Re-Casting Stephen Leacock: Why Bother?

Why all the fuss? It’s not simply because Stephen Leacock appropriated the name of Mariposa, which happens to be a real place not at all like the one he lampooned.

Some time ago I began to be deeply troubled by Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. I hasten to say that my affection for Stephen Leacock survived this challenge unscathed, and kept me performing those of his pieces that I like best for that purpose. In 2014, indeed, we (that is, Leslie and I; see http://www.voyageurstorytelling.ca) built an entire concert around him, as we have done before and will do again. The best of his pieces perform very well indeed, and our audiences enjoy them. We particularly favour some pieces from Nonsense Novels and Literary Lapses, both early Leacock collections. We do not perform anything from Sunshine Sketches, although Leslie has done so in the past, before we formed our partnership.

I became troubled because at first I accepted that the work was what so many people, even competent critics, believe it to be: a satire, or perhaps a caricature, of small-town Ontario life, even perhaps of a specific small town, Orillia. I thought that Leacock was behaving outrageously by savaging the people of the place, or the kind of place, where he enjoyed his summer cottage. No wonder the people of Orillia were angry. Anger would be the correct emotion against a city professor who used the superficial acquaintance formed by a few years of seasonal visiting and summer cottaging to ridicule the locals.

That was not my principal difficulty, however. Unlike Stephen Leacock, who was a farm boy from south of Lake Simcoe, I grew up in a small town: Huntsville, some 90 kms north of Orillia and just as typical. You might think I would therefore share his point of view. Yet in Leacock’s townspeople I found no one I could recognize. Leacock’s Mariposans are fundamentally stupid, or at least simple-minded, manipulative or manipulable, and instinctively corrupt. The people I grew up with, performing the same roles as Leacock’s people, had their peculiarities sometimes, even amusing ones. Some were more likeable than others, some cleverer or not so clever, but they were not stupid. A great many were admirable in diverse ways. In the light of my experience, what Leacock wrote was a protracted, tasteless “Little Moron” joke, and by making it possible for a well-intentioned reader to believe that he might have been writing about real people he knew or even were his friends, he turned a light-hearted literary romp into a nasty, mean-spirited, patronizing little book. How could he possibly claim that he viewed these people with affection when he had treated them so badly? How could he be surprised at their anger?

I am sure, however, that he did not mean to write that kind of book. I think that he simply meant to be funny, and that the caricatures came entirely from his prolific imagination. Unfortunately, he borrowed some names and a location for them, which was a mistake and bad authorship. It’s one thing to decide that some real people are funny, and to make public fun of them. To do that can nasty, especially when those people have done you no harm. It is quite another to invent some funny people and invite readers to enjoy their antics. Sunshine Sketches is a comic book, a cartoon, like the Astérix books, with no greater grounding in real people. Taken that way the reader can quite legitimately enjoy the humour for what it is, and even savour the occasional flashes of satire for what they are: comments on the foibles of us all and not only people in small towns.

If you want positive assurance that Stephen Leacock was not a nasty, mean-spirited little man and an often careless and erratic humorist, then read some of his other works, when he was not trying to be funny. Read The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, for example, or his essay “To Every Child”, or his economic works, savour some of what he says there, and note its relevance to today. He was a lot better political economist, a lot better social philosopher, and a lot worse humorist, than his common reputation would tempt you to believe.

I’ll back up this assertion in a subsequent article.

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