A prolific and popular writer whose essays and books continue to garner readers both at home and abroad, Stephen Leacock was a man comfortable in many worlds. An economist who studied under Thorstein Veblen at the University of Chicago, a dedicated university professor, and an internationally renowned public speaker, he wrote virtually uncountable essays on a wide range of eclectic topics from educational theory to contemporary politics. As Peter McArthur suggested as early as 1923 when Leacock had more than two decades of writing still ahead of him, any attempt to summarize this immense body of work “is an exhilarating, but somewhat bewildering task.” It is a mission that sweeps a reader from discussions of Western culture’s shortsighted enthusiasm for the false gods of technology (“Radio: A New Form of Trouble,” 1923), to explanations of “practical political economy,” to lighthearted looks at current trends in film and literature. Leacock is best remembered, though, as a humorist, a writer for whom the study and practice of humor was “in the grain of [his] intelligence” (Robertson Davies, 1970); this was a man, after all, who proclaimed in the autobiographical preface to his Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912) that he “would sooner have written Alice in Wonderland than the whole Encyclopaedia Britannica.” The essence of humor, which Leacock believed was captured most eloquently in such a work as Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, is “that it must be without harm or malice, nor should it convey even incidentally any real picture of sorrow or suffering or death.” The basis of humor lies, he maintained, “in the deeper contrasts offered by life itself,” most notably “the strange incongruity between our aspirations and our achievement” (“Humour as I See It,” 1916). Humor was a kind of consolation for the world, helping to reconcile us individually and collectively to things as they are in contrast to things as they might be. Indeed, both these definitions figure prominently in the Leacock oeuvre, proof not only of his willingness to accord humor status as “the highest product of our civilization” (“Humour as I See It”) but also of his propensity for self-plagiarism.
It is important to note that Leacock rarely locates the source of this comfort in the contemporary world. His essays, both humorous and serious, are often backward-looking, engaging various strategies in order to illuminate what he considered the positive aspects of vanished or vanishing sensibilities: “It is perhaps conceivable that literature has arisen in the past mainly on the basis of the inequalities, the sufferings and the misery of the common lot that has led humanity to seek in the concepts of the imagination the happiness that seemed denied by the stern environment of reality. Thus perhaps American civilisation with its public school and the dead level of its elementary instruction, with its simple code of republicanism and its ignorance of the glamour and mystery of monarchy, with its bread and work for all and its universal hope of the betterment of personal fortune, contains in itself an atmosphere in which the flower of literature cannot live” (“Literature and Education in America,” 1909).
Despite this proclivity to find solace in remembered times, Leacock was not a nostalgist. He understood progress as inevitable, and he proved an astute social historian and critic whose sense of where Canada was headed during a period of rapid social change and sudden economic development is frequently understated in critical writing about him. For him, the past represented a kind of vantage point from which he could peruse the modern world while remaining firmly grounded in what critics have called his Tory humanist belief in “the middle way,” in the benefits of reconciliation over confrontation, and in the values of the golden mean. His views on many subjects, as Gerald Lynch (1988) observes, “represent an attempt to balance the rights of the individual and the needs of the social organism, to temper the extremes of liberalism and socialism.” Emerging from this dialectic was a respect for the stability of an ordered community and traditional institutions, a belief in the benefits of human and political diversity, and a deep concern for human rights and social justice. At times, his writing in these areas hints at an essential uncertainty and unwillingness to commit to a single line of thought; more often, though, Leacock writes with assurance and optimism, comfortable with the knowledge “that no opinion is altogether right, no purpose altogether laudable, and no calamity altogether deplorable” (“A Rehabilitation of Charles II,” 1906).
One issue to which Leacock returned regularly in his legion of articles on history, economics, and political science was the question of “the Empire.” To him, Anglo- American imperialism was never irreconcilable with his own sense of nationalism but was a complementary “recognition of a wider citizenship” (The Unsolved Riddle, 1920).
It was the nurturing of this broader sense of cosmopolitan responsibility that Leacock believed would effectively counterbalance the growing preoccupation with self-interest and the regressive “creed and cult of self-development” (“The Devil and the Deep Sea,” 1910) that he saw as threatening the stability of the modern world.
Although today’s reader may find Leacock leaning at times toward the politically conservative, most obviously in his dismissive attitudes toward early feminist concerns and socialism (the latter of which he often equates with utopianism), it is his irony, wit, and optimism that endure and continue to endear him to readers.
Stephen Butler Leacock. Born 30 December 1869 in Swanmore, Hampshire, England.
Family moved to Canada, 1876. Studied at Upper Canada College, Toronto, 1881–87;
University of Toronto, 1887–91, B.A. in modern languages, 1891; University of Chicago, 1899–1903, Ph.D. in political economy, 1903. Taught at Upper Canada College, 1889– 99, and the University of Chicago, 1899–1903. Married Beatrix Hamilton, 1900 (died, 1925): one son. Lecturer, 1903–06, associate professor, 1906–08, William Dow Professor of Political Science and Economics, 1908–36, then emeritus, McGill University, Montreal. Elected to the Royal Society of Canada, 1919. Charter member, Canadian Authors Association, 1921.
Awards: Lorne Pierce Medal, 1937; Governor-General’s Award, for nonfiction, 1937; honorary degrees from three colleges and universities.
Died in Toronto, 28 March 1944.
Essays and Sketches (partly fictional)
Literary Lapses: A Book of Sketches, 1910
Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, 1912
Behind the Beyond, and Other Contributions to Human Knowledge, 1913
Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich, 1914
Moonbeams from the Larger Lunacy, 1915
Further Foolishness: Sketches and Satires on the Follies of the Day, 1916
Essays and Literary Studies, 1916
The Hohenzollerns in America, with the Bolsheviks in Berlin and Other Impossibilities, 1919
The Unsolved Riddle, 1920
My Discovery of England, 1922
Over the Footlights, 1923
College Days, 1923
The Garden of Folly, 1924
Winnowed Wisdom, a New Book of Humour, 1926
Short Circuits, 1928
The Iron Man and the Tin Woman, with Other Such Futurities, 1929
Laugh with Leacock (selection), 1930
The Leacock Book, edited by Ben Travers, 1930
Wet Wit and Dry Humour, 1931
Afternoons in Utopia: Tales of the New Time, 1932
The Dry Pickwick and Other Incongruities, 1932
The Perfect Salesman, edited by E.V.Knox, 1934
Funny Pieces: A Book of Random Sketches, 1936
Here Are My Lectures and Stories, 1937 Model Memoirs and Other Sketches from Simple to Serious, 1938
Too Much College; or, Education Eating Up Life, with Kindred Essays in Education and Humour, 1939
Laugh Parade, 1940
My Remarkable Uncle and Other Sketches, 1942
Last Leaves, 1945
The Leacock Roundabout (selection), 1945
The Bodley Head Leacock, edited by J.B.Priestley, 1957; as The Best of Leacock, 1958
Feast of Stephen, edited by Robertson Davies, 1970; revised edition, 1990
The Social Criticism, edited by Alan Bowker, 1973
The Penguin Stephen Leacock, edited by Robertson Davies, 1981
My Financial Career and Other Follies, edited by David Staines, 1993
Other writings: satirical novels and parodies, a college textbook on political science, books on humor and politics, biographies of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, history books, and an unfinished autobiography (The Boy I Left Behind Me, 1946).
Lomer, G.R., Stephen Leacock: A Check-List and Index of His Writings, Ottawa: National Library, 1954
Bowker, Alan, Introduction to The Social Criticism by Leacock, edited by Bowker,
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996 (original edition, 1973)
Bush, Douglas, “Stephen Leacock,” in The Canadian Imagination: Dimensions of a Literary Culture, edited by David Staines, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1977
Cameron, Donald, Faces of Leacock: An Appreciation, Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1967
Cook, Ramsay, “Stephen Leacock and the Age of Plutocracy, 1903–1921,” in Character and Circumstance, edited by John S. Moir, Toronto: Macmillan, 1970
Curry, Ralph L., Stephen Leacock: Humorist and Humanist, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1959
Davies, Robertson, Stephen Leacock, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970
Legate, David M., Stephen Leacock: A Biography, Toronto and Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970
Lynch, Gerald, Stephen Leacock: Hutnour and Humanity, Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988
McArthur, Peter, Stephen Leacock, Norwood, Pennsylvania: Norwood, 1976 (original edition, 1923)
Moritz, Albert, and Theresa Moritz, Leacock: A Biography, Toronto: Stoddart, 1985
Pacey, Desmond, “Leacock as Satirist,” Queen’s Quarterly 58 (1951):208–19
Staines, David, editor, Stephen Leacock: A Reappraisal, Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1986
Taylor, Charles, Radical Tories: The Conservative Tradition in Canada, Toronto: Anansi, 1982
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