Category Archives: Leacockian Places

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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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.

Walking Clockre-3-100-15: The Final Ring

The Eighteenth Meeting of the Mariposa Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice League, or MUROSJL, devoted to the capture, taming, and putting to work of the wild Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, recorded this 23rd day of July, 2019. This meeting is the last in this series. As everyone knows who has visited Mariposa, summer is the season when the city is most Mariposan. What did Stephen Leacock call it, in his day? “A land of hope and sunshine where little towns spread their square streets and their trim maple trees beside placid lakes almost within echo of the primal forest.” In July and August it still is a land of hope and sunshine, or can be. The rest of the year it can be a land of stress and bad weather, the lakes can be anything but placid except when frozen over, and any echo only the trucks on the by-passing freeway.

As we strolled around Clockre-3-100-15 (such a sterile name, but fully descriptive), we asked ourselves what further measures might bring hope and sunshine to those denied Social Justice. We had already decided that Health Care, Economic Security, and Protection from Crime are fundamental to the enjoyment of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Education to equality of opportunity. We recognize that these “inframeasures” are easy to name, complex and riddled in their provision. In particular the group recognizes that these measures can vary in both quantity and quality, and that Social Justice may be able to accept limits on them. Necessity is one standard, Comfort is another, Luxury a third. As a standard for Social Justice mere Necessity seems ungenerous if not mean-spirited, Luxury definitely not required. If we add to our list of Necessities the opportunity for Inclusion in Society, then that would oblige us to provide a level of Comfort beyond the bare minimum. People should not be isolated from Society by their circumstances, only by choice.

In practical terms when we talk about Social Justice we are, as we have said before, talking about public services, regulations, and re-distribution of income. To decide how much is enough of any of these remains one of the great Unsolved Riddles of the whole field. Another is the fundamental tension between our Individual and Social beings. In our time we attach huge importance to our Individuality, especially as it concerns consumption. We tend, albeit with considerable conflict in our minds, to look at our Sociality as simply another prop to our Individuality, to look on public services as simply another consumer good that we  ought to be able to acquire for the lowest possible price, on regulations as something that ought to apply minimally to ourselves although more rigorously to others, and on re-distribution of our incomes (if they are high) as inherently offensive. No Taxation even with Representation! we cry, or some of the very noisy among us do. No taxation, period! This cry is, of course, entirely contrary to any possibility of Social Justice, and may even justly be called juvenile. At least, so our band of walkers believes.

As the conversation began to bog down in the complexities of particular examples, someone reminded us of our slogan: DAUNTLESSLY, STEP-BY-STEP, BOTH ONE AT A TIME AND ALL TOGETHER! Even that has its difficulties. Complexities are daunting, so too is abusive resistance. Incremental progress is inevitably slow. To protect and advance both Individuality and Sociality seems beyond our strengths and available time. To understand the difficulties of the job both in general and in each particular circumstance, to pursue Social Justice in a socially just way, may be another of those great Unsolved Riddles.

Someone else reminded us of the six key words: Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, Humour, Doublethink, Both-And. To juggle those six fairly and effectively in order to advance the cause requires a cast of mind that is almost super-human. What good is a concept of Social Justice that is beyond ordinary comprehension, beyond normal ability to think, to articulate, to devise? What level of competence in the conduct of our affairs are we entitled to expect, even if the affair is the pursuit of Social Justice? Are we entitled to expect that people will not make mistakes, or take time and experience to learn, or get tired, or have a bad day, or hold a different opinion or make a different judgement? Is the tendency to savage other people when we think they have let us down perhaps just another instance of social injustice? Can we do something about that?

Someone remembered that Aldous Huxley as an old man admitted, “It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘try to be a little kinder.'” Stephen Leacock’s last words appealed for “righteousness” and “the work of the spirit on the honesty and inspiration of the individual.” “Give us men [and women] of goodwill, whose hearts are in the cause and our happiness is assured.” No doubt that’s true, but it’s a tall order. There are people around who are not of goodwill, whose hearts are not in the cause, who have lots of money and loud voices. Then there’s the work itself, which is sometimes very difficult.

“It’s The Economy, stupid!” We hear that presented as a political truism. May we look forward to the day when, “It’s Social Justice, stupid!” has the same currency?

DAUNTLESSLY, STEP-BY-STEP, BOTH ONE AT A TIME AND ALL TOGETHER!

As the walkers completed the last ring and passed out though the archway towards the pub, your scribe is left without a job. Will he join them? Yes he will, when he has finished these minutes, but what of next week? Twenty-two weeks remain in the Leacock Anniversaries? Will this blog fall silent for the duration? Heaven forfend!

Another part of this project has started to probe the great Canadian “over-stories” or, to be Old Norse about it, yfirsagas that dominate our national narrations and govern how we think about ourselves and even how we act. We are a pluralistic people; we have four of them at least. Stephen Leacock tried to tell one of them, the one I am calling for the time being the Colonial Yfirsaga, the one that deals with settlement, migration of people, development, exploitation of land, people and resources, expansion of wealth, and all the other aspects of that stirring and sometimes unpleasant story. A saga indeed. In his telling he often wrote about particular places, including Mariposa. I think it will form a fitting part of his anniversaries celebration to probe what he said about them, and how he said it. He wanted to spread Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour. For the next six months I will turn this blog into a travelogue of Leacockian places. It’s the Walking Blog, after all, and that’s where we’ll walk.

In the Stalking Blog on Mondays we will spy on Leacock’s people, including himself and those around him. In the Wednesday Talking Blog I will talk, for the time being about the Yfirsagas and their connection with Social Justice. Maybe I will conclude they contain it. Maybe I will conclude that we need a special Yfirsaga for them. So far I have identified, or think I have, Aboriginal, Colonial, Urbanial, and Political Yfirsagas, all distinct and intertwined. Is there likewise a Social Yfirsaga?

“Yfirsaga” by the way, is pronounced almost like “over-saga”, but with an Old Norse twist to the vowels.