Monthly Archives: August 2015

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.