Missinaba Conversation III: Stephen Leacock and Josh Smith

When I got back to my host’s place the next evening I found him in a towering rage.

“Why can’t people get things right?” he thundered, waving a book over his head. “I been reading this book, by Randall White, Ontario 1610-1985, A Political and Economic History, and mostly it’s pretty good, but then I come across this statement, on page 199: ‘In 1912 Stephen Leacock, by then a professor at McGill University in Montreal, published Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town — a gently critical portrait of small-town Ontario on the eve of the First World War’. Gently critical! How about ill-informed and savagely unkind! Imaginative, yes! Funny, yes! But gently critical? And then, on page 260, White calls Orillia ‘the original “little town” in Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches’. Nonsense!

“What did Stephen Leacock know about small towns? The only one he ever lived in was Uxbridge, for six months. He spent his holidays with his mother when she lived in Orillia for a while, before she moved to Sutton, and he bought a cottage there in 1908 or thereabouts. You don’t learn much about a place by having a cottage there, certainly not in three or four years. Certainly you don’t collect any right to be critical, even gently. He grew up in a village in England, for six years, and then on a farm in Georgina Township, for six years, and then he went to school in Toronto, at Upper Canada College of all places, and then university for a year, and then to Uxbridge, and then back to Toronto to teach at UCC, then to Chicago for more university, and then to Montreal, to McGill, for the rest of his life. He was a city boy, through and through, with just enough experience of the other places to cloud his awareness.

“But he knew what he was doing when he wrote that book. It’s about real people and a real place all right, despite what he said himself, but it’s not Orillia.  It’s Mariposa, right here, where we are now, and where my wife’s family and mine have lived for more than 150 years, right here on the edge of town. And the people he wrote about—Smith, Pepperleigh, Thorpe, Pupkin and the rest—they’re real people, but he didn’t know them, he’d just heard about them, and heard a little of their stories, so he took them, and added some more quirks and stories of other people he knew, or had heard of, and he made fun of them. They’re real people, all right, but the stories are mostly so made up that they’re hardly recognizable, except on the surface. It’s a funny book, and I enjoy reading it, but it’s not a nice book, and certainly not gentle.”

All this unfolded discursively over a whole long evening.“So tell me,” I asked, “what was Josh Smith really like? He was the big cheese in Leacock’s Mariposa; what was he in the real one, and what happened to him?”

“He was a medium cheese, one of many. He had one of the hotels, and he was in fact the fire chief. But he was pig-ignorant too, and a terrible braggart. Most of the stories the professor heard were made up by Smith himself, and he could tell them in a most entertaining way. Some people liked him, and he had a reputation for getting things done, but most of it wasn’t really deserved. Mostly when he got things done he had a lot of help. But the reputation and the issues in the 1911 election were enough to get him elected, and off he went to Ottawa, for all the good it did him.”

“Why, what happened?” “Well, because he couldn’t read or write he wasn’t cabinet material, in fact, they put him at the back of the back benches and forgot about him, so he spent his time testing the graft system and drinking, at about the same rate as always, but he wasn’t a young man by then. He put on about forty pounds, and when he came back from the first session he looked terrible. After a few sessions he came back in a box.”

“What happened to the hotel?” “Ah, that’s a long story, and a good one, but it’s late. Maybe next time.”

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