The Erudite Jester of McGill

Stephen Leacock split his tremendous talents between the unlikely twins of economics and light humor and won an international reputation in both. Nearly a decade after his death his figures may be forgotten but his fun is as fresh as ever

TRENT FRAYNE January 1 1953

The Erudite Jester of McGill

Stephen Leacock split his tremendous talents between the unlikely twins of economics and light humor and won an international reputation in both. Nearly a decade after his death his figures may be forgotten but his fun is as fresh as ever

TRENT FRAYNE January 1 1953

THE crystal chandeliers glittered and the balconies were filled in the New York Waldorf-Astoria as Stephen Leacock, Canada’s celebrated humorist, sat at the head table and heard himself introduced. As always, his white hair and mustache were shaggy and he looked rumpled in his dinner jacket, with the knot in his black tie its usual half-hearted loop. Beside him sat the president of one of the world’s largest banks and filling the room before him were other members of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Banking. They had come to hear Stephen Leacock, head of the department of economics and political science at McGill University.

It was an imposing introduction. It noted that several of his sixty-one works had been published in seven languages and it brought in all the titles and honors that belonged beside his name. He was a doctor seven times over: of philosophy from Chicago; of laws from Queen’s and McGill; of letters from Dartmouth, Brown and Toronto; and of civil law from Bishop’s, of Lennoxville, Que.

Amid well-mannered applause Leacock rose slowly to his feet. He looked carefully around this richly distinguished gathering as the room grew solemn. “The man forgot,” he remarked at length, “that I am also past president of the Anti-Mosquito Association of East Simcoe.”

Leacock seldom forgot his humor even when he dealt with the most profound subjects before the most profound audiences and he seldom failed to include himself among its helpless targets. By using his humor to convey his wisdom he buiIt a greater reading audience than any other economist of his time and as a humorist, he brought so much good feeling to his laughter that he made human frailties seem somehow less depressing and life’s ironies somehow less bitter. He wrote learnedly on economics and lightly on life, and his humor, not surprisingly, far outsold his profundity. Robert Benchley, the renowned American humorist, once remarked that he “had written every word that Leacock ever wrote.”

Leacock’s collections of happy essays were published in England, the United States and Canada and were translated into French, German, the Gujarati language of India, Hungarian, Japanese and Swedish. There is no record of the number of copies sold but it was sufficient to provide him with an income of about sixty thousand dollars a year in royalties in the early Twenties, his best years. When he died on March 28, 1944, in Toronto General Hospital twelve days after an operation for cancer of the throat, he was worth about one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, although as head of the economics department at McGill, where he lectured three days a week for thirty six years, his salary had never exceeded six thousand dollars. He was in his seventy-fifth year when he died.

While he made by far the greatest part of his reputation from his humor books he had some of the elements of the comedian who yearned to play Hamlet. Both his first and his last written works were on serious subjects. Elements of Political Science came out in 1906 and his final book,

While There Is Time, appeared posthumously in 1945 and warned against an impending conflict between private enterprise and state control.

Leacock was a spellbinding public speaker and a great storyteller and his humorous writings had the conversational style of a man who knows how to get the most out of an anecdote. He had twinkling wide-set grey eyes, a great mop of shaggy hair that grew low on his wide forehead and his clothes had the appearance of having been slept in for a week. He wore a size seventeen shirt collar where a fifteen-and-a-half would have been ample, his suits were baggy and roomy and his tie was generally askew. There was a suspicion at McGill that, the gown he wore to classes had come with the fixtures. His brother George once remarked that he was sure Stephen would have liked to get a haircut “but he never thought of it.”

Because of his massive head Leacock looked bigger than his five-feet-eleven and one hundred and sixty-five pounds, and his appearance on lecture tours was strong and imposing. When he spoke his personality became almost a tangible thing that caught up his audience. He could never warm to a radio microphone and on the rare occasions on which he did speak into one he paved the way by organizing a house party, mixing several rounds of drinks and then leading the guests into the radio studio where he could warm to them across an ignored microphone. In his latter years he acquired a “student stoop” and carried a heavy walking stick. On his seventieth birthday he was asked if he ever had given thought to death. "I have a suspicion it is inevitable,” he smiled, “but give me my stick, I’ll face it.”

Leacock never wrote with anything but a pen, in a sweeping clearly legible hand. He did most of his work in the early morning, rising between five and six, brewing himself a pot of tea and sitting down at his desk for two or three hours before breakfast. He found writing on economics relatively easy but the humor came hard.

“There is no trouble in writing a scientific treatise on the folklore of Central China or a statistical enquiry into the declining population of Prince Edward Island,” he once noted. “But to write something out of one’s own mind, worth reading for its own sake, is an arduous contrivance only to be achieved in fortunate moments, few and far between.” He vastly preferred to write creatively, whatever anguish it involved, and once remarked that he’d rather have written Alice in Wonderland than the whole Encyclopedia Britannica.

The public felt much the same way about it. Irvin S. Cobb once observed that he couldn’t select a favorite Leacock story “because all Leacock’s stories are favorites of mine.” Most people’s favorite, however, was his famous Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town which McClelland and Stewart, his Canadian publishers, brought out in 1912 to immortalize in a whimsical fashion the daily life of a small Ontario town. Today, forty years later, adaptations of those sketches are appearing on Canadian television and radio adaptations have often been presented.

The little town in Sunshine Sketches which Leacock called Mariposa was Orillia, on Lake Couchiching about eighty miles north of Toronto, where Leacock spent his summers, and the book included such unforgettable characters as the Rev. Mr. Drone, the Rural Dean of the Church of England Church; Mr. Golgotha Gingham, the undertaker of Mariposa whose lips never passed such words as “funeral” or “hearse” but brought out the majesty and sublimity of death with such terms as “interments” and “coaches”; Josh Smith, who weighed two hundred and eighty pounds and was the proprietor of Smith’s Hotel, whose bar would have been closed down by the liquor commissioners had not Josh, in a moment of inspiration, renovated it into “a real French Caff with a high-toned French Chief who prepared and served la carte du jour" and Jeff Thorpe, the barber who made a hatful of money in the mining boom (“Everybody knew Jeff and liked him but the odd thing was that till he made money nobody took any stock in his ideas at all. It was only after he made the clean-up that they came to see what a splendid fellow he was. Levelheaded, I think, was the term”).

There has long been argument whether these characters were caricatures of living persons. Some people living in Orillia forty years ago felt they were and resented it. Leacock, himself, always denied it. There is no question, however, that a good proportion of Leacock’s humor was autobiographical. His Boarding House Geometry, in which he described a landlady as “a parallelogram—that is, an oblong figure which cannot be described but which is equal to anything,” sprang from his own experience. So did My Financial Career, in which he related how he was so overwhelmed by the magnificence of the bank that he deposited all the money he owned, fifty-six dollars, and then, utterly confused, drew it all out again. B. K. Sandwell, former editor of Saturday Night and a lifelong friend of Leacock’s, once related that he had heard Stephen tell at the dinner table scores of the anecdotes he later turned into stories.

Born at Swanmoor, Hants, England, in 1869, Leacock arrived in Canada with his parents when he was six. His father came here largely because his father had a good deal of money and thought his sons ought to travel. Leacock remarked one time that his great-grandfather, John, retired from his vineyards in Madeira with so much money that nobody in the family worked again for three generations. “The fourth generation, dead broke, started over.” he chuckled.

Leacock’s father settled on a farm near Lake Simcoe, where “by great diligence he was just able to pay the hired hands and raise enough grain to seed the next year’s crop.” However, although the Leacocks had eleven children—six boys and five girls—they were able to send Stephen to Upper Canada College, a private school in Toronto, and the University of Toronto. He studied languages, graduated in 1891 and became a schoolteacher, largely because “it was the only trade I could find that needed neither intellect nor experience.” The school was Upper Canada, where he served for eight years.

Then he went to the University of Chicago to study economics and political science and, in 1901, joined the economics staff at McGill. He got his doctor of philosophy degree from Chicago in 1903. “The meaning of this degree,” he wrote in a short autobiography in 1912, “is that the recipient of instruction is examined for the last time in his life, and is pronounced completely full. After this, no new ideas can be imparted to him.”

In 1900 he had married Beatrix Hamilton, of Toronto, and he was so pleased upon becoming a doctor that he took her to Europe to celebrate. On the way across he invented perhaps his most famous single story; so many eminent men have borrowed it and retold it at their own expense that it has become almost as familiar as anything in Joe Miller. He was listed on the passenger list as Dr. Stephen Leacock. The ship had no sooner set sail, Leacock used to say, than there came a rap on his door.

“Dr. Leacock?” a steward asked.

“Yes,” remarked Leacock, unable to suppress a smile, “yes, I’m Dr. Leacock.”

“You’re wanted immediately in the stewardess’ quarters,” the man said urgently. “The head stewardess has fallen and dislocated her hip.”

“I rushed off,” Leacock said, “but, unfortunately, a doctor of divinity beat me to her.”

He became head of the department of economics at McGill in 1908 and observed that “as this position is one of the prizes of my profession, I am able to regard myself as singularly fortunate. The emolument is so high as to place me with the policemen, postmen, streetcar conductors and other salaried officials of the neighborhood.” It was one of the rare remarks in which he permitted his levity to touch the fringes of bitterness.

For all the gentle and not-so-gentle haymakers he threw at the teaching profession, Leacock was enthralled by it. “I enjoy more leisure in the four corners of a single year,” he remarked seriously once, “than a businessman knows in his whole life. I thus have what the businessman can never enjoy, an ability to think and, what is still better, to stop thinking altogether for months at a time.”

By 1909 he had published three books on economics and the Cecil Rhodes Trust selected him to visit England, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand to lecture on imperial organization. That he took this honor in stride is reflected in an observation he made on his return. “When I tell you the lectures were followed almost immediately by the Union of South Africa, the Banana Riots in Trinidad and the Turco-Italian war, I think you can form some idea of their importance.”

In spare moments , he had written short humorous pieces and he determined to try to get them published in one volume. His close friend, B. K. Sandwell, then a reporter on the Montreal Herald, endeavored to dissuade him, pointing out that for the few dollars he was likely to get he could ruin his reputation as a political economist. Leacock was adamant and, with his wife and Mrs. Sandwell, rummaged through his files for enough pieces to make a book. A thousand copies of Literary Lapses were produced at the author’s risk and sold for seventy-five cents. It was 1910, the year Mark Twain died.

John Lane, an English publisher, read Literary Lapses and decided to print it in England and introduce the author as “the Mark Twain of the British Empire.” The book sold slowly at first, then suddenly caught on. Dodd, Mead and Company, of New York, published it and both houses took on Leacock’s second volume of humor, called Nonsense Novels. Then came Sunshine Sketches, written originally as pieces for the Montreal Star and other Canadian papers.

Punch, the English periodical, couldn’t get over the fact that these outpourings were the work of a professor and once worked the enigma into a verse:

The life that is flagrantly double,

Conflicting in conduct and aim.

Is seldom untainted by trouble

And commonly closes in shame.

But no such anxieties pester

Your dual existence, which links

The functions of don and of jester,

High thought and high jinks.

Leacock’s humor didn’t forsake him in the classroom where by now he was the most famous and the most popular of McGill’s professors. One father used to go over his son’s schoolwork and one day wrote Leacock that “the boy has been with you six months and yet his knowledge of economics is very limited. What’s the cause?”

Leacock studied the note a moment and then he jotted: “It must be heredity.”

His notion of how to teach was to refrain from wrath and apply humor. One of his students had an annoying habit of stuffing scraps of paper into his mouth, making spitballs out of them and firing them around the classroom. Leacock brought a whole sheaf of new foolscap paper to the classroom and in loud clear tones informed the student he wasn’t required to do any work that day. His sole assignment was to take a chair in the corner and eat the paper.

“You have had only scraps before,” he remarked. “Now you can really have a meal.”

The student demurred but the pressure of public opinion from the rest of the howling classroom was too great. He actually did eat the paper.

Leacock always felt that the greatest end of a college education was to teach students to think for themselves and, because he had so human an approach, students generally found themselves getting more out of his lectures than those of more serious instructors. His notes of levity always seemed to command rapt attention for the whole lecture. There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that a student asked him about the terms “recession,” “depression” and “panic.” Leacock reportedly replied: “It’s all a matter of degree. A recession is a period in which you tighten your belt. In a depression you have no belt to tighten and when you have no pants left to hold up it’s a panic.”

As Leacock’s books continued to come out at a rate of about one a year his work came more and more into demand. Newspapers and magazines sought his comment on almost everything and he kept the copyright of all he wrote. At the end of a year he collected the best of the work and incorporated it into another book. He began going on lecture tours of eastern Canada and the United States, and he’d leave McGill four or five times a month. He increased his fees until he was making five hundred dollars for some lectures. He rarely used a script or referred to notes, relying on his remarkable memory.

Dan McArthur, chief news editor of the CBC—whose father, Peter, published some of Leacock’s earliest humor pieces in a New York magazine called Truth —recalled Leacock’s memory not long ago. When he met Leacock in 1942 the humorist went through Literary Lapses with him and told him not only what selections had been published by McArthur senior but the date of the issue in which they had appeared more than thirty years earlier.

By 1917 Leacock’s work was widely admired. He received a letter that year from Theodore Roosevelt:

I am sending you the Metropolitan (magazine) with an article by me dealing with Canada's great record in this war.

All my family, including myself, owe you much for both amusement and instruction. When you are next in New York, do let us know. If you have leisure, I'll get you to come out here for lunch or dinner.

Leacock thoroughly enjoyed companionship and loved to ponder its pleasures and its penalties. During one trip to England in 1920 he picked up a story that remained one of his favorites all his life. It concerned two men sitting opposite in a compartment on an English train. One was carrying a mysterious parcel and was constantly annoyed by the loquacious fellow opposite who talked endlessly about nothing. Inevitably the latter asked what was in the parcel.

“It’s a mongoose,” the man replied. “I’m taking it to a friend who has delirium tremens. He fancies he sees snakes.”

“But surely,” expostulated the other, “surely you’re not taking a live mongoose to kill imaginary snakes!”

“Great heavens, no, man,” was the silencer. “What I have in this box is an imaginary mongoose.”

Leacock himself hated to refuse a drink and he could carry liquor well. “Whatever you have is good enough,” he’d say, “although I prefer Scotch and soda.” He loved entertaining and almost always made a visitor an excuse for a party. He nearly went on an expedition to the South Pole with Vilhjalmur Stefansson but when he found he could not take along his own supply of whisky he called the whole thing off.

A son, Stevie, was born in 1915 and Leacock’s devotion to him was intensified when Mrs. Leacock died of cancer in 1925 in England, where he had taken her to try an operation he had heard might help. The son lives at Orillia, the town in which Leacock spent so many summers. The professor built a huge house there on Old Brewery Bay on the south shore of Lake Couchiching and he was entranced by the name.

“You can judge your friends by that name,” he once chuckled. “If they don’t like the sound of Old Brewery Bay they aren’t your friends. On the other hand, I’ve known people to grow thirsty as far off as Nebraska just thinking about it.”

The house had fourteen rooms and five bathrooms and was surrounded by forty-eight acres of beautiful woodland. Leacock would fill the house with guests, ranging from American humorists Chic Sale and Robert Benchley to older friends from Orillia and McGill. He refused to learn to drive a car or a motorboat on the grounds that if he didn’t learn he wouldn’t have to drive people home. He’d ride with anyone, as long as they had a driver’s license, but he had one hard rule. “Get her up to thirty-five,” he’d suggest as he settled back, “and keep her there.”

During the McGill term he lived at 165 Côte des Neiges Road in a large comfortable house at the foot of Mount Royal. His closest friend in Montreal was René du Roure, then head of the French department at McGill. They were a brilliant pair who argued interminably on wars, history, literature and education. Mostly they’d conduct their discussions at the University Club over a drink or a game of billiards.

“I have worked at billiards for a half-century,” Leacock said of his favorite game one time, “I’ll need another.” He and Du Roure played for a dollar a game and the same dollar changed hands constantly. Often they’d sit in the lounge playing chess without a board, simply calling their moves.

Leacock went to McGill at eleven in the morning, after four or five hours of work at home, and his sure heavy step and the loud thump of his cane on the marble floor of the Arts Building made his entrance unmistakable. Students all spoke to him and he always made a gallant pretense of knowing them. He delighted in calling out as he walked to his office on the second floor, “Good morning, Gentleman,” chuckling good humoredly as half the students in the wide hall turned in response. Actually, he was greeting his good friend Bill Gentleman, head janitor in the Arts Building.

Leacock’s office, Room 240, was high-ceilinged, its buff walls bare except for two high bookcases. Its wide single window overlooked the broad beautifully treed expanse of McGill’s lower campus, with its winding walk leading to Sherbrooke Street.

He had the highest regard for his most brilliant scholars; and, if a student’s scholarship happened to be blended with common sense, Leacock developed a deep fondness for him. One such was John Culliton, who took his master’s degree at McGill under Leacock after graduating from the University of Saskatchewan. Culliton was somewhat taken by the night life of Montreal when first he entered McGill. Leacock soon recognized his ability but was distracted when Culliton went to sleep during classes.

“He started to check up on me after a while,” Culliton recalled recently, “but it took him quite a time to get the telephone number of the place at which I boarded. One day, however, he got it and that night he called my landlady and asked if John Culliton, the student, was in.

“ ‘Oh, he’s a student, is he?’ my landlady replied in some surprise. ‘He told me he was a night watchman.’ From that point forward, Stephen and I became fast friends.” Leacock, in fact, made Culliton his assistant and they worked opposite each other in the back-to-back desks that sat in the middle of Room 240.

Leacock was embittered with the enforcement of the sixty-five-year age limit when he was asked to retire, pointing out there was nothing wrong with his brain at sixty-five that hadn’t been wrong with it at sixty-four. “I was retired much against my will on grounds of senility,” he remarked more than once, “having passed the age of sixty-five.”

He decided to accept a long-standing invitation to make a lecture tour of Canada. Although he’d often spoken in this country it had always been for free, whereas he rarely made a speech in the United States for which he wasn’t handsomely paid. Tremendous crowds greeted him this time and he was startled and greatly pleased. “This is just like a come-to-Jesus parade,” he remarked in astonishment as the crowds surged into Winnipeg’s Fort Garry Hotel. In Victoria somebody asked him how he liked the city. “If I’d known about it sooner,” he replied with a soft grin, “I’d have been born here.” That was his last speaking tour. “I lectured all over the United States from Kansas City to the sea and through England and Scotland, and in Canada from Halifax to Vancouver,” he later remarked. “To get a new audience I would have had to learn Chinese. So I stopped lecturing.”

As soon as he returned to Old Brewery Bay he set immediately to work writing My Discovery of the West. Next came one of his more serious works and one of which he was most proud, Montreal, Seaport and City, a voluminous study of his favorite city. John Culliton went to Orillia to help him with research. It was one of the most difficult assignments Culliton ever undertook.

“Not the book,” Culliton says, “the life.” The house was always full of guests and along about ten o’clock Leacock would yawn, stretch and go off to bed, instructing Culliton to entertain his friends. “When they’d finally go home around three o’clock I’d flop exhausted into bed,” Culliton remembered. “About two hours later there’d come a tapping on my door. It’d be Stephen, fresh and ready for work on the book.

“ ‘Oh,’ he’d say, ‘did I wake you? Sorry. Here, you might as well have a cup of tea.’ By the time I’d had the tea and we’d chatted awhile I’d be awake and we’d be working again.”

Leacock took up gardening and fishing on a grand scale after his retirement. He experimented a good deal, raising Montreal melons that grew to twenty-four pounds, planting two hundred apple trees and stocking a pond with fifteen thousand dollars’ worth of speckled trout so there’d be a fair chance he’d get a nibble when he got out in his boat. “The difficulty with gardening,” he was moved to observe one time, “is that with so many things you have to begin the year before last.” He raised turkeys but as with almost everything he did, as soon as he’d done it successfully he’d turn to something else.

“Ten years ago the deficit on my farm was about a hundred dollars,” he remarked once. “By well-designed capital expenditure, by drainage and by greater attention to detail, I have got it into the thousands.”

And then, his brain and his pen still penetrating and agile, he died in 1944. Behind him were his tremendous outpourings of words; his wonderful humor, the economic treatises and the biographies of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln. And there was his great knack of being able to laugh at himself, as when, near the last, he censured the Progressive-Conservative Party for failing to reward his long, faithful and valuable services for which he’d “never received a contract to build a bridge or make a wharf or construct even the smallest section of the transcontinental railway.”

But, actually, very little more was stilled in 1944 than the walking stick that had become so familiar a part of him and with which he’d said he’d be ready to face his end. Still carrying his name and his heart around the world were the things he left behind him.