The Decades of Stephen Leacock, a Song, a List of People, and an Unsolved Riddle

These are the Decades of Stephen Leacock, born December 30, 1869, died March 28, 1944:

1870’s :: Born to poor, rejected, dejected, fecund (11 children eventually) gentry in Hampshire England; unwilling emigration of the family (1876) to a bush farm near Lake Simcoe, Ontario.

1880’s :: Rescued into Upper Canada College, Toronto, (1882); graduates as Head Boy; enters University of Toronto (1887) but drops out due to finances. Trains to teach high-school Latin, Greek, French, German & English. Teaches one term in Uxbridge (1889).

1890’s :: Back to Upper Canada College as a teacher of languages; studies evenings at the University of Toronto and receives BA degree (1893); reads widely; discovers political economy; writes and sells a few humorous sketches; enrols (1899) at the University of Chicago for graduate studies.

1900’s :: Marries Beatrix Hamilton (1900); begins lecturing at McGill University (Montréal); awarded Ph.D. in Political Economy by the University of Chicago (1903); hired full-time by McGill; writes political science textbook, one other book and more humorous sketches; tours British Empire as public speaker; made professor and head of McGill Department of Economics & Political Science; buys land for summer place near Orillia; starts building.

From 1910 to 1936, for all his public fame as a writer and speaker of both humorous and serious works, he was primarily a teacher, professor and administrator at McGill University, spending his summers at his cottage near Orillia.

1910’s :: First collection of humorous sketches: Literary Lapses; 1910); followed by: Nonsense Novels (1911); Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912); Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich (1914); plus other lesser works; emerges into fame as humourist and successful academic, writer, & public speaker; tours eastern Canada for Belgian Relief during WW I; son Stephen (Stevie) born in 1915; ends decade with a quite different book: The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice.

1920’s :: Stupendous quantity of writing & speaking but nothing notable; tours England & Scotland in 1922 as public speaker; Beatrix dies of breast cancer in 1925; Leacock completes building of his summer house (1928), the one that still stands, serving as the Leacock Museum.

1930’s :: More writing and speaking; notable works on Great Depression; unwilling and deeply hurtful retirement from McGill (1936); speaking tour of western Canada (1936-37); willing retirement from public speaking.

1940’s :: Continues writing both humorous & serious works; begins unfinished autobiography; final illness and death (March 1944); posthumous publication of three final books.

Stephen Leacock wanted to call his autobiography: My Memories and What I Think. He completed only the first four chapters. In publishing them after his death, his publisher called the book, The Boy I Left Behind Me. Although this title is catchier, it diminishes the scope of the book. Leacock’s title is more accurate. Leacock’s entire œuvre could accurately be called My Discovered and Imagined World and What I Think — not a catchy title at all.

I wrote a song about him, a work-song for readers and writers in the rousing “John Henry” tradition. It has its own tune.

The Ballad of Stephen Butler Leacock (© Paul W Conway)

Come, readers and writers and I’ll sing you the song
Of a man who could write, even when he was wrong;
He wrote his way to money and fame—
You’d best remember if you want the same;
He wrote, and he thought, and he talked, and he read,
Up early in the morning and early to bed :
A hard-working, hard-reading,
Hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking,
Hard-writing man:
Stephen Leacock, the name of this man of fame;
Stephen Leacock: Remember if you want the same.

He wrote in the morning when the day was new;
He wrote the words that he thought were true;
He wrote in the hope that people would laugh,
But of all that he wrote that was never more than half;
He wrote of the rich, and he wrote of the poor —
Social Justice and a whole lot more :
A hard-working, hard-reading,
Hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking,
Hard-writing man:
Stephen Leacock, the name of this man of fame;
Stephen Leacock: Remember if you want the same.

He preached prosperity, he cursed at graft,
He teased their foibles and the people laughed;
He told the stories of the present and past —
Much that he wrote wasn’t fated to last;
He wrote for his time, and he wrote for his place;
He wrote stupid things about women and race :
A hard-working, hard-reading,
Hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking,
Hard-writing man:
Stephen Leacock, the name of this man of fame;
Stephen Leacock: Remember if you want the same.

He wrote his country and the Empire wide,
He wrote his people and he wrote with pride,
He wrote through depression and he wrote through war,
He wrote for peace, and romance, and more;
He wrote for laughter, and he wrote to touch;
He wrote for money, and he wrote too much :
A hard-working, hard-reading,
Hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking,
Hard-writing man:
Stephen Leacock! He had his moment of fame;
Stephen Leacock! Enjoy it if you get the same
As much as he did.

The principal people in Stephen Leacock’s life were:

Agnes (Butler) Leacock, his mother, a huge influence;
Peter Leacock, his father, a huge disappointment;
His Siblings, especially George, but ten in all: five brothers, five sisters;
Beatrix (Hamilton) Leacock, his wife, a gracious presence;
Stephen Lushington (“Stevie”) Leacock, his son, a fond worry;
Barbara Nimmo née Uhrichsen, his niece and general factotum;
René du Roure, his close, billiards-playing, drinking, McGill friend;
May (“Fitz”) Shaw, the dear female friend of his later years.

Plus many friends and colleagues, in Montréal and Simcoe County. He was a popular, sociable, if somewhat overbearing man. In a real sense those whom Churchill called “The English-Speaking Peoples” were also Leacock’s people, but that is another whole topic.

Unsolved Riddle arising from contemplation of Stephen Leacock’s life and works:

How should we remember the flawed giants of our past? Do we focus on their accomplishments and gloss over the flaws, or do we focus on their flaws and gloss over the accomplishments? Our history abounds in men and women who worked wonders, amply recognized in their day, who held opinions, or did deeds, or were the kind of people we no longer want to celebrate. How do we do justice to them?

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