It was a mistake, I admit, to double down.
Having failed to enjoy the writing of Stephen Leacock, I thought maybe I would read something about Stephen Leacock. Margaret MacMillan, the eminent historian, had written a short biography-cum-appreciation of Canada’s beloved humourist and I guessed that it would help sort me out. It didn't. I confess that I fell asleep reading this on consecutive days, and it’s only one hundred pages long!
MacMillan’s book starts out well enough. She impresses upon the reader the scope of Leacock’s fame during his lifetime. Praised by F. Scott Fitzgerald, courted by Charlie Chaplin, Leacock was a genuine celebrity. Sadly, not a lot of this finds its way into the book (I would read a one-act play where Leacock and Chaplin have lunch to discuss a possible film script…). It is quite possible that there aren't a lot of great Leacock anecdotes to fill a book other than the ones he used himself. Regardless, what we get is a celebration of a famous Canadian that made me think far less of him after reading the book than before.
When I was a graduate student at McGill University several of the departments in the Faculty of Arts were located in the Leacock Building, including Leacock’s own former departments of Economics and Political Science. I spent almost no time in that building, one of the ugliest on the campus (the building is passingly mentioned in Black Rock, by the way). As MacMillan points out, the university was quite different in Leacock’s day, admitting only 2,400 mostly male students (Leacock was opposed to the education of women). She writes that “he liked the leisurely, predictable routine of a professor’s life” and notes the way that he railed against exactly the same infra-university issues that contemporary professors complain about, including lack of support for the humanities, poor quality students, the instrumentalization of education, and the burdens of administration (Leacock apparently felt that having to take attendance in his classes was a major imposition).
Stephen Leacock is a bit of an odd book. It is part of the Extraordinary Canadians series from Penguin Random House. There are eighteen books in this series, and I had once thought I would read a few more of them, although that likelihood seems to have dropped a bit. This one, at least, is neither one thing nor another. A bit of a biography, a bit of literary criticism, a bit of an appreciation, it didn’t do much to win me over to Leacock. Certainly by the time I learned of his strong opposition to the “Asiatic peril” posed by immigration I was looking for a reason to finish the final twenty-five pages. The Extraordinary Canadians series, with its “big names write on big names” idea, may be more attractive in theory than in practice.
And so with that, I am moving on from Dr. Leacock.
One thing I learned about Canada from this book: Leacock railed against those who encouraged the development of Canadian writing “like Canadian cheese and Canadian apples”. I don’t think he would have appreciated this blog any more than I’ve appreciated him…