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The Letters of Stephen Leacock

by David Staines, editor
564 pages,
ISBN: 0195408691


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George Fetherling
Stephen Leacock's most successful book by far was his first one, a political science text published in 1906. Of course, everyone knows him for his endless collections of comic stories and pieces, beginning with Literary Lapses, published in 1910. For three decades thereafter he was famous as a humorist. Since his death, it has taken a bit longer for people to take him seriously. Leacock: A Biography by Albert and Theresa Moritz, first published in 1985, is probably the most thoughtful life yet written of a Canadian literary figure, and Carl Spadoni's A Bibliography of Stephen Leacock is an heroic example of that type of scholarship. The Letters of Stephen Leacock, beautifully edited and annotated by David Staines, is another giant step.
This is a massively thick book of letters by someone who disliked writing letters and therefore penned them hastily. The result is a welcome counterpoise to Leacock's public image as the gentle, gravy-stained paterfamilias. Who we see instead is the phenomenally busy public man who dashes off crudely punctuated business and social notes that, taken together, are far more revealing than the now-famous Karsh photographs.
Leacock was brought to Canada from England when he was a child, and rose by his own efforts, studying economics in Canada and also at the University of Chicago under Thorstein Veblen. He married into the family of Sir Henry Pellatt, the hydroelectric millionaire whose monstrous Toronto home, Casa Loma, is now a major tourist attraction. He was a serious and hard-working academic who was, at one point, lecturing 12 times per week at McGill, but he yearned to make a name beyond academia. Early on he proposed writing a book on poverty and "its persistence in spite of industrial advantage and labor saving machinery. I want to write it for the public, not for the professoriate: I have no use for cryptographic economics [ . . . ] The professors read one anothers [sic] books and the public pays no attention."
Several years before his self-published first book of humour was picked up by a visiting London publisher at a Montreal railway stall and made a success throughout the English-speaking world, Leacock was selected to make a year-long lecture tour of the British Empire to propound his ideas on trade. It has always seemed to me that Leacock¨humanist, Canadian nationalist, and lifelong Conservative advocating new imperial trade relationships¨was largely indistinguishable from his almost exact contemporary J.W. Dafoe of the Winnipeg Free Press, who was a humanist, Canadian nationalist, lifelong Liberal of the Manchester School and advocate of new imperial trade relationships. The comparison reminds us of the tenor of the times certainly, but also of how thin were many of the distinctions between the two pro-business parties.
By the time of the round-the-world tour of 1907, Leacock was already important enough to meet significant figures in all disciplines. Sending his beloved mother Agnes some wildflowers from England, he writes: "You will value them doubly when I tell you that they were picked for you by Rudyard Kipling at his home." He also thanks her for supplying him with socks and handkerchiefs for the road and, coincidentally, announces the birth of what became his famous summer home at Orillia, Ontario: "I shall try to have enough money for the land next year and live on it in tents and shacks for next summer & build a large house the year after."
Leacock the literary businessman is the figure seen most clearly in the Letters. He was after all an economist who could write a textbook on statistics. It's not surprising that right from the start he micromanaged the publication of his newspaper and magazine pieces, and the books made from them, in Canada, Britain, and the US. Nothing got past him if he could put a dollar sign in front of it, and it's fascinating to watch him manipulate literary agents and newspaper syndicates in an era when to publicise a new book was to "boom" it and the invaluable word blurb still came with quotation marks. Yet there is every indication that he was scrupulously honest in his dealings. He was a fair man in this and other respects. Here's an example. While people's views on academic freedom have changed a great deal since 1935, when Leacock wrote on the subject in a letter to the jeweller William Birks, his striving for common sense still stands out. He writes:
"No professor has the right to press the propaganda of socialism on a college class: nor has he the right to press the propaganda of Christianity or of aviation or nudism or tariff protection. If he does so, he breaks his contract. But apart from that a professor ought to be as free as you are. There are and have been socialists in many of His Majesty's Cabinets in the British Empire, including the government at Westminster itself. There is no reason why a professor should not be a socialist just as he might be a ventriloquist or a prohibitionist. But he must not start ventriloquism in his class-room."

Despite their slapdash quality, other letters show Leacock's maturing style. A simple thank-you would have sufficed on being offered an honorary degree. Instead he writes: "If I were a natural liar & humbug I would answer your letter in a cool & restrained tone as if the idea of an LL.D. from Princeton were as natural to me as it would Mr Roosevelt or the Prince of Wales or any of the truly great. But I will be very frank: the mere suggestion of it has thrown me into a dangerous condition of excitability . . . " Similarly, he simply could have apologised to the English travel writer E.V. Lucas for being behind in answering his mail. Instead he writes: "You are a person who somehow finds time to do five more things [ . . . ] than are given to an ordinary man to perform. Possibly then you could find time to write two words of forgiveness for my (apparent) rudeness. If you did it might lead to a correspondence terminated only by death & even after that printed and sold like that of Goethe to Carlyle."
At least once, a letter threatens to become one of his full-blown comic scenes. He is describing a 1916 dinner held in the Canadian Pacific Railway's Montreal headquarters.
"It was the first time the Railway dining room had ever been so used [and the hosts] wanted to show that when it came to banquet the C.P.R. could break all records. So [being] accustomed to people catching trains, their one idea of efficiency was high speed. Time was every thing. Oysters & soup flew through the air. Dish succeeded dish like lightning & the poor little banquet, never a very costly one or elaborate even as planned, was over in 35 minutes [which] is felt by the Railway to be a triumph of management. They think, with a little more practice, that they'll be able to run a banquet through in about 25 minutes."

Staines notes that Leacock "rarely gave intimations of his deep feelings, and his letters contain little that reflects the great loss that afflicted him until the day he died": his wife's death from breast cancer in 1925 when she was forty-six, by which time he was already ceasing to be funny. In the Depression, however, he does send a starkly candid letter to his Toronto publisher, outlining his financial life in close detail as he bargains for a better deal. And a few years later he writes an amazing letter to his son Stephen Jr. warning him against fundamentalists and a too-literal interpretation of the Bible.
He lived eight years after being forcibly retired from McGill in 1936, and was cared for by his niece who collaborated with Staines on this project until her own death in 1996. ˛

George Fetherling's most recent book is Tales of Two Cities: A Novella Plus Stories.

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