The great humorist thrived on ‘strange incongruity’
IN LEACOCK LAND
Will Ferguson’s Canada
The great humorist thrived on ‘strange incongruity’
ANALYZING HUMOUR, it’s been said, is a lot like dissecting a frog. You may learn something about anatomy in the process, but the frog usually dies.
Stephen Leacock, the funniest writer Canada has ever produced, managed to do the near impossible: he dissected and defined the very essence of humour—and he did it without killing a single frog. The root of all comedy, wrote Leacock, “lies in the deeper contrasts offered by life itself; the strange incongruity between our aspirations and our achievements.”
Nowhere was this contrast more evident, and nowhere was this “strange incongruity” more lovingly depicted, than in Leacock’s own fabled town of Mariposa. Steeped in gentle delusions and coddled in the summer sun, Mariposa is both the source and the template of a particular Canadian myth. The myth of “nice.” I have come to the city of Orillia, and to Old Brewery Bay on Lake Couchiching, in search of this.
Our image of Canada as a small town, sleepy and innocent, was invented here, on the shores of this calm-water bay.
HE WAS IN HIS TWENTIES when he first happened upon a secluded inlet of Lake Couchiching. Leacock had been exploring the coastline of the lake in his sailboat when he discovered a small bay, hidden behind a point of land. The ruins of an old brewery stood amid a hardwood forest of oak and maple. The shore sloped gently into the water, and the water teemed with fish. Leacock had found his Eden.
When he returned, years later, it was with a Ph.D. in political economics and a career in academia. In 1906, Leacock had already written the book that would make him famous: Elements of Political Science. Translated into 19 languages, and required reading in more than 30 American universities, Elements of Political Science remained Leacock’s biggest money-maker and his
single most widely read work. At the age of 37, Leacock toured the British Empire as a lecturer. By the age of 38, he was the head of the economics and political science department at McGill University.
Stephen Leacock had arrived. His course was charted, his success assured. Even better, he could now afford to buy his Eden. So he purchased land on the small, sheltered bay he had discovered on Lake Couchiching and, with his brother Charlie’s help, built a temporary summer shelter, not much more than a lean-to shack, down near the water’s edge.
Over the years, Leacock’s ramshackle shanty grew, piecemeal and pell-mell, with other rooms and wings added every which way. Chicken coops, greenhouses, woodsheds and other additions would appear one year only to be torn down or refitted the next. Leacock tried to turn his property on Old Brewery Bay into a profitable hobby farm, but he failed to understand that the cost of transporting one’s produce to market should not exceed the amount received for said produce. As a farmer, Leacock was an excellent professor.
And then, at the age of 40, Leacock’s career took a sudden and unexpected turn. In 1910, a slim, self-published chapbook of comic essays appeared. Entitled Literary Lapses, Leacock’s unassuming little book quickly sold out and was immediately picked up by a large British publisher. Leacock the economist had suddenly
Asked the secret to being a successful writer, he replied, ‘You just jot down ideas as they occur to you. The jotting is simplicity itself-it is the occurring which is difficult.’
became Leacock the humorist. Forced to choose between one career path or the other, Leacock chose... both.
He led a double life, dividing his world between humour and economics in much the same way that he divided his time between Montreal and Orillia, and between McGill University and Old Brewery Bay. Leacock embodied the very incongruities he wrote about. Born of a privileged class, he had been raised on a downand-out farm amid that odd “genteel poverty” that comes with being the offspring of a remittance man. He believed in social justice and yet was a staunch imperialist. He admired Jefferson, yet exalted the British monarchy. He loved money but couldn’t stand wealth.
Leacock was a master of the perfect vignette and the gentle spoof. Although hailed as “the Canadian Twain,” he never had the depth or narrative scope of Twain. But as a humorist, as a pure humorist, he was second to none. Robertson Davies considered him a genius.
In the course of his lifetime, Leacock would write 61 books, more than half of which were works of humour. If anything, he was prolific to the point of promiscuity; at one point, three of his books appeared within the span of seven months. When asked the secret to being a successful writer, Leacock replied, “You just jot down ideas as they occur to you. The jotting is simplicity itself—it is the occurring which is difficult.”
The Myth of Mariposa was launched in 1912 with the publication of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, a collection of linked stories, originally commissioned by a Montreal newspaper, that celebrated the foibles and follies of a small town called Mariposa. In his preface, Leacock effectively dedicated the book to Canada as a whole, “a land of hope and sunshine where little towns spread their square streets and their trim maple trees beside placid lakes almost within echo of the primeval forest.”
Mariposa may have been dreamlike, but it was by no means idyllic. This is a town that burns down its church for insurance money, where the elections are rigged, the leaders are blowhards, and the most intelligent citizen is a 300-pound illiterate hotel keeper. And yet, even then, there is an innocence to Mariposa, a lack of guile that is absolutely disarming. It’s Red Green at Possum Lodge. It’s Wingfield on the farm. It is a town inhabited entirely by eccentrics.
Even better, Leacock did not invent Mariposa. He simply embellished Orillia. The two communities are one and the same, and many of Leacock’s stories are grounded in fact, even if he himself tried to deny it. “Mariposa is not a real town,” he stated with utter insincerity. “On the contrary, it is about 70 or 80 of them. You may find them all the way from Lake Superior to the sea...”
But the “sinking” of the Mariposa Belle,
one of the funniest chapters in the book, is almost certainly taken from an incident that occurred on Lake Couchiching when the steamer Longford ran aground on a sandbar. Once the passengers were evacuated, the Longford floated free . . . and continued merrily on its way.
Orillia’s Anglican church did burn down (though hopefully not for the insurance money) and the local hotel keeper was a man of enormous girth and cunning business acumen. In fact, the parallels between Orillia and Mariposa were so blatant, you wonder why Leacock even bothered coming up with fake names; and even then, the half-hearted pseudonyms that Leacock did assign were as transparent as a thin coat of paint.
A lawyer in Orillia threatened to sue Leacock for libel, but Leacock insisted, years later, that the threat had been made “in fun.” The Globe and Mail reported “mutterings about libel suits” but nothing ever came of it. And the town barber, who had chatted freely with Leacock whenever
he shaved him, found himself forced to apologize to his customers: “How in hell was I to know he would put these things in a book?”
Biographer David M. Legate has said that “although he brought fame to the town, Leacock was never popular in Orillia.” But the accuracy of that statement has been disputed, and Leacock certainly wasn’t run out of town after Sunshine Sketches appeared. Far from it. As the years went by, Leacock spent more and more time at his summer home on Old Brewery Bay, soaking up the sun, tending his garden, and boating along the shimmering waters of his own personal Eden.
I AM HERE at Old Brewery Bay with Elizabeth Kimball, just before her 90th birthday. Elizabeth is Leacock’s niece, she was a frequent visitor to his summer home and is the author of a book on her famous uncle, entitled The Man in the Panama Hat.
“This is where I swim,” she says as we walk along the shore towards the boathouse. The use of the present tense is revealing. “The rocks are slimy, I have to sort of pull myself out into deeper water first.” She still takes her sailboat out on Lake Ontario.
Elizabeth remembers the swarm of cousins and nephews and nieces who were feted at Old Brewery Bay. “Uncle Stephen,” she says, “loved to have the house full of people.”
In 1928, Leacock dismantled his original rambling patchwork of a summer house and built a proper mansion. It was a major undertaking, but Leacock, ever the shrewd economist, had come up with a clever plan.
Elizabeth explains: “Uncle Stephen brought in a young architect and told him that they could save money by building the new house out of the material from the old house. The architect looked at Uncle Stephen and said, ‘How exactly am I going to build a bigger house out of a smaller house?’ Uncle Stephen grumbled, but he paid for the extra materials.”
The house that Leacock built at Old Brewery Bay is an improbable sight today, akin to stumbling upon an English estate in the Canadian woods. Befitting this incongruity, the house manages to be both grand and modest at the same time. A wide veranda offers an expansive view of the bay, and there is wood panelling throughout and a wine cellar and billiard room below, and yet, the house was never ostentatious and never lost that sparse, underfurnished feeling of a summer home.
The property fell into disarray after Leacock died in 1944. Vandals and thieves ransacked it, hoboes slept in it. The sun porch collapsed and the garden grew wild with weeds. At some point a ghost moved in, though whose ghost exactly is still a point of debate. Thanks largely to the dogged efforts of local citizens, Leacock’s home was eventually rescued and restored and is now open to the public. It is a place ripe with words and rich in laughter. (Among the items in Leacock’s library is a file folder labelled “Letters From Damn Fools.”)
My favourite detail is the mirror in the dining room that was set at a certain angle so that Leacock could keep an eye on the servants in the kitchen. Leacock had a volcanic temper, but his outbursts were usu-
ally short and ineffectual. He would sometimes get angry and fire every one of his servants only to sheepishly rehire them all the next day—and at a higher wage.
From the veranda, Elizabeth looks out across the bay. In spite of the murky waters and clouds of ravenous mosquitoes, she misses the old place. “It was always summer when I came here.”
SUNSHINE SKETCHES ends on a sad note, with its narrator having moved to the city and abandoned Mariposa. Ensconced in the warm leather chairs of the city’s Mausoleum Club, he speaks warmly about “the little Town in the Sunshine that once we knew.” And he never goes back.
Mariposa, it’s been said, “represents any small town in Canada,” but this is not entirely true. Mariposa was always rooted in a specific time and a specific place. It is an Anglo-Ontario town, an outpost of Empire, British to the bone and blissfully unaware of the fact that it exists at the end of an era, in a world about to be destroyed forever by the horrors of the Great War.
Guy Vanderhaeghe, in his essay, “Leacock and Understanding Canada,” argues that we should look at Mariposa “not as the embodiment of some kind of vague ‘Canadianism,’ but as a distinct and local expression. Perhaps even, to press a point, as a regional and ethnic work.” For Vanderhaeghe, Mariposa was perhaps “never more than a dream.”
But if Mariposa was just a dream, it was a collective dream nonetheless. It was a dream we once shared. One that embodies, if not Canada, then a certain myth of Canada, that image we have of ourselves as a sunshine town, the “Mariposa of Nations,” if you will, a dream nurtured not because it is real, but because we want it to be real.
In his afterword to Sunshine Sketches, Jack Hodgins writes, wistfully and with more than a hint of wish-fulfillment, “In some magical way we have all come from Mariposa.” And that is the strangest incongruity of all: although based firmly on a real place and real people, Mariposa itself never really existed. Í71
Will Ferguson is the author of Bastards & Boneheads: Canada’s Glorious Leaders, Past and Present. Fie lives in Calgary with his wife and two young sons. firstname.lastname@example.org
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