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.

 

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