The Gold and the Dross: for the Love of Stephen Leacock

January 12, 2016

What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross

What thou lovest well shall not be reft from thee

What thou lovest well is thy true heritage …

—Ezra Pound

To love Stephen Leacock in the year 2016 is to beat against the stream. But since when have we, in this country, objected to up-stream travel? The whole story of Canadian discovery and settlement—and I am not talking only of the past few hundred years—rings with the strokes and steps of people working their way up-stream, or up-hill, or both, to see where the water came from, and what lay beyond. I believe we must do the same in the unending need to discover our literature. No coasting with the current in that sphere, nor in most others.

With Stephen Leacock we travel at a disadvantage, because the best of him that people loved died when he stopped speaking—to his students at McGill when he reluctantly retired in 1936; to his audiences when he returned from his western Canadian tour later that year; to his family and friends when the cancer gripped his throat and he died in early 1944. What remains is what he wrote.

Even if he had made recordings of his lectures—and I have as yet seen no evidence that he did—I do not think they would have captured what made them so funny. From all accounts, jokes and laughter bubbled up through him in a constant flow, making him wonderfully amusing company as long as you were able to catch his humour on the fly and did not try to think about what it was saying. Speech is ephemeral, and you can remember of it what you choose; what someone writes is much more exposed.

When we try to love him for what he wrote we must first get past the quantity of the stuff, and the carelessness with which he sometimes wrote. One does not read the bulk of the remnants of Stephen Leacock, one must mine it. Gold there is, in plenty, but dross too, even more. Monumental is the slag-heap of Leacock verbiage, because it is bad, because it is sloppy, because it is wrong-headed, or simply because it does not matter any more, if it ever did. But ah, the nuggets of gold, and the delight in finding!

I will continue to confess, as I have before, that I cannot discover much gold in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912), except perhaps of the pyritical kind. The portrait of John Henry Bagshaw, the “representative” politician, is pure gold. Occasional bits of coloured rock pop up here and there, often not well polished. But I cannot forgive the author for his treatment of the female characters, and some of the men, which I find unkind and reprehensible in a writer who claimed that kindliness is the foundation of humour. And I cannot join the whole school of interpretation that sees in the book a well-grounded satire or portrayal of small-town life. A few cheap shots perhaps, but I am not convinced even they were intended. I have experienced a great deal more small-town life than Stephen Leacock ever did, or ever claimed to do, and believe we do him and his book an injustice if we colour it in ways he never meant. He was trying to tell funny stories about comical characters in an imaginary comical place, and his concluding effort to railroad us into believing that we should view that Mariposa with nostalgia fails to convince. It’s a comic book, that’s all: Astérix in prose.

I find abundant gold in his first two collections of humorous sketches: Literary Lapses (1910), and Nonsense Novels (1911), not much in the remainder, which appeared almost annually for the rest of his life. The problem, I believe, lies in the fact that most sketches were written as magazine pieces, a form which tends to lose its vitality when concentrated into whole volumes—see also Robert Benchley, James Thurber, Richard Needham, and many others. Not all the good ingredients of a soup make a good whole meal.

The above is a long-winded way (for a blog) to say that I do not believe we in our time should try to love Stephen Leacock for his humour, enjoyable as bits of it remain. If he is, in fact, our greatest humourist, then that is a sad, not a triumphant, statement. And we cannot love him for his academic writings, which never rose above the commonplace (or even “extraordinarily commonplace”, as Keynes called some of them). We can respect him, warmly I think, for what he wrote professionally for teaching purposes, which was solid and useful in its day. He was first and foremost a teacher, a great gift to his students, almost all of whom must be dead by now. For his teaching to have carried forward into future generations, he would have needed to be a greater scholar than he was.

Despite all these reservations, however, I persist in believing that his legacy remains golden, well-loveable, a fitting part of our true heritage. I do so, because he had yet another voice, another vein. He was a public intellectual, who read widely, thought intensely, and cared deeply about his country and his world, and how they could be made better. He was distressed and angry at the poverty, the indifference, the ignorance and greed, the lack of principle, the injustice, the violence, the bad policy and governance, that surrounded him, and he would remain so today. He wrote about these evils with passionate common sense, rising to wisdom, and if we cannot love a man for that, then something is wrong with us.

For the next year, or however long it takes, I am going to interpret his life, his work, his essence, as the search for a Mariposa that is worthy of the nostalgia he invites us to feel at the end of his most famous book.  He didn’t find it then, and when he went back, thirty years later, almost at the end of his life—in his last collection: Happy Stories, Just to Laugh At (1943)—when he tried to make it worthy of our nostalgia, he was not strong enough to rise above the sentimental. He was old then, no doubt exhausted, deeply saddened by the Great Depression and the recurrence of hideous war, in the early stages of a mortal illness, and simply not up to the task.

I am just as old, but fresh to the quest. I am going to find the true Mariposa, and tell you about it. I am going to find it in his writings. I am going to mine them. But I have read enough already to know that I will find both gold and dross, that they together are our true heritage, that Nostalgia-Worthy-Mariposa is not an utopia, but an attainable place where we can live if we choose.

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