Stephen Leacock

by Margaret MacMillan
Penguin Extraordinary Canadians series,
$26.00. 175 pages

leacock_cover(Canscene) — Arriving in Canada in December 1947 with little knowledge of this country, I felt that while individual Canadians displayed a sense of humour, there was little
in print or on radio to make them laugh. Wayne and Shuster had a weekly radio show on CBC, Robertson Davies had yet to display his genius and Mordecai Richler was still in high school in Montreal

Although a voracious reader since the age of five, I didn’t know Stephen Leacock, a writer, academic and public intellectual whose humorous works had taken their place among the world’s classics. I wonder now, how I’d come to reach twenty-nine without knowing this man’s works as many non-Canadians already had.

Margaret MacMillan’s biography of Leacock would have set me right quickly, . It would have driven me to Leacock’s humorous writings, which have placed him on a level with America’s Mark Twain. MacMillan cites the many international admirers of Leacock among whom were comedians Groucho Marx and Jack Benny.

MacMillan, is of course the gifted Canadian author of Paris: 1919, the monumental work on the treaty of Versailles that attempted to give closure to the world war that had ended the previous year. She shows us the rumpled, eccentric academic who headed McGill University’s faculties of economics and political science as well as the humorist. In the years to come I was to meet one or two McGill graduates whose indelible memories of Leacock in class were lifelong treasures.

She reveals his idea of Canadianism as rejoicing in being a component of the British Empire, a lifetime voting Progressive Conservative with some atypical views: compassion for the poor and underprivileged and a steady disdain for plutocrats expressed in both his comic and serious writings.

MacMillan writes: “As a man, Leacock was clever, opinionated, irascible,kind, awkward, charming. He grew to be set in his ways but his imagination knew no bounds. He loved fishing, drinking and thinking, often at the same time. He was reserved with most people but deeply attached to hose who were closest to him. He had much success and a considerable amount o tragedy in his life. His comic writing made thousands happy. He himself was a pessimist and a cynic about many things. We remember him, or ought to, for his comic masterpieces, but he was also a witness to, and participant in the growth of Canada as a nation.’

Once more in this series, we have proof that Canadians can be anything but dull and Margaret MacMillan places Stephen Leacock at the very heart of a distinguished group.

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