Author Archives: voyageur2014

Literary Mariposa: A Little Quick History

If you walk down Mayne Street in Mariposa you will be astonished at the number of bookstores. That is, you will be if you have not already heard of the place, or have heard but don’t know much about it. If you take the Professor’s old description at face value, and think that the place could not change in the ensuing century-plus, then your astonishment will be fully justified, not to mention the moment when you first behold the amazing edifice that is the Peter Pupkin Memorial Public Library, and all those people in the parks and coffee shops reading or talking about books.

Just to get one point out of the way: the Professor who first described Mariposa, in the old days when it was only a little town and had not yet flowered as a city of literary refuge, was not the Stephen Leacock of McGill University and Old Brewery Bay near Orillia, Ontario, but another summer-cottaging professor of the same name. If you want to understand Mariposa past or present you must learn to distinguish between the two.

A quick recapitulation of the history: You probably recall that Zena Pepperleigh married Peter Pupkin around 1910 and they promptly (too promptly, according to gossip) had an enchanted baby, Lena. Then, a year or so later, they had twin boys, Marval and Norval. Then in 1914 Peter went gallantly off to war and was killed. Zena eventually married Josh Smith’s son Hector and had more children. In time she inherited all the property accumulated by Judge Pepperleigh in a long career of crooked judging; Hector inherited the proceeds of his father’s graft; Lena, Marval, and Norval inherited the Pupkin real-estate fortune. In 1946 the whole clan of them — Zena, Hector, her children, their children and their spouses, all significantly bruised by the record of the times — perceived how the wind blew and decided that three ill-gotten fortunes should not simply be allowed to grow with the flow, but should be put to some radically alternative purpose. By now they owned most of Mayne Street and a good deal of the rest of Mariposa besides, so were in a position to make things happen, as soon as they could figure out what they should be. Since they had also inherited the Professor’s library and were all tremendous readers, they decided to go with books. They would turn Mariposa into the most bookish little town in Canada, if not the world.

Thus was born a new Mariposa, a City of Literary Refuge. Of course, in order to be that, it had to be a City of Much More. You can’t hide behind a book, by itself. You have to meet the book in a protected place. Eventually I will tell you the whole story. For today I will simply describe, very superficially, what Mariposa looks like now.

The population, by the latest count, is 47,620, and if all of them lived in a heap it would indeed deserve to be called the City of. But in fact less than half live in town; the rest are scattered among the rural areas that were amalgamated with the urban into the present municipality. Calling it a City was simply a sudden effusion of side on the part of the Council of the day, now long diluted of Pupkin family influence, although not of memory.

Mayne Street, formerly a short stump running westward up-hill from the old bridge over the Missinaba River, now runs a considerable distance on both sides of the new one. The literary area, however, is confined to the old, west side, the east having been zoned commercial ugly in accord with current fashion in urban design. Its ethos, however, permeates the whole place. You may find people reading books even in the Tim Horton’s out at the Junction where Mayne Street meets the By-Pass, and as for the motels along the way, you have to book ahead at almost any time of year if you want to get a bed before the literary refugees. Most likely, however, you will be one yourself, because the proprietors of establishments of all kinds, having learned that literary folks are prepared to pay above the going rate for what they crave, and also tip often and well, make no effort to attract other kinds of tourists. Occasionally a party will stray in, and quickly move on.

The Pupkin clan, now swelled by another two going on three generations, still owns the whole square in front of the Peter Pupkin Memorial Library and intentionally nurtures the bookstores, galleries, coffee shops, and bistros that surround it. These overflow into the blocks behind and along the river, where cunning remolding and restoration have turned the old linear lanes into pedestrian pods where conversation reigns. The river is a little too large and lively for recreational boating of the leisurely kind, and since the other kind is resolutely inhibited by low speed limits and a ferocious municipal noise by-law, most of it stays away. If you want to swim you can take a bus to one of the beaches on Lake Ossawippi or Lake Wissinotti. Nobody ever calls them that, by the way —  they are the “north” and “south” lakes respectively — any more than anyone calls the Missinabi anything but “the river”.

What makes Mariposa exceptional is not only the magnificence of its public library, the rich number and variety of its bookstores, coffee shops and bistros, the size and excitement of its four annual literary festivals, its Mariposa Literary Hall of Fame, or the pervasive bookishness of its public spaces, but the way it has woven the book, and now the electronic writing and reading device, into its whole society and economy. When I have room I will tell you about its fine paper mill, its book binderies, its publishers, its editors, its writers tapping away on their keyboards, its poets declaiming in the parks and places, its songs, its plays, its accommodations for readers and for conversation, its money and influence and authority behind them all, and in short the whole wonderful interconnected vitality and verbosity of the place, but not today.

The Train to Mariposa still goes there, but in a very different way.

Posted April 23, 2018, 339 days before the Stephen Leacock Sesqui-cum-triaquarteria-centennial officially begins.

 

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The City of the Beginning of Things

In 1912 Mariposa was, famously, a little town. Just exactly what kind of a little town it was remains, or should remain, controversial although largely irrelevant. Now it is a little city, and unlike Stephen Leacock I am going to be very careful not to give you even the slightest grounds for guessing which city it is. He said that Mariposa was “seventy or eighty” little towns. This remains not a bad estimate, as Canada now has somewhere between seventy and eighty little cities, taking that to mean a population roughly between 20,000 and 100,000. Orillia is on the list, of course, but so are a lot of other places from Corner Brook to Nanaimo to Whitehorse and Yellowknife.

If it helps you to give it a specific location, then think Thunder Bay, but Mariposa is not Thunder Bay of course, unless you live in or come from Thunder Bay and would like it to be. A location near to where the great watersheds divide is of course a good thing. So too one somewhat removed from the great metropolitan centres, where small cities nearby tend to get caught up in the maelstrom. I think that when I come to describe it I will centre it around Nipigon. I once located the home of a character in a story “where East and West and North all come together and he can be whatever he wants.” For the little city of Mariposa this is very important.

I will nest it in a regional municipality, in order to make it more creative. I am told that Pierre Trudeau once suggested that tension among levels of government — federal, provincial, municipal — would be stimulate the creative juices of democracy. If tension cubed is good, then how much more can we expect from tension raised to the fourth power? I haven’t done the calculations yet, but it’s a lot more, as any student of logarithms knows well.

The little city of Mariposa demonstrates this arithmetic principle admirably, and particularly in its great Civic Experiment, launched some years ago: its collective resolve to conduct its affairs according to the precepts of the General Theory of Unsolved Riddles, as articulated by their great Patron Scholar (he was no saint) Stephen Leacock.

You will no doubt be anxious to know what adventures they had, and you shall know. But not today, except for one. It led them to dedicate an entire year, beginning tomorrow (March 28th 2018) to preparation for the Great Riddler’s combined sesquicentennial and septuagintaquinquennial (150th and 75th) anniversaries in 2019. He was born on December 30 1869 and died on March 28th 1944.

This blog, its companion blogs (www.playstephenleacock.wordpress.com and http://www.paulwconway.wordpress.com), and its connected web site (www.voyageurstorytelling.ca) are doing the same. The Mariposa part of that story will be told here.

 

 

 

Re-Discovering Mariposa

January 17, 2018.

This blog began with my desire to re-write the story of Mariposa. I am not sure that I want to do that any more, because I am not convinced that Stephen Leacock got it wrong. I think people have been reading it wrong, and I would like to set the record straight.

I am not yet ready to give you the whole load, only a quick preview: Mariposa is not Orillia, nor would the people of Orillia want it to be if they understood what Leacock said. Mariposa is a warning, as is Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich, written two years later. Mariposa and The City are in fact the same warning, against particular ways of thinking that have to do with Unsolved Riddles.

Leacock’s warning was brilliantly done, but unfortunately his method of giving it was too subtle and most people missed it. They thought he was being satirical when in fact he was being prophetic. He himself compounded the problem by getting caught up in his well-deserved reputation for being funny, and all the pleasures and rewards thereof. A scholar or two here and there caught a whiff of the truth, but by and large scholarship was content to follow the lines laid down by popular opinion, and to embroider on them elegantly without examining the cloth.

I am no scholar, although I do have some tools that could be used for that purpose. In the months ahead I intend to use them.

Thank you for reading, and please stay tuned.

It’s Confederation-Becomes-Official Day in Mariposa, also Prince-Edward-Island-Becomes-the-Seventh-Province Day, and British-North-American-Colonies-Divide Day. All these are important days in the formation of Canada, which remains a work in progress.

In case you need to be reminded, Mariposa is the capital of Conundropia. On public holidays the population flocks there in their thousands to take part in the celebratory conversations.

They celebrate July 1st, of course, but not as a birthday. Despite all that pressure from the media, politicians and people around them, they continue to hold the belief that Canada was not born, especially not on one particular day, but rather created, piece by piece and act by act, through the courage and hard work of politicians and their publics over dozens of decades.

The Conundropians believe that they cannot care for present and future if they do not take care of the past. That’s where the lessons are stored, in our memories of the past. They also like a good party. They have therefore organized their year into thirty or more civic celebrations, honouring the courageous political decisions of the past, around which they have built their mythology. They continue to add more as the story unfolds.

It’s not that they ignore the wars, rebellions, and upheavals that occur when politics break down, or the heroism they sometimes invoke. It’s just that they view them as tragedies or failures bearing death and destruction and thus poor excuses for a party. Both good things and bad things have happened in the story of this country, they say: Let’s celebrate the good things for 31 days in the year, working for more of them and fewer bad ones for the other 334¼.

The calendar of Canadian celebrations, in its current form, looks like this:

It is notable that they celebrate no Aboriginal Day, any more than they celebrate a British Day, or a French Day, or any other similar day. They are certainly not unware of the Aboriginal presence in the Canadian story, in all its diverse colours. They believe, however, that the act of political imagination and courage necessary, on all sides, to include them properly has not yet occurred. When it does it will be awarded its day, identified by its act as with all the rest.

The necessary imagination and courage will come, yes, from politicians, but also from their respective publics supporting and encouraging them to do what they know needs to be done. They will culminate in a political act recognizing that a reconciliation has occurred for practical purposes and that we can now go forward together. The Conundropians have no preconceived notion of what that act will be. That question remains one Unsolved Riddle among the many, although one of huge importance for the future of the country. In its wake will follow a host of other Unsolved Riddles arising from the need to keep it alive, in quality if not content very much like the Unsolved Riddles that flow out of acts of the primordial French and English, their descendants, and all the more recent arrivals from all the myriad lands of their origins.

So, today being Confederation-Becomes-Official Day, and British-North-American- Colonies-Divide Day, and Prince-Edward-Island-Becomes-the-Seventh-Province Day, and Monday being Québec-City-Founding Day, we wish the Mariposans and all Conundropians well in their celebrations which will extend for a full four days. And we wish them a speedy recovery in time for Manitoba-Becomes-the-Fifth-Province Day on the 15th.

 

Exploring Conundropia: Leacock’s Land of Unsolved Riddles

In my previous post I called the country I was mapping for you Leacockland. I have decided not to go forward with that name. I suppose it’s all right to name a country after its first map-maker, but “Leacockland” is neither euphonious enough for my taste nor descriptive. This being a country of Unsolved Riddles, its constitution grounded in the General Theory thereof,  I have decided to call it Conundropia.

Conundropia, of course, comes from “conundrum”, a word which appears to be an unsolved riddle of its own, as nobody knows where it came from. It sounds like Latin, but is not.

Welcome to Conundropia, Land of Unsolved Riddles. Location: your surroundings, however you imagine them; Population: diverse; Gross Domestic Product: multifarious.

Foundational Documents: The General Theory of Unsolved Riddles; The Conundropiad (National Epic); The Declaration of Interdependence; The Constitution; The Charter of Liberalities and Optimisms.

Motto: Knowledge, Imagination, Good Will. (These are of course packed words, each one an unsolved, or at least only partly solved riddle.)

The Capital of Conundropia is, of course, Mariposa, the well-known, much misunderstood little town, perpetually asleep in the sunshine, or so it is said, bearing approximately the same relationship to The City, where things get done, as Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. I am talking about the relationship, not the cities. Mariposa is nothing like Jerusalem, either in fact or mythologically. I don’t know whether The City is like Tel Aviv; I have never been in Tel Aviv. I know The City well, however, in several manifestations. I have been in that other place called The City, which is the financial district of London, centre of the Empire. I even had an offer of a job there, many years ago, but turned it down. The City of Conundropia, however, is not the City of London.

The City has a name, of course, but nobody uses it.

Mariposa is the birthplace of The General Theory of Unsolved Riddles and hence mythologically vital. Hence its designation as The Capital. For you, and for everyone like you, it is the place where you learned to be human.

The City is the place of work, of action, of the machinery of government and business, of crowds and excitement, of demands and stress. Due to modern transportation and communication, The City reaches away out into The Country and may even have absorbed it.

The Country is the place, the physical place, you go to find relief from The City. It may be a farm, or a cottage, or a resort, or a retreat, or any spiritually similar kind of place. It could be a church, synagogue, mosque, or other place of worship. It could be the branch of a public library, or a club. It could be a park or a trail. It could be your home, or a room therein. If your home life is inescapably tumultuous it could even be your office or workplace, if you are among the fortunate who have workplaces of that kind. It is the place where The Rus can rule.

The Rus is the place where you imagine things were different, or are. If you came from a good place you remember it with nostalgia. If you came from a place like most places, with some good and some bad, you may pour over your memories the blessings of nostalgia, and conjure up only the good. If you came, or come from a bad place, it is the place you dream of being.

I have named these regions of Conundropia with reference to Stephen Leacock’s own experience, as I understand it. For him, Mariposa was Mariposa, the place he passed through briefly in his early years. I have no reason to believe that he viewed it with nostalgia, although he thought others might. His City was first Toronto, then Montreal, with the city of Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich thrown in. His Country was clearly the cottage in Orillia, and the University Club in Montreal. His Rus is, I believe, an unsolved riddle. It might be his British Empire, which was certainly not the real one. But I am sure it’s more complicated than that.

That leaves one more region, which I have called The University, which is the place where you learn to be wise, to the extent that you do. To a notable extent Leacock’s three universities — Toronto, Chicago, and McGill — were his Universities, and that’s how it should be. But I think perhaps his reading was more important. He was a tremendous reader, in several languages. I am not sure what kind of a listener he was — perhaps a good one, when he was listening. But I get the impression he tended to be more of a talker.

Perhaps reading should be dignified as the National Pastime of Conundropia.

More of all this anon.

 

Imagining a Fragmented, Incomplete and Inconclusive World

“This blog now has another companion: https://playstephenleacock.wordpress.com, and I am going to use both in the effort to tease out an “Appreciation” (Peter McArthur) of Stephen Leacock’s “extraordinarily commonplace” (J.M. Keynes) approach to social and economic justice, politics, and personal well-being. I am advocating a playful approach, because the ideas are slippery and elusive, even possibly absurd, but they may be the ideas we are fated to embrace, so that to approach them with humour, as he did, may be the only satisfactory state of mind.

I am going to use this blog in the search for an imaginative approach, the other for a more empirical-analytical one, based on Leacock’s immense body of written and spoken works and the extension of his data and experiences into the present. I will move everything to do with our Re-Tour to western Canada this fall into the Voyageur Storytelling web site, http://www.voyageurstorytelling.ca. I will send out notices of postings and changes on the Voyageur Storytelling Twitter account. Leslie looks after our Facebook page, and will regularly post notices, biographical notes, and bits of Leacock gossip, with pictures.

These five sites make up the social media presence of this, our Sesquicentennial project. When we launch forth on the Re-Tour itself, next October, we may add others to enrich the telling of its story.

Over the next week or two all these sites will be reorganized and cleaned up in order to serve their present purposes. Please bear with us in the meantime.

I invite you to imagine that you are flying into Leacockland and that the pilot is circling your aircraft so that you can see how it is laid out. There are no maps, because what is important about the area is its nature, not its geography. It is a mutable place, whose reality is not of any fixed kind, a place of “fragmentation, incompleteness and inconclusiveness” (Ed Jewiniski, a.k.a. Dr. J — see previous post). You will therefore recognize immediately the place of humour, and laughter, in contemplating such a landscape.

Over there, on the one hand, is Mariposa, a not-so-little town; over there, on the other, is The City where, most probably these days, you live, or in some suburb or satellite thereof. Over there in the misty distance is the place I will call The Rus, because I know some Latin too, although not as much as Stephen Leacock did, and have access to a great deal more. The Rus is the place you remember coming from, which may be The Farm, or The Village, or as in my case The Small Town, located in Canada or in some other country. Your Rus may even be The City, but if so it is the city of your memories, not the one you inhabit now. Much more distinctly, over there, and there, are two places you can escape, theoretically at least, from the conturbations of The City and the confoundations of The Rus. They are, in Leacockland, The Country, and The University.

Stephen Leacock described these places most elaborately, and the world that surrounds them, in his 1,498 pieces of writing (622 of which he gathered into his almost-annual collections), his 739 public lectures that we know about, and the 23 other books that he (or his literary executor) had published between 1903 and 1946. He died in 1944.

I am able to be so precise about these numbers because of the bibliographic labours of Carl Spadoni of McMaster University Library, and his assistant Sheila Turcon. I have created a database from what they provide, and am in a position to count whatever is in there, which so far consists of date of first publication (many pieces were published several times), title, type of work, place of first appearance, all appropriately coded, and some other notes and observations of interest. I am now adding, for each work, its subject (this list when compiled will be very wide), its field (economics, politics, history, humour, etc.) and its voice. The study of the Leacock voices and how they change over his lifetime, or even within a single work, will be particularly fascinating.

I will use the other blog to play with the data. In this one I want to explore Leacockland, starting with its constituent places and the people he put there, including himself, and then extrapolating them forward to see what they look like now. I would like to engage you, and great many other people, in that exploration, and I would like to find a way to include at least some of it in the performances and conversations we present next Fall on our Re-Tour.

Is it possible, I ask myself, and you, that The City is now all that we have, that it has absorbed Mariposa, The Rus, The  Country, The University, and even laughter itself? And is it possible that if we explore them thoroughly, as he described them for us, with humour and compassion, we may be able to recover them, or at least some of their essence?

I invite you most cordially to follow this blog and its companions and to take part in their conversations.

Stephen Leacock, J.M. Keynes and Professor Ed Jewinski

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.