Now it is time for us to bear down again on the rediscovery of Stephen Leacock and his Mariposa, where we began. He has so much to offer in these confused and conflicted times, and people who can do what he did remain so rare, that we do ourselves an injury when we forget about him.
Memorials like the Leacock Museum in Orillia and the annual Stephen Leacock Medal keep him in our minds in important ways. But he gave much more to the people of his day, when they chose to pay attention, and his gift remains for us, in his writings and the story of his life.
As with most wide-ranging commentators in any era, we do not need to pay attention to everything he said. Others have pointed out his “dark side”, or rather dark sides, which certainly showed themselves from time to time; the best we can say about them is that they were the dark sides of his times, and we have dismissed at least some of them. But I am finding that some even of these were perhaps not as dark as quotations out of context would suggest, and that his writings on these subjects can reveal considerable complexity. I will go into detail in subsequent letters.
We are a little prone these days to dwell on the dark sides of phenomena and ignore the illuminated and illuminating sides. Stephen Leacock showed a more than generous measure of those too, and they are worth understanding.
More than that, however, I am finding the content of his ideas on political, economic, social, environmental, and cultural matters less intriguing than the cast of mind he brought to their discussion. That is what I want to explore, understand, and communicate to you and more widely. I view him now primarily as a teacher, one who sought to encourage us to think and to discuss in certain ways, to serve not as a provider of ideas on important public questions, but as a catalyst.
When I studied chemistry, a long time ago, a catalyst was defined as an agent that brought about a reaction without itself being changed. Something along those lines anyway. Stephen Leacock cannot now be changed, because he has been dead for nigh on 73 years. I am not yet sure how much he changed in the 74 years of his life, when he was in a position to be more than a catalyst. Perhaps he never was more. Perhaps that was enough, gloriously enough.
I grew up with the humorist cast of Leacock’s mind, and revere it still. I began to discover the rest of it when I came across, and thought about, two phrases. The first came from the great economist John Maynard Keynes, who judged one of Leacock’s economic books to be “extraordinarily commonplace”. It seems clear enough on the surface that Keynes did not think the book worth publishing, and so it was treated by that publisher. But in my lexicon “extraordinary” and “commonplace” are antithetical words. Why did Keynes put them together? What was he trying to say? (See note (1) below.)
The second came from Professor Ed Jewinsky of Wilfrid Laurier University. He judged Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, considered by many to be Leacock’s masterpiece, as a “supreme achievement of fragmentation, incompleteness, and inconclusiveness.” Another antithesis! Most people, including myself, would not instinctively understand the book that way, but Professor Jewinsky, who had thought about the matter more than most and with more tools, did. (See note (2) below.)
If Stephen Leacock, Anglo-American Canadian professor in his time, is the Prophet of Inherent and Inescapable Antithesis, then is he perhaps a prophet for our time? I think he might be. And I think it possible that the importance he attached to laughter is part of his prophecy. And is Mariposa the home of his imagination? Maybe it is. Maybe I have been on the wrong tack about the place all along.
And so the exploration continues, and will as long as necessary.
Thank you for reading.
Sources of quotations:
(1) Keynes was hired by the MacMillan Company of England to read Economic Prosperity for the British Empire, submitted to them by Leacock in 1930. The book was published in England by Constable and Co. Ltd. It was previously published by MacMillan of Canada. Found in Carl Spadoni, A Bibliography of Stephen Leacock and other places.
(2) Professor Jewinsky’s conclusion comes from his article in Stephen Leacock: A Re-Appraisal, U of Ottawa Press, 1986 and available on-line.