Monthly Archives: March 2015

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.

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Stephen Leacock’s Ghost: Second Visitation

I received a second visit from Stephen Leacock’s ghost last evening. I wasn’t really in the mood, having been absorbed in a massive project during the past three weeks, but ghosts are not inclined to pay attention to one’s moods. Or at least so I believe, on the basis of what I admit is very limited experience.

The mood of this ghost was truculent. “Where have you been?” he demanded. “I’ve been watching for your bloggerings and I haven’t seen them for weeks.”

“Aha!” said I. “So you do watch.”

“Of course. I keep an eye on everything that anybody writes about me. Libel, you know.”

“And how would you launch a suit for libel?” I enquired politely. “Are you allowed do that from the other side?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t had cause to try. People are mostly kind to me. Excessively so, even. But you haven’t answered my question. Where have you been?”

“Don’t be hard on me, Professor. I only missed one week. I have been busy writing something else.”

“And what might that have been?”

“Well, this may sound silly to you, but I have been writing lyrics to Yiddish music, lyrics which tell the story of the Megillah, as an unusual kind of Purim spiel for our synagogue. One song for each chapter of the Book of Esther. That’s a lot of lyrics, and each song different. I told you before that that’s the kind of thing I do. It can be totally absorbing. I had no time for you, or anything much else.”

“Ah. You mingle with the Jews, do you?”

“Yes I do, being attached to one, and I don’t think we should get into that. McGill had quotas in your day, and I haven’t yet seen any evidence that you objected to them. You may have done, but I haven’t seen the evidence.”

“I didn’t object, because it was none of my business. It was the Registrar’s job to decide who could come to McGill. It was my job to teach them economics and political science. Men, women, Jews—I taught them all, just the same, and helped them if they needed it. Personally I would have preferred an all-male university, and I said so, but it wasn’t my job to decide that.”

“Do you know what is bothering me, more than anything else right now. You heaped such scorn on people who believed in spiritualism, and yet here you are, ectoplasm and all, the—I won’t say living embodiment, because you are neither, and I won’t say tangible manifestation, because you aren’t that either—ethereal representation, if I may so term you, of yourself. Have you changed your mind about the scorn?”

“Not at all. People can believe in ghosts if they want, or not believe, I don’t care. I do care that unscrupulous people used to promote belief in spiritualism and take advantage of believers to steal their money. Spiritualism as practised was a confidence trick, and I scorned it as such, both the tricksters and the people who allowed themselves to be tricked. Especially the latter. But you aren’t paying a dime to have me here, and if somebody was charging you I wouldn’t be here.”

“Well, that’s fair enough, I grant you. We perform ‘Q’ by the way, or did you know that? We find it highly suitable.”

“I knew about that. I came to some of your concerts last year, keeping out of sight, of course. So what are you going to do this year?”

“We’re not sure yet. We’re calling the concert ‘Elongated Leacock’, to indicate that we intend to grapht onto your material, as we did with ‘Ho for Happiness’ last year. We’ll include it again this year. As for the rest of it, I am coming to believe that your life is actually more interesting, from the contemporary perspective, than what you wrote. I am wondering what I might be able to do with that idea.”

“Elongated Leacock, eh? Something like this, perhaps?” Whereupon he stretched himself out of his chair and wrapped himself around the room several times in a long ectoplasmic strand.

“Very impressive!” I exclaimed, applauding. “Could you come and do that at our concerts?”

“Oh, I’ll be there, but I won’t perform. I retired from that game years ago.” He de-elongated himself, and coagulated once more into his chair. “But I have an idea for you, no charge. Why don’t you do my life the way you did the Book of Esther, using the tunes of my time?”

“You mean, I presume, Victorian tunes.”

“Yes, I suppose that would be appropriate. I was born in the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign, and never really got over it.”

“So you said. I believe that’s true, which is one of the reasons I like you, being a bit of a Victorian myself.” I mused on the possibilities while he shimmered gently where he was. “I think you have hit on an idea, and I’m going to look into it. Will you help?”

“Of course. I’ll be with you every step of the way. It sounds like a splendid idea to me. I’ll be your ghost writer.” And he laughed uproariously at his own joke, as was, according to his biographers, his wont.

When he had finished I said, “I may even have a copy of the old McGill Song Book around here. That would be a great place to start.”

“Indeed it would. Press on, boy, press on.”

“Wrong image,” I said. “I don’t press, I grapht.”

“Well then, grapht on.” And with that he vanished.