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Leacock, Stephen Butlerlocked

(1869–1944)
  • Carl Spadoni

Leacock, Stephen Butler (1869–1944), university teacher and humorist, was born on 30 December 1869 in Swanmore, near Winchester, Hampshire, the third of the eleven children of (Walter) Peter Leacock (1848–1940), asphalt contractor, and Agnes Emma (1844–1934), daughter of the Revd Stephen Butler. Both sides of the family were well-to-do. Leacock's great-grandfather, John Leacock, had made a fortune in the wine trade in Madeira. Peter squandered much of the family's money by general mismanagement and by failed attempts at farming in South Africa and Kansas. In 1876 the Leacocks emigrated to Canada and settled on a farm in Sutton, Ontario, near Lake Simcoe in the township of Georgina. In 1887, after repeated incidents of domestic brutality and drunkenness, Peter abandoned his family forever.

Between 1882 and 1887 Leacock attended Upper Canada College, Toronto, graduating as head boy. He studied modern languages for a year at the University of Toronto, went to Strathroy Collegiate Institute where he acquired his teacher's certificate, taught for half a year at Uxbridge high school, and returned to Upper Canada College in the autumn of 1889 as a junior master. Leacock completed his undergraduate degree in 1891. Disenchanted by the low pay, the lack of recognition, and the general lack of interest among his pupils in the learning of languages, he left schoolteaching and went to the University of Chicago in 1899 as a graduate student in political economy. He obtained his doctoral degree in 1903 with a dissertation entitled 'The doctrine of laissez faire'. In 1900 Leacock was appointed as a lecturer in political science and history at McGill University in Montreal. He remained at McGill until his forced retirement in 1936, having become the William Dow professor of political economy and chair of the department of economics and political science in 1908. At McGill Leacock was renowned as a legend on campus, recognizable by his threadbare academic gown, his ragged racoon coat, and crushed fedora. Many testimonials from his colleagues and students attest to his magnanimity, wit, erudition, and tolerance.

Between 1894 and 1899, while at Upper Canada College, Leacock wrote more than thirty humorous articles for magazines such as Grip, Life, and Truth. In 1910, at his own expense, he arranged for the publication of many of these early pieces under the title Literary Lapses. This book came to the attention of John Lane who published an enlarged edition. Leacock's next book, Nonsense Novels (1911), was a parody of literary genres. His most enduring books of humour, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912) and Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich (1914), established his reputation internationally as the ‘Canadian Mark Twain’. Leacock believed that the essence of humour is human kindliness. To a great extent this point of view is reflected in his sketches. However, he was also quite capable of biting satire when his targets were self-serving politicians, ill-educated plutocrats, and gullible socialites.

Leacock's canon is immense and varied. Until the onset of the depression, he enjoyed large royalties from his humorous books; his income was also supplemented by lecture tours. From 1910 onwards, he usually wrote at least one book a year in addition to numerous articles in magazines such as Collier's, Vanity Fair, and Harper's. In the 1920s he was a weekly syndicated columnist for the Metropolitan Newspaper Service. In the year before his death he wrote or revised every article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica pertaining to Canada.

Known primarily as a humorist, Leacock was also a historian, biographer, political economist, and social critic. Some of his serious works include Elements of Political Science (1906), Baldwin, Lafontaine, Hincks: Responsible Government (1907), three books in the Chronicles of Canada series (1914), The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice (1920), biographies of Twain (1932), Dickens (1933), and Lincoln (1934), Our British Empire (1940), and Canada: the Foundations of its Future (1942). The latter book was published by the Distillers Corporation–Seagrams Ltd as a ‘limited edition’, but in fact, more than 165,000 copies were distributed up to 1967 to anyone who wrote and asked for a copy.

In politics Leacock was a radical tory, who wanted reform without revolution. He was equally sceptical of socialism and untrammelled capitalism. He opposed women's liberation, spoke out against the immigration to Canada of Asians and non-Anglo-Saxon Europeans, and campaigned against prohibition. His overriding political interest lay in maintaining and strengthening the ties of Canada to Great Britain. In 1907–8 he made a tour of the British empire for the Rhodes Trust, lecturing on imperial organization. During the First World War, he gave readings from his humorous work in aid of the Belgian Relief Fund.

On 7 August 1900 in New York, Leacock married Beatrix Hamilton (1879?–1925), an actress and the daughter of Colonel Robert B. Hamilton and granddaughter of Sir Henry Pellatt. They had one son, Stephen Lushington (1915–1974). Leacock received several honorary degrees: LittD from Brown University in 1917, from Dartmouth College in 1920, from the University of Toronto in 1927, and from the University of Michigan in 1936; LLD from Queen's University in 1919 and from McGill in 1936; and doctor of civil laws from Bishop's College in 1934. In 1935 Leacock was awarded the Mark Twain medal by the International Mark Twain Society. In 1937 the Royal Society of Canada honoured him with the Lorne Pierce medal for his contribution to Canadian letters. In 1938 he received the governor-general's prize for My Discovery of the West (1937) in the non-fiction category. Leacock died at Toronto's Western Hospital from cancer of the throat on 28 March 1944. He was cremated in Toronto on 31 March and his ashes were interred in the Leacock family plot at St George's Church in Sibbald Point, Ontario.

In private life Leacock was a charming and companionable man whose superlative gifts as a talker and raconteur made him shine in any company. During the summer at the end of the academic year, he normally resided in his country home at Old Brewery Bay in Orillia, Ontario. He found diversion there from his literary labours in entertaining family and friends, gardening, fishing, and sailing. His country estate was declared to be a national historic site by the Canadian government in 1958, and now serves as a museum dedicated to his memory and humorous writing. Since 1947 the Stephen Leacock medal for humour has been awarded annually for the best book of humour written by a Canadian.

Sources

  • S. Leacock, The boy I left behind me (1946)
  • G. R. Lomer, Stephen Leacock: a check-list and index of his writings (1954)
  • R. L. Curry, Stephen Leacock: humorist and humanist (1959)
  • D. M. Legate, Stephen Leacock: a biography (1970)
  • A. Moritz and T. Moritz, Leacock: a biography (1985)
  • A. Anderson, Remembering Leacock: an oral history (1983)
  • P. McArthur, Stephen Leacock (1923)
  • H. J. Morgan, ed., The Canadian men and women of the time, 2nd edn (1912)
  • McGill University, Montreal, Leacock Building
  • E. A. Collard, ed., The McGill you knew: an anthology of memories, 1920–1960 (1975)
  • E. Kimball, The man in the panama hat: reminiscences of my uncle, Stephen Leacock (1970)
  • C. Spadoni, A bibliography of Stephen Leacock (1998)

Archives

  • McGill University, Montreal, rare books and special collections division
  • McGill University, Montreal, archives
  • NA Canada
  • Orillia Public Library, Ontario, Canada
  • Stephen Leacock Museum, Orillia, Ontario, Canada
  • U. Reading, papers and contracts
  • Harvard U., Houghton Mifflin collection
  • McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Macmillan Company of Canada collection and Dodd Mead collection
  • Ransom HRC, John Lane The Bodley Head collection

Sound

  • BL NSA, ‘Stephen Leacock: a portrait’, recorded talk

Likenesses

  • E. Holgate, oils, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
  • R. Jack, oils, Montreal University Club
  • F. Taylor, oils, McGill University, Montreal, rare books and special collections division
  • photographs, McGill University, Montreal, Leacock Building
  • photographs, NA Canada