The Literary Accomplishment of Stephen Leacock

To start to give you some idea of Stephen Leacock’s literary accomplishment, I am going to start with a list of titles, preceded by a warning: There remain vital qualities, both good and bad, in that accomplishment that are not revealed by a list of titles. I will talk briefly about those after the list. As you read down it, try to imagine the amount of work that went into the writing, and the amount of reading (and retention) that went into the preparation. It represents, I think, about five million words, all scratched out with a pen, then typed by some long-suffering typist, read by a long-suffering editor, type-set by a long-suffering type-setter, printed, bound, shipped, and sold, often in large numbers, occasionally not. That’s 125,000 words per  year in books alone, plus all the research and creation that went into his 600 or so articles and booklets that were not later collected into books (maybe another 2,000,000 words), plus all that he put into preparing for his 750 public lectures, and you can see that he was indeed a busy man, a “hard-working, hard-reading, hard-talking, hard-thinking, hard-smoking, hard-drinking, hard-writing man”, as I have said in a song I wrote about him.

Those who remember him only for one book studied in school, plus a couple of humorous short stories placed in those school-room anthologies called “readers”, let alone those who judge him entirely on the basis of a few opinions no longer acceptable, don’t really know the man.

Here’s the list (Leacock, born in December 1869, was 33 years old in 1903; he was 40 when he had his big breakthrough as a popular writer in 1910):

THE DOCTRINE OF LAISSEZ-FAIRE – 1903 (Ph.D. Thesis in Political Economy, University of Chicago)
ELEMENTS OF POLITICAL SCIENCE – 1906 (Textbook)
BALDWIN, LAFONTAINE, HINCKS: RESPONSIBLE GOVERNMENT – 1907 (Makers of Canada Series)
LITERARY LAPSES, A BOOK OF SKETCHES – 1910; the first collection under this title was published by Leacock himself; a somewhat expanded LITERARY LAPSES was published by John Lane – 1910
PRACTICAL POLITICAL ECONOMY – 1910 (25-chapter magazine series)
NONSENSE NOVELS – 1911
SUNSHINE SKETCHES OF A LITTLE TOWN – 1912
BEHIND THE BEYOND – 1913
ARCADIAN ADVENTURES WITH THE IDLE RICH – 1914
THE DAWN OF CANADIAN HISTORY – 1914
THE MARINER OF ST. MALO – 1914
ADVENTURERS OF THE FAR NORTH – 1914
MOONBEAMS FROM THE LARGER LUNACY – 1915
ESSAYS AND LITERARY STUDIES – 1916
FURTHER FOOLISHNESS – 1916
“National Organization for War” (booklet) – 1916
FRENZIED FICTION – 1917
THE HOHENZOLLERNS IN AMERICA – 1919
THE UNSOLVED RIDDLE OF SOCIAL JUSTICE – book 1920 (published serially in 1919)
WINSOME WINNIE – 1920
“The Case Against Prohibition” (booklet) – 1921
MY DISCOVERY OF ENGLAND – 1922
OVER THE FOOTLIGHTS – 1923
COLLEGE DAYS – 1923
THE GARDEN OF FOLLY – 1924
WINNOWED WISDOM – 1926
SHORT CIRCUITS – 1928
THE IRON MAN AND THE TIN WOMAN – 1929
ECONOMIC PROSPERITY IN THE BRITISH EMPIRE – 1930
WET WIT AND DRY HUMOUR – 1931
BACK TO PROSPERITY – 1932
MARK TWAIN – 1932
THE DRY PICKWICK – 1932
AFTERNOONS IN UTOPIA – 1932
CHARLES DICKENS: HIS LIFE AND WORK – 1933
“Stephen Leacock’s Plan to Relieve the Depression” (booklet) – 1933
LINCOLN FREES THE SLAVES – 1934
“The Pursuit of Knowledge” (booklet) – 1934
HUMOUR: ITS THEORY AND TECHNIQUE – 1935
HELLEMENTS OF HICKONOMICS – 1936
FUNNY PIECES – 1936
“The Gathering Financial Crisis in Canada” (booklet) – 1936
MY DISCOVERY OF THE WEST – 1937
HERE ARE MY LECTURES AND STORIES – 1937
HUMOUR AND HUMANITY – 1937
MODEL MEMOIRS – 1938
TOO MUCH COLLEGE – 1939
OUR BRITISH EMPIRE – 1940
CANADA: THE FOUNDATIONS OF ITS FUTURE – 1941
OUR HERITAGE OF LIBERTY – 1942
MONTREAL: SEAPORT AND CITY – 1942
MY REMARKABLE UNCLE – 1942
HOW TO WRITE – 1943
HAPPY STORIES JUST TO LAUGH AT – 1943
CANADA AND THE SEA – 1944
Note: Leacock died in 1944.
WHILE THERE IS TIME – 1945
LAST LEAVES – 1945
THE BOY I LEFT BEHIND ME – 1946

You can usually tell from the titles which of these are humorous and which serious works. Those with confusing titles are usually mixtures.

I have previously referred to The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice as a climactic work, drawing attention to a progression in Stephen Leacock’s books, articles, and speeches. This begins with his Ph.D. thesis in political economy (1903) and his textbook on political science (1906), where his approach is academic. It becomes progressively more out-reaching, culminating in his series of public articles on “Practical Political Economy” (1910). In the same year he emerged as a popular writer of humour. He therefore adds humour to his serious preoccupations in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912), and Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich (1914) and in many short pieces. The progression effectively comes to an end with The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice (1919-20), where he identifies, but does not pursue, the trope (“Unsolved Riddle”) that, I think, essentially captures his view of the human political-economic condition. He writes of the Depression in the 1930’s with passion and concern, but without drawing attention, as he could reasonably have done, to the possibility that the whole sorry mess was caused by people not seeing and therefore mishandling the unsolved riddles inherent in economic, social, and political life. If you come to see life in terms of unsolved riddles you become less reckless, less dogmatic. That is the natural, and sensible, reaction.

I think it correct to speak of Stephen Leacock’s life and works as literary accomplishment. I wish I could speak of it as one of expanded understanding and mind-changing interpretation, because I think the “Unsolved Riddle” trope has that capacity. Leacock himself, however, did not grasp the implications. He treated it as a catchy title, not as the brilliant insight it could be. But better late than never.

To be a plural society, to embrace Pluralism as a reality and an ideology, as Canada increasingly tries to do, and with some success, is to embrace Unsolved Riddles as inevitable corollaries, and to act accordingly. The economic, social, and political art is not to treat them as solvable, but to accommodate them creatively and humanely in their unsolved state. It’s what we do in fact, as we muddle our way along. The other part of the art is to enjoy it.

The people of Mariposa do that, silly as they are, which is why we love them. The people of Plutoria Avenue think they know the answers, which is why we do not. But that conversation is for another day.

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