Category Archives: Stephen Leacock

My First Conversation with Stephen Leacock’s Ghost

In a corner of the corner of the big room that serves as our office and literary workshop, I have placed a chair where I like to sit and read. I was working late one evening, grafting a few new shoots onto the gnarled trunk of Stephen Leacock’s Mariposa, when the man himself—or rather an ectoplasmic residue thereof—manifested itself into the aforesaid chair and sat scowling, moustache a-quiver.

“Ah,”, said I, a little startled but not very much, because I had been half expecting such a visit, “you have found out what I’m doing! Are you able to speak? If so, will you tell me what you think? I would very much like to know.”

It turned out that he could not speak. He could frown, move his mouth, waggle his bushy eyebrows, quiver his moustache, wave his hands, but make no sound. As I concentrated on him, however, trying to discern his message, I gradually became aware that just as ghostly ectoplasm, which is not matter in the physical realm, forms in its own realm and becomes visible to the receptive eye, so there exists what I might call “ecto-vocalism”, or “ghost-sound”, in the aural realm. I could sense its vibrations, but not interpret them, or at least not yet.

“I can’t hear you,” I said, “but I can detect that you are speaking. I will have to learn how to hear you. Please quote me the first sentence of the Preface to Sunshine Sketches. I will ‘listen’, if that is the correct word, carefully, and match the waves to the text. That will give me a kind of Rosetta Stone which will start me on the way of interpreting what you say”

I tuned myself carefully in his direction, hoping that my ear would find a way to do with his voice what my eyes could do with his form. I am no lip-reader, but I watched his mouth carefully. I knew beforehand what he was saying:

“I know of no way in which a writer may more fittingly introduce his work to the public than by giving a brief account of who and what he is. By this means some of the blame for what he has done is very properly shifted to the extenuating circumstances of his life.”

He had to repeat it three times before I was able to match the ecto-sound with the words and the sense, but I soon got the hang of it, and before too long we were prattling away like a couple of veterans.

“You have identified yourself as a literary grafter,” he said. “Why did you do that?”

“I’ve been doing it for years,” I replied. “It is my artistic métier.” His eyebrows shot up and his  mouth twitched. “I graft new lyrics onto old music,” I continued. “I graft new words onto old poetic forms. I graft new stories onto old mythologies. Grafting them onto your book is a natural extension. Besides, I think the book is often improperly read, and I wish to set the record straight. Grafting is my method, the best one for the purpose, I think. People will remember better if they are entertained as well as informed.”

“So I believed,” he said, “although I did learn that it could be overdone. If people are laughing too hard they don’t remember anything else.”

“My mother-in-law said that when she heard you at the University of British Columbia they laughed so hard they nearly wet themselves.”

“And she remembered little else, I expect,” said he. “The humorous lecturer is a Cassandra-like figure. That is why clowns are sad. But what gives you the right to graft onto my book?”

“Well, it is in the public domain,” I reminded him, “and it is a Canadian classic, almost a mythical story, in multiple senses. That makes it fair game. And people do mis-read it, which makes correction a worthy cause. They think it’s about Ontario small towns, which it is not, although set in a fictional one. Some of them even think it’s about Orillia, which is absurd. I mean, Mariposa is absurd, which Orillia was not. Eccentric in its own way from time to time, I expect, and with its just share of human weakness, but not stupid, and not absurd. I grew up in Huntsville, and I am sure about that. Besides,” I added, “I am Herbert Thaxter Shaw’s first cousin twice removed, which makes me almost a relative of yours.”

“Are you really?” he said, and his scowl softened. “Well well well. Dear Fitz. I loved her, you know, and would have married her, my wife being deceased some years by then, but his mother refused to allow a divorce. And besides Herbert was a friend of mine, they were both good friends. Trix and I stood up at their wedding.” He looked at me intently. “So you must be Worrell and Jenny Conway’s son. I met them at the wedding, and a few times since. They had an exquisitely beautiful young daughter. Dead now, I suppose, although I haven’t seen her around.”

“I’m their grandson actually, and you are speaking of my Aunt Barbara who is still going strong at the age of ninety-something, and still beautiful.”

“Ah yes, she had that kind of beauty. She was just a child when I knew her.” He fell silent, reminiscent. His ectoplasm began to fade. I decided to give him a prod.

“So why did you say all those misleading things in the Preface, making it sound like the characters might be based on real people, and why why did you call it Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, when it’s really a set of corrosive sketches of a totally impossible town?”

“For the fun of it, mostly. To make people laugh.”

“Well, fair enough I suppose, almost, although I do think the humorist must take responsibility for what he encourages them to laugh at.”

He arranged his facial ectoplasm into a frown. “I don’t think you can get away with blaming me for writing a funny book about a few silly people because you think that a great many people, including some academics, are too silly to read it properly. People are either silly, or they are not. If you’re going to write about them, you have to make a choice.”

“Not necessarily,” I rejoined. “They are occasionally silly, sometimes sharp, and often noble. I think that to write properly about them and the places they live one must enter the realm of “both-and”, not “either-or.”

He was about to reply when the rooster across the road crowed. He simply shook his head, and vanished.

Since then he appears regularly in the night watches, and we converse with edification. Unfortunately he is not a humorous ghost, but a sad and reflective one. I suppose two awful wars and a Great Depression knocked the jokes out of him even before he died, not to mention what has happened since. He was an economist, remember, and a rigorous student of political affairs. There are times when melancholy is the only valid response to the world as it is.

I will tell you more stories of his visits as we go along.

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Smith, Bagshaw, Drone, Pepperleigh, and the Politics of Mariposa

I was pleased to be sitting once more with my host in the bar of his hotel. I had finished my evening’s work and had come in, according to now-established custom, to enjoy his company and stories over a late glass of scotch.

“So,” I said, after a few sips, “we have Josh Smith, dead from being a member of Parliament, and Hector and Zena Smith (née Pepperleigh and relict of Pupkin) and descendants at Smith’s Hotel, and Peter Pupkin, dead from the war, and Peter Junior, rich from lawyering and land development, and … how did you get all these stories, by the way?”

“From my mother. Her father was Mallory Tompkins, the Times-Herald man in Leacock’s day, and a prominent Liberal. He married Miss Lawson, the high-school teacher. Grandfather Tompkins knew everybody’s stories, the ones they printed in the newspaper, and the ones they didn’t. He told them to my mother, who loved that kind of thing, and she told them to me. You get them the way I got them, maybe a little ornamented, maybe not. What difference does it make?”

“So Smith was elected in 1911, and lasted how long?”

“Until 1920. There was going to be a by-election, but the general election of 1921 pushed it aside.”

“And who was elected then?”

“That was a surprise. It was Edward Drone, still defiantly Independent. He didn’t try to run during the war, being a staunch imperialist at heart, but did in 1921, and pulled it off. Drone and Honesty. People were ready for that, after the war and all the death and corruption. They turned on the old parties, or at least enough of them did.”

“How long did Drone last?”

“Not long. He joined the Progressive Party and ran again in 1925 and 1926, but lost to the Conservative both times. The Liberals didn’t get back in again until 1935.

“Bagshaw would have been too old by then. What happened to him?”

“He retired to his farm where he and his wife lived to a ripe old age off the avails of his years in Parliament, surrounded by their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and well loved by a host of neighbours and friends. No gathering in Mariposa was complete without John Henry and his Ottawa stories, which improved with every telling as the years rolled on. He finally died laughing at the age of ninety-eight when they made Mackenzie King prime minister for the third time. His wife followed a few days later. They were a grand old couple, and completely devoted.”

“Judge Pepperleigh must have been a happy man, all those Conservative years.”

“He was a piece of work, that old guy, and as he got older he he just got crazier and more corrupt. And his son Neil, who was killed in South Africa, he was plain vicious, but as Leacock says, the Judge never saw that, although the boy’s mother did. Mrs. Pepperleigh was a decent and kind old lady, and a pillar of the church. How she put up with that old tyrant for all those years remains a mystery. Maybe there was no way out for her. That happened in those days. She must have loved him to start with, maybe she kept on. Maybe the church was her escape. But Miss Spiffkins wasn’t the only one in town who thought she had a hard row. It was notable that when Zena took over the hotel, old Martha spent a lot of time there, helping look after the grandchildren. She never abandoned the Judge, but my mother said she knew very well what he was. When he died there were no tears, not from her, not from Zena, not from anyone.”

“It sounds as if Mariposa was a lot more complicated than Stephen Leacock said it was.”

“More complicated than he ever saw, but then, he didn’t live here. He was just a cottager. He knew a few people, but he never knew the place. To know the place, he would have had to live here, be here all year round. He saw a few things on the surface, and thought they were the depths. He was a great talker, but he wasn’t a great listener, at least, so my mother said.”

“Can you give me an example?”

“Sure. He was here in the summer of 1911, in the run-up to the election, and saw Josh Smith pomping around the place and trying to manipulate the voters. He thought that was funny. And then when Smith won, he thought the voters must have fallen for Smith’s tricks. But they didn’t. Smith was an illiterate saloon-keeper, not really fit for the job, and everybody knew it. But they didn’t like the Reciprocity agreement, they were tired of Laurier, and they thought he and Bagshaw were both too old. Smith was the Conservative candidate, and that was the way they wanted to vote. But it was a long way from unanimous. Then in 1917 there was the conscription issue, and people around here wanted to support the government, no matter what. Mind you, my mother heard all this from her father, who was a Liberal through and through. But he also knew everybody, and talked to everybody. Who knows what the real story was?”

Who indeed. Not Stephen Leacock, it seems clear.

Missinaba Conversation III: Stephen Leacock and Josh Smith

When I got back to my host’s place the next evening I found him in a towering rage.

“Why can’t people get things right?” he thundered, waving a book over his head. “I been reading this book, by Randall White, Ontario 1610-1985, A Political and Economic History, and mostly it’s pretty good, but then I come across this statement, on page 199: ‘In 1912 Stephen Leacock, by then a professor at McGill University in Montreal, published Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town — a gently critical portrait of small-town Ontario on the eve of the First World War’. Gently critical! How about ill-informed and savagely unkind! Imaginative, yes! Funny, yes! But gently critical? And then, on page 260, White calls Orillia ‘the original “little town” in Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches’. Nonsense!

“What did Stephen Leacock know about small towns? The only one he ever lived in was Uxbridge, for six months. He spent his holidays with his mother when she lived in Orillia for a while, before she moved to Sutton, and he bought a cottage there in 1908 or thereabouts. You don’t learn much about a place by having a cottage there, certainly not in three or four years. Certainly you don’t collect any right to be critical, even gently. He grew up in a village in England, for six years, and then on a farm in Georgina Township, for six years, and then he went to school in Toronto, at Upper Canada College of all places, and then university for a year, and then to Uxbridge, and then back to Toronto to teach at UCC, then to Chicago for more university, and then to Montreal, to McGill, for the rest of his life. He was a city boy, through and through, with just enough experience of the other places to cloud his awareness.

“But he knew what he was doing when he wrote that book. It’s about real people and a real place all right, despite what he said himself, but it’s not Orillia.  It’s Mariposa, right here, where we are now, and where my wife’s family and mine have lived for more than 150 years, right here on the edge of town. And the people he wrote about—Smith, Pepperleigh, Thorpe, Pupkin and the rest—they’re real people, but he didn’t know them, he’d just heard about them, and heard a little of their stories, so he took them, and added some more quirks and stories of other people he knew, or had heard of, and he made fun of them. They’re real people, all right, but the stories are mostly so made up that they’re hardly recognizable, except on the surface. It’s a funny book, and I enjoy reading it, but it’s not a nice book, and certainly not gentle.”

All this unfolded discursively over a whole long evening.“So tell me,” I asked, “what was Josh Smith really like? He was the big cheese in Leacock’s Mariposa; what was he in the real one, and what happened to him?”

“He was a medium cheese, one of many. He had one of the hotels, and he was in fact the fire chief. But he was pig-ignorant too, and a terrible braggart. Most of the stories the professor heard were made up by Smith himself, and he could tell them in a most entertaining way. Some people liked him, and he had a reputation for getting things done, but most of it wasn’t really deserved. Mostly when he got things done he had a lot of help. But the reputation and the issues in the 1911 election were enough to get him elected, and off he went to Ottawa, for all the good it did him.”

“Why, what happened?” “Well, because he couldn’t read or write he wasn’t cabinet material, in fact, they put him at the back of the back benches and forgot about him, so he spent his time testing the graft system and drinking, at about the same rate as always, but he wasn’t a young man by then. He put on about forty pounds, and when he came back from the first session he looked terrible. After a few sessions he came back in a box.”

“What happened to the hotel?” “Ah, that’s a long story, and a good one, but it’s late. Maybe next time.”

Re-Casting Stephen Leacock: Why Bother?

Why all the fuss? It’s not simply because Stephen Leacock appropriated the name of Mariposa, which happens to be a real place not at all like the one he lampooned.

Some time ago I began to be deeply troubled by Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. I hasten to say that my affection for Stephen Leacock survived this challenge unscathed, and kept me performing those of his pieces that I like best for that purpose. In 2014, indeed, we (that is, Leslie and I; see http://www.voyageurstorytelling.ca) built an entire concert around him, as we have done before and will do again. The best of his pieces perform very well indeed, and our audiences enjoy them. We particularly favour some pieces from Nonsense Novels and Literary Lapses, both early Leacock collections. We do not perform anything from Sunshine Sketches, although Leslie has done so in the past, before we formed our partnership.

I became troubled because at first I accepted that the work was what so many people, even competent critics, believe it to be: a satire, or perhaps a caricature, of small-town Ontario life, even perhaps of a specific small town, Orillia. I thought that Leacock was behaving outrageously by savaging the people of the place, or the kind of place, where he enjoyed his summer cottage. No wonder the people of Orillia were angry. Anger would be the correct emotion against a city professor who used the superficial acquaintance formed by a few years of seasonal visiting and summer cottaging to ridicule the locals.

That was not my principal difficulty, however. Unlike Stephen Leacock, who was a farm boy from south of Lake Simcoe, I grew up in a small town: Huntsville, some 90 kms north of Orillia and just as typical. You might think I would therefore share his point of view. Yet in Leacock’s townspeople I found no one I could recognize. Leacock’s Mariposans are fundamentally stupid, or at least simple-minded, manipulative or manipulable, and instinctively corrupt. The people I grew up with, performing the same roles as Leacock’s people, had their peculiarities sometimes, even amusing ones. Some were more likeable than others, some cleverer or not so clever, but they were not stupid. A great many were admirable in diverse ways. In the light of my experience, what Leacock wrote was a protracted, tasteless “Little Moron” joke, and by making it possible for a well-intentioned reader to believe that he might have been writing about real people he knew or even were his friends, he turned a light-hearted literary romp into a nasty, mean-spirited, patronizing little book. How could he possibly claim that he viewed these people with affection when he had treated them so badly? How could he be surprised at their anger?

I am sure, however, that he did not mean to write that kind of book. I think that he simply meant to be funny, and that the caricatures came entirely from his prolific imagination. Unfortunately, he borrowed some names and a location for them, which was a mistake and bad authorship. It’s one thing to decide that some real people are funny, and to make public fun of them. To do that can nasty, especially when those people have done you no harm. It is quite another to invent some funny people and invite readers to enjoy their antics. Sunshine Sketches is a comic book, a cartoon, like the Astérix books, with no greater grounding in real people. Taken that way the reader can quite legitimately enjoy the humour for what it is, and even savour the occasional flashes of satire for what they are: comments on the foibles of us all and not only people in small towns.

If you want positive assurance that Stephen Leacock was not a nasty, mean-spirited little man and an often careless and erratic humorist, then read some of his other works, when he was not trying to be funny. Read The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, for example, or his essay “To Every Child”, or his economic works, savour some of what he says there, and note its relevance to today. He was a lot better political economist, a lot better social philosopher, and a lot worse humorist, than his common reputation would tempt you to believe.

I’ll back up this assertion in a subsequent article.