Stephen Leacock : The forgetting of humorists

Sunshine sketches coverI’ve been reading a huge chunk of early Twentieth century comedy this month. Four of the titles are by Stephen Leacock. They are Moonbeams from the Larger Lunacy, My Discovery of England,  Sunshine Sketches on a Little Town, and Essays and Literary Studies. All are available on Librivox and in Internet Archive.

Stephen Leacock was arguably, for a decade or so after the First World War, the most popular humorous writer in English. He is little known today, but his work is surprisingly relevant to modern readers. Some parts have aged beyond relevance, but then there are little spurts of brilliance which he would have dreaded to know are still cacklingly funny now. For example Moonbeams, which is 99 years old, contains a satirical skewering of gamification as a motivation technique for managers.  It’s the earliest one I’ve read, and it perfectly encapsulates the flaws in “badges and levels” motivational design. I realise that’s a bit obscure, but I presume other people will find other little side references as hilarious as I did, from their own areas of interest.

His second book listed here involves him travelling to England, from his native Canada, and writing in the slightly patronising and earnestly parochial way that English writers favoured while touring North America. His description of English people coming to mine, and then sell, their impressions of America is terribly funny if, like me, you’ve enjoyed works in this genre. I can see his ghost hovering behind Stephen Fry, chiding him for daring to take impressions of America and sell them, which Leacock’s narrator sees as little better than thievery.

Leacock’s description of London shows his intent for the rest of the work. It describes Nelson’s Column only as the best way to find the American barbershop nearby, and the Tower of London basically as a way to find the American gasoline station slightly to its north. It reminded me most of Rick Steve suggesting you could do the British Museum in two hours. Leacock also does a lovely line in the fact that English people do not seem to travel anywhere or see anything, so his narrator, in attempting to experience England in a truly English way, manages to avoid seeing the British Museum, the Tower of London, or Westminster Abbey, but finds this no social impediment, as no-one he meets has actually seen them either. It is sufficient, for conversational purposes, to memorise a few glib clichés about each place.

Sadly, in the middle of this book is a real clanger of a chapter, in which he, well, I’m not sure what he’s doing. Let me argue by analogy. I watched Benny Hill once. The joke seemed to be that women wear underwear. I could not actually understand the structure of the jokes on Benny Hill because the concept is that you’ll be sort of shocked and titillated by underwear and I’m not either. I mean, people turn up in my library in bikinis on a pretty regular basis in summer and I don’t even notice unless they’ve forgotten to wear shoes, on which we sometimes insist. Similarly, I don’t understand what Leacock thinks he’s doing in his lengthy bit of pointless writing.  Leacock knows it is pointless and that women have won. Is he trying to tweak the nose of the contemporary version of political correctness? It’s a painfully bad chapter, if you are seeking humor. If you’d like to hear a “separate but equal” argument from the time, as a gender study, then it may have some value to you.

The third book, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, is a series of stories about a fake town in Canada called Mariposa. It seems like an ancestor of Lake Wobegon, which I’ve read to death and love., so I was pleased to read the book. Leacock is not as melancholy as Garrison Keillor, but if you enjoy one, I’d recommend the other to you.

I really enjoy Leacock’s writing when he isn’t banging on about the lost cause of keeping women out of universities. He’s a crusty old Imperialist in places, and his views of women are flawed from foundation upward, but he has a habit of being far more topical than he has any right to be.