The Second Decade of Stephen Leacock, 1880-89. Upheaval.

If you go back a couple of weeks to the full list of Leacock’s decades, all 7.325 of them, you will see this one described as follows:

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).

It did not end, however, quite as described. In the Fall of 1889 he returned to Upper Canada College as a junior master, and resumed his studies at the University of Toronto. The story of his time there properly belongs to the next decade. That one was lively, but not quite as lively as this one.

We left Stephen Leacock in his “damnedest place  you ever saw” on the farm in Georgina Township, just south of Lake Simcoe. This proximity is important, because somehow, despite the rigours of farm life, the family contrived to spend its summers by the lake, in true genteel Ontario fashion. Incidentally, I have seen their farm life described as that of pioneers in Upper Canada. This is not pedantically correct. “Upper Canada” had been re-named as “Canada West” in 1841, and “Ontario” at Confederation in 1867, nine years before the Leacocks arrived. And they did not hew their farmstead out of the forest primeval; someone had done that before them. The conditions remained somewhat primitive, however, although possibly not quite as colourfully so as he described them later on in his old age for the purpose of publication.

Carl Spadoni, in his “Chronology” provided with his monumental A Bibliography of Stephen Leacock (1998) summarizes in more detail the events of Leacock’s second decade: he is appointed joint editor of the school paper in 1886; in 1887 he publishes therein his first signed article called “The Vision of Mirza”; he wins a scholarship to the University of Toronto; in the summer his father leaves the family forever. The year 1887 was a lively one. In 1888 Stephen, unable to continue his studies, heads off to Strathroy (Ontario) to become a teacher. As already noted, after a brief spell in Uxbridge he finds himself back at Upper Canada College, having not yet found himself in the larger sense.

Leacock’s mother Agnes once described her husband Peter to one of her granddaughters as “one of the wittiest men I have ever known.” He also must have been lovable in some sense because they had eleven children together over a span of nearly twenty years, and was well regarded in the little Nova Scotia village to which he retired (as Captain Lewis) to spend his many remaining years.  He died in 1940. If Stephen inherited his wit from his father, he certainly did not therefrom receive his drive, ambition, and overbearing personality. Neither does his mother come across that way, although she was certainly educated, determined and a lady in all the Victorian senses both favourable and otherwise. I suspect that the cutting edge to Stephen Leacock’s personality came his grandparents, who come across as quite a bit that way, but without the wit. But this is all speculation, because the record is sparse.

A story circulates about some interaction between Stephen and his father when Peter left the family for good. I won’t repeat it, because I suspect it is a fabrication. Who would have started that story? If it was Stephen himself,—and who else could it be, if the story is not a complete fabrication,—why on earth would he do that? Harsh words could well have been spoken, although I expect the story stretched itself in transmission through the years. The reportage of seventeen-year-old boys in dramatic situations cannot be entirely trusted, especially Stephen Leacock’s, habitual indeed professional stretcher that he was.

Be that as it may, Peter departed, Stephen assumed the role of oldest male in the household (his older brothers having gone out west to seek their fortunes, as their father and uncle had done, the latter with considerable success; see “My Remarkable Uncle”), and was driven into school teaching, biding his time until he could find a more congenial profession. That story comes next week.

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.

 

 

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?

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.