Category Archives: Mariposa

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 ( and, and its connected web site ( are doing the same. The Mariposa part of that story will be told here.





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.


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.

The Gold and the Dross: for the Love of Stephen Leacock

January 12, 2016

What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross

What thou lovest well shall not be reft from thee

What thou lovest well is thy true heritage …

—Ezra Pound

To love Stephen Leacock in the year 2016 is to beat against the stream. But since when have we, in this country, objected to up-stream travel? The whole story of Canadian discovery and settlement—and I am not talking only of the past few hundred years—rings with the strokes and steps of people working their way up-stream, or up-hill, or both, to see where the water came from, and what lay beyond. I believe we must do the same in the unending need to discover our literature. No coasting with the current in that sphere, nor in most others.

With Stephen Leacock we travel at a disadvantage, because the best of him that people loved died when he stopped speaking—to his students at McGill when he reluctantly retired in 1936; to his audiences when he returned from his western Canadian tour later that year; to his family and friends when the cancer gripped his throat and he died in early 1944. What remains is what he wrote.

Even if he had made recordings of his lectures—and I have as yet seen no evidence that he did—I do not think they would have captured what made them so funny. From all accounts, jokes and laughter bubbled up through him in a constant flow, making him wonderfully amusing company as long as you were able to catch his humour on the fly and did not try to think about what it was saying. Speech is ephemeral, and you can remember of it what you choose; what someone writes is much more exposed.

When we try to love him for what he wrote we must first get past the quantity of the stuff, and the carelessness with which he sometimes wrote. One does not read the bulk of the remnants of Stephen Leacock, one must mine it. Gold there is, in plenty, but dross too, even more. Monumental is the slag-heap of Leacock verbiage, because it is bad, because it is sloppy, because it is wrong-headed, or simply because it does not matter any more, if it ever did. But ah, the nuggets of gold, and the delight in finding!

I will continue to confess, as I have before, that I cannot discover much gold in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912), except perhaps of the pyritical kind. The portrait of John Henry Bagshaw, the “representative” politician, is pure gold. Occasional bits of coloured rock pop up here and there, often not well polished. But I cannot forgive the author for his treatment of the female characters, and some of the men, which I find unkind and reprehensible in a writer who claimed that kindliness is the foundation of humour. And I cannot join the whole school of interpretation that sees in the book a well-grounded satire or portrayal of small-town life. A few cheap shots perhaps, but I am not convinced even they were intended. I have experienced a great deal more small-town life than Stephen Leacock ever did, or ever claimed to do, and believe we do him and his book an injustice if we colour it in ways he never meant. He was trying to tell funny stories about comical characters in an imaginary comical place, and his concluding effort to railroad us into believing that we should view that Mariposa with nostalgia fails to convince. It’s a comic book, that’s all: Astérix in prose.

I find abundant gold in his first two collections of humorous sketches: Literary Lapses (1910), and Nonsense Novels (1911), not much in the remainder, which appeared almost annually for the rest of his life. The problem, I believe, lies in the fact that most sketches were written as magazine pieces, a form which tends to lose its vitality when concentrated into whole volumes—see also Robert Benchley, James Thurber, Richard Needham, and many others. Not all the good ingredients of a soup make a good whole meal.

The above is a long-winded way (for a blog) to say that I do not believe we in our time should try to love Stephen Leacock for his humour, enjoyable as bits of it remain. If he is, in fact, our greatest humourist, then that is a sad, not a triumphant, statement. And we cannot love him for his academic writings, which never rose above the commonplace (or even “extraordinarily commonplace”, as Keynes called some of them). We can respect him, warmly I think, for what he wrote professionally for teaching purposes, which was solid and useful in its day. He was first and foremost a teacher, a great gift to his students, almost all of whom must be dead by now. For his teaching to have carried forward into future generations, he would have needed to be a greater scholar than he was.

Despite all these reservations, however, I persist in believing that his legacy remains golden, well-loveable, a fitting part of our true heritage. I do so, because he had yet another voice, another vein. He was a public intellectual, who read widely, thought intensely, and cared deeply about his country and his world, and how they could be made better. He was distressed and angry at the poverty, the indifference, the ignorance and greed, the lack of principle, the injustice, the violence, the bad policy and governance, that surrounded him, and he would remain so today. He wrote about these evils with passionate common sense, rising to wisdom, and if we cannot love a man for that, then something is wrong with us.

For the next year, or however long it takes, I am going to interpret his life, his work, his essence, as the search for a Mariposa that is worthy of the nostalgia he invites us to feel at the end of his most famous book.  He didn’t find it then, and when he went back, thirty years later, almost at the end of his life—in his last collection: Happy Stories, Just to Laugh At (1943)—when he tried to make it worthy of our nostalgia, he was not strong enough to rise above the sentimental. He was old then, no doubt exhausted, deeply saddened by the Great Depression and the recurrence of hideous war, in the early stages of a mortal illness, and simply not up to the task.

I am just as old, but fresh to the quest. I am going to find the true Mariposa, and tell you about it. I am going to find it in his writings. I am going to mine them. But I have read enough already to know that I will find both gold and dross, that they together are our true heritage, that Nostalgia-Worthy-Mariposa is not an utopia, but an attainable place where we can live if we choose.

Reconcerting Sunshine Sketches: A Pocketful of Mariposies

I am not at all disconcerted by the need to reconcert our Leacock concert, planned for this summer. We received word last week that we have been blessed with the support of the Ontario Arts Council for preparation of this concert. We had proposed to create one along certain lines, and had wandered from them, as is our wont. There’s nothing like a nice grant to get us back on track. So here we are.

The concert will now be called A Pocketful of Mariposies, and will talk about Mariposa, our Mariposa, which is derived from but not the same as Stephen Leacock’s Mariposa. His Mariposa is a somewhat restricted place, with seven main characters (I refer to them as the Seven Dwarfs), a handful of comprimarios, a chorus, and an indeterminate number of shadows on the wall. The Dwarfs are, by frequency of mention: Josh Smith, Peter Pupkin, Dean Drone, Jefferson Thorpe, Judge Pepperleigh, Henry Mullins, and Zena Pepperleigh. The comprimarios are Golgotha Gingham, Dr. Gallagher, George Duff, Billy the Desk Clerk, John Henry Bagshaw, and Edward Drone. You will perhaps notice that only one of these characters is a woman, making Leacock’s Mariposa a quite unusual “little town”, to say the least.

It’s as if an artist set out to paint a series of sketches of a garden, but systematically left out half the flowers. Occasionally he puts in one of the neglected ones, but only in the background, or in the shade of the others. The resulting sketches form an interesting portrayal of the artist’s habits of sight, but say little about the actual state of the garden. The pictures become works of art to be enjoyed for their own sake, in their own terms.

As I ponder this analogy, and how far it might be pushed, I wonder what would happen if we viewed Stephen Leacock, the artist, as an amalgam of Hogarth (for the English influence), Norman Rockwell (for the American influence) and the Automatistes of Canada, specifically Montreal. I am not suggesting that he might have been influenced by any of these artists, some of which post-dated him, but that we might learn by viewing him that way. I think that if we did we would not be surprised to find a somewhat inchoate blend of satire, sentimentalism, and delight in the spontaneous play of shape and colour, constituting a form of art uniquely enjoyable but defying analysis.

In the case of Leacock’s fiction I would put first the spontaneous play, in his case of words and wit, evoking laughter, followed by satire and sentimentalism. However else he may want us to react to the antics of his absurd caricatures, he first of all wants us to laugh.

The artistic soul-brethren of Smith, Pupkin, Drone and the rest are the cartoon men of the village of Astérix, not the more elaborate characters and settings of Dickens, Twain, or Sinclair Lewis, let alone Canada’s George Elliott, Margaret Laurence, or Alice Munro. As for women, Leacock avoids them wherever he can, and keeps them firmly in their places when he does write about them. Even Zena Pepperleigh, although sympathetically portrayed (unlike, say, Mrs. Rasselyer-Brown or Mrs. Everleigh of Arcadian Adventures), is merely an incomplete sketch, vanishing from the reader’s sight after her marriage.

Musicians are said to “play” their instruments. Leslie and I, as storytellers, are this summer going to play Stephen Leacock’s Mariposa, proposing to find therein some melodies and harmonies of our own, at the same time celebrating the original instrument-maker. We trust that the result, even if it does not enlarge literary horizons to any measurable extent, will at least be good for a laugh. That is, first of all, what Stephen Leacock would have wanted.

You will find more about both our 2015 summer concerts at:

Taking A Concerted Approach to Stephen Leacock

I apologize for the gap in postings. I have been busy preparing our concerts for the coming summer season, the 14th of Voyageur Storytelling’s Country Supper Storytelling Concerts. Our first two seasons, 2002 and 2003, included a concert called Leacock Light, in which we performed some pieces from Literary Lapses and Nonsense Novels, along with other humorous works. (We performed an earlier all-Leacock version of this concert four years earlier at the Northern Lights Festival in Yellowknife.) Then we set Leacock aside, save for regular recurrences of My Financial Career and Boarding House Geometry, because we didn’t know what to do with him next. In 2014 we returned to the quest with Leacock Plus Us: Leacock for the first half and the finale, and a few of our own pieces in between. For 2015 we are preparing our first all-Leacock full concert, named Nine Lives of Leacock.

You can find this concert described, along with its 2015 companion (called Roads Often Taken) at

As the name of the concert suggests, and as you will see in the programme, we are going to tell our audiences something of Stephen Leacock’s life as well as his own works, as many as we can cram into the time. In preparation for this I have been reading. Have I been reading! I have laid out on the dining room table (Leslie being away for a spell of intensive mothering and grandmothering) my entire Leacock collection, now after recent purchases comprising 36 of his 53 books, along with six biographies and two books of commentaries which I have supplemented by all the articles I can find on the internet.

Much reading lies ahead before I have achieved the kind of understanding that I want, but two ideas are beginning to coagulate in what passes for my mind.

The first goes something like this: What Stephen Leacock was, and what a great many people believe him to have been (including some but not all scholars), are two quite different phenomena. He has been labelled, widely I believe, as a humorist from Orillia. I would label him, if I must although I would much sooner not, as a jolly polymath of no fixed address, or perhaps more accurately, of several addresses known but not rigidly fixed.

I will elaborate on that idea but not here, and not yet.

The second idea: What he was is a great deal more interesting than his common reputation, as articulated by both those who revere him and those who do not. I will explain that too, eventually, and hope to prove it, or at least open our audiences’ minds to the possibility, in our concert this summer.

I have a parallel set of ideas concerning Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, surely Leacock’s most famous work. In my opinion the book both differs from and is more interesting than its common reputation, at least as I have seen it described and as I deduce it might be from the introduction to a school text commonly used. I have already begun to elaborate on those ideas in this blog, and will continue. Briefly, however, as they stand at this stage in the quest: I believe it to be a genuinely funny book; I do not believe it is “about” Orillia or any other place or any amalgam of places in Ontario or anywhere else, and if it was intended to be (I do not believe it was) it is an abject failure; and I believe that much more needs to be said about Mariposa before Canadian literature and storytelling can close the book on it, if they ever do. Furthermore, I intend to do my bit to say it, both here and elsewhere.

I do not seek to tell the truth about Stephen Leacock, but to do him justice. The truth will remain forever elusive, because we do not know the facts well enough, and we cannot know his mind in its unfiltered state. But justice is a practical matter, and we can get there.

The Foredoomed Entanglement of Zena Pepperleigh and Peter Pupkin

Following my host’s warning, I re-read the relevant portions of Sunshine Sketches, checked the archives, and asked around. Many of the older folks could remember the mature Zena, but the Peter Pupkin part of her story took place well before the lifetimes of extant Mariposans. Their memories of what their parents and grandparents had told them were, however, largely consistent, and I conclude that we can rely on them, especially as the documentary evidence, such as it is, seems to back them up.

Stephen Leacock tells us four important things about Peter Pupkin: that he was not very bright, at least not bright enough to qualify as a lawyer in “the Maritime Provinces” (we are never told which one); that his father was hard-driving, property-developing provincial robber baron; that he liked pretty girls and was chivalric by nature; and that when depressed or discouraged he would think of suicide. Leacock makes fun of that, which was very wrong of him.

Zena, we are told, was romantic, somewhat educated in a world outside Mariposa, and inclined to defy her father, at least within the limited scope possible to her and generally to middle-class young women at that time. I soon saw what my host meant by the “job” that Leacock did on her. He (or rather his narrator) never lets her speak for herself, of course, any more than he lets any other woman speak for herself in that book. Her thoughts are always filtered. (Come to that, Peter Pupkin never speaks for himself either.) We are told almost nothing about Zena’s mother, certainly not about their relationship.

Before she becomes close to Peter, we learn enough for her to begin to emerge as a character, but the closer they become, the more she fades from the narration. At the end of the story, when we are vouchsafed a brief snapshot of their “enchanted house on the hillside in the newer part of town,” she is invisible. Only Peter appears, cutting the grass in a gaudy blazer.

But the end of Leacock’s story is of course not the end of hers. There she was, in her comfortable house, with her fond, insensitive, role-burdened husband and her baby, grappling with the conundrums of a lightly educated wife and mother in a small town of her day, from which she had been partly alienated by her schooling. Stephen Leacock could have told that story, of course, with real bite, had he not been oblivious. There is no excuse for him; the story was common enough, had he chosen to see it. Added to Zena’s turmoil of mind was the awareness, which came upon her suddenly in the dark of one night, that she and Peter had been thoroughly manipulated by their two fathers into what amounted to an arranged marriage. She did not blame Peter, nor stop loving him, but everything else soured in mounting resentment. Without her child she would have been lost.

Devoted Peter was just bright enough to realize how unhappy she was, but not nearly bright enough to know why, or what to do. He put it down to female complaint. He would have spoken to himself of hormones had he known anything about them. His constraint was cultural. He was a thoroughly moulded young man. In order to free her, and him—them, for they were a family—he would have had to break his mould and start again, to crawl out from under the overbearing influence of his time, his place, his job, his amour-propre, his father, and his up-bringing. Not a chance. Thoughts of suicide returned, but not very effectively. It seemed such a cowardly thing to do. They clung to each other, emotionally and physically, in mounting desperation.

To cut the sad story short, they were rescued by the Great War, as it came to be called, later “World War One”. Peter never admitted, even to himself, that he was enlisting as a way out for them both, nor did Zena ever allow herself to imagine that she would be better off if he did not come back. To fight the Hun was to perform nothing less than his patriotic duty. Sam Hughes was a figure of note in the world around Mariposa, and so he preached. Peter went, commission in hand, and was killed leading his platoon, with exemplary bravery and complete military ineffectuality, over the top at the Battle of the Somme.

It was easier to mourn, and get on with life, in such plentiful company. Zena then broke her mould too, and with a measure of style. If you want to know how she did it, go back three or four posts.