Today I wrote to Professor Ed Jewinski, retired from Wilfrid Laurier University, concerning an article he wrote 30 years ago: “Untestabled Inferences: Post-Structuralism and Leacock’s Achievement in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town”, published in Stephen Leacock: a reappraisal by the University of Ottawa Press in 1986, as follows:
I have long been puzzled by the common perception that Sunshine Sketches is about Orillia, or about small Ontario towns, or anything except a figment of Leacock’s imagination. Leacock knew nothing about small towns, never having lived in one except for 6 months in Uxbridge, although he had visited and spent summer holidays in Beaverton and Orillia when his mother lived there. Six years on a failed farm in maximally unhappy circumstances can’t have made him a farm boy in any real sense, and from the age of 12 onwards he was primarily city. I could never believe he would have had the gall to write a satiric book about Orillia on the strength of 4 years of experience as a nearby summer cottager. About Sutton maybe, after the unhappy farm experience. And besides, I grew up in a small town and have worked in many more, and I couldn’t recognize any of the characters. The people in my small town, which was Huntsville, weren’t anything like the people of Mariposa.
Your article entirely changed the way I thought about the book, and as I read more of Leacock’s works, going back all the way to his Ph.D. thesis, I become increasingly convinced that the idea that we navigate perpetually through a maze of unresolved and theoretically unresolvable issues permeates not only Sunshine Sketches but his entire social, economic and political outlook. I think he is saying, over and over again, that while we must act in pursuit of humane ideals of social and economic justice, we are fated to do so without knowing whether we are doing the right thing, morally or practically, beforehand or afterwards. Whichever way we turn, the unsolved riddle remains unsolved. although progress is possible nevertheless. That’s where the laughter comes in. It is when we start taking solemn faith in certainties that we regress. Recent history would suggest he is right.
Keynes wrote The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money. I think Stephen Leacock wrote The General Theory of Fragmentation, Incompleteness and Inconclusiveness, although he never pulled it all together in such a form, leaving it appropriately fragmented, incomplete and inconclusive.
I want to play Leacock with that triad, which I will call the Jewinski Triad, in order to give continuing credit to the man who coined it. But it could also be called the Leacock Triad, and it shows up everywhere in his works. The “unsolved riddle” refers to Leacock’s 1920 book The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice.
On another front, I stumbled over this page earlier today: https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/canada/articles/writing-canada-ten-of-the-best-canadian-literary-voices/, written by one Ellen Von Weigand. On her list are Michael Ondaatje, Eden Robinson, Joy Kogawa, Joseph Boyden, Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, Alice Munro, Yann Martel, and Gabrielle Roy. Not to invest Ellen Von Wigand’s list with more importance than it deserves, and although I have absolutely nothing against any of those fine Canadian writers, I nevertheless thought it should not go unchallenged. I commented as follows:
I am astonished that this list does not include Stephen Leacock (1869-1944), who was far and away the most read and heard Canadian writer of his day, and whose best work retains all its vitality. He published, by latest count, 1,498 short pieces in a writing career lasting 50 years (1894-1944), 622 of which were collected into books. He wrote another 23 books of history and social-economic-political commentary. He is widely celebrated as a humorist, some say Canada’s greatest, but that is only part of what he was. No Canadian writer comes anywhere close to matching the range of subjects on which he expressed ideas richly informed, intelligent, eloquent and often amusing. At his best, where he was often, he wrote extraordinarily well. Some of his opinions have not aged well, it is true, because he held some of the prejudices of his time and did not always rise above them. But on many questions of continuing importance he did, and remains, 73 years after his death, a lively source of interest and even inspiration for writers, readers, and citizens. And he himself lived a most interesting life.
A good storyteller, and a good story, as we always say at the end of our Leacock performances.