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Stephen Leacock

Critique • Works

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Biographical details ▽ Biographical details △

1869, Swanmore, Hampshire, England,

1944, Toronto, Canada

Stories, satire, biography, memoirs, economics, politicial science

Writing languages

Humorist more famous than Canada

Stephen Leacock once complained of critics who thought what he did was very simple, quoting a review: "What is there is, after all, in Professor Leacock's humour but a rather ingenious mixture of hyperbole and myosis?" Leacock commented:

The man was right. How he stumbled on this trade secret I do not know. But I am willing to admit, since the truth is out, that it has been my custom in preparing an article of a humorous nature to go down to the cellar and mix up half a gallon of myosis with a pint of hyperbole. If I want to give the article a decidedly literary character, I find it well to put in about half a pint of paresis.

"Humour as I See It"

Thus he demonstrated in typical fashion that his humour is at least partly based on hyperbole and myosis (which I take to mean the opposite of hyperbole)—and at the same time that it is so much more. In his classic satirical writing, overstatement and understatement do play their roles. But it's often hard to put your finger on what exactly makes it work.

I mean, just try to write funny with these devices alone: put together a few exaggerations of your own with a dry understatement or two. Are they funny? Are they very funny? Are they Stephen-Leacock funny? Now read his "My Financial Career" right here. Are they this funny?

Didn't think so.

Leacock wrote so many stories and articles in so many styles that it's foolish to try to sum up his techniques in a few phrases. In "My Financial Career", for example, the humour arises from the reader being able to identify with the narrator from the get-go. We wouldn't choke up nearly so much if we were told about some third-person klutz who fumbled through opening a bank account.

In his classic Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town and several other books, we see through the narrator who seems to be taken in by the good intentions and self-important postures of the local residents. We experience a kind of glee at being able to figure things out before he does, if he ever does—and then being surprised by a twist we didn't see coming. Being tugged simultaneously towards derision and sympathy makes us positively giddy. Forget hyperbole and understatement, this is classic storytelling of character and plot entertainingly presented.

Inspiring the Goons and Monty Python

And then there are the books of "nonsense"—Literary Lapses, Nonsense Novels, Behind the Beyond—in which full-blown parody and tremendously silly wit take aim at everything from medieval romances to modern education. If his fond narratives like Sunshine Sketches gave Leacock the reputation of being the Canadian Mark Twain, these blasts put him in the company of such twentieth-century American humorists as S.J. Perelman, Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker (though he was never as cruel in his attack as they could be). Take the beginning of his story "Gertrude the Governess or Simple Seventeen":

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It was a wild and stormy night on the West Coast of Scotland. This, however, is immaterial to the present story, as the scene is not laid in the West of Scotland. For the matter of that the weather was just as bad on the East coast of Ireland.

But the scene of this narrative is laid in the South of England and takes place in and around Knotacentinum Towers (pronounced as if written Nosham Taws), the seat of Lord Knotacent (pronounced as if written Nosh).

But it is not necessary to pronounce either of these names in reading them.

The man could have written for the Marx Brothers. He was in fact an inspiration to Britain's Goons, according to Spike Milligan, and through them to Monty Python, according to John Cleese.

"Gertrude" is the story, by the way, in which he penned the immortal sentence "he flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions".

If you note a distinctly British cast to his wit, it may be because Leacock was born in England, before moving as a child with his family to Canada, and he remained interested in British affairs his whole life. As a conservative economist he was known for such serious sounding books as The Prosperity of the British Empire (1930).

His early life was not particularly happy. The family farm near Egypt, Ontario, was a failure and his alcoholic, violent father abandoned the mother and eleven children. After attending Upper Canada College in Toronto, Stephen entered the University of Toronto but had to quit to help support his family. After ten years in a teaching job he hated, he was eventually able to return to university and go on to take graduate studies at the University of Chicago.

His first humorous article was published in Toronto's Grip magazine in 1894 and led to publication in many more Canadian and American periodicals.

In 1901 he gained a position as assistant economics professor at McGill University in Montreal, where he eventually became department head. He also started lecturing publicly on the British Empire. His first book, Elements of Political Science was published in 1906 and became a standard textbook—and the best-selling book in his writing career. In 1907 he went on a world speaking tour to promote the unity of the British Empire.

In 1908 Leacock bought a waterfront farm near Orillia on the southwest side of Lake Couchiching (later to be immortalized as the town of Mariposa and Lake Wissanotti in Sunshine Sketches) where he spent his summers with his wife. She was to die young of breast cancer however. Their only child, Stephen, Jr., suffered from a lack of growth hormone and was a constant concern for Leacock for the rest of his life.

His first humorous book, Literary Lapses (1910), collecting his magazine stories and articles, was self-published with the financial help of a brother. It was such a success that it was quickly followed by more funny stuff: Nonsense Novels (1911), Sunshine Sketches of a Small Town (1912), Arcadian Adventures With the Idle Rich (1914), Moonbeams From the Larger Lunacy (1915), Winsome Winnie (1920), My Discovery of England (1922) and many more.

At his zaniest

In all Leacock published over forty books, including humour, economics, politics and biographies of his two favourite authors, Mark Twain and Charles Dickens.

Between 1911 and 1925 he was so well-known as the worlds' greatest humorist that it was said more people had heard of Stephen Leacock than had heard of Canada.

His last book was the unfinished autobiography The Boy I Left Behind Me (1946), published posthumously.

Most of Leacock's original works are out of print now, although the best pieces can be found in diverse collections. A very good one you might find is The Leacock Roundabout (1966), comprising both his warmest and zaniest material.

I understand his reputation has been declining in recent decades, particularly in literary and academic circles, with the exception of continued study of Sunshine Sketches and, to a lesser degree, Arcadian Adventures. A certain falling off in popular readership is to be expected as the objects of his gentle satire recede into the past. And some of it is admittedly too slight to bear the weight of posterity. But I'd hate to lose the bulk of his work.

I expect we'll see appreciative revivals of Stephen Leacock's best for some years to come.

— Eric


Critique • Works