My First Conversation with Stephen Leacock’s Ghost

In a corner of the corner of the big room that serves as our office and literary workshop, I have placed a chair where I like to sit and read. I was working late one evening, grafting a few new shoots onto the gnarled trunk of Stephen Leacock’s Mariposa, when the man himself—or rather an ectoplasmic residue thereof—manifested itself into the aforesaid chair and sat scowling, moustache a-quiver.

“Ah,”, said I, a little startled but not very much, because I had been half expecting such a visit, “you have found out what I’m doing! Are you able to speak? If so, will you tell me what you think? I would very much like to know.”

It turned out that he could not speak. He could frown, move his mouth, waggle his bushy eyebrows, quiver his moustache, wave his hands, but make no sound. As I concentrated on him, however, trying to discern his message, I gradually became aware that just as ghostly ectoplasm, which is not matter in the physical realm, forms in its own realm and becomes visible to the receptive eye, so there exists what I might call “ecto-vocalism”, or “ghost-sound”, in the aural realm. I could sense its vibrations, but not interpret them, or at least not yet.

“I can’t hear you,” I said, “but I can detect that you are speaking. I will have to learn how to hear you. Please quote me the first sentence of the Preface to Sunshine Sketches. I will ‘listen’, if that is the correct word, carefully, and match the waves to the text. That will give me a kind of Rosetta Stone which will start me on the way of interpreting what you say”

I tuned myself carefully in his direction, hoping that my ear would find a way to do with his voice what my eyes could do with his form. I am no lip-reader, but I watched his mouth carefully. I knew beforehand what he was saying:

“I know of no way in which a writer may more fittingly introduce his work to the public than by giving a brief account of who and what he is. By this means some of the blame for what he has done is very properly shifted to the extenuating circumstances of his life.”

He had to repeat it three times before I was able to match the ecto-sound with the words and the sense, but I soon got the hang of it, and before too long we were prattling away like a couple of veterans.

“You have identified yourself as a literary grafter,” he said. “Why did you do that?”

“I’ve been doing it for years,” I replied. “It is my artistic métier.” His eyebrows shot up and his  mouth twitched. “I graft new lyrics onto old music,” I continued. “I graft new words onto old poetic forms. I graft new stories onto old mythologies. Grafting them onto your book is a natural extension. Besides, I think the book is often improperly read, and I wish to set the record straight. Grafting is my method, the best one for the purpose, I think. People will remember better if they are entertained as well as informed.”

“So I believed,” he said, “although I did learn that it could be overdone. If people are laughing too hard they don’t remember anything else.”

“My mother-in-law said that when she heard you at the University of British Columbia they laughed so hard they nearly wet themselves.”

“And she remembered little else, I expect,” said he. “The humorous lecturer is a Cassandra-like figure. That is why clowns are sad. But what gives you the right to graft onto my book?”

“Well, it is in the public domain,” I reminded him, “and it is a Canadian classic, almost a mythical story, in multiple senses. That makes it fair game. And people do mis-read it, which makes correction a worthy cause. They think it’s about Ontario small towns, which it is not, although set in a fictional one. Some of them even think it’s about Orillia, which is absurd. I mean, Mariposa is absurd, which Orillia was not. Eccentric in its own way from time to time, I expect, and with its just share of human weakness, but not stupid, and not absurd. I grew up in Huntsville, and I am sure about that. Besides,” I added, “I am Herbert Thaxter Shaw’s first cousin twice removed, which makes me almost a relative of yours.”

“Are you really?” he said, and his scowl softened. “Well well well. Dear Fitz. I loved her, you know, and would have married her, my wife being deceased some years by then, but his mother refused to allow a divorce. And besides Herbert was a friend of mine, they were both good friends. Trix and I stood up at their wedding.” He looked at me intently. “So you must be Worrell and Jenny Conway’s son. I met them at the wedding, and a few times since. They had an exquisitely beautiful young daughter. Dead now, I suppose, although I haven’t seen her around.”

“I’m their grandson actually, and you are speaking of my Aunt Barbara who is still going strong at the age of ninety-something, and still beautiful.”

“Ah yes, she had that kind of beauty. She was just a child when I knew her.” He fell silent, reminiscent. His ectoplasm began to fade. I decided to give him a prod.

“So why did you say all those misleading things in the Preface, making it sound like the characters might be based on real people, and why why did you call it Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, when it’s really a set of corrosive sketches of a totally impossible town?”

“For the fun of it, mostly. To make people laugh.”

“Well, fair enough I suppose, almost, although I do think the humorist must take responsibility for what he encourages them to laugh at.”

He arranged his facial ectoplasm into a frown. “I don’t think you can get away with blaming me for writing a funny book about a few silly people because you think that a great many people, including some academics, are too silly to read it properly. People are either silly, or they are not. If you’re going to write about them, you have to make a choice.”

“Not necessarily,” I rejoined. “They are occasionally silly, sometimes sharp, and often noble. I think that to write properly about them and the places they live one must enter the realm of “both-and”, not “either-or.”

He was about to reply when the rooster across the road crowed. He simply shook his head, and vanished.

Since then he appears regularly in the night watches, and we converse with edification. Unfortunately he is not a humorous ghost, but a sad and reflective one. I suppose two awful wars and a Great Depression knocked the jokes out of him even before he died, not to mention what has happened since. He was an economist, remember, and a rigorous student of political affairs. There are times when melancholy is the only valid response to the world as it is.

I will tell you more stories of his visits as we go along.

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