Category Archives: Stephen Leacock

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.


Stephen Leacock Re-Tour 2017: Saganza #2: Oct 23 2016

Exactly a year from now we will begin a two-day festival where Stephen Leacock began his tour: in Thunder Bay, or Port Arthur and Fort William as it was (or they were) then. A “saganza”, by the way, is a stanza in a saga. This saga is in fact three sagas, unfolding in their distinctive ways in various places.

The first is the saga of Leacock’s 1936-37 Tour. Its first stanza appeared on this blog on September 22nd. You can scroll down to find it. The second is the just-beginning saga of our 2017 Re-Tour, unrolling day by day. The third is the multifarious saga of Stephen Leacock’s life, times and accomplishments, a very large saga that will take some time to recite.

In some future saganza I will explain why I think Stephen Leacock remains important. Many do not believe that he does, or that his importance if any is narrowly circumscribed. And perhaps it is if you take him out of context. But he was considered important in the context of his time and place. Our place is his place, and our time is proving to have some startling similarities. But more of that on some future occasion. Or possibly several of them.

What follows is the outline of our Re-Tour. The form of the whole Re-Tour is a “Litera-Tour”; its manifestation in each port of call is a “Leacock Litera-Tour Festival” or even perhaps a “Leacock Laughing Litera-Tour Festival” because whatever the substance of a Leacock appearance, laughing always came with it. So here we go, and if the whole idea appears laughable, well then, we’re off to a good start:

Friday and Saturday, October 20th and 21st, 2017: Launch Festival in Orillia. (Leacock set forth from Montreal and his route would have been via the CPR to Port Arthur. Orillia is on VIA Rail’s route (or rather Washago is) and has become the focal point for Leacockiana, being the place of his beloved summer home. For both these reasons we decided to start there.)

Monday and Tuesday, October 23rd and 24th: Thunder Bay

Wednesday, October 25th: Sioux Lookout (Leacock did not stop there, but nowadays the train does, and so will we, briefly)

Thursday to Sunday, October 26th to 29th: Winnipeg

Tuesday to Thursday, October 31st to November 2nd: Regina

Friday to Sunday, November 3rd to November 5th: Saskatoon

Tuesday to Friday, November 7th to November 10th: Edmonton

Saturday to Monday, November 11th to 13th: Calgary

Tuesday and Wednesday, November 14th to 15th: Medicine Hat

Saturday to Monday, November 18th to 20th: Vancouver

Wednesday to Saturday, November 22nd to 25th: Victoria

Monday and Tuesday, November 27th to 28th: back to Vancouver for the finale of the Re-Tour, as Leacock did.

We will be following Leacock’s footsteps as closely as train schedules allow, and spending about the same length of time in each place. Leacock made 32 appearances in his 10 ports of call; we expect to make about twice that many because we have formalized what must have been an important informal part of his tour. He was, after all, a celebrity, and would have been wined and dined, or more likely whiskeyed and dined, by prominent people in each of his ports of call. We do not expect the same, but will substitute what we are calling Leacock Talk Circles in the spaces between our performances. We will talk more about them, and about the other types of performance we have designed, in a subsequent saganza.

The next stage in our saga is to locate those organizations who hosted events or otherwise were Leacock’s partners in all his ports of call and ask them if they would like to be ours. We have already engaged the Leacock Museum and Leacock Associates in Orillia, and are delighted by their enthusiasm. We are working on events for that festival. We have also made contact with public libraries in all the other places, and are receiving most encouraging responses from them all, for which we are grateful.

As details emerge we will post them here, and in other places.


“My Discovery of the West”, Stephen Leacock’s 1936 Tour: Saganza #1

Late in 1936, after being forced to retire from McGill University, Stephen Leacock toured western Canada for six weeks, lecturing and entertaining audiences. He started in Port Arthur, Ontario (now part of Thunder Bay), and reached as far as Victoria, British Columbia. We know the details thanks to Carl Spadoni’s A Bibliography of Stephen Leacock and David Staines’ The Letters of Stephen Leacock. In outline, below is the story they tell. Unless otherwise stated it is likely that Leacock was the after-lunch or after-dinner speaker at events taking place in the hotel where he was staying.

November 25, 1936: Depart from Montreal

November 27, Port Arthur, Ontario. Prince Arthur Hotel. McGill Graduate Society Dinner: “Our Colleges and What They Stand For”. The local newspaper reported that Leacock turned “a barrage of sarcastic humour on sectional differences differences which threaten the Confederation of Canada”, and called for a re-confederation. How this all fitted into the title of his address remains obscure. Perhaps he did not stay on topic.

November 28, Fort William. Royal Edward Hotel. Men’s & Women’s Canadian Club lunch: “Canada and the United States”.

November 29 to December 4: Winnipeg. Royal Alexandra Hotel.

November 30: Women’s Canadian Club: “Literature at its Lightest, Latest and Most Foolish”.

December 1: University of Manitoba: “Education by the Yard”.

December 3: Winnipeg Press Club Dinner: “The Written Word” (off the record).

December 4: Men’s Canadian Club, Fort Garry Hotel: “When Can We Start the Next War?”

December 4: Women’s University Club, Fort Garry Hotel: “An Analysis of Humour”.

December 6 to 8: Regina. Hotel Saskatchewan

December 7: Women’s Canadian Club: “Literature and Progress”.

December 8: Men’s Canadian Club: “Brotherly Love Among the Nations”.

December 8: McGill Graduate Society: “The Value of Imbecility in Education”.

December 10 to 11: Saskatoon. Bessborough Hotel.

December 10: University of Saskatchewan: “Education by the Yard”.

December 11: Men’s & Women’s Canadian Club and McGill Graduates (and broadcast): “Murder at $2.50 a Volume and Love at $1.25”.

December 13 to 16: Edmonton. The Macdonald Hotel.

December 14: University of Alberta: “Recovery After Graduation”.

December 15: Political Science Club Students: “Is Adam Smith Dead?”

December 15: University of Toronto Alumni: “College As It Was and As It is”.

December 16: Men’s & Women’s Canadian Club and McGill Graduates: “Debit and Credit”.

December 16: Women’s Press Club and Canadian Authors Dinner: “The Theory of Comic Verse”.

December 17 to 18: Calgary. Hotel Palliser.

December 18: Canadian Club and Board of Trade (and broadcast): “Social Credit”.

December 18: Women’s Canadian Club: “Frenzied Fiction”.

December 18: McGill & Varsity (U of T) Graduates: reported as “Leacock Recalls Years at College”.

December 19: Medicine Hat. Cecil Hotel. Quota Club Dinner: “Hard Money, or Daniel in the Lion’s Den”.

December 21 to 28: Vancouver. Hotel Vancouver.

December 22: Men’s Canadian Club: “The New Economic World”.

December 24: Lunch at the Vancouver Club; speech, if any, unspecified.

December 28: Women’s Canadian Club: “Frenzied Fiction or Murder at Two Fifty a Volume and Love at One Twenty Five”.

December 28: Vancouver Board of Trade: “Social Credit and Social Progress: Enjoy the Fruits of Your Labour”.

December 29, 1936 to January 8, 1937: Victoria. Empress Hotel.

January 4: Canadian Club: “Economic Separatism in the British Empire”.

January 5: Women’s Canadian Club: “Humour As a Serious Manner”.

January 6: McGill Graduates Association: “Preserving College Traditions”.

January 7: Rotary Club: “How Soon Can We Start the Next War?”

January 7: Upper Canada College Graduates: “History of Upper Canada College”.

January 8: Victoria Teachers Association: “What I Don’t Know About Education”.

January 13, Vancouver: University of British Columbia: “Looking Back on College”

January 17: Arrive back in Montreal.

Stephen Leacock retired from lecturing early in 1937.

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.

The Next Great Leap Forward

When I last left off, all those weeks ago, I was just about to re-construct this summer’s Stephen Leacock concert, called A Pocketful of Mariposies. This job is done, rehearsal begun. It took some doing. I won’t go into details of my agonies. They are too tedious to recount. I don’t know whether it’s because I am getting old, or because this time around the subject is a tough one to tame for the purposes of a storytelling concert, but either way, so it proved, until I finally emerged on top. I think it’s going to be a good one, full of entertaining and interesting stuff for Leacockian neophyte and seasoned aficionado both.

As this was going on I embarked upon a concerted effort to collect Stephen Leacock books. This has gone very well, and has been great good fun. I have been travelling a little, and as soon as I know where I am going I search for bookstores there and along the route. Then I search their catalogues for Leacock books, either by or about him. When I scent game I write to the target bookstore, tell them I am going to stop by, with cash, and when, and ask them to hold the books I want. This has lead to pleasant encounters with booksellers all over the place, some of whom sported large Leacock collections at very reasonable prices. My Leacock shelf is now becoming both long and respectable. Occasionally, if I see something good at long distance, I make an on-line purchase in one of the standard ways. This works fine too.

I therefore want to kick off the new wave of this blog by saluting the used-book sellers of Canada, tucked away in their shops and frequently in their houses. I am amazed at what I have been able to find at reasonable prices, and most grateful for, but not amazed at, the good service I have received. Not amazed, because it is natural, I believe, for people who work surrounded by old books to be exceptionally nice people.

Thanks to these people I have come a long way in the collection of Stephen Leacock Literature, or StephLeaLit, as I suppose one might call it, but still have a long and I am sure equally pleasant way to go.

For the next few months of this blog, therefore, I am going to look at what Leacock wrote, not as a reviewer or literary critic, which I am not, but as a storyteller, which I am, telling the story of my encounters with his works, to the extent that I have been able to encounter them.

I started my Stephen Leacock Project with a focus on Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, a book about which I have a most mixed opinion. In order to grapple with it I started reading biographies, and discovered that the story of Stephen Leacock himself is, to my mind, more interesting than anything he wrote, which is saying a lot. I propose to look, therefore, one episode at a time, at what he wrote, and what was going on when he wrote it. I think it will make a good story, entirely blog-suited, and if it takes a while to tell it, I hope my readers will find the long process worth-while.

As I proceed, I will build a catalogue of my collection and reading, which I will post as a page on this blog.

This should keep me going until some other idea comes along.

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.