Stephen Leacock, humorist, essayist, teacher, political scientist, historian (b at Swanmore, Eng 30 Dec 1869; d at Toronto 28 Mar 1944).
Stephen Leacock, humorist, essayist, teacher, political scientist, historian (b at Swanmore, Eng 30 Dec 1869; d at Toronto 28 Mar 1944). The recipient of numerous honorary degrees, awards and distinctions (the Lorne Pierce Medal, the Governor General's Award, a postage stamp issued in his honour, the Leacock Medal for Humour established in his honour), Leacock was the English-speaking world's best-known humorist 1915-25.
He grew up on a farm near Lake Simcoe, Ont, and was educated at Upper Canada College (where he taught for 9 years), the University of Toronto and the University of Chicago, where he studied economics and political science (PhD 1903). He joined McGill's department of economics and political science in 1903, rose quickly to become department head, and remained there until his retirement in 1936. A prolific magazine supplier of humorous fiction, literary essays and articles on social issues, politics, economics, science and history, Leacock claimed near the end of his life: "I can write up anything now at a hundred yards." Most of his books are collections of these magazine pieces.
His first book, Elements of Political Science (1906), a workmanlike treatment of its subject, was his best-selling book in his lifetime. Although he was not an original or particularly incisive political economist, Leacock's professional opinions on matters such as the need for a gold standard have proved prophetic in their commonsense approach to what he considered a jungle of statistics. His writings on the theoretical and technical aspects of humour are similarly refreshing for their accessibility, as are his views on education.
He was politically active in the Conservative Party in both his home riding of Orillia and nationally. In the 1911 general election, his propagandist writings and public addresses on the issue of reciprocity helped defeat Sir Wilfrid Laurier's Liberal government. Although Leacock was a man of many seeming contradictions, generally his stance was traditionally conservative. A Tory in the precapitalist sense, he valued the community over the individual, organic growth over radical change, the middle way over extreme deviation. Such values form the basis of Leacock's satiric norm, the authorial position from which he attacked rampant individualism, materialism and worship of technology. Although frequently unfaithful to his credo that humour be kindly - he was at times racist, anti-feminist and downright ornery - the unique alchemy of compassion and caustic wit remain the elements which accord his humour a timelessness few Canadian writers have achieved.
His 2 masterpieces are Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912) and Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich (1914). The first humorously anatomizes business, social life, religion, romance and politics in the typical small Canadian town of Mariposa, whose name has attained mythic significance in the Canadian psyche. Perhaps the greatest creation of Sunshine Sketches is the narrator himself, who, in his affection for and bemusement at the community of Mariposa that he so admirably represents, reveals the essential Leacock. Arcadian Adventures dissects life in an American city with sharper satire, less qualified by the author's affection and pathos. Taken together, these 2 books reveal the imaginative range of Leacock's vision - the nostalgic concern for what is being lost with the passing of human communities and his fear for what may issue. However, Leacock believed that the best humour resides at the highest reaches of literature.
Any list of his own best works, both fiction and nonfiction, would have to include the following selection from some 60-odd books: Nonsense Novels (1911), Moonbeams from the Larger Lunacy (1915), Further Foolishness (1916), Essays and Literary Studies (1916), Frenzied Fiction (1918), The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice (1920), My Discovery of England (1922), The Garden of Folly (1924), Winnowed Wisdom (1926), Short Circuits (1928), Lincoln Frees the Slaves (1934), Humor: Its Theory and Technique (1935), Humour and Humanity (1937), My Discovery of the West (1937), Too Much College (1939), My Remarkable Uncle (1942), Our Heritage of Liberty (1942), Happy Stories (1943), How to Write (1943), Last Leaves (1945) and his unfinished autobiography, The Boy I Left Behind Me (1946).
Donald Cameron, Faces of Leacock (1967); Robertson Davies, Stephen Leacock (1970); D. Staines, Stephen Leacock: A Reappraisal (1987).