Monthly Archives: August 2019

Social Justice and Unsolved Riddles I: Tuesday.

I am going to suspend my guided tour of Stephen Leacock’s places for the next eight weeks. I will pick up the thread on Tuesday, October 22nd, by which time much will have happened that could change the plan. The reason: I am now writing the book that I said from the start I was going to write for the 100th Anniversary of The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, and my mind simply cannot cope with two major writing streams at once.

I think I will call the book The Marriage of Social Justice with Unsolved Riddles, the idea being that Social Justice and Unsolved Riddles, first outed in their cohabitation by Stephen Leacock one hundred years ago, now need to be officially married so that their union can be recognized for integration into social, economic, and political life. You can’t have one without the other, despite the fervent wishes of ideologues. Or at least you don’t have, which is one of the reasons ideology doesn’t work and, in fact, invariably inflicts such cruel suffering.

DRAMATIS PERSONNAE
1. Social Justice, a Radiant Ideal;
2. Unsolved Riddles, her consort;
3. Mnemochirianne, a centaur, with Slug-Horn;
4. Eulalie, an Owl, with ears;
5. Ursula, a Bear, with nose;
6. Astranasus, a Star-Nosed Mole, with star;
7. Vulphystrix, a Fox-Hedgehog (or Fox-Porcupine) Both-Andian, with difficulty;
8. Prophet Isaiah, personal attendant to Vulphystrix;
Three Muses acting as Interpreters:
9. Calliope;
10. Clio;
11. Terpsichore;
12. Mosjaur; the Story of the Pilgrimage, handmaiden to the Muses;
Three Guides:
13. Marshall;
14. Northrop;
15. Bedoubleyou;
16. I-Me, the Narrator, a Dreamer;
17. The Valley, site of the Pilgrimage, occupied by
The Charged Membrane, consisting of:
18. The Yottapede, and
19. The Ooze;
20. Olde Stephen, the ghost of Stephen Leacock, hovering overhead;
21. The Chapel, where the Wedding will take place if they can find it.
All these are living creatures, except the Slug-Horn who comes alive when blown.

It will come as no surprise to readers of this Tuesday Blog, a.k.a. the Mariposa Blog or the Walking Blog, that the Pilgrimage will follow a labyrinthine path of Cretan or Classical layout. This means that the Days of the Pilgrimage will be recounted in this order: Third, Second, First, Fourth, Seventh, Sixth, Fifth. The Preface walks you up to the labyrinth, L’Envoi is the centre point. Then of course you have to walk back out, in reverse order, but that’s a separate pilgrimage in its own right. I am not going to explain further here, tempted though I am. Maybe next week.

That’s the set-up. Mosjaur the Story is hard at work. Things are starting to rumble.

The Preface was released on Saturday, August 24th, and the first chapter will be released on Saturday, August 31st, one hundred years to the day since Stephen Leacock published his first chapter in the New York Times, the Toronto Star, and other newspapers. If you want a copy, e-mail me at voyageur-at-bmts.com and you shall have it. There’s no charge, but there is a condition: I am looking for feedback, and reserve the right to beg you for it.

Stephen Leacock Looks at Orillia. Or does he?

The City of Orillia lies about 100 kilometres north of Toronto, as the crow flies, or about 140 if you are driving because you have to make your way around Lake Simcoe. If you were a crow, travelling as crows do, you would fly right over the old Leacock farm just south of the lake. The old Leacock farm, however, was a place Stephen simply passed through and got out as quickly as he could. Orillia was another matter. But what kind of matter?

It is commonly believed that Stephen Leacock ‘came from’ Orillia. He did not. He ‘came from’ four places in the formative sense: the south of England; the dirt farm south of Lake Simcoe; the lake itself where his family spent summers; and Upper Canada College in Toronto. I have found no evidence that he had anything to do with Orillia, at the north end of the lake, until his late teens or early twenties. His mother may have lived there briefly after she left the farm, at about that time. Leacock bought his summer place there in 1908, when he was nearly forty.

I have a database containing some 2,700 titles of books, chapters, stories, articles, lectures, etc. used by Stephen Leacock in the fifty years of his writing and speaking life. One of them contains the word ‘Orillia’. The story involved was not written by him, but may have been translated. He sent it to the Orillia newspaper after finding it in a Swiss journal. The record shows that he spoke there twelve times from 1908 to 1926, although half of these speeches were political, on behalf of Conservative Party candidates.

In sum, it appears that Orillia qua town was not haunting his thoughts to any great extent. His summer place, his own piece of property, probably did even when he was not there, which was two-thirds of the year. He was deeply attached to that particular place, just outside the town proper, now well within the present city. His thoughts about Orillia itself, if any, go completely unrecorded.

Unless, of course, Mariposa is Orillia, as many believe. I do not, although I grant that Mariposa looks like Orillia, to the extent its appearance is described, and contains some people with names that somewhat match Orillia people, but that is a long, long way from saying that the characters in the book are those people, or that Mariposa is that town, or that there is any but the most superficial resemblance.  Surely, when we are speaking of a literary work with considerable depth we should not be seduced by anything superficial. Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town is literature, a witty and occasionally profound caricature of a place and people, not a work of sociology.

In fact, I have found no evidence that Leacock remotely cared about Orillia except as any cottager cares about the nearest town, although he had friends there and cared about them. Nowhere does he write about Orillia the way he does, for example, about Montréal. Cities, for him, whether he knew them by living, visiting, or reading, were centres of economic energy and romance, actual, prospective, or historical. Orillia, in his mind, was not that kind of place, nor I suspect was any small town.

Here’s my hypothesis: To write about a place properly you need to have a feel for it. You get that by growing up there, by living there year ’round when you can take it in with all your senses without thinking much about it or having any opinions. Then, when you combine that in adulthood with a writer’s skill, you can write about it. But you have to stay there. Stephen Leacock never had the chance. He was raised in too many places, and he never did settle. Of his fifty-three books only two are about real places: Montréal, and Canada. And even there he makes them imaginary. Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town is not really about a place, it’s about people in a place, imaginary people. I don’t think he ever bothered to imagine Orillia.

 

Professor Leacock Looks Askance at “Utopia”

DJ Afternoons UtopiaOne of his most notable books was titled Afternoons in Utopia (1932). The lead entry, “Utopias Old and New,” includes an hilarious send-up of every imagined paradisiacal society from Plato’s Republic to last month’s issue of Flabbergasting Fables. … I wish I had room for some hilarious excerpts from Leacock’s collection, but the bottom of the page is looming. You’ll have to snag a copy of the Leacock book for yourself. Just keep an eye out for Dr. Oom, the sandal-wearing and berobed, bearded future sage speaking oddly pseudo-Biblical English—and his lissome, doe-eyed daughter. 

So writes, or rather is quoted, one Richard A. Lupoff on https://www.fadedpage.com/showbook.php?pid=20170133, the page of that estimable site where one can find the text to Afternoons in Utopia. My own copy, bought second (or more) hand, came from the Ladysmith General Hospital, wherever it may be. I don’t remember where I found it, or how much I paid. Not much, I hope.

I quote Mr. Lupoff in the interests of fairness, so that you may know there are two opinions about this book. Mine is the other one. When I was searching for a word to describe this book, ‘sophomoric’ was the one that sprang to mind. On behalf of Stephen Leacock I searched for excuses to explain how he could have come to have written such a book: he was getting on, aged sixty-two; as a political economist he was demoralized by the Great Depression, its grotesque inhumane effects, and the prevailing failure to take them seriously; he had been teaching at McGill for nearly thirty years, in which constant exposure to the humour of undergraduates had dimmed his faculties; the book was artificially conceived, written in a hurry, and untested in the magazine market before it was published; he didn’t really have the talent for such a book and was straying outside his envelope; he was frustrated by the fact that people still seemed to be taking Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1887) seriously; all of the above perhaps. In any case, the book did not sell well, showing that readers knew better. If it had not been written by Stephen Leacock it would have long ago disappeared into the oblivion it deserves.

I search in vain in this book for signs of the Stephen Leacock of The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, of that kind of complex understanding of the whole realm of social and economic practice and shrewd assessment of what is possible and what is not. He might even have taken the trouble to understand what Edward Bellamy was talking about, before he set out to lampoon him. Bellamy’s prescriptions may have been silly, but the evils for which he was prescribing, writing in the late nineteenth century, certainly were not. Instead, from Leacock, writing in 1932, pretending to write in 2020, we are granted only nostalgia for the old days when “the world … was economically a very simple place, regulated by a few maxims”: hard work; saving, honesty, trade, education with a scientific focus for the purpose of stimulating “invention, the very key to progress.” Of course Stephen Leacock did not believe in an economic society with such a limited outlook, let alone education. His other writings show how well he knew better. I will say more about that in the Wednesday blog tomorrow, because he addresses Edward Bellamy explicitly in the chapters of The Unsolved Riddle coming up then.

In Afternoons in Utopia he appears to be attacking, or satirizing, the genre of literature that seeks to prescribe for society’s problems by imagining ideal places, just as Mr. Lupoff believes. In order to make himself familiar with the objects of his scorn, however, he visits them as a cruising tourist, perhaps even of the armchair variety, not as a scholar-humourist. Instead of a richly conceived, imagined alternative in the tradition of the genre itself, he gives us glib jokiness of the kind that appeals to people who haven’t read any utopias but like to think they know something about them. To paraphrase Robertson Davies who found the same carelessness in Leacock’s treatment of Ibsen: If Stephen Leacock had known more about utopias he would not have written as he did.

The ports of call where Leacock lands so briefly and lightly are, in the six “parts” of Afternoons in Utopia: “Utopia” itself, which is not the Thomas More’s original at all, but Edward Bellamy’s Boston of the year 2000; then a world that, through the agency of the League of Nations, has done away with war because the “common sense of humanity revolts at slaughter by machinery”; then a place of doctors with “contraptions”; then  Shucksford College; then back to “Utopia” for a witless excursion into equality of the sexes; and finishing with the “Memoirs of a Future Communist”.

But why am I going on and on about this. My friend Stephen Leacock was having a bad day, or a bad however many days it took him to write this book. He was also getting old. In the real Eutopia to come (at least I hope it will come), when the world will be a glad place full of music, all people will be granted the right to occasional bad days, and to get old, and will be judged, if at all, according to their good days. He had had many of those and some were still to come.

 

Wiarton and Lion’s Head: Stephen Leacock Takes Notice

As far as I have been able to find, Stephen Leacock did not visit anywhere in Bruce County, let alone Bruce Peninsula where I live, but he talked about it, about two places in particular: Wiarton and “a small place, just a village, away out past Wiarton”, a small place called “Something-Head”. From my point of view Lion’s Head is not “out past” Wiarton; Wiarton is out past Lion’s Head. But that’s my point of view, and Stephen Leacock is entitled to his.

When Stephen Leacock wrote Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, beyond doubt the most famous of his 53 books, he tells us how he located the little town. In the Preface he says: “Mariposa is not a real town. On the contrary, it is about seventy or eighty of them. You may find them all the way from Lake Superior to the sea, with the same square streets and the same maple trees and the same churches and hotels, and everywhere the sunshine of the land of hope.” But anyone can see he’s stretching the boundaries, because in 1912, when he wrote that book, Stephen Leacock’s personal world of little towns was bounded by Montreal on the east, Strathroy on the west, and Muskoka on the North. He had by then visited cities to the east all the way to Moncton and Halifax, and beyond to New Zealand, but cities are not little towns, as we all know.

Now in those days Ontario had about 250 small towns, so that Leacock’s seventy or eighty represents somewhere around 30%. That’s pretty select company for Wiarton, even more so because in the entire span of his 53 books and hundreds of other pieces he only mentions a handful of others.

What he says about Wiarton is … not much. Here is the whole kit and caboodle:

. . . He didn’t belong to the city as Dannie did. He’d just come from a small place, just a village, away out past Wiarton . . . You know what fellows look like when they come from past any place like Wiarton.

“He” is Slugger Pethick, one of two main characters in a story called “Damon and Pythias” in a book called Happy Stories Just To Laugh At, published in 1943, the year before Leacock died at the age of 74. You can find that story on-line at http://www.fadedpage.com/showbook.php?pid=20160410. You won’t find it in the Bruce County Public Library, or the Owen Sound & North Grey Union Public Library, which is a pity, because reading these stories in a well-set-up book is much better than on-line.

. . . He’d had no advantages, brought up rough, away off in the country, somewhere back of Wiarton.

. . . when he met anybody he used to say, “Pleased to meet you,” and start to pull off his gloves, even if he didn’t have any on—the way they do back of Wiarton . . .

. . . Slugger’s father, I say, was just a little country clergyman . . . a “horse and buggy” clergyman, for on Sunday, after he’d preached in his own place in the morning—it was called, what was it? Something—Head—he drove out seven miles to take an out-of-town service at another place; seven miles out and seven back.

. . . The country clergyman was, of course—though he never saw the advertisements—the Rev. Arthur Pethick, of Something-Head beyond Wiarton.

. . . Success? Why, of course, no end of it. In the very first year the Slugger was able to send home to “mother” back of Wiarton a sewing machine—and a washing machine and an ironing machine—presents dear to the heart of people like “mother” . . .

. . . There was something about “nobility”—I mean about being connected with nobility—that hit Dannie and Pethick where they lived. It naturally does hit anyone who lives beyond Wiarton, or even anyone living above College Street, Toronto.

. . . Slugger Pethick pulled off gloves he didn’t have on and said, “pleased to meet you,” as clumsily as the day he left Something-Head. The phrase is, of course, not one to be used to a lady with a title. It should be kept for society beyond Wiarton where they take pleasure in one another’s society. People of birth don’t. (If you think this story may be getting dark don’t worry; remember: it’s a happy story, just to laugh at.)

. . . Mrs. Fordeck had said: “Doesn’t this heavenly night remind you of Capetown?” He had answered, “Wiarton is very much like this in September,” and she said, “I should just love to see Wiarton,” and he said, “I hope you will some day. I could give you a letter to Bill Furze, the postmaster, and he’d show you round,” and he had added, “If I was up there, I’d like to show you round myself . . .”

. . . Slugger in his dreams went through scenes in which a cross-examining barrister said:
“Answer the question, please, without evasion. Did you, or did you not, on the evening of September twelfth compare Capetown to Wiarton?

That’s the lot. It’s not much, I know, but it’s something. It puts Wiarton-and-beyond-to-Something-Head on the literary map in special company, probably one in a handful, since “seventy or eighty” is definitely a stretch. Lion’s Head would have got there too, if the elderly Stephen Leacock had been able to remember the name. “Something-Head” indeed!

I am curious to know the unknowable, which is, where had Stephen Leacock heard about Wiarton and Lion’s Head? Alas, he did not tell us. If he had only talked about Wiarton, I would have suspected a conversational evening with William Wilfred Campbell, who was active in literary circles in Ottawa when Leacock was sometimes speaking there. Campbell’s father was indeed a clergyman, although many years before this story, but not in Lion’s Head. In the years since the parish was founded Lion’s Head was served by many Anglican clergy; Leacock might have had a conversation with any of their sons and made his sketch from there. The most likely candidate for the clergyman father, given the dates, is the Rev. R.W. James, who was rector there from 1911 to 1934, and brought about the construction in the 1920’s of St. Margaret’s Chapel near Cape Chin, a few miles north of the village. Rev. James might have gone to officiate there in a horse and buggy, or he might not. This distance is, in fact, about seven miles.

Someday, when some graduate student writes her thesis on Stephen Leacock’s geography (a rather more circumscribed phenomenon than his imagination, just right for a master’s thesis), Wiarton and Lion’s Head will have to be mentioned, although probably only that. It’s interesting to me, however, that he does speak of these places, so close to home.