My Last Word on Mariposa

I have written before about Mariposa, what I think it both is and is not. Today I am going to do that for one last time, before taking you on a walk (this being the Walking Blog, after all) through Stephen Leacock’s places. He doesn’t often write about places as characters, although he often places his characters and stories in them. So it is with Mariposa.

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town is not about Mariposa, although the sketches are placed there. Mariposa, he tells us explicitly, is a town of 5,000 people. His sketches are about a dozen or so people in Mariposa, most of them not particularly dominant in community affairs. A few others are assigned bit parts, or are mentioned by name. I don’t care where it is, a dozen people and a few out-riders do not a town of 5,000 make. To suggest that Leacock intended any generalization about small-town life from these few anecdotes about these few people is absurd on the face of it. And yet people, even reputable scholars, do it.

I acknowledge that the townspeople do appear occasionally as a collective, in reacting to Josh Smith’s enterprise, or to Jeff Thorpe’s speculations, or taking an excursion on the Mariposa Belle, or judging Dean Drone’s sermons, or donating (or not) to the Church, or taking in the Pupkin-Pepperleigh romance, or, especially, voting in the Great Election, but these appearances are sketched in so lightly and casually that they must be intended simply to illuminate the stories of the principals rather than as any statement about the town as a whole. They contribute even less than a typical opera chorus. If Leacock intended any satire, as he might have done in the Church and election episodes, it was not directed at small-town life, but at Canadian habits more broadly. The inspiration for the conditional donations came in fact from a fund-raising campaign for McGill University, and sheep-herd voting, if it exists at all except as a figment of the imaginations of supercilious commentators, could be found anywhere.

In short, Mariposa is not Orillia, or “about seventy or eighty” “real” towns, or anything except the setting for characters named Josh Smith, Jefferson Thorpe, Dean Drone, Peter Pupkin, Zena Pepperleigh, John Henry Bagshaw, with comprimario roles for Billy the desk clerk, Judge Pepperleigh, Lawyer McCarthy, the two bank managers Mullins and Duff, Gogotha Gingham, and flitting appearances or walk-on parts for a few others.

Please note that only one of the principals and comprimarios is a woman: Zena Pepperleigh, who vanishes as soon as she is married. Leacock’s Mariposa is a profoundly male-chauvinistic place, as admittedly were his times, and he himself. Whatever may then have been the legal, social, and economic subordination of women, however, I doubt it stretched to that extent. Strong-minded women have always found ways to assert themselves; Leacock allows them none. Furthermore, a count of all the sayings directly quoted in the book reveals that none of them are spoken by women. The women of Mariposa have no voices! How improbable is that, in any Canadian place?

Lest you think that “L’Envoi” at the end of the book makes a difference to what I am saying about Mariposa, let me draw your attention to the fact that “L’Envoi” does not present the town Mariposa at all, but rather the retrospective home-town revisions by a bored, surfeited, dyspeptic businessman dozing in the Mausoleum Club in some distant city, a perspective that is something else entirely.

The fact that Mariposa is sometimes taken for Orillia, or a typical Ontario small town, surely represents a scandalous misreading of the book that could justifiably be made the butt of satire in its own right. To take from a book what we want to take from it, instead of  what’s there, may be a normal human foible, but it hardly deserves to be celebrated. Joseph Conrad tells us: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm — all you demand; and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.” That is a noble statement of a writer’s task, but it is not Stephen Leacock’s, at least not in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. I think his aims are much more limited: to tell stories that he has invented or stretched from what he has observed or heard about here and there; to take a dig at some human or Canadian foibles; to amuse.

If he had any more serious purpose in this book,—and he might have done,—it has been discovered by the scholar Ed Jewinski, who summed up Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town as “a supreme achievement of fragmentation, incompleteness and inconclusiveness.” It is difficult to assess Leacock’s intentions in this, and much of his humorous work, because he could be a shamefully careless writer. He is like Robertson Davies’ character who likes to “get off a good one.” He fires these things around almost at random sometimes. He also likes a catchy title, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town being superior in that regard to Highly Ambiguous Sketches of a Few Fictional People in a Fictional Place, which is what the book really is. If he had called the book that, however, people might not have misread it so persistently. They probably wouldn’t have read it, or bought it, nearly as enthusiastically.

I am not judging Stephen Leacock by this one book. He wrote 52 others, and many more short pieces. These form his true literary legacy. To view Sunshine Sketches as a masterpiece of ambiguity, however, whether he intended so or not, brings the book within the realm of the “Unsolved Riddle”, a phrase he puts in another catchy title, and which I think is, or at least could be, his great contribution to Canadian understanding. Others have dealt with it more solemnly; Leacock reminds us that we should approach the dilemmas of that realm, not only with Knowledge, Imagination, and Compassion, but with Humour.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s