard to tariff questions. ‘Mr. Smith,’ said the reporter of the Mariposa Newspacket ‘we'd like to get your views of the effect of the proposed reduction of the differential duties.’ ‘By gosh, Pete,’ said Mr. Smith, ‘you can search me. Have a cigar.’ ‘What do you think, Mr. Smith, would be the result of lowering the ad valorem British preference and admitting American goods at a reciprocal rate?’ ‘It's a corker, ain't it?’ answered Mr. Smith. ‘What'll you take, lager or domestic?’ And in that short dialogue, Mr. Smith showed that he had instantaneously grasped the whole method of dealing with the Press. The interview in the paper next day said that Mr. Smith, while unwilling to state positively that the principle of tariff discrimination was at variance with sound fiscal science, was firmly of opinion that any reciprocal interchange of tariff preferences with the United States must inevitably lead to a serious per capita reduction of the national industry. ‘Mr. Smith,’ said the chairman of a delegation of the manufacturers of Mariposa, ‘what do you propose to do in regard to the tariff if you're elected?’ ‘Boys,’ answered Mr. Smith, ‘I'll put her up so darned high they won't never get her down again.’ ‘Mr. Smith,’ said the chairman of another delegation, ‘I am an old free trader—’ ‘Put it there,’ said Mr. Smith, ‘so'm I. There ain't nothing like it.’ ‘What do you think about imperial defence?’ asked another questioner. ‘Which?’ said Mr. Smith. ‘Imperial defence.’ ‘Of what?’ ‘Of everything.’ ‘Who says it?’ said Mr. Smith. ‘Everybody is talking of it.’ ‘What do the Conservative boys at Ottaway think about it?’ answered Mr. Smith. ‘They're all for it.’ ‘Well, I'm fer it too,’ said Mr. Smith.”
Most of the characters in these pages are engaged in trade or business, but there is one charming exception in the person of the Rev. Dean Drone, the incumbent of the Anglican Church, a gentle old scholar, whose only grievance was that his early instructors had never taught him enough mathematics to grapple with the intricacies of church finance. The failure of his various schemes to extricate himself from the burden of debt—the result of an over-lavish expenditure on bricks and mortar—culminating in a “Whirlwind Campaign,” exhibits Mr. Leacock in the new light of a humorist who combines a keen sense of the ludicrous with a genuine gift of pathos. Another most engaging character is the local Judge, of whose judicial temper we get many diverting examples:—
“When the Conservatives got in anywhere, Pepperleigh laughed and enjoyed it, simply because it does one good to see a straight, fine, honest fight where the best man wins. When a Liberal got in, it made him mad, and he said so—not, mind you, from any political bias, for his office forbid it—but simply because one can't bear to see the country go absolutely to the devil. I suppose, too, it was partly the effect of sitting in court all day listening to cases. One gets what you might call the judicial temper of mind. Pepperleigh had it so strongly developed that I've seen him kick a hydrangea pot to pieces with his foot because the accursed thing wouldn't flower. He once threw the canary cage clear into the lilac bushes because the ‘blasted bird wouldn't stop singing.’ It was a straight case of judicial temper. Lots of judges have it, developed in just the same broad, all-round way as with Judge Pepperleigh.
I think it must be passing sentences that does it. Anyway, Pepperleigh had the aptitude for passing sentences so highly perfected that he spent his whole time at it inside of court and out. I've heard him hand out sentences for the Sultan of Turkey and Mrs. Pankhurst and the Emperor of Germany that made one's blood run cold. He would sit there on the piazza of a summer evening reading the paper, with dynamite sparks flying from his spectacles, and he sentenced the Czar of Russia to ten years in the salt mines—and made it fifteen a few minutes afterwards. Pepperleigh always read the foreign news—the news of things that he couldn't alter—as a form of wild and stimulating torment.”
The speculations of Jeff Thorpe, the little barber, who made a small fortune in the mining boom and fell a speedy prey to some Cuban flat-catchers; and the romance of Mr. Pupkin, the little bank clerk, who was afraid to tell his sweetheart that his father was a millionaire, afford congenial scope for Mr. Leacock's skill in handling sentiment in a spirit of kindly satire. There is no bitterness in his laughter, and the epilogue, in which he pictures the dream visit of an exiled Mariposan to the Little Town in the Sunshine, closes an exhilarating volume on a note of tender reminiscence rare in a modern humorist.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1645
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.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 771
SOURCE: “Leacock at Large,” in New York Herald Tribune Books, Vol. 12, No. 6, December 1, 1929, p. 40.
[In the following review of The Iron Man and the Tin Woman, With Other Such Futurities, Cuppy remarks that the tales contain a great deal of satiric intent but that they allow for serious thinking between laughs.]
Anything by Stephen Leacock has the very considerable advantage to start with of being by Stephen Leacock. Otherwise Mr. Leacock doesn't seem to do very much about it here lately—and why, his legions of fans may well ask, should he? Isn't he the granddaddy of most of the young speed demons whose humorous essays. If faster and more furious, are not really much better, if the truth were known? Which is by no means to say that Mr. Leacock is slow—perish the thought!
Indeed loyal Leacockians are not likely to complain because their favorite author sets a more decorous pace than sometimes of old. These forty-four “little sketches of today and tomorrow” contain a deal of satiric intent which can do with occasional resting spots between laughs—and the fun is that you may take them as purposeful or not, even to the point of doing a little serious thinking in the clinches. If you are worried about the machine age you may accept “The Iron Man and the Tin Woman” as an entertaining prophecy of what we are coming to if not, it's just a typically gay hit or miss collection of Leacockisms—moonbeams for the larger lunacy, mental short circuits, astonishing blooms from the garden of folly and so on.
Those who are always a bit miffed because the latest Leacock book is not entitled “Nonsense Novels” may well turn first to the section entitled “Futurity in Fiction” and glue themselves to a burlesque mystery tale called “Long After Bedtime.” Consider the damning facts detailed in the opening paragraphs. We are aware of a sinister house known as No. 4 John Street (“No. 1 stood first, while No. 2 was just above it. No. 3 coming next in order, and No. 4 being the fourth, or last, of the group”). It is occupied by the family of Mr. John Smith, a stock broker's confidential clerk, reputed as rather above the average as a bridge player, but with no ear for music.
On the night in question, to use Mr. Leacock's own words, the entire Smith household seems to have been in bed and asleep well before midnight. The side bedroom on the right is occupied by the two little girls of the family. Flora and Dora, aged respectively eleven and thirteen. The other side bedroom is occupied by Willie Smith, aged respectively twelve—and remember that Willie could imitate a dog barking. The room at the back is occupied by the maid, Frieda Helsenfish, a Finn, though there seems to have been no reason to connect her with the Finnish Revolution. So far so good.
Now note how Mr. Leacock builds up his suspense almost, if not quite, to the breaking point “At 2 a. m. Mr. Smith, who was never a heavy sleeper, seems to have rolled over in bed. There is no reason to suppose, however, that he rolled far or that he was not able to roll back again. Mrs. Smith appears to have waked up for a moment and said. ‘What's the matter’ Smith answered. ‘Nothing, I just rolled over in bed.’ Mrs. Smith said, ‘Oh,' perhaps ‘Ah.’ … At 3 a. m. the family were still asleep. … The milkman did not notice any broken panes of glass. The man, however, was short-sighted, was new to his route and came from Bobcaygeon, Ontario.” I forgot to mention that none of the Smith children had ever shown any tendencies towards somnambulism, hysteria or locomotor ataxia.
Lovers of Leacock parody will find much besides to interest them in this hilarious section anent the newer biography, tabloidism, literary scandals and the encyclopedias, the victims being George Washington, Columbus, Bruce and the spider. Adam, Noah, Tut-ankh-Amen and such. That leaves almost a whole book to examine at leisure for pointers on specialization, social regulation, radio, aviation, athletics, astronomy, travel, Mars, Willie Nut, college, golf, billiards and unclassified. Many of the sketches are those “what would happen if” and “what will happen when” affairs, permitting Mr. Leacock to range widely and wildly in time and space. As for his little story about Iron John and Tin Lizzie just folks who fell in love and were married by a Brass Clergyman and a Cast Iron Sexton to the music of a Metal Choir, one can only venture that there is much in what he says.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 198
Literary Lapses: A Book of Sketches 1910
Nonsense Novels 1911
Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town 1912
Behind the Beyond, and Other Contributions to Human Knowledge 1913
Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich 1914
Further Foolishness: Sketches and Satires on the Follies of the Day 1916
Frenzied Fiction 1918
The Hohenzollerns in America, with the Bolsheviks in Berlin and Other Impossibilities 1919
Winsome Winnie and Other New Nonsense Novels 1920
The Garden of Folly 1924
The Iron Man and the Tin Woman, with Other Such Futurities 1929
Laugh with Leacock: An Anthology 1930
The Dry Pickwick and Other Incongruities 1932
Funny Pieces 1936
Here Are My Lectures and Stories 1937
Model Memoirs and Other Sketches from Simple to Serious 1938
My Remarkable Uncle and Other Sketches 1942
Happy Stories, Just to Laugh 1943
Elements of Political Science (nonfiction) 1906; revised 1921
Baldwin, Lafontaine, Hincks: Responsible Government (biography) 1907
The Methods of Mr. Sellyer: A Book Store Study 1914
The Dawn of Canadian History 1914
Moonbeams from the Larger Lunacy (novel) 1915
Essays and Other Literary Studies 1916
My Discovery of England (essays) 1922
Economic Prosperity of the British Empire (nonfiction) 1930
Mark Twain (biography) 1932
Charles Dickens, His Life and Work (biography) 1933
Humor: Its Theory and Technique, with Examples and Samples; A Book of Discovery (essays) 1935
Last Leaves (essays) 1935
The Boy I Left Behind Me (autobiography) 1946
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5776
SOURCE: “The Enchanted Houses: Leacock's Irony,” in Canadian Literature, No. 23, Winter, 1965, pp. 31-44.
[In the following essay, Cameron examines how Leacock sees the characters and their actions in Sunshine Sketches.]
Critical discussions of Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town revolve about two central questions, upon each of which the critics are sharply divided. The first of these deals with the book's distinctive flavour: is it sharply satiric, or is it composed of kind and fundamentally affectionate comedy? The second question is concerned more with characterization and structure, and with the mind and motives of Leacock himself, the issue being whether or not the book is a tentative, exploratory step in the direction of the fully articulated novel, and therefore whether Leacock achieved his full potentialities as a writer.
Obviously, the two questions are logically related. The first turns on Leacock's relation to his material, on the way in which he saw the material and the way in which he intended his reader to see it. So, essentially, does the second: the novelist's concern is with plot and character treated in terms of certain conventions for which Professor Ian Watt has suggested the term “formal realism”.1 Those who feel that Leacock could never have been a novelist commonly maintain that Leacock did not see his characters, or their actions, in terms of formal realism—which is another way of saying that Leacock's approach to his material is incompatible with the novel form. A detailed discussion of Leacock's work in relation to the novel is hardly possible here, but the view of human character and action which we shall see in Leacock's best book does not seem substantially different from that of such a comic novelist as Fielding.
Our concern, then, is with the terms in which Leacock sees both the people who inhabit his book and their actions. We may call this his vision. What is the characteristic quality of this vision?
For Desmond Pacey, the vision of Sunshine Sketches is fundamentally kindly; in The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice (1920), modern industrial civilization is criticized from the viewpoint of a benevolent eighteenth-century country squire; and
In his greatest book of humour, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912), Leacock uses gentle irony to suggest the same general outlook. Here he creates an idyll of a small community. … 2
A little later in the same essay, Professor Pacey refers to the book's “genial satire”, and he concludes, “The satire in Sunshine Sketches is … very mild and gentle.”
Robertson Davies, on the other hand, sees the book as “ferocious and mordant”. He goes on:
What it says, if we boil it down, is that the people of Mariposa were a self-important, gullible, only moderately honest collection of provincial folk; they cooked their election, they burned down a church to get the insurance, they exaggerated the most trivial incidents into magnificent feats of bravery; the sunshine in which the little town is bathed seems very often to be the glare of the clinician's lamp, and the author's pen is as sharp as the clinician's scalpel.3
A third position is outlined by Malcolm Ross. After reviewing the disagreement between Davies and Pacey, Ross makes the point that their two positions may not be such uneasy bedfellows as it might at first appear. Leacock, he suggests, is not a satirist:
Because he loves what he hates. And he is not bribed into loving what he hates. … He just can't help it. To attack and defend, to love and hate in one breath, is not the genius of satire but the genius of irony, the subtler art, the deeper wisdom.4
For all this difference of opinion about Leacock's vision, no one has so far offered a close examination of specific passages in the book as a useful means of approaching the question. That is the approach I want to take now. What we will find may be clearer if we bear in mind that the satirist must distinguish sharply between himself and his characters, while the writer of pathos, in contrast, asks not that we observe and judge his characters but that we understand them and identify with them. And the ironist feels both things at once. Seeing the character both from within and without, the ironist simultaneously observes and forgives his weaknesses; he combines the viewpoints of satire and pathos.
Moreover, the ironist's view of character implies an awareness of a leading fact about the human condition: man is at once both social and individual. As a social being, he has a relationship with his fellows, and the relationship carries responsibilities. When he fails to live up to those responsibilities, he is a legitimate object of satire. On the other hand, he is an individual; seen in terms of his own makeup and the forces acting upon it, his failings in the social sphere are understandable, and he may even take on a kind of nobility. The ironic view of character provides a means of reflecting in literature the full complexity of this dual condition.
I want to suggest that although Leacock's vision in Sunshine Sketches appears at first to be satiric, and although a large element of the book is in fact satiric, its overall vision is ironic, and in its best passages we are aware, however imperfectly, that we are in the presence of basic questions about the nature of truth and the nature of man. Leacock usually begins with an external view of his characters and comes gradually to suggest their inner lives as well; we begin in satire, but we end in irony.
To see how this change takes place, we may examine several passages in some detail. In the following passage, Leacock is satirizing the romantic illusions of Zena Pepperleigh:
With hands clasped she would sit there dreaming all the beautiful day-dreams of girlhood. When you saw that far-away look in her eyes, it meant that she was dreaming that a plumed and armoured knight was rescuing her from the embattled keep of a castle beside the Danube. At other times she was being borne away by an Algerian corsair over the blue waters of the Mediterranean and was reaching out her arms towards France to say farewell to it.5
During several more paragraphs of roughly the same kind, Leacock broadens his satire to include the girls of Mariposa in general: “… all the girls in Mariposa were just like that.” The edge of the satire is sharpened by contrasting the girls' dreams with their actual situation—gently at first (we see them against “a background of maple trees and the green grass of a tennis court”) and then more incisively:
And if you remember, too, that these are cultivated girls who have all been to the Mariposa high school and can do decimal fractions, you will understand that an Algerian corsair would sharpen his scimitar at the very sight of them.
We are seeing these girls from the outside, and we continue to do so until the last sentence of the next paragraph. Here is the paragraph:
Don't think either that they are all dying to get married; because they are not. I don't say they wouldn't take an errant knight, or a buccaneer or a Hungarian refugee, but for the ordinary marriages of ordinary people they feel nothing but a pitying disdain. So it is that each one of them in due time marries an enchanted prince and goes to live in one of the little enchanted houses in the lower part of the town.
Something has changed; the illusion has become the reality. Leacock has gone over to the girls' point of view and is looking at the world through their eyes; the world as they find it really is the romantic place they thought it to be, and they are not disappointed in their hopes. When we were laughing at illusion, moreover, we were actually laughing at truth; the laughter now must be at our own expense, since we ourselves seem to have mistaken truth for illusion. To make it even more clear, Leacock continues:
I don't know whether you know it, but you can rent an enchanted house in Mariposa for eight dollars a month, and some of the most completely enchanted are the cheapest. As for the enchanted princes, they find them in the strangest places, where you never expected to see them, working—under a spell, you understand—in drug-stores and printing offices, and even selling things in shops. But to be able to find them you have first to read ever so many novels about Sir Galahad and the Errant Quest and that sort of thing.
Clearly, Leacock is giving us an inside view of the girls' world; from their viewpoint, what we have considered to be appearance has become reality. But there is a further twist of the irony here. So far, Leacock has been saying, essentially, that there is no way to say that one view of the girls' dreams is truer than the other; it is a purely subjective question. But we may recall that the passage began by discussing Zena Pepperleigh in particular, and as the story unfolds we discover that her dream of marrying an enchanted prince is literally true, if on a limited scale; Pupkin, the man she does eventually marry, is working as a bank clerk more or less incognito. His father, one of the wealthiest men in the Maritimes and a former Attorney General, is a financier who “blew companies like bubbles” and who owns Tidal Transportation Company, Fundy Fisheries Corporation and the Paspebiac Pulp and Paper Unlimited. Pupkin, the only son and heir apparent, who has been sent into the world to make his own name and fortune, is in actual fact a merchant prince.6
The motif of the enchanted houses reappears as we leave that part of the book which centres around Pupkin and Zena:
So Pupkin and Zena in due course of time were married, and went to live in one of the enchanted houses on the hillside in the newer part of the town, where you may find them to this day.
You may see Pupkin there at any time cutting enchanted grass on a little lawn in as gaudy a blazer as ever.
But if you step up to speak to him or walk with him into the enchanted house, pray modulate your voice a little—musical though it is—for there is said to be an enchanted baby on the premises whose sleep must not lightly be disturbed.
It is still funny: Pupkin is still essentially a comic character, and once again the reader himself is partially the object of the fun. But the passage is irradiated with Leacock's feeling for both the outside of the house, which is comic, and the inside, the wonder and joy of marriage and family. The humour is based on a paradox: the lover as seen by other men is absurdly foolish and richly comic, but at the same time he inhabits a world which for him is utterly transformed into something fresh, golden and magnificent. That Leacock did see his lovers this way, is confirmed by a passage in his own voice:
For you see, it is the illusion that is the real reality. I think that there are only two people who see clearly (at least as to one another), and these are two young lovers, newly fallen in love. They see one another just as they really are, namely, a Knight Errant and a Fairy. But who realizes that that old feller shuffling along in spats is a Knight Errant, too, and that other is a Fairy, that bent old woman knitting in the corner.
This illusion, greater than reality, we grasp easily in the form of what we call art—our books, our plays.7
If we were to examine the whole book in detail, we would find that Leacock's development of character often follows the pattern we have seen in Pupkin. Pepperleigh, for instance, seems at first to be a simple caricature of the country judge: he is rabidly Conservative, ill-tempered and pompous, and his judgements are clearly dictated by his private interests—he acquits his son of an assault charge, and he forces the insurance company to pay for the burnt church. Yet when his son is killed in South Africa, Pepperleigh's pain and the support he derives from his wife display a human being within the caricature.
Similarly, Josh Smith makes dramatic changes in his hotel in order to draw people so that his liquor license will be renewed by popular request; we know he is cynically manipulating his fellow citizens, and that he intends to close the Caff and the Rats Cooler as soon as the license is renewed. Yet the kindly, sympathetic side of the man becomes visible when, at the crucial moment, he does not close up, because to do so would be petty and ungrateful. Jeff Thorpe likewise seems to be a selfish, acquisitive little man, but we discover he intends to use his wealth for the poor and the disabled—though Leacock undercuts Jeff's generous spirit by making his arithmetic suspiciously faulty (pp. 58-59). This pattern is not a formula, nor is it invariable—nothing of the kind happens in the election chapters, for instance—but it is pervasive enough to suggest that it represents one of Leacock's chief beliefs about his characters.
Even minor actions in the book often owe their appeal to this ironic vision. When the Mariposa Belle is sinking in less than six feet of water, part of the fun turns on Leacock's awareness of the difference between the way the event looks to an outsider—the reader—and the way it looks if you are on the steamer:
Safe! Oh, yes! Isn't it strange how safe other people's adventures seem after they happen. But you'd have been scared, too, if you'd been there just before the steamer sank, and seen them bringing up all the women on to the top deck.
Two paragraphs later the narrator has forgotten what he said in the first flush of excitement, and now he scorns the danger too:
Really, it made one positively laugh! It sounded so queer and, anyway, if a man has a sort of natural courage, danger makes him laugh. Danger? pshaw! fiddlesticks! everybody scouted the idea. Why, it is just the little things like this that give zest to a day on the water.
Reversing his usual movement, Leacock has abandoned his position beside the narrator and is now inviting us to laugh at the latter's inconsistency.
Perhaps the best illustration of Leacock's irony is afforded by the Reverend Rupert Drone, Dean of the Anglican Church. Dean Drone at first appears to be no more than a caricature of the simple country cleric. His name suggests this; so does his first appearance in the book, just after Josh Smith has begun his flamboyant career as proprietor of the old Royal Hotel:
When the Rev. Dean Drone led off with a sermon on the text “Lord be merciful even unto this publican Matthew Six,” it was generally understood as an invitation to strike Mr. Smith dead.
Through the first four chapters, Dean Drone remains a figure who appears only occasionally, and then for satiric purposes. (He goes on the Marine Excursion of the Knights of Pythias, for instance, with “a trolling line in case of maskinonge, and a landing net in case of pickerel, and with his eldest daughter, Lillian Drone, in case of young men.”) In the fourth chapter he becomes somewhat individualized; we discover that he loves to read Greek, though he refuses to translate any; he cannot do mathematics; he is much impressed by such mechanical contrivances as the airplane. And he has had his great dream: the building of a new church.
But now that the new church has been built, Dean Drone finds it difficult to pay for. A series of attempts to raise money all result in comic catastrophe. Some members of the congregation begin to blame Mr. Drone, and we discover that he can be hurt. Leacock records the incident with a sympathy which, though it is flecked with humour, is remarkably unequivocal:
Once … the rector heard some one say: “The Church would be all right if that old mugwump was out of the pulpit.” It went to his heart like a barbed thorn, and stayed there.
You know, perhaps, how a remark of that sort can stay and rankle, and make you wish you could hear it again to make sure of it, because perhaps you didn't hear it right, and it was a mistake after all. Perhaps no one said it, anyway. You ought to have written it down at the time. I have seen the Dean take down the encyclopedia in the rectory, and move his finger slowly down the pages of the letter M, looking for mugwump. But it wasn't there. I have known him, in his little study upstairs, turn over the pages of the “Animals of Palestine,” looking for a mugwump. But there none there. It must have been unknown in the greater days of Judea.
The Dean's gentleness, his respect for scholarship and his unworldliness all unite to make us feel his pain, and Leacock's direct reference to the reader (“You know, perhaps …”) is an appeal for sympathy. From this point on, Dean Drone is never again the simple figure of fun he once was.
When the term “mugwump” comes up again, its effect is terrible. The climax of the Church's fund-raising efforts is the Whirlwind Campaign, which is another financial failure, and Mullins, the chairman of the Campaign, comes to give the Dean one hundred dollars which Mullins has himself contributed. Mullins later reports that the rector has been very quiet:
Indeed, the only time when the rector seemed animated and excited in the whole interview was when Mullins said that the campaign had been ruined by a lot of confounded mugwumps. Straight away the Dean asked if those mugwumps had really prejudiced the outcome of the campaign. Mullins said there was no doubt of it, and the Dean enquired if the presence of mugwumps was fatal in matters of endeavour, and Mullins said that it was. Then the rector asked if even one mugwump was, in the Christian sense, deleterious, Mullins said that one mugwump would kill anything. After that the Dean hardly spoke at all.
The serious discussion of mugwumps is comic, but we are aware that something dreadful is happening to the Dean. Soon he excuses himself on the ground that he has some letters to write, but:
The fact is that Dean Drone was not trying to write letters, but only one letter. He was writing a letter of resignation. If you have not done that for forty years it is extremely difficult to get the words.
The flat simplicity and the understatement of those sentences are heartbreaking. They are succeeded by a passage equally heartbreaking, in which Leacock's irony reaches perhaps its peak in the whole book; only the “Envoi” can compare with it. The Dean's efforts to write the letter lead him into some hilarious thickets of syntax and meaning. The sense of the letter keeps changing; each draft contradicts the previous one, and finally the letter looks like this:
“There are times, gentlemen, in the life of a parish, when it comes to an epoch which bring it to a moment when it reaches a point … where the circumstances of the moment make the epoch such as to focus the life of the parish in that time.”
Yet the context in which this comedy occurs is the moment of final defeat for a good old man who has given his whole life to the charge he is now resigning; who has striven to serve both his gentle God and the community of which he is a devoted member; who has tried, in his humble, unworldly, rather bumbling way to leave the world a better place than he found it. Leacock snaps this essentially bitter moment into perspective by showing us that the Dean has met defeat even on the ground of his pride in his use of language. It has always been an ill-founded pride, and it has given us considerable amusement; now the Dean, too, sees the truth:
Then the Dean saw that he was beaten, and he knew that he not only couldn't manage the parish but couldn't say so in proper English, and of the two the last was the bitterer discovery.
concludes the scene:
He raised his head, and looked for a moment through the window at the shadow of the church against the night, so outlined that you could almost fancy that the light of the New Jerusalem was beyond it. Then he wrote, and this time not to the world at large but only to Mullins:
“My dear Harry, I want to resign my charge. Will you come over and help me?”
In that last passage, the irony twists again. First, of course, we notice that the church is seen through the rector's eyes: “the light of the New Jerusalem” is an example of the comically elaborate religious terms and images through which he sees the world. But the deeper irony arises from the fact that there really is a light behind the church, though it is not the light of the New Jerusalem. It is the light of flames: the church is burning at the hands of an arsonist who we are later led to believe is Josh Smith. In order to solve its financial problems, the congregation fires its church; and the irony of this act is complex. It defeats the moral, the religious and the unworldly virtues which Dean Drone stands for—and for what? To solve a problem which is financial and worldly: men, Leacock seems to be saying, do not even understand, let alone obey, religious codes of conduct. The fire destroys all the Dean's illusions about the instruction he has given his flock in moral and ethical matters. Not only does the fire destroy the substance of the Dean's achievement, however, a substance which was rooted in his effectiveness as a Christian leader, but also it destroys the physical church which was the symbol of his achievement. By a further irony, the Dean himself has caused the fire, however inadvertently, through his own mismanagement. And, in a final ironic thrust, we discover that the destruction of this church, which is heavily over-insured, will completely finance a new church. The Dean's symbol is retained, but the fire which allows Mariposa to retain it obliterates its meaning and spirit.
It seems the Dean realizes something of what the burning of the church implies—or perhaps his reaction is simply one of shock:
So stood the Dean, and as the church broke thus into a very beacon kindled upon a hill—sank forward without a sign, his face against the table, stricken.8
The Dean recovers from his stroke, but he is never fully sane again; still a gentle old man, but now remote from the world, he suffers from hallucinations, and Leacock takes leave of him in a passage which, though coloured with humour, is suffused with compassion:
So you will understand that the Dean's mind, [sic] is, if anything, even keener, and his head even clearer than before. And if you want proof of it, notice him there beneath the plum blossoms reading in the Greek: he has told me that he finds he can read, with the greatest ease, works in the Greek that seemed difficult before. Because his head is so clear now.
And sometimes—when his head is very clear—as he sits there reading beneath the plum blossoms, he can hear them singing beyond, and his wife's voice.
Once again there is direct reference to the reader, too: “you will understand.” Looking back over the passages we have examined, you are struck by the number of such references, and by the fact that there are two extra characters in each scene: the narrator and the reader. As we have seen, neither is exempt from Leacock's humourous scrutiny. In fact, much of the humour of the book is based on the interplay among the inhabitants of Mariposa, the narrator (who is evidently not Leacock), and the reader.
The Narrator is naïve, unsophisticated, baffled by such abstractions as election issues; a Mariposan to the core, he is something of a Booster and he usually seems quite unaware of moral issues. Like Gulliver at the court of Brobdingnag, he often tells a true story which he expects will display the glories of his home, but which instead exposes its hypocrisy, immorality and pettiness. Such a character is an ideal vehicle of satire, and indeed the narrator does quite unconsciously direct a good deal of the book's satiric thrust. But he is balanced by the reader, and possession of the “real” truth constantly passes back and forth between the two.
This reader-narrator interplay begins the book: the narrator, who knows what Mariposa is “really” like, shows the reader around the town, demonstrating that the surface impression is not the actual truth. (“But this quiet is mere appearance. In reality, and to those who know it, the place is a perfect hive of activity.”) Is the narrator right in this and in his other comments on Mariposa? Perhaps—and perhaps not. In the first and last chapters, Leacock's equivocating irony is brought to bear on both the city and the little town. Each has virtues which the other cannot share; each has shortcomings to which the other is immune. The wider scope which the city offers is necessarily accompanied by cold impersonality, while the small town, which provides warmth and community, lacks privacy and tends to stifle initiative. The Mariposan view of the city is instructive here. The town usually sees the city as treacherous and malign: for instance, Mullins reflects, after the Whirlwind Campaign has failed, that there are “so many skunks in Mariposa that a man might as well be in the Head Office in the city” (p. 131), and similar remarks are made throughout the book. Yet, as Desmond Pacey has pointed out, Mariposa spends a great deal of energy in trying to become a metropolis, and the narrator's comment that the town is “a hive of activity” is further evidence of this desire. There is irony, then, in Mariposa's view of the city, an irony which reflects the town's simultaneous rejection of, and longing for, city values. The overall effect of Sunshine Sketches is to leave us with a similarly complex awareness of the way of life symbolized by Mariposa.
To a considerable extent, the relation between reader and narrator is responsible for this awareness. That relation begins the book and it carries the same theme throughout. It emerges most clearly in the last chapter, where once again the difference between the outsider's view (this time of the whole town) and the insider's view forms the basis of an ironic coda which comments on a whole rural way of life.
Here the irony turns, to a considerable extent, on our new knowledge that both the reader and the narrator are, like the rest of the members of the Mausoleum Club, originally from Mariposa, and on their inability really to go back: we leave them, after our “mad career” on the train to Mariposa, sitting in their armchairs in their club in the city. They have accepted sophisticated city values, and they have done well there; the reader owns a “vast palace of sandstone … in the costlier part of the city.” And they can never fully be part of Mariposa again; they notice such things as Mariposa's out-of-style clothing. Both reader and narrator see the town from the outside.
Yet as the train thunders north through the woods, we come to identify with Mariposa, with the way of life represented by the people on the train. The excitement of homecoming mounts; the train becomes the fastest, finest and most sociable train in the world; and finally we arrive at the station, while brakemen and porters cry “MARIPOSA! MARIPOSA!”
At that climactic moment Leacock ends the book by pulling us back again to our actual positions, outside the town, smiling at it a little, and yet filled with a sense of lost youth and innocence. The reader and the narrator have paid a heavy price for their success. Though Mariposa has more than its share of stupidity and hypocrisy, it also has simplicity and vigour.
And yet life in Mariposa is more complicated, more equivocal than it seems. The narrator has discovered this as he has matured, and the ironic vision rests partly on his recognition both that Mariposa was a good place to be a child and that it would be a bad place to be an adult. He is nostalgic for Mariposa, but he does not leave the Mausoleum Club.
This recognition, however, seems to imply a contradiction in the narrator. Throughout the book, as we have seen, he has appeared to be a naïve, rather unintelligent Mariposan. Yet in the “Envoi” he is evidently a city dweller of considerable penetration and insight. Does this indicate a flaw in Leacock's conception of him? Probably not: it is more likely that Leacock conceived of the narrator as an intelligent man feigning simplicity. This would explain a good deal: the speed with which the narrator moves from cowardice to courage when the steamer sinks for instance, is more credible if the narrator is only pretending to be unaware of the inconsistency. Similarly, the intellectual sparks which glow here and there through the book—the sharp quips on college men and education, for instance, or the occasional satire on jargon and on modern business9—have indicated all along that the narrator's mind was more sharply honed than he would have us believe. His apparent inconsistency, then, supports the view of Mariposa we have been suggesting: he cannot go back because he cannot quite fit into the Mariposan framework, however hard he tries; he cannot accept Mariposa's people and events at their face value, though he can recognize that he may have been happier when he could. The same recognition made another boy from Mariposa build a summer home back in the small town he remembered with such affection; but the larger part of the year he spent as a professor at McGill.
All this should give us pause. For if the narrator is not as simple as he looks, what of Leacock? Is he suggesting more than he is saying?
I think he is, or more accurately, I think his book is based on a view of the human condition which is profoundly ironic. We value the truth, but we can never know what is true; Sunshine Sketches is, among other things, a demonstration of the subjective way in which individuals are doomed to see the world. What is the difference between appearance and reality? How may an individual, limited as his vision must be, tell the difference between them? What is truth, said jesting Leacock, and could not supply an answer—because he could see none, or at least no way to recognize one.
Similarly, though we value our fellow men, we can never really know them either: if we are all condemned to see the world through personal, individual spectacles, then we cannot really communicate with each other; isolation is our fate, and we live and die alone. As E. M. Forster puts it, “we cannot understand each other, except in a rough and ready way; we cannot reveal ourselves, even when we want to; what we call intimacy is only a makeshift; perfect knowledge is an illusion.” This sense of isolation is common enough in modern literature; Ernest Hemingway and Forster's own fiction come immediately to mind. In Sunshine Sketches it is mainly evident in the ironic treatment of character and in the demonstration that each man inhabits a private world. It is also visible in a negative way: three responses which attempt to counteract isolation meet in Sunshine Sketches and, I suspect, account for part of its appeal—laughter, romantic love, and membership in a small community.
Leacock's attitude to his material, then, is ironic in a way that is based on a deep apprehension of what it means to be human, and his humour is both a vehicle for this apprehension and a defence against the pain it necessarily involves. One always hesitates to say that humour is basically a very serious business, and Leacock himself found a good deal of fun in just that concept. Nevertheless, he saw humour as a way of thinking seriously about life; in Humour: Its Theory and Technique (1935), he comments:
… humour in its highest meaning and its furthest reach … does not depend on verbal inconguities, or on tricks of sight and hearing. It finds its basis in the incongruity of life itself, the contrast between the fretting cares and the petty sorrows of the day and the long mystery of the to-morrow. Here laughter and tears become one, and humour becomes the contemplation and interpretation of our life.10
The contemplation and interpretation of our life. At its best, Leacock's irony leads to no less than that.
The Rise of the Novel (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1957), p. 32.
“Leacock as a Satirist,” Queen's Quarterly 58 (1951), p. 213.
“On Stephen Leacock” in C. T. Bissell, ed., Our Living Tradition (First Series) (Toronto, 1957), p. 147.
Preface to the New Canadian Library edition of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (Toronto, 1960), p. xi.
Stephen Leacock, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (John Lane, London, 1912), p. 167. All further references to Sunshine Sketches are to this first edition, and subsequent references are inserted in parentheses in the text.
A further irony, which I think a little strained: Pupkin has been sent to Mariposa at the suggestion of a friend of his father, a friend who ignores Pupkin in Mariposa. The friend turns out to be Judge Pepperleigh, Pupkin's future father-in-law, who has been a rather terrifying figure to the young man.
Last Leaves (Toronto, 1945), p. 89.
“A very beacon kindled on a hill” is another case in which a metaphor—i.e., an apparent unreality—becomes the literal truth, just as the metaphor of the enchanted prince did.
On education, see pp. 18, 42, 58, 79, 123, 126, 232; on jargon, pp. 15, 81, 86, 88; on business, pp. 39, 106.
Humour: Its Theory and Technique, (New York, 1935), p. 17.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6471
SOURCE: “The Preposterous and the Profound: A New Look at the Envoi of Sunshine Sketches,” in Journal of Canadian Fiction, No. 19, 1977, pp. 95-105.
[In the following essay, Mantz urges us to read Leacock not only for his genial nonsense or bitter satire but for his “ontological awareness”; he then examines the envoi in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town to show how Leacock moves toward the profound by way of the commonplace.]
“Personally, I would sooner have written Alice in Wonderland than the whole Encyclopedia Britannica.”1 This remark, in the preface to Sunshine Sketches, suggests Leacock should be taken seriously as an artist, that his work—or some of it, at any rate—has what E. R. Wassermann used to call the “ontological seriousness” of a work of art.2 Of course, Alice in Wonderland has long since been rehabilitated for intellectual study, and the same dignity might be accorded Leacock's work since he seems to be associating his work with Dodgson's. But as Donald Cameron pointed out, one is compelled to apologize whenever one attempts to take Leacock seriously.3 It is true that the very passage in which Leacock defends Alice in Wonderland contains philistine satire of scholarly research. But this is surely ironic. Leacock spends a large proportion of the preface wittily detailing his academic career. It is part of the joke, and part of the depth, to see the playfulness of Leacock (of all people) as the defender of imaginative writing against mere scholarly research. Intellectual study will not taint our laughter, nor vice versa. To take Leacock seriously is not to fly in the face of Leacock's opinion, but to fly in the face of the essentially Puritan and philistine notion that laughter cannot be profound.
Leacock asserts the “ontological seriousness” of nonsense humour against all comers, but especially against the unimaginative utilitarian urge to value hard facts more than laughter and fantasy. We must try to read Leacock not only as genial nonsense (i.e., merely for the laugh) nor only as bitter satire (i.e., merely for the gossip); we must also read him for his “ontological seriousness”. In concentrating upon the serious side of Leacock we may legitimately regard his work as temporarily set apart from humour, or satire, or even from their bastard offspring, irony. Why not? Surely it is not necessary to add a defense of applying the rigors of literary criticism to Leacock's work. Leacock did not despise literary criticism in the preface to Sunshine Sketches. Everyone, except those who believe that all literary critics are parasites, will know that literary criticism can have imaginative vision and wit (though not sheer fantasy—whatever that might be), and that writing literary criticism, as senior scholars are fond of saying, is not the same as compiling encyclopedia entries—though, thank God, even literary criticism does descend to facts sometimes. (The reader will notice that I do not speak for economics or political science.) If Leacock could assert that it was a greater achievement to write Alice in Wonderland than the whole Encyclopedia Britannica, it is necessary to take him seriously as someone who could write the preposterous and the profound at one and the same time.
However preposterous it may sound to say so, I believe I have seldom seen anything more profound in topographical literature than Leacock's presentation of Mariposa in the envoi of Sunshine Sketches. To consider this relatively short passage, is to gain an insight into Leacock's narrative technique at its best. By examining how Leacock presents Mariposa in the envoi, one may clearly recognize that Leacock moves toward the profound not by way of Dodgson's nonsense-fantasy but by way of the commonplace, which he enriches and goes beyond with no less imaginative vision than his Victorian predecessor. Surely no one would expect Leacock to lecture or to preach at the reader in order to enforce a profound insight; but on the other hand we must not be distracted from Leacock's artistry by his humble pose as a nostalgic bumbler who deals in the commonplace. Like Cohen, Leacock presents his most profound thoughts with a sophisticated but disarming laugh at his own naive idealism.
The main substance of the envoi is, as its title indicates, the train journey to Mariposa. But Leacock sets the stage for the journey with a passage on the nature of “home” which is by no means peripheral; in fact, it is so important that it needs to be considered in detail:
Odd that you never knew, in all these years, that the train was there every afternoon, puffing up steam in the city station, and that you might have boarded it any day and gone home. No, not “home”—of course you couldn't call it “home” now; “home” means that big red sandstone house of yours in the costlier part of the city. “Home” means, in a way, this Mausoleum Club where you sometimes talk with me of the times that you had as a boy in Mariposa.
But of course “home” would hardly be the word you would apply to the little town, unless perhaps, late at night, when you'd been sitting reading in a quiet corner somewhere such a book as the present one.
Leacock first describes Mariposa as “home”, then changes his mind and says, “‘home’ means that big red sandstone house of yours in the costlier part of the city.” But the Mausoleum Club is then promptly introduced as another alternative meaning for “home”. Then it's back to Mariposa again. Leacock's narrator apparently is mistaken or uncertain about the referrent for “home”; but surely the narrator is a very purposeful bumbler. Such bumbling raises the question of what “home” really is, and, by suggesting several different answers, produces a highly sophisticated concept of “home”. Apparently, “home” is not one's present residence (one's city house) or at any rate not exclusively this; nor is it where one now seems most to belong, to feel “at home”, relaxed, made welcome, and where many of one's most enjoyable hours are spent (the Mausoleum Club). Leacock comes back to Mariposa, where he lived in the past, where he spent his childhood, as “home”. But what does he mean by this?
Leacock rules out any narrowly geographical sense of Mariposa as “home” when he says that “practically every one” of the rich men in the city's Mausoleum Club “came from Mariposa” (p. 149). Unless we are to believe that dozens of wealthy Montrealers grew up in Orillia, then Mariposa and “home” cannot be equated simply with Orillia—nor with any other geographical entity, not even with Mariposa Township, near Lindsay, Ontario, which is not very far from the farm where Leacock lived as a boy.4 Because “home” can have several alternative locations, the parameters of Mariposa as “home” are defined not by reference to geography per se, but by relation to the mind of the person or persons defining “home”. It is basically correct to say Leacock thinks of “home” as a state of mind, but he is more specific than such a general phrase implies. The fact that Leacock grew up near Mariposa is an important clue for understanding Leacock's range of meanings for “home”. Mariposa as “home” represents a large shaping influence in one's past, an influence or set of influences which could be found in many places different in location, but not necessarily different in kind. Mariposa as “home” represents a concept of the formative psychological influence of the past. It is perhaps best summarized by the phrase “psychic roots” which indicates that Mariposa belongs to the past, but exists in the present and influences the present in a vital way, as nourishment through the inner core of one's psychological being, so to speak.
It is not quite true that Mariposa has no geographical character, however. A physical location of some kind, or a set of physical locations, is presumed by Leacock's conformity to the practice of identifying “home” not by specific emotions or qualities affecting the mind but by tags of place names. Environmental psychologists may correct me, but I suspect Leacock is following common tendency to think of any particular place in terms of a particular time and set of personal circumstances—just as Orilla calls up in my mind a few parts of a few streets in relation to a general area, as it was, let us say, in 1970-72 when I was a certain type of person, at a certain age, with a unique set of circumstances to define my relationship to the people and the physical, geographical reality of Orillia. In other words, the traditional Maritimer's map of Canada, more or less centred on the Bay of Fundy, with Newfoundland where Greenland should be, and anything west of Toronto as very small and rather dim, is psychologically true—whatever cartographers might think of it. (And similarly the Westerner's map, with anything east of Montreal almost non-existent, is absurd but accurate in the same way.) It is this kind of psychological truth about geographical facts which the envoi deals with. Leacock probably would have been among the first to laugh at and to appreciate the touchingly human honesty of medieval maps of the world centred on the mapmaker's hometown, which contain a good deal of conjecture, misinformation, and even more terra incognita, because in Sunshine Sketches, Leacock drew much the same kind of map for Mariposa. Unlike the medieval mapmaker, however, Leacock laughs at his own “common sense” map of “home” and its environs, and moves through the commonplace toward the profound precisely because he is aware of the incongruity between the commonplace viewpoint of the individual in his own limited background and the accumulated rational knowledge of encyclopedic organization.
Leacock's definition of “home” does not stop at one or two paragraphs. The whole envoi is basically one long, continuous definition of “home” in psychological terms. Leacock makes a transition from an introductory consideration of “home” to the train journey by discussing “homesickness”, the traumatic shock of one's first experience in the wider framework of life outside one's psychologically vast but geographically small “home”. There is no reason to assume Leacock is writing sentimental eyewash simply because his subject is homesickness, or “cultural shock”, as it is more fashionable to call it. The psychological reality of cultural shock has been with us at least since the days of Mrs. Moodie, and in a country with an increasing, mobile population, the experience of moving house and home, and the consequent sense of dislocation may be expected to be widespread and not limited to sissies. Leacock actually points out that behind every experience of the disorientation of cultural shock lies the mental conditioning of “home”. Thus, the retrospective quality of the narrator's homesickness is only superficial. Homesickness is introduced to provide an example of the importance and the continuity of “psychic roots” from earlier days into the present. The artistic function of the “homesickness” passage is clear: it forges the bonds which unify the envoi by making the train journey an extension of the exploration of what it means to think of Mariposa as “home”. The train journey, which forms the bulk of the envoi, should be seen as the process of going toward Mariposa, i.e., as a progressive clarification of a mental picture of what it means to think of Mariposa as “home”.
But what a train journey! Nobody could ever have taken the train from Montreal to Orillia in the way that Leacock seems to describe. It might have been possible to go from Toronto to Orillia on such a train—Leacock's description of the train itself does have a basis in historical fact5 but this would not fit Leacock's personal circumstances: his city was Montreal. Leacock's train journey is not one specific journey he once made. Nor is it likely to be an account of one particular railway route. In the preface to Sunshine Sketches, Leacock pointed out that as a town Mariposa was “not a real town” (p. xvi) but a typological composite. Could the journey to Mariposa be any more “real” than the place itself? The train journey is a literary journey rather than a “real” one, a mental construct extrapolated and generalized from physical and geographical fact. What does Leacock add to the facts of a “real” train journey?
Leacock has taken some pains at the beginning of the envoi to suggest that the train journey to Mariposa is a journey back into his childhood. In fact, the movement backward in time in his own mind is fundamental to Leacock's train journey, and movement in exterior space is chiefly important as the means by which a journey into the traveller's past is presented. Notice the slightly strange or mysterious details Leacock also adds to distance this journey from an ordinary one. Much of the journey seems to be made “half dreaming” (p. 151); there is almost something arcane about the journey: “very few people know about it”, and many are mistaken about it (p. 149). (Leacock calls this a “joke”, but it also has profoundly serious implications.) Gradually, the train, like some mythological Protean being, seems to change, to throw off its disguises and become more and more clearly the Mariposa train as older cars and an old engine replace the others. There is a recurring sense of déjà vu as the traveller briefly struggles with his memory to recognize the train, the people, their clothes, and Lake Ossawippi. Up to the point at which the traveller recognizes Lake Ossawippi, the journey abounds in déjà vu and explanation; Lake Ossawippi is the turning-point in the traveller's reactions; from that point onward he is looking forward, predicting what he will find and having his expectations confirmed instead of accounting for what he has found after he has noticed it. There is a historical and geographical framework to the journey which Leacock does not violate, although he generalizes it so that the journey is typical rather than particular. But there is also another and more important pattern which shapes the journey: the narrative of the traveller's state of mind in response to the scenes both inside the train and outside it. Even the consideration of various meanings for “home” has a special appropriateness in this light. The envoi is unified and given a dimension of “ontological seriousness” by the pattern of a dream-journey to the interior of the traveller's mind.
Leacock's dream-journey to Mariposa is a journey into his own childhood; but it is also a journey “home” in a wider sense. The train and its passengers, as Leacock presents them, seem mysteriously to change during the journey from exemplars associated with modern, urban life to take on a referent increasingly further back in the past; “last year's fashions”, then an engine of “forty years ago” (p. 150), and then back to even more primitive surroundings. The train passes through the city, through suburbs, past “farmsteads” (p. 151), semi-cleared areas, and finally, in twilight, “into great stretches of bush” (p. 151) broken by a strangely familiar “great sheet of blackness” (p. 151) which the traveller recognizes as Lake Ossawippi, the lake of his childhood. Both the language and the sequence have a significance beyond either geography or autobiography. Leacock's train journey turns back the clock of history collectively as well as individually, back through the stages of the national past which lies behind the biography of every Canadian. After considering the envoi in this light, one would not be surprised that Leacock wrote a history of Canada.
I have pointed out that the recognition of Lake Ossawippi (whether it be from Massawippi in Quebec's Eastern Townships, or elsewhere) is the turning-point of the traveller's reactions to his journey. At this crucial point in the narration, Leacock envisions the landscape around Mariposa in terms of its two primordial elements: bush and water. W.O. Mitchell has been much acclaimed, and rightly so, for his vision in reducing the prairie landscape to its two primordial elements of land and sky. Leacock, it seems to me, should be similarly acclaimed for doing much the same thing for the Canadian landscape on a national basis. We seem to have heard so much in recent years about the different geographical regions across the country that we may need to be reminded that large areas in every province of the country were at one time bush and water—and many of them still are. Exceptions notwithstanding, the lowest common denominator of the Canadian landscape is bush and water. They are also the lowest common denominator of the landscape in the envoi. Leacock chose to alter the traveller's reactions to the landscape of the journey at the point of recognizing bush and water. (He had taken the landscape back as far as he could go without resorting to Indian lore or to geological pre-history which are different chapters of the story.) It seems wrong-headed to duck the nationalistic implications of this. It is a fact that Leacock wrote Sunshine Sketches on commission, a commission to write something “for a purely Canadian audience”.6 Much of the envoi is tantamount to proof that he fulfilled his commission; or, to put it another way, a serious, and profound consideration of Canadian nationalism is one of the things which gives the envoi its depth, its ontological seriousness.
This is where Donald Cameron's suggestion that Sunshine Sketches is an exploration of subjectivism might be somewhat misleading.7 I have shown that the envoi extends beyond the personal and individually subjective viewpoint. If, however, Cameron means not individual pecadillo or whim, but the collective subjectivity of nationalism, then I would agree with him. Leacock, as his commission indicates, does not present subjectivity in which there are as many acceptable answers as there are people, but dualism, the dualism of “ours” and “theirs” which is at the core of any recognition of nationalism anywhere—and which does not depend upon individual whim. The distinction between subjectivism and dualism is vital to an understanding of the depth of Leacock's nationalism in Sunshine Sketches, and of Leacock's narrative technique when, as I have shown him to do in the envoi, he speaks for himself, but not for himself alone.
Early in the envoi, Leacock raised questions about the nature of “true reality” (p. 149) when dealing with his house. He insisted that his big, wooden house in Mariposa was “one of the grandest and finest houses that thought could conceive; much finer, in true reality, than that vast palace of sandstone with the porte-cochère and the sweeping conservatories” (p. 149) in the costlier part of the city. This is not crochety primitivism carried to an insane excess. With a back-to-the-land movement coming into full spate today, we should be able to recognize that Leacock is insisting upon something akin to an alternative lifestyle, an alternative which thousands of our contemporaries have in fact found to be preferable to urban standards of grandeur. Leacock later actually did build his dreamhouse in the country (now the Leacock Memorial Home). For most of his career, he was an “end-of-term track man”, i.e., he left Montreal as soon as he could after the end of classes for the summer; Leacock was committed personally to the ideal of a summer house in the country at least as early as 1908.8 This does not mean that Leacock was an early advocate of the back-to-the-land movement, nor that he was the part-time avatar of an eighteenth-century country squire. But it is important to recognize that in Sunshine Sketches, and in his own life, Leacock preferred an alternative lifestyle to that of the city.
Such an alternative is hardly new, of course. It raises the old dualism between two traditional weltanschauungen which have often appeared with many different relationships between them in earlier literature. These two weltanschauungen have been variously labelled the city and the country, epic and pastoral, and even Mars and Venus.9 But one cannot apply these terms to Leacock without distorting his work. Leacock's dualism can be grasped much better if one re-defines these two weltanschauungen as Leacock aligned them. One side of the dualism would be the centripetal metropolitan values of the state which define the individual primarily in terms of his duty to the collectivity, and by his traditionally masculine aggressiveness or leadership and the heroic courage or ratiocinative power upon which this quality may be based, and by his material possessions; the individual's moral probity is measured by his conformity to the pattern established in a Grand Design of some kind. In short, this is Vergil's epic virtues public and imperial, writ large in Seutonian words of marble. I think the best term for this weltanschauung, especially considering Leacock's undoubted classical background, would be virtus, or to be more precise, virtus in imperando. The other side of the dualism would be the centrifugal, contemplative values of the individual, which define the person primarily in terms of the sense of his own spontaneous trustworthiness which he has within himself and transfers to others, and which takes as ideals a traditionally feminine purity or innocence, and a peaceable contentment with little. The individual's moral probity is assumed to be self-evident within his unique personal response to a partly internalized entity, the outward aspect of which is often associated with the divine Book of Nation (whether written in the charactery of prelapsarian Arcadia or post-industrial Helvellen). In short, this weltanschauung consists of Horace's contemplative virtues personal and introspective, written on the inside of Rousseau's Shaftesburian heart. One might call this humanitas, or, more accurately, humanitas rustica. No doubt these two weltanschauungen are somewhat amorphous, but they do indicate two different sets of principles, ideals, and values which Sunshine Sketches expresses in a particular way. When the two weltanschauungen are spelled out in some detail it becomes clear that Leacock is not a subjectivist. He is invoking the virtus-humanitas dualism and, when he chooses the Mariposan house rather than the city “palace”, for instance, he comes down quite solidly on the side of humanitas rustica—though, of course, he is no monkish hermit. Leacock's vision of humanitas rustica is gregarious, and witty (sometimes at the expense of his own side). To see Leacock's irony in Sunshine Sketches within the framework of a humanitas-virtus dualism is to deepen one's appreciation of Leacock's irony without running upon the dilemma of seeing his satire as a sophisticated sneer stuck into the midst of a commissioned work written, according to its preface, out of an “affection” for “the scenes and the country that it depicts” (p. xvi).
Although the preface may be at times conventional, generalized, and exaggerated, it is not deceitful. In his article “I'll Stay in Canada”, Leacock again comes down strongly on the side of humanitas rustica and combines it with nationalism. The article, although written much later in Leacock's career, is very useful to illustrate how Leacock constructs an ontological foundation for Sunshine Sketches. The parallel to Leacock's chef d'oeuvre is even closer when one considers the fact that “I'll Stay in Canada” begins with semantic distinctions about “home”, as did the envoi. Leacock has been invited, he says, now that he has retired, to “come home” to England.10 His reply in a nutshell is “Thank you, Mother England, I don't think I'll ‘come home’. I'm ‘home’ now.” (p. 206) Leacock insists that Canada is “home” to him, regardless of where he was born, and that he would not feel “at home” in any other way of life than the Canadian. He brings in a dualism similar to that in the envoi when he says he came from England “wise” according to an English point of view, but “ignorant” according to Canadian one (p. 204). Such dualism enables him to be witty without insulting anyone: “We say ‘yep!’ when we mean ‘yep!’ and don't try to make out it's ‘yes’, which is a word we don't use; and if we mean ‘four’ we say so and don't call it ‘faw’. (p. 204) Leacock is not attacking or satirizing either British or Canadian speech; wittily, but without sneering, he explains one side of a dualism to the other.
In “I'll Stay in Canada” Leacock also considers the state of mind shaped by the geographical and historical backgrounds of Canada—very much the same as he did in the envoi of Sunshine Sketches. It's the great spaces that appeal,” he says (p. 206). (At the crucial point in the envoi, Leacock spoke of “that great space that seems to open out … why, surely, yes, Lake Ossawippi”.) Leacock explains: “What the English feel about the Armada and the Scottish about Bannockburn, the Canadian, consciously or not, feels about the vast geography of Canada … To all of us here, the vast unknown country of the North, reaching away to the polar seas, supplies a peculiar mental background.” (p. 206) Clearly, Leacock is thinking in terms of psychic roots, the Canadian landscape, autobiography and nationalism. Leacock says loneliness is not a problem amid vast empty stretches of land isolated and cold—if it were that would be the imperial standard-virtus. Instead Leacock says he would “feel lonely without” the vast “primeval wilderness” (p. 206)—this is the Canadian standard, and a version of humanitas rustica. What is Leacock saying? He says that he is not lost in the wilderness; that, on the contrary, he finds himself partly because he can identify his special relationship to the primeval landscape of the north, which is a pure and uncrowded volume of the divine Book of Nature. This is humanitas rustica identified with nationalism and a personal sense of “home”—exactly what I have suggested Leacock is dealing with in the envoi of Sunshine Sketches. In both the article and the envoi, the landscape gives Leacock a sense of his personal identity by helping to define the national and personal parameters of his “home”, but what is implicit in the envoi is explicit in “I'll Stay in Canada”.
In “I'll Stay in Canada”, again Leacock is no hermit. Nor is he in need of the back-to-nature movement. Part of Leacock's consideration of the primeval wilderness of the north is a vision of it in terms of a “progress” ethic, i.e., in terms of the future economic development of the north. In this article, Leacock actually sees the north going through stages of development similar to those of the landscape in southern Canada which he recounted in the envoi. As McLuhan used to say, we look into the future by looking in a rearview mirror. The north appeals to Leacock's imagination and his sense of grandeur; its potential for economic development associates him with a larger human purpose in the foreseeable reach of history implicitly based upon the past history of Canada. It thus gives him spatial, temporal and purposive orientation toward an individual and collective identity. Thus, in both the envoi and the later article, Leacock uses the Canadian landscape to expound the “us” and “them” of nationalism, and of humanitas rustica seen in a duality with virtus. Of course, there is a paradox between nationalism, especially where the economic expansion of the collectivity is concerned, and humanitas rustica. The ethos of “progress” would seem to be virtually inseparable from the imperialistic ethos of virtus. Upon this paradox is founded the gap between the ideal and the reality which gives Leacock in Sunshine Sketches the width necessary for self-mocking irony and satire within his basic approbation of the humanitas rustica ideal.
The wide range open to Leacock within the humanitas rustica tradition is demonstrated when he deals with the characteristics of the train. The journey as Leacock presents it for the traveller's reactions has two main threads: the landscape which seems to unroll itself, and the train which literally supplies the forward movement in the narrative. The train is brought to the fore at key junctures in the plot: at the beginning of the journey (when the traveller seems to look about him at the occupants of the train and notices the train instead of the city or suburban landscape), at the rising action (when the train seems to change into a train of forty years before) and just after the turning-point, the recognition of Lake Ossawippi (when Leacock discusses the train's speed, comfort, sociability, etc.). Landscape and train at the end of the envoi are about as closely linked as the narrative will permit. Thus, the train is too important to be merely a device to allow the passage of time in the journey, although that is one of its functions. The dualism central to the envoi is present not only when the landscape is the focus of attention but also in passages devoted to the train.
At the beginning of the journey, the city people think the train is “just a suburban train” (p. 149), but they are wrong. Leacock seems to suggest that the virtus judgment does not look closely enough, and that an alternative is proven correct, of course, when the train “changes its character” (p. 150), and becomes identified with the humanitas rustica tradition rather than with the latest in modern, urban efficiency. The landscape becomes important only after the train has made a paradoxical transition from an examplar of the virtus tradition to the Mariposa train. (This is equivalent to the progressive north in “I'll Stay in Canada”.) Leacock then expounds at considerable length the two standards for judging the speed of trains. Comparisons are specifically made to international speed records and to standards of scientific measurement (25 m.p.h.), but Leacock gives them both the lie and roundly asserts, on personal, experiential grounds which “you can prove … for yourself” (p. 152) if you want to, that the Mariposa train is the fastest in the world. Whether or not the traveller is correct here is beside the point—although the logic of relativity (as used in the marking schemes of progressive schools, for instance) has supported notions equally at odds with traditionally accepted standards of comparison while paying lip-service to the “human dignity” of “exceptional” (i.e., backward) child. The important point is that in discussing the train's speed, Leacock has set up a dualism and made his traveller take a stand very clearly within the tradition of humanitas rustica. The dualism of confrontation he employs in judging speed is one range of possibilities open to Leacock. But after this first stance, he takes different and even opposed stances in successive paragraphs.
The traveller seems to partly repeat himself in taking his next stance: he says the train is “the fastest … the best … the most comfortable, the most reliable, the most luxurious, and the speediest train that ever turned a wheel.” Obviously he is stumbling over himself in his excess here. Leacock is singling out for absurd praise in this sentence those very aspects of Canadian National's service which have sometimes been found to be notoriously lacking. This is not merely “anti-Canadian Nationalism”, of course; it is self-mocking satire. Leacock has taken the satiric potential latent in his preceding paragraph, and developed it to the full at the expense of his narrator and the side his narrator identified himself with. I suspect that most readers have not missed the exposé of inane boosterism in this sentence, nor the reductio ad absurdum of the narrator's relativity. But one must not take it out of proportion. This sentence has the earmarks of an afterthought to the text. What would the passage be like without it? Solidly humanitas rustica, with most of the self-mockery not brought to the surface. The sentence adds a range of satire to what is in fact a celebration of virtues within the humanitas rustica tradition.
In the next paragraph, Leacock praises the sociability of the Mariposa train quite straightforwardly, almost to the point of a blushing panegyric. This is the opposite extreme from the preceding sentence—and so close to absolute praise that Leacock may have included an acid afterthought to cut the forthcoming sweetness. If there is any satire involved here, it is smug criticism of the “dull reserve” (p. 152) of the urban passengers. One may sneer at the conventionality of “old familiar topics” (p. 152) but to do so would be to go against the grain of the paragraph and of the passage as a whole. Thus in three successive paragraphs dealing with the train, Leacock sets up the virtus-humanitas dualism in confrontation, identifies his narrator again with the humanitas side, mocks the excesses of narrow-minded relativity, and strongly praises the very human blessing of sociability on the train—all within a basic approbation of principles of humanitas rustica as found on the train.
It is evident that Leacock does not present merely a nostalgic journey into the country. The train journey is a fictionalized spiritual autobiography emphasizing the psychic roots of an individual and of a nation. One part of the train journey is a retrospective panorama of the nation's history presented in terms of landscape symbolism. Out of nationalism symbolism comes an ever wider symbolism which might best be described as archetypal. The wilderness which unfolds before the traveller is in some sense the primeval ancestral home of everyone, the locus genesis of every individual and perhaps ultimately of every nation. We all make our way from the wilderness, presumably toward another or better world of some kind. Another comprehensive symbol in the traveller's journey is the goal of the dream-journey, the ideal place beyond the wilderness—in short, Mariposa, which, like heaven, is wisely kept beyond our grasp when the narrative ends at the Pearly Gates of the railway station. When the traveller arrives at Mariposa he symbolically reaches the state of being “at home” in the ideal community which is beloved—however many things may be wrong with its historical emanation because it characterizes an ideal of home with which all men can identify within the humanitas rustica tradition.
Why is it fitting that Leacock should have as his final sentence a reference to the Mausoleum Club rather than ending with the shouts of “MARIPOSA! MARIPOSA!” as the train stops at its destination? Leacock ends this way not so much to reinforce nostalgia as to underline once again the essentially metal and symbolic nature of the train journey. The vision of the journey dissolves but is not lost; Mariposa has not disappeared but, as the final phrases suggest, is as much a part of the mental “home” of almost every one of the people in the Mausoleum Club as it was at the beginning of the envoi. Leacock's artistic creation of the dream-journey has reached its conclusion, but the Mariposan view of life, a type of humanitas rustica, continues. In the widest sense, every individual journeys over “a great sheet of blackness” identified with the primeval chaos from which he came, and then arrives at Mariposa and at that Mausoleum Club which is, henceforward, his “home”—while others continue their journey toward their Mariposa. In the widest sense, therefore, Mariposa is the past, the future, the ideal, the ultimate wilderness, the town of one's childhood, the city of one's hopes, and the Mausoleum Club of one's death. Such a conclusion should be no surprise to anyone who takes Leacock seriously as both preposterous and symbolically profound at one and the same time.
It has often been observed that Sunshine Sketches today remains curiously undated—despite the fact the humour often stands the test of time very poorly. A major timeless element, at least in the envoi, is Leacock's skilful use of symbolism to represent elements so central to Canadian life as not to pass away with the change of generations. This has given Sunshine Sketches some of its continuing appeal, even to readers whose response to symbolism is as unconscious as their response to the great North. And, of course, the general reader (whoever that might be) has responded because the symbolism, though undoubtedly particularly Canadian, is not exclusively Canadian and becomes a type of the universal humanitas rustica tradition. Recognition of Leacock's symbolism does not deny his humour. But had Leacock been merely a jester limited to superficial nonsense, his laughter would have died on his lips, even if they were curled in scorn.
Stephen Leacock, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (Toronto: McCelland and Stewart, 1960), p. xv. All subsequent references are to this edition.
See Earl R. Wasserman, The Subtler Language; Critical Reading of Neoclassic and Romantic Poems (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1958), p. 10.
D. A. Cameron, “The Enchanted Houses: Leacock's Irony” in The Canadian Novel in the Twentieth Century, edited by George Woodcock (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1975), p. 13. Previously published in Canadian Literature 23 (Winter, 1965), pp. 31-44. (See p. 43.)
See David M. Legate, Stephen Leacock; A Biography (Toronto: Doubleday, 1970), p. 11. See also Survey and Mapping Branch, Department of Energy, Mines, and Resources, Lindsay 31 D/7, Beaverton 31 D/6, Orillia 31 D/11 and Sherbrooke 21 E/5, Edition 3 MCE, Series A751 (Ottawa: Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, 1971).
I am indebted for my knowledge of railways in Leacock's time to my discussions with Dr. N. Hesler of Sackville, New Brunswick, who travelled extensively on trains in the early years of this century—sometimes with Leacock.
B. K. Sandwell, “How the ‘Sketches’ started.” Saturday Night 67 (August 23, 1952), p. 7.
Cameron, op. cit., p. 12. Canadian Literature 23 (Winter, 1965), pp. 42, 43. This is my only reservation about Cameron's excellent work, on which my own obviously is founded. I do not wish to cut the ground from under my own feet here. My theoretical foundation vis à vis Cameron is this: by concentrating upon a smaller span than Cameron's, I wish to take his work a step further, particularly toward recognition of the groundwork of Leacock's ostensible subjectivism and his palpable irony.
Legate, op. cit., pp. 48, 162.
Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (London: Chatto and Windus, 1973), pp. 1-3, 46-48, 165, 166, 289-292, 299-301; Harold E. Toliver, Pastoral Forms and Attitudes (Berkeley, University of California, 1971), 1-19; Wasserman, op. cit., pp. 53-61. For further theoretical background, see W. J. Keith, The Rural Tradition; A Study of the Non-Fiction Prose Writers of the English Countryside (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1974), pp. 3-24; Maynard Mack The Garden and the City; Retirement and Politics in the Later Poetry of Pope, 1731-1743 (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1969), pp. 193-201, 232-236; W. H. Auden, The Enchafèd Flood; or The Romantic Iconography of the Sea (New York: Random House, 1950), pp. 11-35; William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral (London, Chatto and Windus, 1950), pp. 17-23, 119, 120; and John Chalker, The English Georgic; A study in the development of a form (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969), pp. 15, 207-211.
Stephen Leacock, Funny Pieces; A Book of Random Sketches (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1936), pp. 284-292. This article is most readily available in Canadian Anthology, edited by Carl F. Klinck and Reginald E. Watters, rev. ed., (Gage, 1966), pp. 203-206. All references are to the latter text. The article was omitted from the third edition of this anthology published in 1974.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 201
Spadoni, Carl. Stephen Leacock: A Bibliography. Toronto: ECW Press, 1998. 622 p.
Detailed record of all of Leacock's published work, including details on their publication history, plus a listing of secondary sources.
Davies, Robertson. Stephen Leacock. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970. 63 p.
Short appraisal of Leacock's life and work by a well-known Canadian fiction writer.
Lynch, Gerald. Stephen Leacock: Humour and Humanity, Montreal: McGill's-Queen's University Press, 1988, 211 p.
Considers Leacock's satire to be the result of a combination of two traditions—toryism and humanism—and examines the relation between his theory of humor and his view of the world in Sunshine Sketches and Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich.
———. “Sunshine Sketches: Mariposa versus Mr. Smith.” Studies in Canadian Literature 9, No. 2, 1984, pp. 169-205.
Intensive analysis of the opposition between Mariposa and the individualist Josh Smith.
Moritz, Albert. “Return to Mariposa.” Southwest Review 77, Nos. 2 & 3, Spring/Summer, 1992, pp. 309-404.
Reflections on Leacock's work and influences by a critic who visits Leacock's house.
Additional coverage of Leacock's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group:Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 141; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 92; Major 20th-Century Writers, Vol. 2; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 2.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3662
SOURCE: “The Face in the Window: Sunshine Sketches Reconsidered,” Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 3, No. 2, Summer, 1978, pp. 178-85.
[In the following essay, Ferris argues that Sunshine Sketches of Little Town is a more serious and modern work than commentators have perceived and that the power of the work is found in its narrative voice. However, Ferris also points out that Leacock fails to develop the sketches to their full artistic potential.]
In the final chapter of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, the narrator turns to a “you” who is simultaneously himself and the reader and offers this advice: “No, don't bother to look at the reflection of your face in the window-pane shadowed by the night outside. Nobody could tell you now after all these years. Your face has changed. …”1 This act of self-scrutiny, implicating both narrator and reader, is the central event of Sunshine Sketches. Through his anonymous but intimate narrator Leacock generalizes less the collective, external experience of small-town life than the individual, internal experience of recognizing and attempting to integrate a self fragmented through time. “L'Envoi” redefines the focus of the entire narrative, exposing the internal nature of its ostensibly external journey and firmly establishing the narrator as the locus of concern. Through the ending Leacock builds into his narrative its own reinterpretation by providing the cue to the rereading that must now take place if his imaginative exploration is to be understood fully. And such a rereading demands that we take seriously the interiorization of fiction in the final pages.
Despite being widely read and taught, Sunshine Sketches remains one of the most underestimated narratives in our literature. A recent biographer of Leacock has dismissed it as “a parochial treatment of parochialism.”2 Certainly, the surface naivete, crudity, and shallowness of the book encourage underestimation, and its light tone discourages critical seriousness. Reinforcing such discouragement is the formidable voice of Robertson Davies declaring that Leacock “would have laughed at a critic who grew too serious about his work.”3 But it is also Davies, we remember, who insists on the deep vein of melancholy in Leacock and who chooses the darkness of “L'Envoi” to represent Sunshine Sketches in his Feast of Stephen. Moreover, the hybrid nature of the work itself creates a confusion that muddies discussion and flattens the narrative. The ongoing (and rather tired) debate about its generic status, for instance, continues to invoke a tradition of formal realism inappropriate to Leacock's book.4 By recognizing that the formative impulse of Sunshine Sketches is a psychological one, rooted in the narrator's knowledge of his changed face, we can not only uncover a different and deeper coherence than commonly recognized but also locate Leacock's narrative in the mainstream of modern Canadian writing. This is not to say that Leacock is a conscious literary innovator or a significant precursor of more recent fiction. He is not. But Sunshine Sketches—largely unintentionally perhaps—is a more modern and serious work than commonly perceived. By isolating some of its neglected resonances, we can account more satisfactorily for its enduring power.
The memorable final chapter suggests that the source of that power lies in the narrative voice that here assumes centre stage. Through the internalization of landscape and action in “L'Envoi,” the narrator stands revealed as the weary, disillusioned inhabitant of the city we had suspected him of being. The imagery surrounding him points to the underlying impetus for the journey into the past that has constituted the main narrative line. Images of night, autumn, and the Mausoleum Club evoke the problems of time and death that haunt the narrator's present, accentuating the psychological urgency of his imaginative return. Time has eroded his sense of a coherent self, and the creation of Mariposa signals an attempt to rediscover a past self lost “in these long years of money-getting in the city.” Through memory and imagination, he may be able to reintegrate the self and so make sense of the moments of his existence before death cuts off the possibility of meaning. By referring to himself as “you,” he not only draws the reader into this process but underlines the internal split, the self-alienation, that “L'Envoi” as a whole dramatizes and accepts finally as irreparable. Between Mariposa and the Mausoleum Club, as the typography itself emphasizes, there can be no permanent bridge. The train connecting past and present cannot forge the final link, and the selves of then and now remain irretrievably separate. Sitting in the Mausoleum Club, the narrator is left with an empty present and a past that is a nostalgic memory rather than a sustaining presence. Unlike Margaret Laurence, whose A Bird in the House recalls Sunshine Sketches, Leacock cannot find a way to affirm a continuity of the self through time. But in focusing on this problem of the continuity of the self and formulating it in terms of an experienced disjunction between past and present, Leacock's work draws on impulses close to those animating not only Laurence's fiction but also that of other contemporary writers as diverse as Robertson Davies, Mordecai Richler, and Margaret Atwood. “You have to go home again,” asserts Morag Gunn.5 Leacock's narrator tries to do so, but, like the speaker in Al Purdy's “The Country North of Belleville,” he has lost his way.
The melancholy awareness of time as separation and disintegration that surfaces so dramatically in the final chapter informs the whole narrative structure of Sunshine Sketches. But in rereading the whole in light of the final interiorization of fiction, the private dimension of this awareness emerges more clearly. Details interpreted previously in terms of social theme assume a psychological significance, generating a new level of narrative coherence. Thus the disposal of Mariposa's small stone church, recorded in the fourth section, becomes emblematic of psychological process in the narrator. Faced with the question of what to do with this symbol of its past, the town initially decides to incorporate the stone into a new structure. When this proves “impracticable,” it contemplates refashioning the stone into a wall as a “token.” Eventually, the town abandons entirely the idea of retention, selling off the stone to a building contractor, and the old church,” like so much else in life, was forgotten” (p. 61). Despite its light, satiric touch, the passage has a peculiar poignancy, an emotional resonance exceeding that required by its social theme. The explanation lies in its personal significance for the narrator as an image of his own relationship to the past. The actions of the Mariposans—their gradual discarding of the past and choice of money in exchange—mirror his own actions and suggest how the changed face of “L'Envoi” came into being. Contemplating his reflection here, the narrator posits a relationship between the self-fragmentation he now recognizes and his repression of his past: “Perhaps if you had come back now and again … it [the changed face] wouldn't have been so” (p. 152).
This is not to deny the public, social level of Sunshine Sketches as a humorous exposure of small-town consciousness, but it is to suggest that Sunshine Sketches operates simultaneously and skilfully on several levels. The narrator's Mariposan pose, for example, constitutes an essential strategy in rendering both the social theme and the explorative private journey. Its role in shaping the satiric public vision is well-known and need not be discussed explicitly; our concern is with its function in articulating the psychological theme. In his effort to discover an authentic continuity of the self, the narrator forges a complex voice that mingles the perspective of a Mariposan with that of the city-dweller and so endeavours to fuse the two central experiences of his life. By adopting the tone of a Mariposan, he reactivates the perspective of his youth, capturing through language the values of Mariposa and his own youthful sense of the town as the boundary of the universe. This naive and confident voice is overlaid with the sophisticated adult voice of experience as language modulates from the folksy rhythms of “Anyway, they were fair and straight, this Cuban crowd” to the educated cadence of “It seemed to spoil one's idea of Jeff” (pp. 30, 33). The voice that stumbles over “eggnostic” and “Gothey” can also handle “theodolite” with ease and casually slip in a reference to the Iliad. But the very transparency of the Mariposan pose as pose suggests that in bringing to bear upon a single image the divergent perspectives of youth and maturity, the narrator has succeeded less in integrating the selves than in reinforcing his sense of their disjunction. This is particularly apparent in his use of mock-heroic techniques where the double perspective operates most strongly. Josh Smith, for instance, prompts a sequence of Napoleonic allusions that serves simultaneously to recreate the view of childhood and to undercut Mariposa's pretentious self-image. Irony is both indulgence and exposure: the narrator participates in the imaginative world of childhood even as his adult self performs the critical act of judgment. But no significant relationship between the two modes of the self emerges. Rather, they remain juxtaposed, thus only underlining the gap between then and now. Such is the typical pattern of the mock-heroic strain in Sunshine Sketches. Whether it takes the form of a reference to the “colossal thickness” of the telegraph poles or to the “enchanted princes” of Mariposa, irony tests the self as much as the town and exposes the hollowness in both.
There are moments, however, when the technique becomes more problematic, when irony apparently changes direction as the voices of innocence and experience merge briefly. The voice of experience mingles a critical awareness of the limitations of youth and of Mariposa with a deep yearning for its own lost innocence and simplicity of feeling. Such a yearning permeates the evocative description of Lake Wissanotti on the morning of the ill-fated excursion of the Knights of Pythias. Lingering over the “last thin threads of the mist” and the “long call of the loon,” the narrator conjures into being “the land of the silent pine and the moving waters” (p. 36). The utter simplicity of scene calls forth a corresponding simplicity of response and implies a lost relationship to landscape now possible only in memory and the imagination. Immediately following the passage, the ironic mask of the cantankerous provincial returns: “Don't talk to me of the Italian lakes, or the Tyrol or the Swiss Alps. Take them away. Move them somewhere else. I don't want them.” Here the mock-heroic does not yield its usual deflation of the Mariposan sensibility. The moment stands as one in which the selves of then and now achieve a temporary fusion of perspective, their values merging as the experienced adult voice meets the ignorant youthful voice in response to Lake Wissanotti. The comic dismissal of the European Sublime is meant seriously. Such moments are rare and rarely unambiguous, marked by a tentativeness apparent even in the above instance where the nervous rhythms of the provincial voice indicate an underlying uneasiness. Uncertainty of tone marks a similar moment when the narrator asserts that the “foyer of the opera in Paris may be a fine sight, but I doubt if it can compare with the inside of Eliot's drug store.” Having set up the expected deflation, he disorders the pattern by pausing and adding, “for real gaiety and joy of living” (p. 111). He may well mean what he says. But we cannot be certain. Such passages, with their blurring of the direction of the irony, raise the possibility of achieving a coherent perspective rooted in a coherent self. But they are only transitory moments, constituting glimpses and guesses. More typically, the pattern is one of the separation of past and present, of juxtaposition rather than integration, culminating in the bleak recognition that “Your face has changed.”
Reinforcing the psychological implications of the double voice is the way in which the shape of the external world created by the narrator reflects his sense of a dissociated self. His mind is drawn persistently to isolated or split selves as he turns Mariposa into an extension of his own predicament, translating inner anxieties into external forms. He transforms his own sense of isolation into the isolation of his characters, summing up in the memorable image of Dr. Gallagher and Dean Drone delivering unheeded monologues to one another all the isolated selves of Mariposa (p. 45). Furthermore, the town contains a striking number of characters who suffer from a sense of internal disconnection, most commonly in the form of a frustrated or buried self. The narrator points to the assumptions behind his characterization when he generalizes from the case of Dean Drone: “There was a buried author in him just as there was a buried financier in Jefferson Thorpe. In fact, there were many people in Mariposa like that, and for all I know you may yourself have seen such elsewhere” (pp. 79-80). From Dr. Gallagher to Mallory Tompkins to Myra Thorpe to Peter Pupkin, the Mariposans possess a frustrated level of the self released by the narrator through comedy, pathos, romance, or satire. Where his problem is the relationship between successive selves, theirs is typically that between layers of the self, for Mariposa is a static world released from time. The narrator has lifted his characters out of the horizontal plane of linear time in which he himself exists and placed them in a vertical, spatial plane that allows him to focus on and yet evade his problem.
Such evasion is most apparent in the figure of Dean Drone who, since the externalization of self here admits the problem of time, serves as the closest surrogate for the narrator. The very opening of his story introduces the presence of time and death in the contrast between the plum blossom tree and the aged Dean and in the action of leaves fluttering onto the skull on the table. The pastoral mode in which the Dean exists softens the sense of relentless linear movement but does not deny it. As the narrative evolves, it becomes apparent that the intrusion of materialism into the unworldly existence of Dean Drone is merely the final blow to a spirit already undermined by time and an experience of internal disjunction. Like the narrator, he suffers from the sense of a severed past, having forgotten the Greek for which he received a medal fifty-two years ago. Struggling to decipher the Greek texts, he, too, strives to establish a continuity of the self. But between the world of his youth and the world of now there exists a hiatus dramatized by the death of his wife. The formally ordered world of his little Anglican college with its “clipped hedges” has been replaced by the pragmatic order of a Mariposa dominated by the picaresque figure of Josh Smith. Isolated, archaic, Dean Drone endeavours to connect then and now but cannot succeed within the parameters of his current reality. So his dilemma is resolved magically. After his stroke, the Dean experiences a sudden reintegration, finding that he can read Greek “with the greatest ease” and can hear his wife's voice. In the final tableau the Dean, drifting peacefully toward an easeful death, has been lifted out of time and reality into a timeless world where the pastoral vision is possible. He is a wish-fulfilling figure, but the sober implication is that his internal and external alienation can be resolved only through the magic of a fiction.
Dean Drone illuminates the way in which the imagination and its fictions provide the narrator with a liberation from time. Sunshine Sketches is shaped as much by the urge to escape time as by the attempt to come to terms with its passage; Mariposa dissolves even as it defines the problem of the self. The whole creation of the town deemphasizes temporality and the irreversibility of linear sequence. “There it lies” on a perennial June afternoon, its timelessness reinforced by the extensive use of the habitual present. Closure within the Mariposan context deliberately stills linear time: the stories typically conclude in the present tense, and the endings possess a tableau-like quality which stretches a moment into forever. The Pupkin household is forever young and enchanted; Dean Drone sits perennially under the plum blossom tree. While the Dean may be dying, he never actually dies. In fact, he turns up again in the two chapters immediately following his own story, and his reappearance points to the insistent anti-chronology of the narrative. Continually, Leacock undermines the tendency to translate the linearity of the reading process into a corresponding linearity of fictional time.
Mariposa is a static world rendered in terms of timeless fictional modes, but it is enclosed by a framework of reminiscence, a form which acknowledges the inescapability of time. The collision of Mariposa with the world of time in the final chapter accounts for the curious emotional impact of recognizing the Mariposans on the train. At this moment, as Donald Cameron points out, the narrator seems to have grown older, while the Mariposans “are perfectly unchanged by the passage of time.”6 These final pages force the direct recognition of Mariposa as refuge from a relentless chronicity and clarify its role as a wish-fulfilling dream for both narrator and reader. Drawing together the psychological strains of the narrative, the last chapter generates a powerful impact and thus suggests that the enduring appeal of Sunshine Sketches has less to do with its social function as collective memory than with its indulgence of the private, subliminal self. This use of fiction as a way out of time contains literary as well as psychological implications, developing not only the theme of the self but also the related theme of fiction. Fiction, Frank Kermode reminds us, endows time with a human shape, provides a meaningful order.7 The narrator, conscious of himself as a story-teller, is well aware of this function. “I am afraid that this is no way to tell a story,” he announces when, in violation of chronological sequence, he reveals the fact of the Mariposa Belle's accident. The revelation, he explains, has been triggered by his pondering “the contrast between the excursion crowd in the morning and the scene at night” (p. 42). Contrast prompts the desire to discover cause, to connect rationally the antithetical moments. Here he identifies the basic impulse of fiction to provide connections and to transform mere successiveness into significant sequence. A story, he implies, is a rational construct of chronological time, imitating and making sense of its linearity.
The tales of the Mariposans imagine different ways of structuring personal time through different literary modes. But whether time appears as the downward curve of disillusionment (as for Jeff Thorpe) or as the rising curve of fulfillment (as for Josh Smith), it possesses a rational shape and coherence. Such sense making, however, as the narrator seems to realize in his comment on his own narration, is a fiction, “a story.” Scepticism about the authenticity and adequacy of fiction underlies Sunshine Sketches and accounts for its obvious literariness that keeps constantly before the reader the conventionality and fictionality of its resolutions. Romance, pastoral, and picaresque provide the patterns of reconciliation and meaning. Even as the patterns are mocked, they are realized—but only in Mariposa. Time here has been turned into timeless literary convention, and Mariposa differentiated sharply from the real world. While narrative stress on the artificiality of the creation signals a recognition of the inadequacy of traditional modes as models for contemporary experience, no new model emerges. The narrator has not found a fiction that will suffice; his time remains unreconciled.
The distrust of literary convention in Sunshine Sketches goes beyond its traditional function as a strategy of comedy and realism and points to a basic distrust of the imagination itself. Throughout Sunshine Sketches, as both theme and shaping force of the narrative, the operation of the imagination is identified with fantasy, retreat, delusion. Within the stories it appears as snare and distortion—Jeff Thorpe dazzled by the imaginative appeal of Cuba, his daughter deluded by visions of an acting career, Zena Pepperleigh falsifying the world through the lens of romance. For the narrator, as we have seen, it functions primarily as retreat from a painful reality. The train of the imagination may be “the fastest train in the whole world,” but it can offer no sustaining insight into the narrator's existential condition. Even when Sunshine Sketches acknowledges the sustaining power of fiction, as in the case of Judge Pepperleigh and his son, it stresses the falsehood involved. Indulging in the freedom and release that the imagination offers, Leacock yet exposes these as illusory. The view of the imagination implicit in Sunshine Sketches is thus sceptical and limited. Leacock identifies the imagination with fantasy, unable or unwilling to distinguish between the two. The distinction, as Leacock's much admired Dickens well knew, is crucial. Aware as Dickens is of the real dangers of the uncontrolled imagination and of the ease with which it can be debased into fantasy, he nevertheless affirms its genuine creativity and essential truth. But Leacock lacks this confidence. And it is this, finally, that lies at the root of his failure to develop the complex artistic potential tantalizingly present in Sunshine Sketches. While Davies is doubtless correct in identifying Leacock's social insecurity, his desire to be liked, as contributing to the decline after Sunshine Sketches,8 this insecurity but masks a deeper, more crippling uncertainty—the distrust of his own imaginative power.
Stephen Leacock, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, New Canadian Library (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1960), p. 152. Further references will be incorporated in the text.
David M. Legate, Stephen Leacock: A Biography (Toronto: Doubleday, 1970), p. 63.
Stephen Leacock (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1970), p. 7.
Donald Cameron, for example, leans heavily on Ian Watt's paradigm for the novel in his argument for Leacock's potential as a novelist. See Faces of Leacock (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1967).
Margaret Laurence, The Diviners (Toronto: Bantam, 1975), p. 302.
Faces of Leacock, p. 145.
The Sense of an Ending (London. Oxford Univ. Press, 1967).
See Stephen Leacock, p. 26.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4039
SOURCE: “Mariposa Revisited,” in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 4, No. 1, Winter, 1979, pp. 167-76.
[In the following essay, MacLulich responds to the critic Ina Ferris's assessment of Sunshine Sketches of Little Town, arguing that the collection does not show that Leacock lacked faith in his imaginative power as Ferris claims.]
In her article “The Face in the Window: Sunshine Sketches Reconsidered” (Studies in Canadian Literature, 3 [Summer 1978], 178-85), Ina Ferris draws a provocative conclusion. She argues that the ending of Sunshine Sketches shows that Leacock lacked faith in his own imaginative powers:
Throughout Sunshine Sketches … the operation of the imagination is identified with fantasy, retreat, delusion. … The train of the imagination may be “the fastest train in the whole world,” but it can offer no sustaining insight into the narrator's existential condition. … Indulging in the freedom and release that the imagination offers, Leacock yet exposes these as illusory. The view of the imagination implicit in Sunshine Sketches is thus sceptical and limited.
Ferris makes her case forcefully. Nonetheless, I wish to disagree. In the first place, the town's uses of the imagination are not ridiculed in Leacock's book; they are sympathetically defended. In the second place, Ferris has neglected one of her own central insights. Although she initially stresses that “L'Envoi” implicates both narrator and reader as collaborators in its imaginative journey, she ends by applying the lesson of “L'Envoi” only to the narrator, who has apparently failed in his attempt to return imaginatively to Mariposa. In the third place, Ferris closely identifies the narrator with Leacock himself. On the contrary, I wish to argue that Leacock—the implied author behind Sunshine Sketches—is distinct from the narrator. At the end of Sunshine Sketches the author has knowingly succeeded in his imaginative endeavour. Leacock's book does not express a distrust of the imagination, but points out the power of fiction to control the emotions of even sophisticated readers.
Sunshine Sketches is Leacock's one deliberate examination of the “fictionality” of fiction. Even so powerful a work as Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich does not have the reflexive dimension which takes Sunshine Sketches beyond a merely sociological concern with the customs of late nineteenth-century Ontario small towns. In his later career Leacock succumbed, as Robertson Davies has pointed out,1 to the temptation to give his readers what they wanted: he became a popular entertainer, manipulated by his readers' expectations, rather than a fully autonomous artist. But in Sunshine Sketches Leacock triumphantly celebrates the power of the imagination. The knowing use of fiction to make readers aware of their own emotional susceptibilities makes Sunshine Sketches Leacock's most subtle and most successful work.
Throughout the book, as Donald Cameron points out,2 the narrator plays on the theme of reality versus illusion, illusion being associated with Mariposa and reality with the city. However, the narrator's repeated suggestion is that in Mariposa illusion is reality. For example, the love affair of Zena Pepperleigh and Peter Pupkin begins as an absurd parody of a sentimental romance, but in the end the story has become—without losing its satiric tone—also a sympathetic account of the wayward course of human relationships. Most of the stories in Sunshine Sketches may also be interpreted in two ways, depending on whether they are read by our “city” or our “Mariposa” self. Josh Smith's machination to keep his liquor license may make him either a conniving trickster or a likeable rogue. Jefferson Thorpe's financial naiveté makes him at once a fool and a symbol of innocence and honesty, the victim of corrupt city swindlers. The fire which destroys the Anglican Church is either a criminal plot or a clever turning of the tables on city financiers, depending on your attitude to the large financial institutions of modern society. Likewise, John Smith's election victory is either an example of corrupt electoral practices or a zestful community ritual which strengthens the town's sense of collective identity. There is no doubt that we are meant to render an adverse judgment on the corruption, skullduggery, and stupidity of the townspeople. Yet we are also meant to see that in many ways Mariposa symbolizes a desirable state of affairs. The town takes care of its own; its citizens co-operate to show a common belief that the world is basically a benign and forgiving place. However misplaced their faith may be, the Mariposans are custodians of a perennially attractive human dream.
Mariposa is a child's world, where evil cannot penetrate and no one can really be hurt by a pratfall or a social disaster. When the narrator slips a banana skin under his characters—when Jefferson Thorpe loses his money, when Dean Drone has a stroke—we know that no harm has really been done and that they will rise whole the next day. When the narrator strips away the masks for a moment, and we see a character naked—Josh Smith rigging the election, Peter Pupkin and Zena Pepperleigh showing their vacuous minds—we may feel a childish delight in seeing others made to look foolish, uncompromised by the sympathy that results from an adult's ability to put himself in another's place. But our response is cruel only as a child is sometimes cruel. The child sees things only from his own point of view; he is cruel because he does not believe an event has consequences beyond its instantaneous outcome. For the child, no discomfort or injury is ever thought of as lasting longer than an instant, and is not real anyway since it is not happening to him. Similarly, we do not believe that permanent harm can be done in Mariposa. In fact, at the end of almost every story in Sunshine Sketches the action is seen to have been a defense of the status quo, a defense of the very “enchanted” nature of Mariposa itself—rather than an abrasive confrontation with reality such as takes place in most conventional novels. The reader becomes aware that, no matter how dubious or ridiculous the conduct of the Mariposans, none of them is ever permanently changed or seriously injured by events.
Mariposa is depicted as almost perfectly self-contained; the outside world is only a confused rumour, in which it is better not to believe, for if you do, you are sure to lose some of your own inviolable idyllic magic, as Jefferson Thorpe does. The town's appeal is to the regressive qualities in our make-up, to our desire for security. Mariposa contains few anxiety-arousing activities or situations; for example, relations between the sexes are highly stylized, with almost all eroticism removed. There is little competition in the town, except when outside influences intrude. Throughout the book, we are invited to participate vicariously in forbidden activities, such as burning a church for the insurance, fixing an election, imbiding innumerable drinks, and engaging in endless gossip. We are presented with characters with whom we can sympathize and even identify, especially when they are doing something pleasurable or irresponsible. In short, Mariposa is a world of adults playing at being children, a world where child-men come to Smith's Hotel just to admire Josh Smith's enormous watch. It is a world which we know we can never repossess and which we know was never really the true world, but which we yearn towards in Leacock's fiction because in our hearts we wish the world could in fact be so.
Sunshine Sketches appeals to a universal nostalgia for childhood, for a time when your immediate surroundings were, without question, the whole world. Leacock knows he is addressing city readers, whose nostalgia has been blunted by the materialism of their daily lives; yet he knows that nostalgia is there, ready to be evoked by the proper stimulus—and that it is all the stronger for its habitual suppression. Leacock tempts his readers to enter a timeless and magical world, where adults can still appear as embodiments of mysterious and powerful forces and dreams can still appear to be capable of coming true. He creates a world where frame houses really are enchanted castles; where time flows in circles, always returning back to its starting point; where there is no death and burial, but only a painless passing on and interment—a world where a little learning is a lot, where incompetence is normal skill, and normal competence is high ability. It is a world presided over by the imposing bulk of Josh Smith, who seems to possess magical powers and is hedged about with an aura of the forbidden. Josh Smith's profession and costume hint at a daring lack of self-restraint, a breaking of all conventions—which never in fact takes place. He is deliciously wicked, but nonetheless quite safe to know. Thus, on virtually every page the book exploits a nostalgia for a simpler and purer world, a child's world. But we as readers are never completely allowed to forget that both the readers and the narrator of the book inhabit the more sophisticated world of the city. We are given a dual perspective on the town, a view of things both as they appear from within Mariposa (the child-townsman's view) and as they appear from a distance (the adult-city dweller's view). We do not necessarily openly acknowledge the nostalgic level of our responses, but it is nonetheless present, qualifying our awareness of Leacock's satiric intentions.
Sunshine Sketches begins by inviting the reader to an apparent feast of nostalgia. In the opening lines the narrator's voice engages the reader in friendly discourse, flatters and ingratiates him by assuming a shared knowledge, and assures him that in Mariposa he will find only the known, the familiar, the well-loved—there will be no unpleasant surprises:
I don't know whether you know Mariposa. If not, it is of no consequence, for if you know Canada at all, you are probably well acquainted with a dozen towns like it.3
Then the narrator sets about pretending to adjust the reader's perceptions so that Mariposa can be seen in its true colours. First, the local geography is presented. The steamer, tied with ropes the size they use on the Lusitania, floats on a lake which in its landlocked splendour is the only lake in the world. The town's chief thoroughfare is known as “Main Street,” for is it not the only main street in the world? The reader is introduced to the bustling commercial and social life of Mariposa, a life as busy and gay as that to be found anywhere in the world. The reader may demur at this. But the narrator anticipates his objections: “Of course if you come to the place fresh from New York you are deceived. Your standard of vision is all astray” (p. 3). If you don't see what he sees, the narrator suggests, you are at fault. The obvious discrepancy in experience and standards makes the reader pause. But only momentarily. Quickly he realizes what the narrator means: subjectively, Mariposa is the whole world to its inhabitants. So the reader adjusts his vision and looks again. Gradually he is drawn in, his horizon contracted, until Mariposa becomes the world to him, as it already is to the townspeople. If the reader is not persuaded by the narrator's voice, then he is persuaded by the massive and colourfully draped figure of Josh Smith, nearly three hundred pounds of shrewdness, willpower, patience, ingenuity, and determination. Josh Smith is indubitably there.
The reader is completely taken in by Leacock's Mariposa—or almost completely. For the narrator's voice also contains overtones of irony, which the reader is (of course) shrewd enough to detect. The Mariposa Belle is not really as big as the Lusitania; the bustle of Main Street is not really equal to the bustle of Threadneedle Street or Lower Broadway. A second standard of vision—that of the man from New York or from the city to the south—is always present in the background, telling us that Mariposa, despite its microcosmic quality, is only a small town of five thousand souls, a smallest part of the world. Moreover, we are reminded of the characters' shortcomings often enough to keep our identification tentative, so that we may disown our own forbidden longings when the surrogates who embody them are revealed as childish.
Throughout Sunshine Sketches Leacock causes the reader to experience the book on two levels simultaneously. On one level we perceive the pettiness of the characters and the selfishness of their actions. We recognize the limitations of a viewpoint that sees Mariposa as the navel of the universe. At the same time, we also recognize that this small-town society forms a seamless whole, within which the townspeople know their places perfectly. The town not only gives its inhabitants a sense of identity, but also closes ranks and defends them from upsetting intrusions originating in the outside world. Jefferson Thorpe falls from financial eminence not into despair but back into the sheltering and secure societal role he had temporarily vacated. The Mariposa court, though at times “a terrible engine of retributive justice” (p. 7), quickly squelches any hint of scandal surrounding the conflagration which rescues the Anglican congregation from bondage to their outsized Ark on the Hill. Thus, we are made to sympathize with, and even envy, the solidarity and security possessed by the citizens of Mariposa, even as we are amused by their idiosyncrasies and follies.
Leacock's principal means of manipulating the reader is his treatment of the narrator, the invisible extra character who actually guides the reader through the streets and byways of the town. The narrator has a disarming manner; he anticipates objections and agrees with them in advance. In this way, Leacock is able to forestall the scorn and ridicule that would come if his readers thought they were being taken for imperceptive fools. Yet the narrator's personality is really quite changeable; sometimes he is a townsman and sometimes an outsider. However, his inconsistency is not immediately obvious to the reader, for it is masked by the uniformly engaging tone of the narrator's speech. The reader, at each moment, identifies himself with the narrator, regardless of whether the narrator is sympathizing with the townspeople or is remarking on their failings. Only a highly critical reader is aware at first reading of the narrator's variability. When the book has been finished and put aside, more readers will begin to question the narrator's consistency. But Leacock has foreseen this questioning and has turned it against the reader. What the reader finally discovers is that the narrator's ambivalent reaction has been matched by the reader's own divided response to Leacock's little town in the sunshine.
Like the narrator, we as readers are also divided in our attitude towards Mariposa and its people. When we perceive the town as attractive, we are forsaking the “reality principle” which rules ordinary life and responding to Leacock's book in an uncritical and unreasoned way; we are approaching the town as children would. For only a child can with full conviction view the world in quite the rosy terms it assumes for the citizens of Mariposa. But this not the whole story. Some remarks by Robertson Davies are pertinent. Basing his analysis of humour on Freudian ideas, Davies has written:
The humorist seeks to take us back momentarily to the intellectual freedom of childhood, when everything was fresh to us, and freshly apprehended; if something seemed stupid or unimportant to us, we said so without regard for what the adult world thought; so also, if adults thought it trivial or inopportune or possibly disgusting. The humorist does this, and part of the price he pays for his gift is that he is thought childish, or a trifler, when we have been snatched back into the solemnity of the adult's world.4
It is easy to see that when we find Mariposa appealing we are reacting in a childish manner. But Davies's comments also imply that when we laugh at the immature antics of the Mariposans, we are indulging in an equally childish but far less kindly fondness for seeing folly exposed and people made ridiculous. Then, when we have finished reading the book, a new reaction may set in. We may become embarrassed or disgusted at the immature level of our responses, and we may reject the book as trivial. Hence, recognition of the nostalgia inherent in Sunshine Sketches suggests that we must pause and ask ourselves an important question: Is it possible to go beyond the childish elements contained in our nostalgic reaction to the book and to respond to Sunshine Sketches in a way that is at once “adult” and sympathetic? Or should we feel embarrassed if we find ourselves responding with empathy to the gallery of none-too-bright misfits and know-nothings who inhabit Leacock's town?
Such a devaluing of the humorist's efforts does not in fact happen at the end of Sunshine Sketches. Paradoxically, the very admission of the power of childhood to overcome adult awareness is in the end the most “adult” theme of Leacock's best book. Instead of asking us to suspend our sense of adult dignity and engage in a bit of childish foolery, what Leacock actually does in Sunshine Sketches is to expose the childish motivations of much of what ordinarily passes for adult behaviour, including—and this is the last layer of irony—the reader's own reading of this very book. In Sunshine Sketches the longing for an escape to childhood operates in so unobtrusive a way that the reader is hardly aware of it until in “L'Envoi” he is trapped into admitting that the longing for escape has affected him, as well as the narrator of the book. At the end of “L'Envoi,” at the moment when the book appears about to dissolve into unqualified sentimentalism, we are abruptly jerked back to reality. We realize that it is we the readers who have most strongly desired to return to Mariposa and that the narrator has found us out. Leacock deliberately catches the reader in the act of longing for an escape to childhood and then points out that the reader has actually been cooperating in his own evasion of reality. At the opening of “L'Envoi,” the narrator's voice again lures the reader into complicity:
It leaves the city every day about five o'clock in the evening, the train for Mariposa.
Strange that you did not know of it, though you come from the little town—or did, long years ago.
And we nod in agreement, whether we were raised in a small town or not, for we all lived once in childhood's enchanted country not long ago. The narrator addresses us as one man reminiscing to another, gazing backwards down the perspective of the years to a vanished place we can never recover. Home, he says, now means the city, with its sandstone houses and Mausoleum Clubs. And we nod again, recognizing that this is true. Yet before he is done the narrator means to make us call Mariposa “home.”
The narrator's plan of attack is brilliantly simple. First he puts us off guard by openly confessing his strategy: he plans to appeal to our nostalgia for childhood and home. He admits this obliquely by appearing to assert the contrary and insisting on the reader's distance from Mariposa:
But of course “home” would hardly be the word you would apply to the little town, unless perhaps, late at night, when you'd been sitting reading in a quiet corner somewhere such a book as the present one.
The thing is perfectly done. We recognize ourselves so exactly that we are not offended or embarrassed at being found out, but utterly charmed. As a result, both narrator and reader are ready to conspire to maintain a pleasurable mutual deception. Then the narrator begins to work a transformation, and, as he flourishes his words, we find ourselves dreaming of Mariposa or whenever we were happiest; and we are drawn aboard the five o'clock train, which we, like the narrator, had thought was only the suburban commuter train. As the train passes the city's outskirts and the commuters drop off, we too recognize our friends Dean Drone and Judge Pepperleigh, and we let down our city reserve and bask in the aura of geniality that only a group of small town people can radiate. Meanwhile, at the periphery of our attention, dream transformations are taking place, which in our unalert state we take for reality:
The electric locomotive that took you through the city tunnels is off now and the old wood engine is hitched in its place. I suppose, very probably, you haven't seen one of these engines since you were a boy forty years ago—the old engine with a wide top like a hat on its funnel, and with sparks enough to light up a suit for damages once in every mile.
Do you see, too, that the trim little cars that came out of the city on the electric suburban express are being discarded now at the way stations, one by one, and in their place is the old familiar car with stuff cushions in red plush (how gorgeous it once seemed!) and with a box stove set up on one end of it?
When the Conductor calls “Mariposa! MARIPOSA!” we expect a literal return to take place; we are shocked momentarily when the narrator dispels the illusion and we find ourselves still in the Mausoleum Club. Our response to this awakening is itself ambivalent. As we immediately recognize, the dream of return was impossible. But we are not angry at the deception. We have been so taken in that for a moment we are overcome by the sense of something—something precious—which has been lost; and we can only pause and mourn, half-consciously sensing that it is a part of ourselves for which we mourn. We do not throw down the book, or feel angry with the narrator for deceiving us, for Leacock has made it plain that we have co-operated in our own seduction.
Perhaps we are justified in describing much of the work in Leacock's voluminous literary output as “childish” in a pejorative sense. In many of his later books, Leacock may well have played the down or jester, as Davies insists. But in Sunshine Sketches the joke is ultimately on the reader. Leacock gives us the pleasure of feeling superior to his town and its citizens, but when we are returned to an adult awareness, it is Leacock who exacts a price, not the reader. The price we pay is a consciousness of our own regression. While reading Sunshine Sketches, we are lured into being children on the level of our responses, and then we are made aware of what we have done. It is not that the reader is consciously taken in. But Leacock has appealed to a pre-existing willingness to believe in the benign world he portrays and has planted the seeds of an unconscious acquiescence, which he later raises to consciousness. At one point in Sunshine Sketches the narrator remarks: “in Mariposa all really important speeches are addressed to an imaginary audience of boys” (p. 34). This phrase exactly describes the willful suspension of an awareness of the harsher aspects of reality which is a feature both of Leacock's fictional town and of the reader's response to Sunshine Sketches. By the end of the book the reader discovers that he has been one of the “boys” whom the narrator is addressing. As we finish reading “L'Envoi,” we can only admit that we have tried to play truant from reality, that we have tried to escape back to childhood, and that we have been well and truly caught by Leacock, here acting as a schoolmaster of the imagination.
“Introduction” to Feast of Stephen (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970), p. 19. This introduction is a slightly revised form of Stephen Leacock (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970).
“The Enchanted Houses: Leacock's Irony,” Canadian Literature, No. 23 (Winter 1965), p. 32. This article has been reprinted in The Canadian Novel in the Twentieth Century, ed. George Woodcock (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1975), pp. 1-14.
Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, New Canadian Library (1912; rpt. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1960). All page references are given in parentheses in the text.
“Introduction,” p. 41.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7785
SOURCE: “The Leacock Persona and the Canadian Character,” in Mosaic, Vol. XIV, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 77-92.
[In the following essay, Raspovich examines the “little man” or “uncommon common man” persona in some of Leacock's most important works, including Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich, and Behind the Beyond.]
Because Canada has often been interpreted as a puritan and sober culture—a country where survival has depended on hard work and where celebration has been at a premium—Canadian humor has seemed almost not to exist. In fact, among Canadians, “the myth of the mirthless Canadian” is a well worn phrase. It is, of course, a carefully rehearsed self-deprecating joke, proving not that the typical Canadian is dour but that he is capable of devious disguises and ironic, detached postures. As a matter of history, at least two Canadian humorists have been instrumental in brilliantly shaping the direction of North American humor by partly stepping outside of their own regional or national mythologies. In the nineteenth century, the Nova Scotian Thomas Haliburton created the resonant comic prototype of the enterprising Yankee in Sam Slick, a character who eclipsed the native U.S. version, Seba Smith's Jack Downing. Similarly, Canada's most famed humorist, Stephen Leacock, is applauded by literary critics south of the border as an originator of the twentieth-century comic figure of the “little man,” a type who is known in modern American humor in his simplest definition as the inept, average middle-class citizen harassed by bureaucracy, technology and family. Earlier characterized by his sense of responsibility, decency and concern for others, the average bumbler has more recently turned into a perfect neurotic. From his pictorial representation as Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen in film and Dagwood Bumstead in comic strip, to his literary expression as a voice in Leacock's famous sketch “My Financial Career,” the little man is heralded as a comic representative of modern American society.
Not surprisingly, American critics consider Leacock one of their own, celebrating him primarily as a source of the American mainstream of little-man humor. Norris Yates explains that “it is impossible to say just when the bemused householder and white-collar man became really prominent in American humour, but by 1910 Stephen Leacock, Simeon Strunksy and Clarence Day, Jr. were writing pieces in which the disguise of each author was just that.”1 Leacock's American biographer, Ralph Curry, also emphasizes the little-man aspect of the Leacock persona, pointing out quite correctly the Canadian writer's inspirational effect on Robert Benchley and his favorite character, “the little man in an incomprehensible world.”2
For the Canadian critic R. E. Watters, however, Ralph Curry “wearing his American spectacles,” has misread Leacock; the “little man” Curry describes is portrayed by various American humorists but not by Leacock. For Watters, concerned quite rightly with the subtlety of national characteristics and cultural attitudes which shape and direct humor, Leacock's “favorite character was indeed a ‘little man,’ but he was a Canadian type, not an American.”3 He suggests that, although they are powerless and subordinate, Leacock's little men are in control of themselves. While they wear masks of “calculated diffidence,” their comprehension of self is full and ironic. In this pose they are Canadian archetypes, reflective of the inner strength of a small nation which has survived the imperialism of larger powers. The archetype is therefore “radically different in outlook from such a character as Benchley's befuddled little man in an incomprehensible world or Thurber's Walter Mitty, who can live only by escaping into a fantasy of his own making” (p. 31).
The truth about the national identity of Leacock's little man is an important and more complicated issue than previous analyses have implied. In the first instance, Leacock cannot be easily separated from the mainstream development of American literary humor. As his critical book The Greatest Pages of American Humour reveals, he was American humor's ardent student, extremely conscious of its trends and absorbed by its milieu. If his comic voice does not compare in existential anxiety to Walter Mitty or to Benchley's urbanites, it does compare in some ways to those of earlier, admired turn-of-the-century humorists like George Ade and John Kendrick Bangs. Yet R. E. Watters is sensitive to that which escapes the American critics—that other steady side of the Leacock persona which may sometimes shift and merge into the little man profile but which remains a deliberate presence and a standard in the humor. In fact, when the narrative persona is examined closely through the broad scope of Leacock's humor, those private, certain values divined by Watters behind the character of the little man sharpen and coalesce into a definite personality—an authoritative alter ego, who is as much a striking expression of the Canadian character as Watters' insightful interpretation of the little man himself.
This alter ego as the voice of sure values is itself not entirely free from American trends at the turn of the century. The transition figure between the cracker-box philosopher, the comic oracle of nineteenth-century rural America who appeared in many guises in newspapers and magazines, and the absurd little man, the prophet of the twentieth-century metropolis, was an ideal projection of an urban, middle-class narrator. As the controlling voice behind the humor of the popular American humorist and Leacock favorite, George Ade, this transition type was the “uncommon common man,” a character type who managed the humor and who symbolized certain values which are also typical of the Leacock persona. Ade's ideal man, one who rises by his own effort from the country to the city, distrusts the culture of the new middle class but has an equal contempt for the masses, opposes the plutocracy of wealth but is simultaneously entrepreneurial,4 is similar to Leacock's own authorial stance.
The point of view of the “uncommon common man” in Leacock's humor is best illustrated in the chapter “L'Envoi” from Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. Here the voice of the narrator is that of a successful city sophisticate who makes a retrospective and affectionate comment on the rural small town. The attitude of the persona is comparable to that of the protagonist husband in such a typical Ade story as “Effie Whitlesy” from Stores of the Street and of the Town (1896). In Ade's story, the husband, who is a business success in Chicago, discovers that the new domestic his pretentious wife has hired is none other than his childhood friend from his small-town past. Although Ade's character is approaching the comic status of the hen-pecked little man in his relationship with a snobbish, middle-class wife, he is not ultimately reduced by her. Most important, he, like the Leacock narrator, upholds the memory of country community, its humanism and social democracy. The Ade character insists that his city-bred wife respect the “common” position and the maid Effie as well.5
Leacock came slightly late to the new, American middle-class comic mythology illustrated as a social ideal by Charles Dana Gibson, who between 1887 and 1890 created “the Gibson man” and “the Gibson girl” for Life magazine.6 The Gibson man represented a decorous, handsome, solid citizen who by now had substituted good English for the rural idiom of previous comic oracles, who illustrated a new city sophistication and grooming, and who evoked humor because he was burdened by a luxury loving and charmingly irresponsible wife. As one might expect, after 1900 the contours of such a solid citizen began to melt into those of the little man. A good example of the Gibson-man effect on Leacock's humor can be seen in the Fish illustrations for the fifth edition of Behind the Beyond, the book most central in the presentation of the little man persona. In “The Dentist and the Gas” and “My Lost Opportunities,” the illustrations of the oppressed persona still retain some of the suave and urbane good looks of the Gibson man.
Leacock was not remote from changing popular continental American comic mythology, its comic stereotypes and the values behind them. For example, Ade's uncommon common man who showed signs of shrinking to little-man status in “Effie Whitlesy” has shrunk another degree in Leacock's Mr. Rasselyer-Brown who is totally under the domestic influence of Mrs. Rasselyer-Brown in Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich. Like Ade's male character, though, Rasselyer-Brown has to be respected for his knowledge of his successful coal business and for being a good male provider. In this sense, he is a solid citizen and represents, among the satirized Arcadians, the best of a bad lot. Like early American humorists of suburbia such as Ade and Bangs, then, Leacock in his sketches of the Smiths and Joneses at cottage, club, breakfast, dinner, tennis, in courtship and in marriage, satirizes the rising middle class with their new riches, but in the same breath he affirms the enterprise and solidity of the uncommon common man.
If the Leacock persona at times reflects some of the values projected by the author's American contemporaries such as Ade and Bangs, the quintessential voice, the alter ego, remains nonetheless much more admirable, much more sophisticated, much more literate—in a word, much less common than the turn of the century American stereotype of the uncommon common man. Despite the occasional affectation of “averageness” by the Leacock narrator, the alter ego, the real voice of the humor is distinctly that of Canadian gentility. Simply speaking, the voice of this character can be identified as that of a conservative, educated and sometimes slightly dyspeptic Protestant gentleman. This is the voice which begs a preservation of the Victorian code of dignified manliness, and a separation of sexual roles, the voice which in the comic sketch,“The Restoration of Whiskers: A Neglected Factor in the Decline of Knowledge,” upholds the restoration of whiskers in place of the smooth-shaven face of the modern hero, “hardly,” the author says, “to be distinguished from a girl's.”7 In its extreme definition it is an identity removed from conventional domesticity, one which is singularly chauvinistic, even misogynistic. I suspect, too, that it is a definition which has its atavistic roots in pioneer Upper Canada, a masculine definition which hearkens back, not to the feminine sensibilities of Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill, but rather to the individualistic, sporting and bachelor code of the likes of William “Tiger” Dunlop, the lettered doctor of the Canadian backwoods, memorable for, among other things, his bachelor existence, his literary spirit of burlesque, his drinking and his will, in which he took a comic revenge on women.8
Canadians, it seems, are comfortable with this profile of a whiskered bachelor gentleman, for not only does the Leacock persona predict Robertson Davies' brilliant Canadian comic prophet, Samuel Marchbanks, but historically, from the Fathers of Confederation through our political genealogy of bachelor and pseudo-bachelor prime ministers, an authoritative, rather isolated—even lonely—gentleman has been the supreme voice of the nation. Most important to Leacock's humor, this identity often serves as a voice propounding a contrasting genteel standard to that of the larger American one represented by the modern urbanized little man—even if, in some instances, our authoritative gentleman appears to assume or pretends to little man characteristics.
While the alter ego is more noticeable in some volumes and sketches than in others, such as in the “Author's Preface” to Winnowed Wisdom where “the darned little average man,” with “his limited little mind” is the obvious butt of the superior author's joke,9 he comes to life with clarity as a Canadian presence in Leacock's humor when one considers in particular the persona in relation to the comic presentation of the professor, the persona in the bush landscape, and the persona in relation to women and fashion.
In an essay entitled “The Apology of a Professor: An Essay in Modern Learning,” Leacock begins, “I know no more interesting subject of speculation, nor any more calculated to allow of a fair-minded difference of opinion, than the enquiry whether a professor has any right to exist.”10 Despite this introduction of “calculated diffidence,” Leacock is sentimental and annoyed about a disappearing educational ideal—of learning as its own reward transmitted through the aworldly, moral and wise professor. For Leacock the “professor” was both a facet of self and the literate ideal of the genteel Anglo-Saxon class of Canadian society to which he belonged; it was an ideal which he upheld in his humor. Indeed, the voice of the educated professor is the prevailing one in the majority of his volumes. While he may sometimes characterize the professor as a little man in the modern world, a comic character who rides on his mule of Padua in competition with the automobile (p. 31), Leacock is not antagonistic toward the professor but toward a machine society which, with its commercial ethic, relegates the genuine professor to an anachronistic position.
Perhaps Leacock's most bluntly demarcated and most highly caricatured version of the little man as professor is that of Gildas in Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich. Fundamentally a sympathetic rendering, the portrait of Gildas is not, however, without satirical ambivalence. In the first place, the little professor is a scientist, who, behind heavy doors, secluded in his laboratory in the faculty of industrial and mechanical science, is blind to the spectrum of human drama outside his narrow interest. Gildas “beating off fragments with his little hammer,”11 has very little interest in the effect of his gold discovery on the people at the site, the Tomlinsons of Tomlinson's Creek who are the ultimate victims of his initial stupid act. In this observation of the little professor as blinkered scientist, Leacock is the comic fellow of Benchley and other turn-of-the-century American humorists who distrusted theoretical and applied science when it did not meet the tests of common sense and humanity. In the Gildas character there is something of the distrust of the laboratory as an American joke, popularized for the common man and his suspicion of intellect by John Kendrick Bangs, Finley Peter Dunne, Don Marquis, James Thurber and Benchley.12
Even so, Gildas is blessedly remote from Arcadian commercial infection. He demands admiration because he is a genuine wizard playing with little blue flames as “in a magician's cavern” (p. 31). Gildas is a member of that old professorial class who, as defined by Leacock in “The Apology of a Professor,” “knew, too, something of the more occult, the almost devilish sciences, perilous to tackle, such as why the sun is suspended from falling into the ocean, or that very demonology of symbolism—the AL-GEB of the Arabians—. … A man with such knowledge simply had to teach it. What to him if he should wear a brown gown of frieze and feed on pulse! This, as beside the bursting force of the expanding steam of his knowledge, counted for nothing” (pp. 23-24). In Donald Cameron's estimation, “Leacock does not want to emulate such men [as Gildas]. He does not want to be a fool, even a holy one. He does want a share of the Arcadian force and vigour.”13 In truth, Leacock was alternately attracted to, and repulsed by, the fruits of commerce. In Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich, however, the creator of Gildas is calculatingly diffident to the American commercial standard, for it is only through plutocratic spectacles that the little man as aworldly professor assumes comic proportion. Gildas is interpreted as a fool in terms of the values of the young laboratory demonstrator, representative of “one of the richest and best families in town,” who knows less of geology, more of finance, and who, symbolically, has “one eye half-closed” (p. 46) when he laughs at the little professor. The final voice, the ultimate persona, is one removed from this standard and this interpretation. From Leacock's vantage point, it is a poor society which allows Arcadian control to corrupt the higher aims of education and intellectualism. Ultimately, the foolishness of Gildas resides only in the foolish eyes of his beholder.
Similarly, in the comic sketch, “The Reading Public: A Book Store Study,” from Moonbeams from the Larger Lunacy, the persona is a professor who appears to be a self-deprecating little man. Disguised in a sporting tie with spots as big as nickels and sage-green fedora, he is instantly recognized by the manager of the book store for what he really is—a professor. The persona appears to be a little man when he recognizes his own worthlessness as a potential customer: “And he knew, of course, that, as a professor, I was no good. … He knew that I would hang around for two hours, get in everybody's way, and finally buy a cheap reprint of the Dialogues of Plato, or the Prose Works of John Milton … or some trash of that sort. … He despised me, of course. But it is a maxim of the book business that a professor standing up in a corner looks well in a store.”14 Leacock here is using his marvellous ironic sense to shatter the illusion that the shrewd Mr. Sellyer and his clientele have the correct standards. It is not the professor who is “no good” and “little” but those who supposedly have “real taste in literature—the ability to appreciate at its worth a dollar-fifty novel of last month, in a spring jacket with a tango frontispiece” (p. 24).
The Leacock persona's positive definition as a professor is, in part, Leacock the man but it also suggests the special Canadian perspective of his humor. Unlike, for example, the American humorist, Robert Benchley, who had scholarly interests but literally kept his more erudite books hidden in the closet,15 Leacock was more committed to the academic way than to the American standard of mass culture which persuaded many humorists like Benchley. The Canadian author felt an obligation to philosophize about humor, to dignify it with theoretical books, while Benchley wrote only the occasional lighthearted essay. Benchley, antagonistic toward an academic analysis of humor, typically defined humor in these zany, unmistakably American lines which were meant to parody Max Eastman's serious psycho-analytical book, Enjoyment of Laughter: “laughter is really caused by a small tropical fly carried from Central America to Spain by Columbus's men, ‘returning to America, on a visit, in 1667, on a man named George Altschuh’” (Yates, p. 83). While Benchley was known to cover his volume of Proust with a dust jacket from a murder mystery, one can hardly imagine the professorial Leacock so fearful of appearing pretentious in his reading.
Moreover, if Benchley's pose in print, his depiction of the little man as a middle-brow bumbler, was, as Norris Yates argues, a response to the demands of middle-brow America, Leacock's comic anti-hero, the little man as academic, and his larger authorial voice of an educated persona were similarly rooted in Canadian custom. To view the academic as established wit and humorist in Canadian letters is not a profound observation, but it is a significant one. It signifies a stronger and more conservative division between the literary establishment and the mass of the people, between the voices of cultural authority and those of its followers in Canada, than there is between the masses and literary leaders in the United States. It suggests, in effect, the ongoing legacy of the Anglo-Canadian belles lettres tradition on the frontier, the cultured sensibilities of such early Canadian writers as Judge Haliburton, Tiger Dunlop, Susanna Moodie, Catherine Parr Traill and the Stricklands. The modern result, so reflected in the writings of Peter McArthur, Stephen Leacock and Robertson Davies, is a stratum of humor in Canada which is sophisticated, pensive, literary and decorous. Perhaps it predicts too—at least it has in the case of Leacock and Davies—the ongoing development of an authoritative, literate, comic voice.
Although the essential Leacock persona is urbane, he nonetheless remains very much an expression of the Upper Canadian frontier and a rural mythology. For most Canadians, in fact, the true Leacock is the gentleman pioneer farmer, a persona dependent not as much on his authorial voice, but as with the fictionalized “Mark Twain,” on his country's popular response to the man and the inherent mythology of his work. This is the Leacock of our popular Canadian poster who is conspicuous in his gentility with cuff-links and tie, and who leans genially on his hoe issuing this wise comic maxim: “I am a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” A symbol of a dominating aspect of our pioneer past, of the British gentry of old Ontario, this image of Leacock is conveyed through his own mythic recollections of his homestead beginnings and his happy playing at such, as the gentleman-farmer of Orillia. It is a face of Leacock which has become a symbol and statement of a national fantasy and which is very apparent in these sketches about nature and fishing where, unlike the modern neurotic little man, the Leacock persona proves to be experienced in the bush. For Robert Benchley, the little man is a suburbanite who experiences nature over his head and in his backyard. Like Benchley himself, who felt heckled by pigeons and who once was unforgettably attacked by terns on Nantucket Beach, his little man is constantly humiliated in his bouts with his non-human environment. In contrast, in Leacock's humor the essential persona knows the bush, wishes, as a gentleman, to avoid its discomforts, and laughs at those urban little people who ignorantly romanticize it.
The piece most like Benchley's work, and one which is not typical of Leacock's nature sketches, is a neurotic modern comedy of the little man in nature entitled “To Nature and Back Again.” Here the persona is an American urbanite whose plan is to go to New England for his vacation and to spend it naked in the bush: “for one month, cast off all the travail and cares of civilized life and become again the wild man of the woods that Nature made me.”16 The persona and his absurd fantasy are caught and exposed through the author's mastery of comic exaggeration as, naked in the bush, he meets another vacationer:
“Do you realize that you are the nineteenth man that I've met in the last three days running about naked in the woods? …”
“You don't say so!” I gasped.
“Fact. Wherever you go in the bush you find naked men all working out this same blasted old experiment. Why, when you get a little farther in you'll see signs up: NAKED MEN NOT ALLOWED IN THIS BUSH, and NAKED MEN KEEP OFF, and GENTLEMEN WHO ARE NAKED WILL KINDLY KEEP TO THE HIGH ROAD, and a lot of things like that.”
When the persona awakens from this bad dream to discover himself seminude, an erotically suspect sleepwalker, apprehended by the “cops” in Central Park, the author is clearly saying that the romanticization of the bush by the modern city dweller is a mad self-deception and that really a gentleman ought to know better.
The persistent vision behind Leacock's humorous pieces on nature is not that of omnipotent natural forces overwhelming the little man but rather an experienced appraisal of the hardships of nature and the firm conviction that civilized man ought to avoid such primitive conditions whenever he can. We understand the narrator to be stupid in “To Nature and Back Again” because, foolish puppet to the real voice of the piece, he thinks civilization a “curse,” preferring “boiled grass and fungi cooked in a hollow stone” to dining at home (p. 82). And in the sketch, “Back to the Bush,” from the second edition of Literary Lapses, we understand the self-possessed persona to be superior because we credit him with the knowledge of bush life. Here the persona and the reader are in the company of well-educated men who, all but the narrator, have gone a little silly. Taken in by the idyllic travel brochures written by the narrator himself, these city men flock to the bush with the illusion of happy survival. Here, too, the message is that vastly superior to the reality of bush-flies, moose, bears and skunks is a standard of dignified and comfortable living. The authorial edict is often, moreover, the enjoyment of nature from the comfortable armchair of the private men's club, or with such luxuries as champagne and hotel dinner-dances close at hand, as in “Roughing It in the Bush: My Plans for Moose-Hunting in the Canadian Wilderness” in Over the Footlights.
This voice and this posture are not those of the typical urbanized American little man but those of the Ontario pioneer gentry. Even in humor, Leacock can be seen to belong to a frontier Ontario psychology and the belles lettres tradition of nature writing initiated by Susanna Moodie, her sister and the nineteenth-century Otonabee school of nature writers. While these writers recognized and knew the coarse realities of living in the bush, they persisted in presenting a literary view of nature which was essentially romantic and which was meant as a genteel escape from the hard facts of the natural world.17 Leacock carries on this romantic pioneer tradition in his genial and gently humorous sketches where he idealizes pastoral possibility and leisure in nature through the gentlemanly art of angling. Like the famous and influential Canadian nature writer, Roderick Haig-Brown,18 Leacock explicitly associates himself with the original company of belles lettres nature writers, the Izaac Walton school of fishing, in “What Can Izaac Walton Teach Us?” from Last Leaves.
Unlike Walton's serious pastoralism, however, Leacock's fishing and nature idylls can also be pointed comic illusions, ironically understood by the Canadian gentleman in the difficult Canadian climate as pastoral fiction, preferable even as literary events rather than real ones. In “Angel Pond, Lure of the North,” for example, the Leacock persona mocks from a superior distance and with an eastern eye those who inhabit the landscape of North-western Ontario and pretend to an easy, rugged frontier ethos. The persona very definitely knows better when Charlie of Angel Pond nonchalantly replies to the question, “Are the flies bad in summer?” with “Oh, the flies are nothing to us … you just smear your face thick with any kind of fat, groundhog fat, skunk's fat. … They never get you that way.”19 Ultimately for the sly persona, the best and proper way to enjoy fishing is with comfort and elegance, telling stories about it “round a winter fire, with a glass of something warm within easy reach, at a time when statements cannot be checked. …”20
Quite obviously, then, the Leacock persona is in nature a member of the Eastern gentry, as knowledgeable about the bush and as unwilling to accept its unpleasantries as he is wise and guarded about love and women. It is well understood that the little man as lover is a constant theme of Leacock's humor and that the author is entirely sympathetic to him in his awkward courtships and unrequited affairs. In “A Transit of Venus,” the laughter for the little man and inept lover, Lancelot Kitter, is sympathetic, as it is for Joe in “A Humble Lover” whose courtship of Miss Carson is a figment of his imagination. Because Leacock kept faith with the Victorian ideal of hearth and home, family solidarity and the sweet help-mate who is revered in the chapter as “The Little Girl in Green” in Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich, he does not want to dismiss the romantic quests of the Lancelot Kitters or Peter Pupkins. In the sunshine, he celebrates their enchanted vision.
The dominant persona is not, however, identifiable with the little man as lover, the domestic little rabbit of twentieth-century American humor. Instead, he is the distanced protector of the little lover and husband, the I who is “all for Joe's love affair” in the following excerpt from “A Humble Lover”: “I asked Joe, a little later in his courtship, if he had spoken yet to Miss Carson about marriage. He said no, but he had discussed it with his mother. His mother was all for it. He was going to wait awhile and then talk to his father. If his father was for it and his mother and if I was for it, that made three.”21 Remaining outside of the domestic situation, he is the gentleman interloper and observer who may be reduced to little man status by the domestic ménage he visits, but who has the ingenuity to escape and to preserve his ego.
This sense of self-preservation is apparent in “The Sorrows of a Summer Guest,” where the persona seems to be a little man when he is unable to master the conventions of being a summer guest at the fashionable Beverly-Jones's. When he fails to please these people, his neurotic sense of displacement is magnified in the style of modern psychological little man comedy: “Not that these people are not doing all they can for me. I know that. I admit it. If I should meet my end here and if—to put the thing straight out—my lifeless body is found floating on the surface of this pond, I should like there to be documentary evidence of that much.”22 Finally, through his overwhelming fear of being a master-of-ceremonies at an evening gathering of parlor-games, he invents an extravagant excuse and leaves post-haste. By so doing, he is able to preserve his certain, private and superior identity as gentleman traveller and respected club man:
Just these two bags, porter, and there's a dollar for you. What merry, merry fellows these darky porters are, anyway!
And so here I am in the train, safe bound for home and the summer quiet of my club.
Moreover, unlike the humor of Robert Benchley where the wife of the little man is just a shadow, in Leacock's humor the persona periodically attacks the dominating wife of the milquetoast character with vengeance. In “The Cave Man as He Is,” from Frenzied Fiction, the persona begins by identifying with the modern little man in his inability to woo women in a “fierce primordial way”—the way that the fifteen-cent magazine and the new fiction advise. The persona seems like the little man himself, lazily fantasizing about dragging women off by hiring an express man to carry one: “But would they come? That's the deuce of it. Would they come right along, like the cave-woman merely biting off my ear as they came, or are they degenerate enough to bring an action against me, indicting the express company as a party of the second part?” (p. 93). But with the discovery of hidden caves with original cave-men still in them, the persona more clearly becomes an aloof and dignified alter ego. Here he unravels the pathetic deceit of the cave-man dream. The cave-man “has lost all appearance of size,” is “quite little,” and is completely overrun in the modern way by a virago, a “big-boned woman in a suit of skins” (p. 100). In fact, there is some truth in the cave-man's interpretation of the persona as the real man, the “Outside Man” who knows how “to treat your women! By gee! You take no nonsense from them—you fellows are the real primordial primitive men. We've lost it somehow” (p. 99).
This attack against the little man's wife is apparent in those pieces, “John and I” from Winsome Winnie and “The Intimate Disclosures of a Wronged Woman” from The Iron Man and the Tin Woman, where the real persona is obviously male but curiously assumes a feminine disguise. The intention of this pose is sharply satirical. Burlesques of the confessional narratives of women's magazines, such pieces nevertheless function as serious social comments which expose the feminine psyche in marriage as deceptive and overbearing. Beneath Minn's facade of sympathetic attention in “John and I” is a hard, manipulating will: “I have always felt that every woman should make all that she can of her husband. So I did my best first of all to straighten up John's appearance. I shifted the style of collar he was wearing to a tighter kind that I liked better, and I brushed his hair straight backward instead of forward, which give him a much more alert look. Mother said that John needed waking up, and so we did all we could to wake him up.”23 In “The Intimate Disclosures of a Wronged Woman” from The Iron Man and the Tin Woman, the persona is more absurd and trivial in her observations, her feminine illogic the source of the amusement, but her attitude to men, particularly in the chapter “Married Life,” is shrewd, unsympathetic and highly rational. One of the foremost characteristics of the real Leacock voice, then, is his tenacious male patriarchical position. Infinitely preferable to “The Awful Woman with the Spectacles”24 is the Soft Lady, the doll.25 Infinitely preferable to the modern age of Gibson girls, the suffragettes, the domineering Mrs. Rasselyer-Browns and Beverly-Joneses are the “good old Victorian days, where women were angels, fairies, godmothers and such. …”26
Although this detachment from the little man as lover and husband, and the accompanying satire of the little man's wife, may not be exclusively Canadian, it does perhaps suggest a Canadian bias. As John D. Robbins suggests in A Book of Canadian Humour, Canadian society, in theory at least, is patriarchal. Because the husband is head of the house, there is nothing inherently funny or incongruous about the domineering husband. The henpecked husband is, however, fair game.27 Perhaps, too, the selection of a feminine persona as a method of satirical attack against women may portend something less conscious and less deliberate than the humorist's method. It may, in effect, reflect a submerged Victorian neurosis. As child of Queen Victoria's reign and Victorian assumptions in Anglo-Saxon Ontario, Leacock's—perhaps even Canada's—authentic psyche may well be that of a bachelor gentleman, hating and rejecting feminine power in order to preserve his masculinity but ambivalently attracted to and respectful of femininity and the mother-code. Certainly, as the recent revelations of Mackenzie King's diaries and the emerging burlesques of them indicate, it is a psychology understood well enough to be fast becoming a national joke. In any case, the voice of this Leacock persona seems to be a patriarchal Canadian one for it accords with that of Samuel Marchbanks who explains with gentlemanly dignity that, “Nobody has to live in the pattern of Dagwood and Blondie or like a creation of Jimmie Hatlo, who does not choose to do so.”28 The Leacock persona, it seems, is in league with Marchbanks. While the pattern of Blondie and Dagwood is traced, the authorial voice is removed from Blondie's authority—and the subordinate position of the little man.
An Anglo-Canadian statement is also made in those Leacock pieces which deal with fashion, particularly those wherein the persona is incongrously transformed by “feminine” dress. In A Treasury of Canadian Humour, Robert Thomas Allen points out that in nineteenth-century Canadian humor jokes were often made at the expense of the Americans. In humorous periodicals such as “The Moon,” for example, the idea of the civilized American struck the Canadian as hilariously funny.29 For Britannia's noblest daughter, the American society girl was particularly vulgar. This Canadian aversion to fashion and affectation lingers on in Leacock, directed not so much toward the Americans, but, with stolid Upper Canadian prejudice, toward the French. In Literary Lapses, the humor of “Society Chit-Chat” depends on the affectation of the fine French phrase in contrast to the realities of practical daily life. In Behind the Beyond, too, the travelling persona approaches French fashion and culture with the same puritan Anglo-Canadian and commonsense standard. The humor results when the persona falls from this standard into La Mode Parisienne and makes a fool of himself. Taking the “stuffy black ribbon” from his “Canadian Christie hat,” he replaces it with a “single black ostrich feather … fashioned with just the plainest silver aigrette. When I had put that on and pinned a piece of old lace to the tail of my coat with just one safety pin, I walked the street with the quiet dignity of a person whose one idea is not to be conspicuous.”30
In conclusion, while Leacock was an inventive and prophetic humorist who introduced continental America to the comic archetype of the little man, he did so with a Canadian knowledge of his own pioneer roots and ancestral place and with an aversion to a displacement of the past by modernism. Because he represents the consequence of Leacock's avowed enemy, the Machine Age, the milquetoast figure, the inconsequential man of the masses, was largely unacceptable to the real persona of Leacock's humor, that of the educated, Anglo-Saxon gentleman. With his sure values of dignified living, his books, his club, his civilized comforts, he was the author's instructive response to his own quickly developing industrial society and to North American society at large.
Although Leacock's character is recognizably Canadian, a member of that superior class in Canadian society identified by Robertson Davies as “the clerisy,”31 the tradition of Protestant gentility was not exclusive to Leacock or to Canada. The American intellectual historian Stowe Persons in The Decline of the American Gentility has traced the old, colonial tradition of gentility in the United States, which was inherited from eighteenth-century England and modified by the American experience, through to its decline at the beginning of the twentieth century. He cites as an example of moribund gentry culture the American Academy of Arts and Letters organized in 1904 by such academicians as William Dean Howells and Mark Twain. The intention of the Academy was in part to enforce dignity in manners, as well as in literary style, but as Persons explains, the Academy was founded at a time “when the tide of modernism was already beginning to engulf gentry culture.”32 and not all its members could agree about the extent to which the Academy should be accountable to democracy or to common standards. Interestingly, Persons also notes that by 1882 in the United States the gentry as a class were extremely prone to nervous disorders, to insanity and to alcoholism, and that “those prone to such afflictions constituted a definite physiological type; small in size, with a frail, fine constitution, frequently of superior intellect and a strong emotional nature” (p. 287). Moreover, the gentry had not only become physically “little men,” they contributed through their nervousness to a distinctive brand of American humor:
The distinctive American brand of humor was found to have a deep foundation in nervousness. Humor was an inevitable reaction to excessive strain. The peculiarly American humor of exaggeration, the grotesque, and the absurd had been developed not by the coarse, vulgar type of person, but by the gentry type. The humorous lecture of the later nineteenth century had replaced the cause of a deeply felt need for laughter. Laughing aloud had formerly been considered vulgar; but nervous people were now increasingly resorting to laughter because they had discovered its therapeutic value. The American language similarly showed the influence of nervousness in the course of its divergence from the mother tongue. Clipped words, compressed idioms, indistinct articulation, greater rapidity of speech, the high and monotonous sameness of pitch, all testified to the same cause. Even the musical instruments in the United States were said to be pitched higher than in Europe.
The comic archetype of the little man with his nervous humor can be seen to be related, then, to the decline of the gentry—even to have been gentry-inspired. For a humorist like Robert Benchley, born of New England gentry stock, the type-figure of his humor, which many critics claim was an expression of Benchley's own inept and bumbling self, was, it seems, almost a genetic legacy from an earlier generation.
Though it may be that Leacock's little man also emerged from threatened genteel values, it is not possible to identify Leacock in the way that Benchley, James Thurber and Walter Perelman have been identified: as themselves “Perfect Neurotics.”33 While these authors lived in fast-paced urban societies and projected the phobias and neuroses of urban living through their fumbling little men, Leacock himself belonged to the quiet academic society of his University Club and the rural world of Orillia. Leacock's Canada had not yet reached the stage of urban alienation of Benchley's America; thus the Canadian author's intact, confident and distanced alter ego could make a special point of rejecting the nervous, mechanized humor of modern America and the shape of its humor to come: “short and snappy, sarcastic—a bark, a snarl, reverting toward the primitive mockery that was cast out long ago.”34
Stow Persons has also suggested that the nervousness of Americans and their nervous humor were very much related to the extremes of threatening climate and the alternations of heat and cold and that there is actually, geographically, “a nervous belt, extending westward from southern New England and the Middle Atlantic States along the southern shores of the Great Lakes to southern Minnesota and Iowa eastwards through the Ohio Valley.” Persons further explains that, curiously, “North of the nervous belt, in Canada … nervousness was much less frequently encountered” (p. 292). If this theory is true, then it serves as a partial explanation, at least, for the Canadian certainty behind Leacock's depiction of the little man. It is certainly true that Canadians pride themselves on their ability quietly to survive in an awesome land and a severe climate. By providing an assured alternative to the little man aspect of his humor, Leacock, it seems, was sensitive to this pioneer fortitude Canadians claim as a national characteristic. More obviously, of course, Leacock was a comic mythologist for his own Canadian region. In his superior pose of the educated gentleman he hearkens back to the transplanted bookishness and gentry culture of the privileged settlers of old Ontario. Because this region has traditionally been the center of Canadian political and cultural power, however, the Leacock face of the lettered patriarch is as much a mythic representation of the Canadian character as Sam Slick's is of America's. Although since Leacock's time, the Canadian character has fractionized, has begun “to split into [the] many characters”35 which interestingly Constance Rourke identifies in her classic study American Humor as the source and mainspring of the humorous tradition in the United States, the foremost, original face of Canada and its comic character remains the Leacock man.
As a comic oracle of Canadian society, the Leacock gentleman is a figure, too, who significantly is not without an international perspective. And as one might expect, it is in the international arena that he begins to feel somewhat powerless. In an early piece called “Abdul Azziz Has His: An Adventure in the Yildiz Kiosk,” the author fantasizes directly about his own nation's impotent role. In this sketch, a Turkish sultan naively trapped in the web of international politics is the “little man” who is overpowered by a Prussianic Field-Marshall; the Canadian, equally powerless, is personified as a male professor, symbolically disguised in the pioneer garb of poke bonnet and a plain black dress. While Leacock deplores with comic melancholy his country's lack of international clout in this early sketch, in a later one called “This International Stuff” from Funny Pieces, he envisions a new role. Here the persona introduces himself as the average man picking peas in his garden but quickly supercedes this status when he describes himself in ideal terms as a Canadian and an internationally minded man. In “This International Stuff,” by confidently espousing democratic intercourse and tolerance on a global level, the Leacock persona affirms a new international authority for Canada. His country's prophet, the persona reflects, too, that orthodox Canadian pursuit of peace, interpreted by the rest of the world as feminine and described by the Canadian writer Hugh MacLennan as our “good woman's hatred of quarrels, the good woman's readiness to make endless compromises for the sake of peace.”36 In the last half of the twentieth century, this national fantasy as projected by the Leacock persona, has been constructively realized. Leacock would have been glad to know that after his death Canada gained respect as the steady professor in poke bonnet, as a civilized nation with some international tact and diplomatic skill.
Norris Yates, The American Humorist (New York, 1965), p. 244.
Ralph Curry, “Robert Benchley and Stephen Leacock: An Acknowledged Literary Debt,” The American Book Collector, VII (1957), 14.
R. E. Watters, “A Special Tang: Stephen Leacock's Canadian Humour,” Canadian Literature, No. 5 (Summer 1960), 27.
See Yates (pp. 61-80), for a complete discussion of Ade's values.
George Ade, The Permanent Ade, ed. Fred C. Kelly (New York, 1947), p. 129.
Yates, p. 24.
Stephen Leacock, Laugh with Leacock (Toronto, 1930), p. 192.
Tiger Dunlop's will includes the following statements: “I leave my sister Jenny my Bible, the property of my great-great-grandmother, Bethua Hamilton of Woodall; and when she knows as much of the spirit of it as she does of the letter, she will be a better Christian than she is,” and “I'll give my silver cup, with a Sovereign in it, to my sister Janet Graham Dunlop, because she is an old maid and pious, and therefore will necessarily take to horning.” Cited in Earl B. Scarlett, In Sickness and in Health (Toronto, 1971), p. 139.
Leacock, Winnowed Wisdom (1926; rpt. Toronto, 1971), p. viii.
Leacock, Essays and Literary Studies (1916; rpt. London, 1917), p. 11.
Leacock, Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich (1914; rpt. Toronto, 1969), p. 30.
Yates, Robert Benchley (New York, 1968), pp. 74-75.
Donald Cameron, Faces of Leacock (Toronto, 1967), p. 114.
Leacock, Moonbeams from the Larger Lunacy (1915; rpt. London, 1919), p. 24.
See Yates, Robert Benchley, p. 80.
Leacock, Frenzied Fiction (1918; rpt. London, 1919), p. 77.
For a discussion of these nature writers see Alex Lucas, “Nature Writers and the Animal Story,” Literary History of Canada, ed. Carl F. Klinck (Toronto, 1965; rpt. 1966, 1967), p. 367.
Roderick Haig-Brown reveals the influence of Walton on his own attitude toward nature in “A Conversation with Roderick Haig-Brown,” by Glenys Scow in Canadian Children's Literature, I, No. 2 (Summer 1975), 10.
Leacock, Happy Stories (New York, 1943), p. 62.
Leacock, Winnowed Wisdom, p. 82.
Leacock, Too Much College (New York, 1939), p. 207.
Leacock, Frenzied Fiction, p. 69.
Leacock, Winsome Winnie (1920; rpt. New York, 1923), p. 54.
Leacock, “The Woman Question,” Essays and Literary Studies, p. 121.
Leacock, Further Foolishness (1916; rpt. London, 1921), p. 78.
Leacock, Humour: Its Theory and Technique (London, 1935), pp. 266-67.
John D. Robbins and Margaret O. Day, A Book of Canadian Humour (Toronto, 1934), p. xi.
Robertson Davies, Samuel Marchbanks' Almanak (Toronto, 1967), p. 17.
Robert Thomas Allen, A Treasury of Canadian Humour (Toronto, 1967), p. 17.
Leacock, Behind the Beyond (1916; rpt. Toronto, 1969), p. 81.
Davies, A Voice from the Attic (New York, 1960; rpt. 1972), pp. 1-38.
Stow Persons, The Decline of American Gentility (New York, 1973), p. 112.
Yates explains that the American literary critics, Bernard de Voto and Walter Blair, have made this claim (Robert Benchley, p. 61).
Leacock, The Greatest Pages of American Humor (1936; rpt. London, 1937), p. 230.
Constance Rourke, American Humor (New York, 1931), p. 297.
Hugh MacLennan, Cross-Country (Edmonton, 1949; rpt. 1962), p. 5.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8097
SOURCE: “The Narrator, the Reader, and the Mariposa: The Cost of Preserving the Status Quo in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town,” in Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol. 22, No. 1 Spring, 1987, pp. 51-65.
[In the following essay, Zichy argues that a “special kind of equivocation” on the part of the narrator rules in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, and that the work's purpose is not to satirize the town of Mariposa but to convince the narrator himself that the town, with all its faults, is the best world after all.]
Since the first signs of a considered criticism of Leacock's comic writing in the late 1950s, much of the discussion of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town has focussed on the narrator's relation to his subject and his somewhat equivocal tone in presenting it. Some readers have judged Sunshine Sketches to be a satire, a telling exposé of the folly and even the corruption of small town life; others have described it as a work of genial humour by a writer who, in the words of Malcolm Ross, “loves what he hates.”1 The uncertainty in the telling is paralleled by an uncertainty about the character and position of the narrator, vis-à-vis Mariposa, which has also been widely noticed: at times, he appears to be sophisticated and well-informed about the great world; at other times, he speaks as if he shared the limited vision of the Mariposans. Some critics have therefore found the treatment evasive, and regretted the signs of what they have taken to be an affected naiveté in the narrator, “a spurious naiveté, which is even more depressing than spurious sophistication.”2 This is a serious charge, which must be faced if we are to believe that in Sunshine Sketches Leacock is more than a casual and none too ingenuous humourist. I will argue here that the equivocation in the telling of Sunshine Sketches is not merely evasive, nor a sign that the author has simply refused to “take the moral measure of his world,”3 but that this equivocation is rooted in the nature of the subject as the narrator sees it, and therefore must be reflected in his treatment. I am as interested, also, in the purpose of this equivocation, as it can be registered in the tale, as I am in judging whether the equivocation is a sign of good or bad art, for I think we can show that the presentation is neither feeble-minded nor intentionally and unnecessarily misleading. I will argue that the narrator's equivocation has a purpose—a purpose which is a response to his subject as he sees it—which is not to satirize Mariposa by comparison with some external standard (although that possibility is raised), but over the long run to convince himself and the reader, a former inhabitant of Mariposa who may feel the utility and persuasiveness of this argument, that with all its faults the world of Mariposa is, or was, the best world after all (for our final view of Mariposa is retrospective, suggesting that the narrator has been looking back from the first). By a skillful use of comic equivocation the narrator attempts to rescue the reader (and of course, himself) from the disadvantages of a more “consistent” (D. J. Dooley's word) satiric treatment, though he must surrender the possible advantages of such a treatment. The advantage to be surrendered is that in telling us how silly Mariposa is, satire will tell us that there is a place where life is more serious and consequential than in Mariposa. The disadvantage, which weighs more heavily for the narrator as a former Mariposan, is that satire must also tell us that we might aspire to that place hopelessly, as Myra Thorpe aspires to take up dancing in New York city before she learns to be a true Mariposan and love her job with the telephone company. Worst of all, we might arrive in that serious, grown-up place after all, and dislike it when we get there, perhaps because of something in Mariposa and in ourselves we have not been able to surrender. From this fate the Mariposans are preserved, but we realize at the conclusion that this is the position of the narrator and the reader who has followed his meaning. For this disillusionment, in the chairs of the Mausoleum Club, an equivocally comic portrait of Mariposa may be a last-ditch consolation, which cannot entirely save us from a knowledge of our losses (ambiguously, the loss of something we may be perfectly able to see through), and of how little we have gained to make up for them.
In this connection, it has always seemed to me that one of the most characteristic and telling episodes in Sunshine Sketches is the account of the rescue of Peter Pupkin (himself the would-be rescuer of his latest lady friend) and the passengers on board the Mariposa Belle in “The Marine Excursion of the Knights of Pythias.” In the celebration of the rescue of Pupkin, “Saved! Saved!” (53) a major theme is raised, and the narrator's characteristic tone and pressure can be registered, if we trace the development of this episode and explore its resonances.
Working back, then, from the rescue of Pupkin from his own efforts, and the bringing into its berth of the Mariposa Belle, we can see that these comically dubious feats have been prepared by a confounding of the reader's bearings, in the extended comparison of what it means to sink on Lake Wissanotti in the Mariposa Belle, and what it means to sink in a great ocean liner in mid-Atlantic. Right after we are told that the Mariposa Belle is really going down (a first “surprise” which has been repeatedly hinted at from the beginning), a second surprise, this time a happy one, is sprung when the narrator reveals that “I don't suppose that in this stretch of [Lake Wissanotti] … you could find six feet of water … if you tried.” But our complacency is quickly undercut with yet a further consideration: “Safe! I'm not sure now that I come to think of it that it isn't worse than sinking in the Atlantic” (49, 50). This second reversal leaves us disoriented and needing to be rescued ourselves, by “one of the smartest pieces of rescue work ever seen on the lake” (52), or seen in comic writing, that steers between the rock of satire and the soft place of sentimentality. It is the narrator who rescues us, after he has nearly sunk us with his equivocating reversals and made it impossible for us to derive any definite satiric conclusion from a clear orientation of our bearings. By now we cannot say whether life in Mariposa is serious and dangerous, or merely as sheltered and foolish as it appears to be. Like Peter Pupkin, we are exhausted by our unsuccessful efforts to make out the reality of the situation, and we need to be saved, and we are saved, because in this episode as in all others the Mariposa status quo is preserved in spite of the illusion of significant action which the narrator's comic frenzy creates. So too Jeff Thorpe is back in the barber shop after his flirtation with high finance, and glad to be there, as the narrator assures us; so the Whirlwind Campaign ends with not a cent of money changing hands (save the hundred dollars of Mullins, the exception that only proves the rule), though hundreds of thousands have been promised; and so the new church is mercifully burned to the ground, and the town saved from the fire by the ultimate piece of rescue work in the story. Peter Pupkin is saved from the possibility that he might have completed some effectual action, and thus lost his ineffable innocence. But he is saved at a price, since his rescue makes his utter ineffectualness clear, though not to Pupkin himself. Thus this price, though indicated, is not paid by Pupkin—he is rescued by the narrator as well as by the men on the Mariposa Belle. And even the reader has been finally saved from satire, if he is reading as he is encouraged to do by the happy ending of the episode. It is fundamental to the narrator's method that equivocation prevails, in the piling of reversal upon reversal, preventing a clear satiric thrust, a conclusive comparison of life in Mariposa with another standard, implicit or explicit. In Mariposa every force is cancelled by an equal opposite force, just as in the narrator's telling every consideration is met by an equal opposite one, so that satire is both allowed and then stymied, and we may feel moved to conclude that all is for the best in the end. Thus Peter Pupkin rows out into the middle of the lake and is rescued (or stymied) by a reciprocal effort launched from the steamer; two shots are exchanged in the robbery of the Mariposa bank, both miss, and the sum is zero: no money has been lost, no robbery has taken place, and the snooping detectives return to the big city, their hands empty, convinced perhaps of the nullity and ridiculousness of Mariposa life—convinced, with the same partial correctness as those who would read Sunshine Sketches as a satire, or as a satire manqué. This zero result is the “mystery” of life in Mariposa (as in the chapter title, “The Mariposa Bank Mystery”). As for change or effectual action, “that kind of thing never happens on Lake Wissanotti” (49), and the narrator's story demonstrates that it never happens in Mariposa at large. The repeated recourse to facetious humour expresses the underlying message that it is no use invoking another standard, though such an invocation may be unavoidable, that this is how it is and must be in Mariposa: “there’s no use describing it; you need to see rescue work of this kind by lifeboats to understand it” (53). Yes, but what does this understanding amount to? The reader who follows this narrator must perform a special mental operation, even while he is never let off the hook of comic equivocation, if the rescue is to work for him—not the rescue of Pupkin (we can see through that) but the rescue of the narrator and the reader from the consequences of having seen through the rescue of Pupkin. Initially, of course, we are tempted to make the comparison with another standard, with rescue work in the Atlantic (which the narrator himself insistently invokes, suggesting that if this is not a satire, it is not unintentionally so), and making that comparison we might conclude that this is no rescue at all. More fully, we may understand that this is the only “real,” the only appropriate rescue in this “real” world and “real danger, a line of thinking that may finally convince us that things are very well in Mariposa, that this is the real world after all (now with inverted commas removed). To suggest this understanding and acceptance of the mystery of Mariposa may be the canny purpose behind the narrator's facetious foolery.
These investigations bring us, then, to a consideration of Smith's pivotal role in the action of Sunshine Sketches and in the life of Mariposa. His importance is evident from his mere prominence in the story and from the way in which his exploits provide a beginning and a conclusion to its episodes. More essentially, Smith plays a central role as the cunning, knowing (within limits) preserver of the ineffable Mariposa status quo.4 Thus Smith does from within Mariposa, as an actor in the story, what the narrator does by his special way of telling the story, and what the reader is invited to do by assenting to it as told; he preserves it as it is.
It is not necessary to argue, then, as some readers have done, that as an outsider with superior knowledge Smith preys on and manipulates the Mariposans, or that his modus operandi is very different from theirs, for we find that the story has dealt with and discounted that possibility.5 When he first arrives from the great North, Smith appears indeed to be a potentially disruptive force and is viewed with suspicion. His character as an outsider is of course essential to his role and significance, but it only confirms, as all things in the story do, the final triumph of the Mariposa standard and way of life. As an outsider with “superior” knowledge (he knows about the long distance telephone, but cannot read or write) Smith is the exception that proves the Mariposa rule, though as we read on we see that his differences are more apparent than real (Pupkin, the other outsider, proves the rule rather differently by turning out to be more naturally equipped for life in Mariposa than anyone ever born there). Smith repeatedly uses his limited but real knowledge of the world precisely to maintain the immunity of the sheltered world of Mariposa: that he also benefits by this only confirms his participation in that world, and of course he has plenty of help (as in the burning of the new church) from the Mariposans themselves, who have everything to gain as well. By the end of the story the outsider has become the town figurehead, its “representative man” (the phrase used of his defeated opponent in the election). It could be argued that Smith's citizenship in Mariposa is finally confirmed precisely by his departure—for four years at least—to Ottawa, an event that is so completely nominal as to suggest forcibly that in this instance, as always, things in Mariposa are never more the same than when they give the appearance of changing: nowhere will Smith be more a Mariposan than in Ottawa (we shall see, when we look at “L'Envoi,” that this is also true of the narrator and the reader).
It is worth tracing the career of Smith in more detail, to clarify the process by which he is both absorbed by the town and becomes its leader, an active force in keeping it as it is. The key to Smith's relations with the town is complicity, and complicity of a special kind, a left-handed complicity which does not entirely know itself for what it is and which is essential as well to the whole life of the town. Smith's role is to highlight the operation of this complicity, since he comes from elsewhere and by his successful adaptation makes clear how complicity in Mariposa works. By observing Smith the reader may become conscious of something which the townspeople unthinkingly accept as natural. For instance, when we see Smith break the unwritten law of complicity and close his hotel bar on time, locking Judge Pepperleigh and the prosecuting attorney out, the sanctions of the official law (which is normally flouted in favour of an unspoken understanding) are suddenly brought down on him.6 Such a situation can best be expressed by facetious humour, for the whole episode is predicated on a double inversion, the upsetting of the law that normally rules Mariposa, which is itself a subversion of the official law. Smith understands the customary law of Mariposa perfectly, although as an outsider (and a help to the reader) he trips once in acting on that understanding: “on this point Mr. Smith's moral code was simplicity itself—do what is right and take the consequences. So the bar stayed open” (13).7
The narrator's facetiousness is entirely to the point; this low humour is the right means for presenting the process whereby complicity operates to invert the official law, just as circumstances conspire to ensure that there is never more than six feet of water in Lake Wissanotti. The narrator's facetious humour is the tip-off that this is only shadow-boxing and that all will be resolved in the end by a cancelling of forces that brings everything back to the safe status quo. So after the success of Smith's elaborate, and potentially transforming, campaign to regain his licence the real innovations silently disappear from his hotel, and if he keeps the “caff” it's because it costs him nothing now and because of the possibility of a Conservative candidacy for its owner, a reminder of the on-going complicity between the town and its prominent citizen. The town is claiming him as its own, and he can enjoy it as a preserve for exercising a pre-eminence based on (and limited by) the politics of “I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine.”
Equally interesting is Smith's role in burning the new church and then saving Mariposa from the menacing fire that results. It is surely significant that the vexatious troubles over the financing of the new church are brought upon the town by the aspirations of one of its most innocent members, Dean Drone. In the very bosom of Mariposan innocence lurk ambitions which come near to entangling the town in a network of liabilities to the great world outside, represented by the bank that holds the mortgage and the insurance company and its agents who investigate the fire (compare Jeff Thorpe's unfortunate dealings with New York land brokers). There is a parable in these events (confirming Smith's importance to, and affiliation with, Mariposa) whereby the innocent Dean must be saved, and his innocence and its privileges preserved, by the operations of the cunning but entirely assimilated Smith. It was the Dean's new church which made necessary the Whirlwind Campaign, that bright idea from the great world outside, imported in all innocence and enthusiasm by the banker Mullins, which somehow did not quite work out in Mariposa. Yet here the assessment of events and results becomes problematic in a way typical of life in Mariposa and of the narrator's presentation of it. For the narrator's account raises the question whether it would have been worse, not better, if the Whirlwind Campaign had succeeded, as success is judged in the city. There are plenty of hints that its failure was due to a collective cunning at work in Mariposa, which might not entirely know or acknowledge itself, but which operates all the more effectively for that (in Mariposa, innocence and a kind of cunning are entirely compatible). On the simplest comic level (and we are always free to consider this level in this story which is, after all, a work of humour in spite of what criticism may feel empowered or compelled to make of it), those worthy citizens who pledged money contingent on the accumulation of impossible sums may have known very well what they were doing. They were making it highly unlikely that they would ever have to part with any cash. And collectively the town also may have had an important purpose, its self-preservation as it is, even in correction of its own impulse to ape the big city. This half-knowledge cannot be articulated in Mariposa or it would cease to function; so too it must be relayed by implication in the narrator's account of the progress of the campaign, replete with hints for the receptive reader, a former inhabitant of Mariposa who has eyes to see and ears to hear. From within Mariposa, this instinct for self-preservation gets a decisive helping hand from Smith who, in his appreciation of the realities of the Mariposa situation, stands somewhere between the people of Mariposa and the narrator.
Some of the hints as to these realities are both pointed and, as is typical, oblique. Thus we are told that in the city the success of the Whirlwind Campaign was attested to by the tears of the deans and professors of the colleges which were to benefit (70). These tears, like the refusal to give money unconditionally in Mariposa, are simple things on one level. In the city, it is not possible to evade the claims of Whirlwind Campaigns, and the deans and professors are regretting their own contributions, which may even have made up most of the sum raised. The contrast with what happens in Mariposa could not be more complete though its meaning is equivocal, making success of failure and failure of success. Just as Mariposa can be defined (only partly to its cost) as the place where the Whirlwind Campaign will fail, so the city is the place where such projects succeed. But what price success? (This perhaps is the subject of Arcadian Adventures With the Idle Rich.) Here are the alternatives the narrator presents with his equivocating vision, which is not the defining vision of satire. We begin to see how much is conveyed by the deceptively folksy and simple observation that “perhaps there are differences between Mariposa and the larger cities that one doesn't appreciate at first sight” (71).
Before returning to the conclusion of the failed (and therefore successful) Whirlwind Campaign, in Mr. Smith's saving of Mariposa from the fire he set to save the town from a greater evil, we can look more closely at the narrator's deployment of this sense of the differences between Mariposa and the larger cities, for this contrast is of course central to the comedy and the moral argument. Nowhere is the equivocating vision of these differences more aptly expressed than in that early passage where the narrator goes the whole distance and compares Mariposa to New York City, the inevitable final point of reference (as the sign outside Biggar, Saskatchewan has it, “New York is big, but this town is Biggar”):
Of course if you come to the place fresh from New York, you are deceived. Your standard of vision is all astray. You do think the place is quiet. You do imagine that Mr. Smith is asleep merely because he closes his eyes as he stands. But live in Mariposa for six months or a year and then you will begin to understand it better; the buildings get higher and higher; the Mariposa House grows more and more luxurious; McCarthy's Block towers to the sky; the buses roar and hum to the station; the trains shriek; the traffic multiplies.
When you have lived in Mariposa a while “you will begin to understand it better.” Yes, but what does this understanding amount to? As always, the narrator seems on one level to be making a simple satiric joke, to the effect that someone who thinks that Mariposa is a “mere mad round of gaiety” (3) is quite obviously deceived, with a standard of vision gone comically astray. But perhaps a former inhabitant of Mariposa, the proper audience for a story like this, will see more in the joke, without of course missing the joke. What have we forgotten, and what have we learned, during our education—or reeducation—in the “realities” of Mariposa? It was Leacock's brilliant comic ploy, which was not fundamentally a ploy at all (and so this book is his most memorable and lasting) but the natural outgrowth of his experience of the indeterminacies of small-town life, to pose this question without answering it. He answered it only as he felt it had to be answered, equivocally and by implication, leaving his readers unable to resolve the question whether his book is a satire or a tribute, but also leaving them with a rich fund of widely suggestive humour to be enjoyed, and pondered too, if approached in the right spirit, with the right background of experience. The simple and repetitious devices of Leacock's comic method are marshalled to a more than simple purpose, to frame an image of Mariposa in all its resistant, special reality. The highest level of implication is not always sustained: some of the treatment consists of unsubtle though often pointed jokes, as when the narrator remarks with mock-hickish insistence that the streets of Mariposa are so much wider than Wall Street and Piccadilly—because, of course, there is nothing in them. Yet the varied and lively responses of readers and critics suggest that Leacock took hold of the larger possibilities by seeing Mariposa as it really is, and not only possibilities for giveaway jokes and “exploded clichés,” but also for a kind of validating comedy pitched at just the right level for the revelation and appreciation of its particular subject.
A good example of this equivocating yet often curiously validating presentation of the Mariposa reality (again with the focus on Smith) arises when, in what looks like a straightforward satiric thrust, a comic righting of our vision, the narrator tells us that “Mr. Smith was on the eve of one of the most brilliant and daring strokes ever effected in the history of licensed liquor,” or when he asserts in the same connection that “the utter hopelessness of knowing what Mr. Smith is thinking by merely looking at his features gets on your mind and makes the Mona Lisa seem an open book and the ordinary human countenance as superficial as a puddle in the sunlight” (8, 6). It may be that in Mariposa the history of licensed liquor is indeed important (this is, after all, a Canadian story!), once we have adjusted our vision, like the visitor from New York, and the narrative may be meant to encourage us to make this adjustment. The image of the puddle in the sunlight echoes the title of the book and suggests some of its implications. Sunlight will make the puddle appear shallow and opaque (as a “sunny” treatment of a subject may do); this surface, however, may conceal untold depths (and so might an apparently friendly, superficial treatment). Then again, what if the surface only betokens real shallowness? A “sunshine” vision may be either revealing or forgiving, or both; in the sunlight, things may stand out clearly, but they may also be masked by the brilliance of the surface. There is no clear satiric message to be garnered from this passage, or others like it, except if we put ourselves at cross-purposes with the tone and movement of mind throughout this story. Instead, the narrator involves us in a circle of equivocation which causes him also to throw up his hands at moments (although over the long haul he steers us home, like Smith, to a less than completely safe berth in Mariposa, a haven which can only be enjoyed retrospectively as a dream in the armchairs of the Mausoleum Club): “then the utter hopelessness of knowing what Mr. Smith is thinking by merely looking at his features gets on your mind.” Here both the satiric home thrust (it's impossible to know what's on his mind because there is nothing on his mind, and so appearance and reality are in simple consonance) and the deeper equivocation are retained. Mr. Smith, we are told, is “one of the greatest minds in the hotel business,” an apparently fine satiric line that seems to cut Smith down to size, yet the next paragraph tells us about Smith's real effectiveness in Mariposa, partly due to the mere fact of his size—“two hundred and eighty pounds as tested on Netley's scales” (6). Smith is the only hotel keeper in the town's history who eschewed “such feeble names as the Royal Hotel and the Queen's and the Alexandria,” and “simply put up the sign with ‘JOS. SMITH, PROP.,’ and then stood underneath in the sunshine as living proof that a man who weighs nearly three hundred pounds is the natural king of the hotel business” (6). Here the Mariposa standard triumphs over any satire derived from our big-city experience; it is in the equivocal Mariposa sunshine—all revealing yet all forgiving—that Smith's “size” speaks for itself and the “natural” triumphs over any possibility that there may be another standard of measurement than Netley's scales and another way of evaluating a hotel keeper than by his weight and common sense in choosing a sign. To repeat, perhaps in Mariposa it is the history of licensed liquor that really counts, and this point is being made not only satirically, but as a matter of fact and plain common sense. It is to this special common sense, derived from our intimacy with Mariposa, with “the inner life and movement of it” (5), that the narrator is appealing, as much as to our satiric sense (derived from our experience of places other than Mariposa) of the absurdity of Mariposa standards. This means, as will be seen more fully in “L'Envoi,” that the narrator's tale can only be addressed to a reader like himself, a former resident of Mariposa who has seen the rest of the world (Piccadilly and Wall Street) but cannot, or will not, overcome his affinity with Mariposa life. Perhaps the mixed reception Sunshine Sketches received in Orillia confirms that it was not meant for actual residents of Mariposa.8
The problematics of definition in Mariposa are once again comically, sharply raised in the thematically central passage explaining that in Mariposa “practically everybody belongs to the Knights of Pythias just as they do to everything else.” The result is a special kind of solidarity obtained at the cost of a blurring of lines of distinction, for if “everybody is in everything” (37) then nobody is anybody in particular.9 At the conclusion of the passage describing how Mariposans celebrate their affinity with all nations (a further wrinkle in the matter of Mariposa's connectedness with, and preservation from, the great world), the narrator focuses the issue of definition more sharply than usual, as if he were telling us something especially important:
The Mariposa Belle always seems to me to have some of those strange properties that distinguish Mariposa itself. I mean, her size seems to vary so. … In the summer time, especially after you've been in Mariposa for a month or two … she gets taller and taller … till you see no difference between the Mariposa Belle and the Lusitania. Each one is a big steamer and that's all you can say.
Is this offered as a satiric confirmation of an unfortunate fact, that to adjust oneself to the Mariposa standard is to lose all sense of the real proportions of things? Or is this an invitation to join in a folksy, radical skepticism, a questioning of all distinctions and scales of value? As we know by now, the narrator will not say; although low facetiousness (the exploded or inverted cliché) is always his way out of the problems he poses (of the Mariposa Belle as a second Lusitania, he comments, “Harland and Wolff didn't build her. They couldn't have,” leading the reader to wonder—because she is not good enough, or too good?), there is more than facetiousness in his purposes. To anticipate, “L'Envoi” complements facetiousness with sentiment, revealing the goal of this foolery and equivocation, which is to soften the effects of that loss of an external standard and the ability to discriminate, or perhaps to console us for what this ability must continue to tell us about Mariposa and ourselves, and finally to reconcile us to our own Mariposa, our own diminished version of the Lusitania.
The narrator's attitude, and the attitude the reader is encouraged to adopt, is curious and special. All is given away that is needed to make a satirist's case against the town, and if this case is not made it may be because of the narrator's own complicity with these cunning innocents, which presumably serves him in some way. He is rescuing the subject by a sleight of hand that is very much like Smith's skulduggery in burning the church, and he would like to get away with it as Smith has done. Thus, he invites the reader to conspire with him, or dares him to be so churlish and obtuse as to refuse.
This recourse to comic sleight of hand constantly produces tensions, as in the conclusion to the story of Dean Drone which in striking an unusual note of disillusionment offers a foretaste of Arcadian Adventures. Here the narrator's facetiousness, usually so genial and resourceful, has an insistent, defensive edge: “Dean Drone? Did he get well again? Why, what makes you ask? You mean, was his head at all affected after the stroke? No, it was not. Absolutely not” (86). And the placing of Dean Drone in his right context (as when the narrator asks about Smith, “Can he take her in?”) is surely less good-humoured and tolerant than usual; indeed, it is almost possible for once to derive a clear satiric judgment, not just of the hapless Dean but of the incompetent Mariposan innocence that he embodies: “And, as for audiences, for intelligence, for attention—well, if I want listeners who can hear and understand about the great spaces of Lake Huron, let me tell of it, every time face to face with the blue eyes of the Infant Class, fresh from the infinity of spaces greater still” (86).
This rough-edged sarcasm (very much the note of Arcadian Adventures) is an extension of the normal tone, but not completely out of keeping with it, and expansions are possible. Like the Dean's, the narrator's tone and approach are perhaps appropriate to his subject and to his audience, former Mariposans who may have reason to wish to think well of their old town (we note the insistence above on the narrator himself as a possible teller of stories). The difference is that the narrator (and perhaps his audience) has not been able to surrender his intelligence, in spite of the sleights of hand that he practises; in fact, the comic game only sharpens the wits for the appreciation of what is at stake. Here the narrator is a disillusioned former Mariposan, addressing others who know the town as he does and sharing this knowledge in the way the subject deserves and requires, through the filter of an equivocal facetiousness that has become sarcastic under the strain. The narrator has revealed more than ever before what it costs to preserve the status quo in Mariposa, the cost for the Mariposans (who pay by being what they are, if not by consciousness of what they are), but more interestingly the cost for the narrator who has tried, not quite successfully, to prevent his left hand from knowing what his right hand is doing. But then, perhaps, this lack of success in fooling oneself is precisely what we are meant to see.
There is evidence that good humour is also tested in the account of the election that concludes Sunshine Sketches, yet it is possible to see the outcome as a final twist in the equivocal process whereby Mariposa is saved from the dangers and advantages of becoming more or other than itself. As before, the town is saved partly by Smith's manipulations and partly by its own complicity with Smith as its representative citizen. Mariposa elects Smith, for good and ill, as much as he works on Mariposa to get elected. The true state of Mariposa politics is conveyed with the usual ineffable, untranslatable equivocation when the narrator explains that “everybody in Mariposa is either a Liberal or a Conservative or else is both.” The corollary is that “the one thing that nobody is allowed to do in Mariposa is to have no politics” (125). This conclusion is of course deceptive, for here is an affirmation of concerted political activity which is really a denial of any meaningful politics, when coupled with the quip that goes before. The demarcations that signal a vigorous political life are affirmed in such a way as to deny all possibility of meaningful differences, and this is the key to everything that happens in the election, in which one rascal is replaced by another who is merely better at the same game of evading all real issues, to the delight of the representative four little girls in white who once adorned the Liberal campaign but who hand the bouquet of victory to Mr. Smith, “for it turned out they were all Conservatives” (146).
As the election campaign heats up, the actions and strategy of the candidates can be seen as expressive of the plot of the status quo preserved at a certain cost, by the cancelling of opposing forces and potential differences. The incumbent Bagshaw's difficulty is that for once the Liberal party has chosen a substantive issue, the lowering of the tariff on U.S. goods, on which to fight the election. Bagshaw would prefer to “fight it merely on the question of graft. … Why not have fought the thing out on whether I spent too much money on the town wharf or the post-office? What better issues could a man want? Let them claim that I am crooked, and let me claim that I'm not” (131). The point of course is that in such an exchange of assertion and counter-assertion no appeal to any real issue needs to be made; in fact, it is plainly discouraged. Bagshaw wins whether he is believed or not—he manages both the innocent and the cunning—because even if people are reminded of his corruption they will also be perceptive enough to realize that this corruption has served them very well, and so the appeal to complicity which underlies Mariposa life will be made. It is because Smith makes this appeal more effectively, and because he is not hampered in his freedom of movement by having to take a stand on a real issue, that he can beat Bagshaw at his own Mariposa game and become the new representative man. Smith concocts the perfect Mariposa program: just as Bagshaw the bagman would like to run on honesty in office, so Smith the hotel keeper and barman will run on “temperance and total prohibition” (133). The cunning of this platform (for—this is the suggestion, to be taken advisedly—it would not work in the big city, where people are more educated and honest) is that it will be understood for what it is. It's like Smith's “honourable” behaviour in keeping the bar open whenever Judge Pepperleigh and the prosecutor have not yet arrived, or like the promise to give money for the Whirlwind Campaign, contingent on the fund reaching impossible sums. There is an instructive hitch in Smith's campaign, precipitated by the bringing in of an outsider who really takes prohibition seriously, and exhorts an audience of Mariposa Conservatives by reminding them of unspeakable iniquities at a Liberal meeting, where “seventeen bottles of whiskey [are] hidden in between the blackboard and the wall.” This information clears the hall, and Smith shows the usual Mariposa flexibility with issues when “after that the total prohibition plank was changed and the committee substituted a declaration in favour of such a form of restrictive license as should promote temperance while encouraging the manufacture of spiritous liquors” (141).
There are further indications of how widely an all-conquering and all-cancelling complicity rules in Mariposa when, after the first returns put Edward Drone the “independent” (in Mariposa!) candidate in the lead, everyone is delighted, and “already three or four [townspeople] had taken Drone aside and explained that what was needed in the town was a straight, clean, non-partisan post-office, built on a piece of ground of a strictly non-partisan character” (143). It is clear that even if Drone had won, nothing would have changed; but of course Drone's role is to illustrate what it takes to win by being the one who cannot win (this is how he is true to the dictum that “the one thing that nobody is allowed to do in Mariposa is to have no politics”). The Conservative victory and election of Smith reinforces the fact that in Mariposa everybody is in everything, and also makes clear the cost of this solidarity, though as usual the narrative may be asking us to view this cost as a benefit. There is no change, no turning point here, as the Mariposans rediscover their identity, such as it is: “it turned out that there wasn't really a Liberal in the whole town and that there never had been” (145). To say at this point that there are no Liberals in Mariposa amounts to saying that there are no Conservatives either, as Mariposans may discover in the next election. The triumph of Smith is significant for what hasn't happened, for the way in which apparently opposing forces have merely cancelled each other out—a fitting conclusion to a story that includes Jeff's lucky rise and fortunate fall, the bank “mystery” in which the mystery is that there is no mystery, and the “entanglement” (a key word, like “mystery” and “rescue,” all used equivocally to signify non-events or only apparent difficulties) of Mr. Pupkin, in which it is discovered that Zena Pepperleigh can put up with a rich man after all, and that Pupkin is just such a rich man, though in good Mariposa fashion utterly disguised by his innocence and incompetence. The narrator's humourous presentation of all this is not exactly satiric, but perhaps it is even more widely destructive than satire and cuts even deeper, for it endorses the very thing it has so brilliantly shown up and forcefully suggests that no alternative is preferable.
It is this special sort of disillusionment, this state of being caught between exploded innocence and unachieved experience, that may account for the understated wash of sentiment in the final chapter, “L'Envoi. The Train to Mariposa.” In the conclusion to this story the narrator himself appears to swallow the bitter-sweet pill of the Mariposa status quo in the hope that it will be substantial nourishment. Yet, in line with the ruling equivocation of the telling, even that possibility is undercut when Mariposa is relegated to a terminus on a forgotten railway, a dream that can only be dreamed in the big city by former Mariposans like the narrator and the reader, who are left stranded at the end, “sitting here again in the leather chairs of the Mausoleum Club, talking of the little Town in the Sunshine that once we knew” (153). Yes, but knew it as what? We are left unsure as to what we knew, or now know, although we cannot avoid the suggestion that the dream of Mariposa offered in “L'Envoi” is only a sentimental illusion. But equivocation, not clarifying satire, rules at the end, so we cannot know what is real and what is delusion, and this presumably is the confirmation of our own on-going citizenship in Mariposa, even in the chairs of the Mausoleum Club.
In his interesting essay on Leacock, which I cited at the outset of this paper, D. J. Dooley has judged that there are “inconsistencies” in Sunshine Sketches that make it “something less than the masterpiece it might have been.”10 I hope my discussion has shown that these inconsistencies are essential to the subject and the author's vision of it and that, to risk paradox, the book presents an equivocal and therefore meaningful account of the indeterminacies of small-town life in Canada. The equivocation of this presentation is, by this argument which flirts with the “fallacy of imitative form,” part of the message, a means for rendering the subject faithfully as it is and rendering the view taken of that subject. Whether we agree with this description or not, it is clear that something in his subject and his relation to it made it impossible for Leacock, over the long haul, to adopt the method of straightforward satire in Sunshine Sketches (as, for instance, Robertson Davies can be said to have done in his “Salterton Trilogy,” where the main yalues espoused lie outside the small Canadian town). And what may appear to a student of satire to be evasiveness, a failure to “take the moral measure of his world” (in Dooley's phrase), may really be another vision of life less determinate than the satiric one; and yet it is also my argument that for Leacock this vision too had its cost, and its tensions which could not be resolved. In a wise and perceptive essay that was also one of the first serious contributions to Leacock criticism, Reginald Watters sought to define the special quality of Leacock's vision and humour by indicating their roots in the conditions of Canadian life. The Canadian position in North America has always been precarious, Watters observes, and
… as a people bent on self-preservation Canadians have had to forego two luxuries; that of forgetting themselves in gay abandon and that of losing their tempers in righteous wrath. Yet there is a kind of humour that combines full understanding of the contending forces with a wry recognition of one's ineffectiveness in controlling them—a humour in which one sees himself as others see him but without any admission that this outer man is a truer portrait than the inner [see the Mariposans' opinion of the Federal census!]—a humour based on the incongruity between the real and the ideal, in which the ideal is repeatedly thwarted by the real but never quite annihilated. Such humour is Canadian.11
This seems to me to go a long way towards really explaining what has puzzled and disappointed some of Leacock's critics. I would add, however, that a price is paid for this position, too, and that this price is to be seen at the conclusion of Sunshine Sketches. The comic equivocations of Sunshine Sketches, I think we may safely say, are not merely signs of caginess or softheadedness; they are both a reflection of the special nature of the subject and a means for drawing a portrait of that subject for the right reader, anyone who has lived in Mariposa and survived to tell the tale or listen to it comprehendingly. Finally, however, the equivocations are both an attempt at a consolatory argument, couched in deceptively comic terms, and a simultaneous admission of the narrator's failure to console even himself. Thus, in its conclusion this classic Canadian comedy becomes quite unfunny, while making its final plea for the preservation of the Mariposa status quo as the best thing we have, even as it reveals that the Mariposa game, which may never have been worth playing, has at any rate been lost long ago. But this “lostness”—the lost world and the game of preserving its status quo at the cost of suppressing our best knowledge (is this a winning or a losing game?)—is finally, probably admittedly, of the essence of Mariposa's appeal. Now we have reached the point where failure is a kind of success, both for the Mariposans and, more complexly, for the narrator, and with that recognition our investigation must end, just at the point where Leacock also left it.
“Editor's Preface” to Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1960), p. ix. Further references to Sunshine Sketches will be by page number to this edition. Among those writers who conclude that Sunshine Sketches is mainly satiric are Vincent Sharman, “Satire of Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches,” Queen's Quarterly, 78 (Summer 1971), pp. 261-67; and Robertson Davies, “Stephen Leacock,” in Our Living Tradition, First Series, ed. Claude Bissell (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957). For another view, that Leacock is neither a satirist nor a humourist, but an ironist, see D. A. Cameron, Faces of Leacock (Toronto: Ryerson, 1967).
D. J. Dooley, Moral Vision in the Canadian Novel (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1979), p. 4. Dooley is paraphrasing a remark by Robertson Davies.
Dooley, p. 6.
See Douglas Spettigue, “A Partisan Reading of Leacock,” The Literary Half-Yearly, 13 (July 1972), p. 174: “Smith is the presiding genius of the town and an essential part of Leacock's vision, for his efforts are directed not only to his own profit but to keeping Mariposa the way it is.”
See especially Gerald Lynch, “Sunshine Sketches: Mariposa versus Mr. Smith,” Studies in Canadian Literature, 9, No. 2 (1984), p. 170.
Earlier, Smith was in trouble for being caught playing the game of complicity, when Judge Pepperleigh discovered that he had contributed to both the Liberals and Conservatives. This shows that in Mariposa complicity operates best when it is unacknowledged—in fact, such operation is part of the definition of Mariposa complicity.
This is good example of Leacock called the “exploded cliche”: “words and phrases are rushed forward into a significance they won't bear on closer inspection; in fact the significance involves a complete impossibility” (Leacock, Humor. Its Theory and Technique, p. 35, as cited by W. H. Magee, “Genial Humour in Stephen Leacock,” Dalhousie Review, 56 [Summer 1976], p. 269).
See Ralph L. Curry, Stephen Leacock (New York: Doubleday, 1959), p. 98.
As evidence of the narrator's long-term equivocation, even in his most categorical statements, we may remember his earlier remark that “that's the trouble with people in Mariposa; they're all so separate and different—not a bit like people in the cities” (30). The two statements, each backed up by solid evidence, cancel each other out, yet both must stand.
Dooley, p. 4.
Reginald Watters, “A Special Tang: Stephen Leacock's Canadian Humour,” Canadian Literature, No. 5 (Summer 1960), p. 26.