The First Decade of Stephen Leacock, 1870-79. Ready to Learn.

If you read last week’s posting, in which I listed the decades of Stephen Leacock, you will know that his first decade was, practically speaking, 1870-1879. He was born on December 30, 1869; he therefore had little experience with the decade of the 1860’s. The nine months of it that he spent in utero do not seem to have been notable in any way. I will therefore ignore them, as having contributed to the personage he became only in the most basic biological sense.

His parents were Peter Leacock and Agnes Butler, married under somewhat hasty circumstances three years before Stephen was born. Their first child was born six-and-a-half months after the wedding. Peter was then nineteen, Agnes twenty-three. It would appear that Agnes and Peter, despite the vicissitudes of their early married life including three forays into the colonies two of which ended dismally and a third just as dismal but more persistent, and forced exile from the gentrified comforts of both their up-bringings, continued to find comfort with each other throughout the decade of the 1870’s and into the next. The years of their eleven children’s births were 1867, 1868, 1869, 1871, 1873, 1875, 1877, 1878, 1880, 1884, 1886. We see from this list that Stephen’s first decade was enlivened by the births of five of his siblings, added to the two he already had when he was born.

It was also enlivened by his father’s failed attempt to establish himself as a farmer in Kansas (1874), and by the whole family’s emigration to the wilds of Ontario, just south of Lake Simcoe (1876). Grandfather Leacock was determined to get rid of them. Before emigration they had been living in Porchester (which now seems to be spelled Portchester and maybe was then,—Stephen is not always reliable on such matters), a village in the south of England just outside Portsmouth. Stephen had happy memories of Porchester, not as many of Georgina Township a little southeast of Sutton. “Our own farm with its building was the damnedest place I ever saw,” he reminisced in old age.  Nevertheless, it’s where he was once the family arrived in 1876, and where he stayed for the rest of the decade, during which he published not a word.

I see no reason to believe that any of his experiences in the first decade had any abnormal effect on the personage he became. He began it as a puling infant, ended as a ten-year-old boy. With his brothers he attended the local school in nearby Egypt for a brief time, until his mother began to fear it would corrode their gentility. She tried home schooling with herself as the teacher, then turned the job over to a tutor named Harry Park who was unusually capable and conscientious. Thus the young Stephen ended his first decade and began the second, which I will tell you all about next week.

Since justice to the first decade for my purposes leaves me some space I will now muse a little on an interesting general question, viz., this “personage he became”, what is it, for our purposes? Is it the works he left behind? Or the accessible remnant thereof? Or the memorable remnant? Or the currently respectable memorable remnant? Or something conjured up by his biographers? Or by scholars? Or by readers? Or by the Leacock Museum in Orillia? Or by the Orillia Chamber of Commerce? Who has laid claim to Stephen Leacock and what are they claiming?

I myself pursue him for somewhat limited purposes of my own. I find him a good story,  and as I am a storyteller that is one purpose good enough for me. He tells good stories, which I like to read. Some I like to tell. That’s another. Most important to me, however, is the belief that he left behind an important idea,—the idea of the “Unsolved Riddle” applied to Social Justice,—that I think has been overlooked: not the idea itself, but his catchy label and the easy way he hands it over, handle first, edge turned away. It’s not even clear that he realized how sharp it was, although he certainly saw what it had to cut. Maybe it wasn’t even all that sharp, coming from him. I say that because he might have entertained the idea that if we scraped off some of the irregularities the edge wouldn’t have to be all that sharp. We know better now, that the irregularities are who we are as a nation. As I put it in a poem recently composed: inside our Dark Tower we search in vain for simplicity, finding only a rampant Pluralism. Isaiah Berlin is the man for that, not Stephen Leacock, wise as he was on his good days.

Stephen Leacock was a great teacher, however. What he wanted most for us was that we should learn. Such was the personage he became. I will tell you how he got there. At the end of his first decade he was on his way, but only just. Harry Park was about to give him the first boost.



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