BORN: Swanmore, England • 30 December 1869
DIED: Toronto, Ontario • 28 March 1944
My parents migrated to Canada in 1876,”Stephen Leacock wrote, “and I decided” —as any six-year-old would—“to go with them.” The family was Hampshire gentry, once well off from the Madeira wine trade but now faced with declining fortunes.Canada seemed a natural place to restore them, even a patch of worthless farm ground south of Ontario’s Lake Simcoe.
“My father was just able by a great diligence to pay the hired men and, in years of plenty, to raise enough grain to have seed for the next year’s crop.”There was never enough money, but there were pretensions to status, and young Leacock was sent to Toronto’s Upper Canada College.
His brothers too received a good education, and there was not a trace of wistfulness in Leacock’s later comment that they had been “driven off the land, and have become professors, busi¬ ness men, and engineers, instead of being able to grow up as farm labourers.”
Leacock attended the University of Toronto, taught unhappily at his old school for eight years, then went to Chicago to study with Thorstein Veblen and earn his PhD. Then it was marriage, McGill University’s Department of Political Economy, and a successful, if ill-paid (and notori¬ ously ill-dressed) career as an academic, with textbooks, monographs, and academic papers to his credit.
“The emolu¬ ment,” he wrote, “is so high as to place me distinctly above the policemen…and other salaried officials of the neighbour¬ hood, while I am able to mix with the poorer of the business men of the city on terms of something like equality.” This was not enough for Leacock, however, who in truth was not much of a political scientist or economist.
His metier was the comic sketch that applied exaggeration and incongruous juxtaposition to commonplace situations. He began publishing newspaper pieces and eventually collected them himself in a privately published volume in 1907. A visiting British publisher read the book, published him in London, and the rest is history.
From 1910 to 1925 or so, Leacock had a deserved reputa¬ tion as the funniest writer in English, the man who brought Canada to the world. His fifty-seven books sold in the hundreds of thousands, he undertook successful speaking tours that literally had audiences laughing themselves silly, and he earned huge sums—which he promptly threw away on stock speculation.
He was funny in the distinctively droll Canadian way, and he remains so today. Consider Leacock’s comment in Sunshine Sketches ofa Little Town on the 1911 election in his mythical Mariposa, the Ontario town of Orillia, where he had a summer place on Lake Couchiching.
The Liberal Bagshaw tells his gullible electors that “I am an old man now, gentlemen, and the time must come when I must not only leave politics but must take my way towards that goal from which no traveller returns.” A hush fell over the crowd. “It was understood to imply that he thought of going to the United States.”
Mind you, elections were serious business in Mariposa, with the great debate on reciprocity focused on “the price of marsh hay in Missinaba County” and the fact that the “average price of an egg in New York was decimal ought one more than the price of an egg in Mariposa.” The people of Orillia were not amused at being caricatured, and Leacock suffered dark looks from the locals for years.
His wonderful book aside, Leacock was a participant in the election of 1911, supporting the Conservative Party’s efforts to defeat free trade with the United States by writing propaganda—and being paid well for his efforts. His profes¬ sorial colleagues were not impressed, one telling his class that all economists were free traders.
But, sir, a student cried,Dr Leacock is a protectionist. “I repeat,” the reply came, etched in acid, “all economists are free-traders.”Fundamentally imperialist in outlook, Leacock worried over the Americanization of Canada and over the influx of immigrants filling up the West and crowding the city slums.
Sometimes he was viciously cruel in his comments, referring once to the “hungriness of the Hungarians and the dirtiness of the Doukhobours,” and his fear that Canada would never be able to make citizens of these people.
Paradoxically for someone with such an Anglo and Tory outlook, he wrote a book on social problems at the end of the Great War which suggested social security measures and guaranteed work as the only way to counter the dehumanizing impact of modern corporate society on Canadian men and women. Leacock as “Red Tory”?
A bundle of contradictions, Leacock was a superb humorist with a strong melancholic streak. His academic work and his preaching on empire and immigration, however, are all but immaterial. Leacock endures because he was the pre-eminent Canadian humorist of all time and, as such, he is immortal.