Bred in our funny bone

Yousuf Karsh, on assignment for Saturday Night magazine, took this photograph of Stephen Leacock, Canada's greatest humorist, in Orillia in 1941. Karsh described Leacock as "jovial and fulfilled, intellectual, but still casual." Photo: Karsh of Ottawa
By on March 1, 2012

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, one of the classics of Canadian literature. When it was published in 1912, Leacock had most Canadians holding their sides in laughter. Leacock became a pioneer of the distinctive Canadian genre of irony and humour, and Sunshine Sketches was published in many editions. When Leacock died in late March 1944, The New York Herald Tribune suggested that “Stephen Leacock, surely, was the First Citizen of Canada.” High words of praise for an Anglican, political economist, raconteur and literary genius.

I encountered Leacock as a young child living in Toronto in the 1950s. My grandmother lived with the Archbishop of Canada at the time (Derwyn Trevor Owen: 1934-1947) and his family. Owen was a good friend of Leacock’s, and when Leacock died, Owen made the journey to St. George’s parish at Sibbald Point, Ont. The first biographer of Leacock, Ralph Curry, had this to say about Owen’s journey for the funeral. “Archbishop Owen, a long-time friend of Stephen’s, had come 50 miles from Toronto through the snow to assist the local rector in the last rites of Canada’s most famous author.” Leacock was, indeed, in his passing, Canada’s most famous author, and my grandmother and mother were more than keen to make sure this was known to their children. I took in Leacock in many ways.

Who was Stephen Leacock before the publication of Sunshine Sketches and what was it about this alluring book that held the attention of Canadians for many a decade? Leacock was born in England in 1869, and his family migrated to Canada in 1876. In typical Leacockian fashion, he declared, “I decided to go with them.”

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The family settled in the Lake Simcoe area, and tried to make a living farming, but misfortune dogged them. Leacock’s mother and extended family supported the Leacock clan as they eked out a living (the father was often absent and not the easiest man to live with) and eventually, Leacock left to attend Upper Canada College in Toronto, where he was head boy in 1887. He went on to graduate from the University of Toronto in 1891 and eventually returned to Upper Canada College, where he was on staff from 1891 to 1899. Leacock was 30 years of age, and the publication of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town was still more than a decade away.

Leacock decided to enter doctoral studies at the University of Chicago in the area of political science and economics, and in 1903 he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Leacock was hired at McGill (where the Leacock Building still stands) and throughout most of the initial decade of the 20th century, he established himself as one of the leading lecturers and published authors in the areas of Canadian history and political thought. He even clashed with the young Churchill in one of his tours of England.

Since Leacock had solidly established his reputation as a fine academic in the early years of the 20th century, most assumed this would be his chosen discipline and life vocation. But there was much more to Leacock than the academic, as the Canadian public was about to learn. Those who take the time to read some of Leacock’s earlier writings can appreciate a humorist in the making. It was just a matter of time before another aspect of Leacock’s multi-gifted personality would emerge.

Leacock, in a timid and shy way, published Literary Lapses in 1910. It was an immediate success. Leacock was heralded as the new Mark Twain and Literary Lapses was reprinted many times to keep up with the demand. Then came Nonsense Novels in 1911-another bumper crop. Leacock had an uncanny, incisive, gentle yet probing way of making Canadians see their foibles and follies through the use of irony. Satire was too much fist to head. Irony awakened in the readers a deeper way of seeing, and Leacock was soon taking North America and Britain with his humour.

In the compact missive, Sunshine Sketches, romance, religion, politics, economics, prohibition and literature are each, in their turn, playfully unveiled in the small town of Mariposa. There can be no doubt that Leacock cares for those he sees through, and this means there is a tenderness in his humour that is often lacking in those who only criticize. The book can be divided into six sections: the hypocrisy of prohibition and the inflated sense of importance of Mariposa citizens; the stock market and the rise and fall of wealth; the Anglican rector, Dean Drone, and the fate of his parish; the melodramatic romance of Peter Pupkin and Zena Pepperleigh; the election of 1911; and tensions between the demands of city life and a deeper longing for the possibilities of another more centred place and space.

There is much in Sunshine Sketches that is dated, but those who take the time to read deeper will soon discover that the underlying themes that permeate this gem of a book are perennial-this, of course, is what makes it a classic.

Margaret MacMillan, in her 2009 book, Stephen Leacock, brought her admirable biography to a close with Leacock’s own words. “There is not yet a Canadian literature,” he wrote in 1941. “Nor is there similarly a Canadian humour, nor any particularly Canadian way of being funny.” How wrong he was, of course. He was in the middle of creating both.

Leacock is, indeed, bred in our bone, whether we realize it or not. And Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town has done much to inform us how his writing is part of our collective Canadian psyche and soul.

Ron Dart teaches at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C., in the department of philosophy and politics. He is the political science adviser to the Stephen Leacock Home/Museum in Orillia, Ont.

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