Leacock Greets the Spring in 1921

This piece appeared first in The Montreal Standard on April 2nd, 1921, and was reprinted several times by newspapers in the following years. It also appeared in Leacock’s 1923 collection of sketches called OVER THE FOOTLIGHTS, published in Toronto by S. B. Grundy, and the source of this copy. It illustrates very well the kind of writing (and editing, or lack thereof) that makes Leacock persistently both interesting and irritating.

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First Call for Spring

—or—

Oh, Listen to the Birds

I gather that Spring is approaching. I am not an observant man, but as the days go by, the signs begin to multiply. Even for me that means that spring is at hand.

I take this early occasion to notify the public of my opinion and to support it with collateral facts. I am anxious this year to be among the first in the field. Among the signs on which I base my views that spring is near, I may mention that I observe that the snow has gone : that the income tax declarations are being distributed at the post-office; and that the sign BOCK BEER is hung out at the Marshal Foch Café, formerly the Kaiserhoh.

Spring then is upon us. The first call for spring has come : and I should like to suggest that this year we meet it firmly and quietly and with none of the hysterical outburst that it usually provokes in people of a certain temperament. I refer to those unfortunate beings called “lovers of nature.”

Each year I have been pained to notice that the approach of spring occasions a most distressing aberration in the conduct of many of my friends. Beside my house, a few doors on the right, I have an acquaintance who is a Nature Man. All through the winter he is fairly quiet, an agreeable friendly fellow, quite fit for general society. I notice him, it is true, occasionally grubbing under the snow. I have once or twice seen him break off a frozen twig from a tree, and examine it. On one occasion, indeed, last winter he was temporarily unmanned by seeing a black bird (otherwise harmless) sitting on a bough. But for the most part his conduct during the colder weather is entirely normal.

Spring, however, at once occasions in my Nature friend a distressing disturbance. He seems suddenly to desire, at our every meeting, to make himself a channel of information as between the animate world and me. From the moment that the snow begins to melt, he keeps me posted as to what the plants and the birds and the bees are doing. This is a class of information which I do not want, and which I cannot use. But I have to bear it.

My Nature friend passes me every morning with some new and bright piece of information : something he thinks so cheery that it irradiates his face. “I saw a finch this morning,” he says. “Oh, did you,” I answer. “I noticed a scarlet tanager this afternoon,” says my friend. “You don’t say so!” I reply. What a tanager is I have never known : I hope I never shall. When my Nature friend says things of this sort all I can do is to acquiesce. I can’t match his information in any way. In point of ornithology I only know two birds, the crow and the hen. I can tell them at once either by their plumage or by their song. I can carry on a nature conversation up to the limit of the crow and the hen ; beyond that, not.

So for the first day or so in spring, I am able to say, “I saw a crow yesterday,” or “I noticed a hen out walking this morning.” But somehow my crow and hen seem to get out of date awfully quickly. I get ashamed of them and never refer to them again. But my friend keeps up his information for weeks, running through a whole gamut of animals. “I saw a gopher the other day,” he says, “guess what the little fellow was doing?” If only he knew it I’d like to break out and answer, “I don’t care what the Hades the little fellow was doing.” But, like every body else, I suppose, I have not the assurance or the cruelty to break in upon the rapture of the Nature Man. Some day I shall : and when I do, let him watch out.

My particular anger with these Nature Men such as my friend, springs, I think, from the singularly irritating kind of language that they use : a sort of ingratiating wee-wee way in which they amalgamate themselves, as it were, with nature. They really seem to feel so cute about it. If a wee hepatica peeps above the snow they think they’ve done it. They describe it to you in a peculiar line of talk almost like baby language. “What do you think I saw?” says the Nature Man. “Just the tiniest little shoot of green peeping from the red-brown of the willow!” He imitates it with his thumb and finger to show the way the tiny little shoot shoots. I suppose he thinks he’s a little bud himself. I really believe that my particular friend actually imagines himself in spring-time to be a wee hepatica, or a first crocus, or the yellow-underleaf of a daffodil.

And notice, too, the way in which they refer to colours; never plain and simple ones like red or black or blue; always stuff like “red-brown” or “blue-green.” My friend asks me if I have noticed the peculiar soft “yellow-brown” that the water fowl puts on in spring. Answer: No, I haven’t : I haven’t seen any water-fowl : I don’t know where you look for them and I didn’t know that they put anything on. As for “yellow-brown” I didn’t know that there was any such colour. I have seen a blue-black crow this year, and I have noticed a burnt-indigo-sepia hen : but beyond that I have not seen anything doing.

Worst of all, and, in fact, verging on paresis is the state of mind of the Nature Man in regard to the birds. When he speaks of them his voice takes on a particular whine. My Nature friend told me yesterday that he had seen two orioles just beginning to build a nest behind his garage. He said he “tiptoed” to the spot (notice the peculiar wee-wee language that these people use)—and then stood rooted there watching them. I forget whether he said “rooted” or “riveted” : on occasions like this he sometimes reports himself as one and sometimes as the other. But why on earth, if he is once fairly rooted does he become unrooted again?

I therefore wish to give this plain and simple notice, meant without malice : If any other of my friends has noticed a snowdrop just peeping above the edge of the turf, will he mind not telling me. If any of them has noticed that the inner bark of the oak is beginning to blush a faint blue-red, would he mind keeping it to himself. If there is any man that I know who has seen two orioles starting to build a nest behind his garage, and if he has stood rooted to the ground with interest and watch the dear little feathered pair fluttering to and fro, would he object to staying rooted and saying nothing about it?

I am aware that I ought long ago to have spoken out openly to my nature friends. But I have, I admit, the unfortunate and weak-minded disposition that forces me to smile with  hatred in my heart. My unhappy neighbour does not suspect that I mean to kill him. But I do. I have stood for all that tanager and oriole stuff that I can. The end is coming. And as for that hepatica just putting its tiny face above the brown of the leaf—well, wait, that’s all. Some day, I know it, I shall all of a sudden draw a revolver on my friend and say, “Listen. This has gone far enough. Every spring for many years you have stopped me in the street and told me of this nature stuff. And I have stood for it and smiled. You told me when the first touch of brown appeared on the underwing of the lark, and I let you say it. You kept me posted as to when the first trillium appeared from a pile of dead oak leaves under a brush-heap and I let you tell it to me and never said that all I knew of trilliums was in connection with the German reparations indemnity. But the thing is exhausted. Meet your fate as you can. You are going where the first purple-pink of the young rhododendron will be of no interest to you.”

I don’t want to appear surly. But I am free to admit that I am the kind of man who would never notice an oriole building a nest unless it came and built it in my hat in the hat room of the club. There are other men like me too : and the time has come when we must protect ourselves. There are signs of spring that every sensible man respects and recognizes. He sees the oysters disappear from the club bill-of-fare, and knows that winter is passing; he watches boiled new California potatoes fall from 25 to 10 cents a portion and realizes that the season is advancing. He notes the first timid appearance of the asparagus just peeping out of its melted butter : and he sees the first soft blush on the edge of the Carolina Strawberry at one-dollar-and-fifty cents a box. And he watches, or he used to watch, in the old day beyond recall, for the sign BOCK BEER TO-DAY that told him that all nature was glad.

These are the signs of spring that any man can appreciate. They speak for themselves. Viewed thus, I am as sensitive to the first call for spring as any of my fellows. I like to sit in my club with my fellow members of like mind and watch its coming and herald its approach.

But for the kind of spring that needs a whole text book of biology to interpret it, I have neither use nor sympathy.

The Gold and the Dross: for the Love of Stephen Leacock

January 12, 2016

What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross

What thou lovest well shall not be reft from thee

What thou lovest well is thy true heritage …

—Ezra Pound

To love Stephen Leacock in the year 2016 is to beat against the stream. But since when have we, in this country, objected to up-stream travel? The whole story of Canadian discovery and settlement—and I am not talking only of the past few hundred years—rings with the strokes and steps of people working their way up-stream, or up-hill, or both, to see where the water came from, and what lay beyond. I believe we must do the same in the unending need to discover our literature. No coasting with the current in that sphere, nor in most others.

With Stephen Leacock we travel at a disadvantage, because the best of him that people loved died when he stopped speaking—to his students at McGill when he reluctantly retired in 1936; to his audiences when he returned from his western Canadian tour later that year; to his family and friends when the cancer gripped his throat and he died in early 1944. What remains is what he wrote.

Even if he had made recordings of his lectures—and I have as yet seen no evidence that he did—I do not think they would have captured what made them so funny. From all accounts, jokes and laughter bubbled up through him in a constant flow, making him wonderfully amusing company as long as you were able to catch his humour on the fly and did not try to think about what it was saying. Speech is ephemeral, and you can remember of it what you choose; what someone writes is much more exposed.

When we try to love him for what he wrote we must first get past the quantity of the stuff, and the carelessness with which he sometimes wrote. One does not read the bulk of the remnants of Stephen Leacock, one must mine it. Gold there is, in plenty, but dross too, even more. Monumental is the slag-heap of Leacock verbiage, because it is bad, because it is sloppy, because it is wrong-headed, or simply because it does not matter any more, if it ever did. But ah, the nuggets of gold, and the delight in finding!

I will continue to confess, as I have before, that I cannot discover much gold in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912), except perhaps of the pyritical kind. The portrait of John Henry Bagshaw, the “representative” politician, is pure gold. Occasional bits of coloured rock pop up here and there, often not well polished. But I cannot forgive the author for his treatment of the female characters, and some of the men, which I find unkind and reprehensible in a writer who claimed that kindliness is the foundation of humour. And I cannot join the whole school of interpretation that sees in the book a well-grounded satire or portrayal of small-town life. A few cheap shots perhaps, but I am not convinced even they were intended. I have experienced a great deal more small-town life than Stephen Leacock ever did, or ever claimed to do, and believe we do him and his book an injustice if we colour it in ways he never meant. He was trying to tell funny stories about comical characters in an imaginary comical place, and his concluding effort to railroad us into believing that we should view that Mariposa with nostalgia fails to convince. It’s a comic book, that’s all: Astérix in prose.

I find abundant gold in his first two collections of humorous sketches: Literary Lapses (1910), and Nonsense Novels (1911), not much in the remainder, which appeared almost annually for the rest of his life. The problem, I believe, lies in the fact that most sketches were written as magazine pieces, a form which tends to lose its vitality when concentrated into whole volumes—see also Robert Benchley, James Thurber, Richard Needham, and many others. Not all the good ingredients of a soup make a good whole meal.

The above is a long-winded way (for a blog) to say that I do not believe we in our time should try to love Stephen Leacock for his humour, enjoyable as bits of it remain. If he is, in fact, our greatest humourist, then that is a sad, not a triumphant, statement. And we cannot love him for his academic writings, which never rose above the commonplace (or even “extraordinarily commonplace”, as Keynes called some of them). We can respect him, warmly I think, for what he wrote professionally for teaching purposes, which was solid and useful in its day. He was first and foremost a teacher, a great gift to his students, almost all of whom must be dead by now. For his teaching to have carried forward into future generations, he would have needed to be a greater scholar than he was.

Despite all these reservations, however, I persist in believing that his legacy remains golden, well-loveable, a fitting part of our true heritage. I do so, because he had yet another voice, another vein. He was a public intellectual, who read widely, thought intensely, and cared deeply about his country and his world, and how they could be made better. He was distressed and angry at the poverty, the indifference, the ignorance and greed, the lack of principle, the injustice, the violence, the bad policy and governance, that surrounded him, and he would remain so today. He wrote about these evils with passionate common sense, rising to wisdom, and if we cannot love a man for that, then something is wrong with us.

For the next year, or however long it takes, I am going to interpret his life, his work, his essence, as the search for a Mariposa that is worthy of the nostalgia he invites us to feel at the end of his most famous book.  He didn’t find it then, and when he went back, thirty years later, almost at the end of his life—in his last collection: Happy Stories, Just to Laugh At (1943)—when he tried to make it worthy of our nostalgia, he was not strong enough to rise above the sentimental. He was old then, no doubt exhausted, deeply saddened by the Great Depression and the recurrence of hideous war, in the early stages of a mortal illness, and simply not up to the task.

I am just as old, but fresh to the quest. I am going to find the true Mariposa, and tell you about it. I am going to find it in his writings. I am going to mine them. But I have read enough already to know that I will find both gold and dross, that they together are our true heritage, that Nostalgia-Worthy-Mariposa is not an utopia, but an attainable place where we can live if we choose.

Setting Forth for the City of Mariposa

It’s time to gear up this blog for its next life.

There seems little doubt that Stephen Leacock, in the last chapter of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, the little town called Mariposa, would like us to feel some nostalgia for places with a kinder and simpler way of life, such as we might have found in the little towns of our up-bringing. The fact that the Mariposa of the preceding eleven chapters is nothing like that, nor were the little towns of our youths, kind and uncomplicated though they could be on occasion as well as much else, is beside his point. He wrote the book serially, without much of a plan. “Mariposa and Its People” (later changed to “The Hostelry of Mr. Smith”) is where he began, in February 1912, and “L’Envoi: The Train to Mariposa” is where he ended, in June. Much can happen in four or five months to a well-meaning, thoughtful, reading and writing man setting off in a new direction.

It is interesting, and perhaps unfortunate, that Stephen Leacock did not pursue his quest for an imagined little town worthy of nostalgia. The only other place that he gives us in a full-length book is the unnamed “City” of Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich, two years later, and no thinking person could possibly feel nostalgia for that. I think it would be very interesting to see what kind of place he would have given us from the full maturity of his thought, twenty years later. It would no doubt have been a much more complicated and interesting place, and that’s where I would like to go.

I would like to find a place that is worthy of nostalgia, not only for a few attractive details, but for its full nature. I do not mean an Utopia; I dream no dreams of a perfect world. I will settle for slow generational change towards progressively less imperfection as long as the striving continues. I worry however that it has fallen on hard times. The striving, that is. For less imperfection.

I think that Mariposa is a good name for the place, a revered Canadian literary name that has not become obsolete. To confront today’s unsolved riddles, however, I am afraid it will have to be a city, because a little town in the sunshine, however valuable as a retreat, will be unequal to the task. Unless we are complete hermits we are all vitally connected to cities, so that even such an apparently silly construct as “The City of Kawartha Lakes” strikes a refreshing note of realism. Retaining Mariposa salutes that idea, because the real Mariposa (Township) now rests within the City of Kawartha Lakes, where the name is disappearing.

But the City of Mariposa is not the City of Kawartha Lakes. Let me be as clear about that as Stephen Leacock tried to be about the little town of Mariposa. It it is not a real town, he said, but “rather seventy or eighty of them.” Excellent! At five thousand people per town (the number assigned by Leacock to his Mariposa ), that gives us a city of population around four hundred thousand, which should be about right for the purpose.

Stephen Leacock gave his Mariposa a fairly specific geography, which because it bears some resemblance to the geography around Lakes Simcoe and Couchiching, where he was raised and subsequently built his summer home, has misled people into thinking that Mariposa is Orillia, which of course it is not, as any careful reading of the text and even slight comparison with the Town of Orillia, as it was then, makes plain. The City of Mariposa must have specific geography too, therefore. In order to avoid misunderstandings I am going to compile one from townships and urban places all across Ontario, lumping them together and distorting their boundaries until I have something of appropriate size and that makes at least as much sense as the boundaries of Wellington County, Grey and Bruce Counties, and others where the surveyors’ mania for rectilinearity was effectively over-ridden by Nature or politics.

The components of the City of Mariposa will be real places, with real geographies, demographics and histories; the resulting amalgam will not. I will choose them for their literary importance, their significance to me personally, and their usefulness to my project.

But Stephen Leacock’s little town of Mariposa is not primarily a place of geography, rather one of people with stories, and so must be the City of Mariposa. In deference to the original I will launch forth from the originals, as I have been doing in previous posts, on the assumption that their stories did not end when he stopped writing them down, nor did the evolution of the place.

In telling you the story of the City of Mariposa, while I do not intend to set aside my own imagination and understanding, I desire also to speculate on what Stephen Leacock would have made of Mariposa had he written about it in 1932 instead of 1912. I think that in the latter year there was room in the mind of a man of his background, intellect and imagination, for an essentially sunny outlook on the state of affairs. To write about a little town in the sunshine would be defensible, on the whole. By 1932 it would not. I find it amazing that somehow, although he became increasingly depressed, he never gave in to hopelessness. Remember that he was a scholar of economics, politics and history. What terrible branches of learning those would be, in those times, for anyone who cared as much as he did. And yet he always found ways to make people laugh, and to strive to enrich their understanding. I like that approach, both parts of it.

“A Pocketful of Mariposies”: Update

It has been a long time since I created a concert so sternly focussed in one direction.The last time, I believe, was when I wrote the libretto for a pastiche operetta with music borrowed from the plays of Gilbert and Sullivan. Before that it was a pastiche opera with music borrowed from Mozart. Since then I have preferred to draw my works from more diverse sources.

This summer, however, I have pointed the searchlight firmly at Stephen Leacock, being resolved not to let this elusive man get away. I tried at first to focus it simply on Mariposa, but it wouldn’t stay there. Despite my best efforts, Mariposa refused to present itself in its own right, persistently nestling among contexts formed by the man himself and his wider preoccupations. To do them justice, however, is the stuff of several concerts, supported by interpretive lectures, which hardly adds up to light summer entertainment.

“A Pocketful of Mariposies”, in other words, has taken on a life of its own, and is wafting itself through the summer now in good order. We have been performing it as a Country Supper Storytelling Concert, and will continue to do so once or twice a week until September. http://www.voyageurstorytelling.ca will tell you all about that. On Sunday, July 26th, at 11:00 am we take it to the Leacock Summer Festival in Orillia, an unusual kind of venue for us. We are looking forward to it. Fortunately, the weather has been very good, so that we have been able to rehearse on our own deck, getting the feel of it outdoors, which is where we will be at the Leacock Museum.

http://leacockmuseum.com/festival/readingsevents/ will get you all the details of what else is going on at the Festival, and when.

We hope to see you there on Sunday the 26th.

The Next Great Leap Forward

When I last left off, all those weeks ago, I was just about to re-construct this summer’s Stephen Leacock concert, called A Pocketful of Mariposies. This job is done, rehearsal begun. It took some doing. I won’t go into details of my agonies. They are too tedious to recount. I don’t know whether it’s because I am getting old, or because this time around the subject is a tough one to tame for the purposes of a storytelling concert, but either way, so it proved, until I finally emerged on top. I think it’s going to be a good one, full of entertaining and interesting stuff for Leacockian neophyte and seasoned aficionado both.

As this was going on I embarked upon a concerted effort to collect Stephen Leacock books. This has gone very well, and has been great good fun. I have been travelling a little, and as soon as I know where I am going I search Biblio.com for bookstores there and along the route. Then I search their catalogues for Leacock books, either by or about him. When I scent game I write to the target bookstore, tell them I am going to stop by, with cash, and when, and ask them to hold the books I want. This has lead to pleasant encounters with booksellers all over the place, some of whom sported large Leacock collections at very reasonable prices. My Leacock shelf is now becoming both long and respectable. Occasionally, if I see something good at long distance, I make an on-line purchase in one of the standard ways. This works fine too.

I therefore want to kick off the new wave of this blog by saluting the used-book sellers of Canada, tucked away in their shops and frequently in their houses. I am amazed at what I have been able to find at reasonable prices, and most grateful for, but not amazed at, the good service I have received. Not amazed, because it is natural, I believe, for people who work surrounded by old books to be exceptionally nice people.

Thanks to these people I have come a long way in the collection of Stephen Leacock Literature, or StephLeaLit, as I suppose one might call it, but still have a long and I am sure equally pleasant way to go.

For the next few months of this blog, therefore, I am going to look at what Leacock wrote, not as a reviewer or literary critic, which I am not, but as a storyteller, which I am, telling the story of my encounters with his works, to the extent that I have been able to encounter them.

I started my Stephen Leacock Project with a focus on Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, a book about which I have a most mixed opinion. In order to grapple with it I started reading biographies, and discovered that the story of Stephen Leacock himself is, to my mind, more interesting than anything he wrote, which is saying a lot. I propose to look, therefore, one episode at a time, at what he wrote, and what was going on when he wrote it. I think it will make a good story, entirely blog-suited, and if it takes a while to tell it, I hope my readers will find the long process worth-while.

As I proceed, I will build a catalogue of my collection and reading, which I will post as a page on this blog.

This should keep me going until some other idea comes along.

Reconcerting Sunshine Sketches: A Pocketful of Mariposies

I am not at all disconcerted by the need to reconcert our Leacock concert, planned for this summer. We received word last week that we have been blessed with the support of the Ontario Arts Council for preparation of this concert. We had proposed to create one along certain lines, and had wandered from them, as is our wont. There’s nothing like a nice grant to get us back on track. So here we are.

The concert will now be called A Pocketful of Mariposies, and will talk about Mariposa, our Mariposa, which is derived from but not the same as Stephen Leacock’s Mariposa. His Mariposa is a somewhat restricted place, with seven main characters (I refer to them as the Seven Dwarfs), a handful of comprimarios, a chorus, and an indeterminate number of shadows on the wall. The Dwarfs are, by frequency of mention: Josh Smith, Peter Pupkin, Dean Drone, Jefferson Thorpe, Judge Pepperleigh, Henry Mullins, and Zena Pepperleigh. The comprimarios are Golgotha Gingham, Dr. Gallagher, George Duff, Billy the Desk Clerk, John Henry Bagshaw, and Edward Drone. You will perhaps notice that only one of these characters is a woman, making Leacock’s Mariposa a quite unusual “little town”, to say the least.

It’s as if an artist set out to paint a series of sketches of a garden, but systematically left out half the flowers. Occasionally he puts in one of the neglected ones, but only in the background, or in the shade of the others. The resulting sketches form an interesting portrayal of the artist’s habits of sight, but say little about the actual state of the garden. The pictures become works of art to be enjoyed for their own sake, in their own terms.

As I ponder this analogy, and how far it might be pushed, I wonder what would happen if we viewed Stephen Leacock, the artist, as an amalgam of Hogarth (for the English influence), Norman Rockwell (for the American influence) and the Automatistes of Canada, specifically Montreal. I am not suggesting that he might have been influenced by any of these artists, some of which post-dated him, but that we might learn by viewing him that way. I think that if we did we would not be surprised to find a somewhat inchoate blend of satire, sentimentalism, and delight in the spontaneous play of shape and colour, constituting a form of art uniquely enjoyable but defying analysis.

In the case of Leacock’s fiction I would put first the spontaneous play, in his case of words and wit, evoking laughter, followed by satire and sentimentalism. However else he may want us to react to the antics of his absurd caricatures, he first of all wants us to laugh.

The artistic soul-brethren of Smith, Pupkin, Drone and the rest are the cartoon men of the village of Astérix, not the more elaborate characters and settings of Dickens, Twain, or Sinclair Lewis, let alone Canada’s George Elliott, Margaret Laurence, or Alice Munro. As for women, Leacock avoids them wherever he can, and keeps them firmly in their places when he does write about them. Even Zena Pepperleigh, although sympathetically portrayed (unlike, say, Mrs. Rasselyer-Brown or Mrs. Everleigh of Arcadian Adventures), is merely an incomplete sketch, vanishing from the reader’s sight after her marriage.

Musicians are said to “play” their instruments. Leslie and I, as storytellers, are this summer going to play Stephen Leacock’s Mariposa, proposing to find therein some melodies and harmonies of our own, at the same time celebrating the original instrument-maker. We trust that the result, even if it does not enlarge literary horizons to any measurable extent, will at least be good for a laugh. That is, first of all, what Stephen Leacock would have wanted.

You will find more about both our 2015 summer concerts at: http://www.voyageurstorytelling.ca/Repertoire15.htm

Taking A Concerted Approach to Stephen Leacock

I apologize for the gap in postings. I have been busy preparing our concerts for the coming summer season, the 14th of Voyageur Storytelling’s Country Supper Storytelling Concerts. Our first two seasons, 2002 and 2003, included a concert called Leacock Light, in which we performed some pieces from Literary Lapses and Nonsense Novels, along with other humorous works. (We performed an earlier all-Leacock version of this concert four years earlier at the Northern Lights Festival in Yellowknife.) Then we set Leacock aside, save for regular recurrences of My Financial Career and Boarding House Geometry, because we didn’t know what to do with him next. In 2014 we returned to the quest with Leacock Plus Us: Leacock for the first half and the finale, and a few of our own pieces in between. For 2015 we are preparing our first all-Leacock full concert, named Nine Lives of Leacock.

You can find this concert described, along with its 2015 companion (called Roads Often Taken) at www.voyageurstorytelling.ca/Repertoire15.htm.

As the name of the concert suggests, and as you will see in the programme, we are going to tell our audiences something of Stephen Leacock’s life as well as his own works, as many as we can cram into the time. In preparation for this I have been reading. Have I been reading! I have laid out on the dining room table (Leslie being away for a spell of intensive mothering and grandmothering) my entire Leacock collection, now after recent purchases comprising 36 of his 53 books, along with six biographies and two books of commentaries which I have supplemented by all the articles I can find on the internet.

Much reading lies ahead before I have achieved the kind of understanding that I want, but two ideas are beginning to coagulate in what passes for my mind.

The first goes something like this: What Stephen Leacock was, and what a great many people believe him to have been (including some but not all scholars), are two quite different phenomena. He has been labelled, widely I believe, as a humorist from Orillia. I would label him, if I must although I would much sooner not, as a jolly polymath of no fixed address, or perhaps more accurately, of several addresses known but not rigidly fixed.

I will elaborate on that idea but not here, and not yet.

The second idea: What he was is a great deal more interesting than his common reputation, as articulated by both those who revere him and those who do not. I will explain that too, eventually, and hope to prove it, or at least open our audiences’ minds to the possibility, in our concert this summer.

I have a parallel set of ideas concerning Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, surely Leacock’s most famous work. In my opinion the book both differs from and is more interesting than its common reputation, at least as I have seen it described and as I deduce it might be from the introduction to a school text commonly used. I have already begun to elaborate on those ideas in this blog, and will continue. Briefly, however, as they stand at this stage in the quest: I believe it to be a genuinely funny book; I do not believe it is “about” Orillia or any other place or any amalgam of places in Ontario or anywhere else, and if it was intended to be (I do not believe it was) it is an abject failure; and I believe that much more needs to be said about Mariposa before Canadian literature and storytelling can close the book on it, if they ever do. Furthermore, I intend to do my bit to say it, both here and elsewhere.

I do not seek to tell the truth about Stephen Leacock, but to do him justice. The truth will remain forever elusive, because we do not know the facts well enough, and we cannot know his mind in its unfiltered state. But justice is a practical matter, and we can get there.