On the Front Line of Life: Stephen Leacock, Selected Essays

by Alan Bowker
ISBN: 155002521X

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A Review of: On the Front Line of Life: Stephen Leacock, Selected Essays
by George Fetherling

The New York Review of Books publishes a series of books called NYRB Classics whose purpose is to revive certain texts-well not classics exactly, but cult favourites-with new introductions. Seeing what the many different series of this type do and do not include always gives interesting insight into what certain generations and cultures value. For example, one of the new NYRB Classics (and one of the few in hardcover-Raincoast Books, $22.95) is Leacock's Nonsense Novels, a book that's still familiar, possibly even a trifle too familiar, to students of Canadiana but evidently carries no schoolroom echoes for U.S. readers. The introduction is by the novelist Daniel Handler but the advertising carries an encomium about Leacock by the late Robertson Davies, who achieved a large following in the States with Fifth Business and subsequent novels and wrote often, and admiringly, of Leacock.
Over the past few years, I've noticed a number of Leacock titles reappearing in Canada as well. More than 30 years ago, Alan Bowker, a former Canadian diplomat, assembled Social Criticism, quite an important collection of Leacock's writings on broadly political concerns, showing him in the Red Tory tradition. Bowker now resurfaces as the editor of On the Front Line of Life: Stephen Leacock-Memoirs and Reflections, 1935-1944 (Dundurn Press, $29.99 paper). The book is a hodgepodge from Leacock's last decade, showing both the serious Leacock of the social criticism and the gentle avuncular figure of the popular imagination. The fact that such a book exists is as interesting as what it actually contains. When compared to Nonsense Novels, for example, it shows at once that whereas some Americans may still respond to Leacock's wit, none likely has the context to see him as a public intellectual within the old imperial tradition.
A representative sample of Leacock's work in the latter realm is the newly reprinted 1934 work, Charles Dickens: His Life and Work (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, $23.95 paper). It's easy to see why Leacock was drawn to Dickens's social concerns just as it's easy to see why Davies was attracted by Leacock's light satire, his theatricality and the relish he took in his role as a man of letters. Charles Dickens is also interesting as an example of the short biography, a very difficult form that shows some signs of revival, a century after its greatest vogue.

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