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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Stephen Leacock (1869–1944)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Bernard Keble Sandwell (1876–1954)
 
STEPHEN BUTLER LEACOCK, humorist and political economist, was born at Swanmoor, Hants, England, on December 30th, 1869, the son of W. P. Leacock of Oak Hill, and Agnes, daughter of the Rev. Stephen Butler of Subarton, Hants. His family removed to Canada, taking him with them, in 1876, and settled in Ontario, near Lake Simcoe. He received his schooling at Upper Canada College, Toronto, entering in 1882 and leaving the school as head boy in 1887; after which he entered Toronto University and graduated in 1891. He then spent eight years at his former school as modern language master, from 1891 to 1899, leaving to take a fellowship at Chicago University, where he spent two full years and six months of each of the following two and received the degree of Ph.D. in 1903. During the other half of these last two years he had been engaged as lecturer in political economy at McGill University, Montreal, and since 1903 he has been continuously connected with that institution, becoming in 1905 associate professor of political economy and history and in 1908 professor of political economy and head of the Department of Economics and Political Science. In 1907–8 he received a year’s leave of absence for the purpose of a tour round the world as representative of the Rhodes Trust.  1
  Stephen Leacock’s literary work began during his student career at Toronto, and a number of the humorous sketches which have since been permanently embodied in his published volumes first found a home in the lighter contemporary periodicals of that period in New York and London. His earliest books were educational and historical in character—‘Elements of Political Economy,’ 1905, and ‘Baldwin and Lafontaine’ (in the ‘Makers of Canada’ series) in 1906. These were followed by some smaller historical and biographical works, and it was not until 1910 that he gathered together a number of his humorous sketches and short stories and published them in a very modest form, at first for Canadian circulation only, under the apologetic title of ‘Literary Lapses.’ Their success was immediate, and they were followed in 1911 by ‘Nonsense Novels,’ consisting chiefly of satirical exaggerations of the absurdities of various current formulæ of popular fiction. In 1912 there appeared ‘Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town,’ which still ranks as the author’s most important creative work, containing a number of most carefully observed portraits of character-types of present-day Canadian life, and of ordinary Canadian people, with only just sufficient exaggeration to draw attention to their peculiarities and foibles, and with a far greater insight into the social and economic conditions of Canada than has been shown by any other author. ‘Behind the Beyond,’ in 1913, was a continuation of the vein of the ‘Nonsense Novels,’ and ‘Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich’ was a good-humored exposition of the numerous social and economic anomalies resulting from the development of an exceedingly wealthy class in a young and supposedly democratic community. ‘Moonbeams from the Larger Lunacy’ (1915) and ‘Further Foolishness’ (1916) continued the good work of amiably satirizing some of the most absurd ideas and fashions of the day. A serious volume, entitled ‘Essays and Literary Studies,’ also appeared in 1916, and contained the critical and philosophical work of the author during several years, including much penetrating literary criticism. An admirable example of Professor Leacock’s critical ability will be found in his estimate of the work of O. Henry, included in the LIBRARY. A play, ‘Sunshine in Mariposa,’ based on some of the ‘Sunshine Sketches,’ appeared in 1917.  2
  The underlying quality which makes Stephen Leacock’s humor valuable and enlightening is the extreme accuracy of his observation both of human types and of the conditions in which they move and develop. In a very real sense the creative work of the humorist is based upon the critical work of the professor of economics; so that Leacock the writer of ‘Behind the Beyond’ and Leacock the lecturer on the principles of political economy are not in the least two different persons, but merely two strata of the same person. A short story in the ‘Arcadian Adventures’ and a lecture on the rise of the industrial millionaire in the United States and Canada are two different treatments of the same theme, and require the same first-hand knowledge and intimate comprehension—except that the story requires more of both than the lecture. Thus the whole of Leacock’s creative work deals with types and conditions with which he has familiarized himself by constant contact and careful study during his work as an economist, a traveler, an agriculturist (during the summer months), a political campaigner, an instructor of youth, and in several other capacities. As most of this work has been carried on in Canada, he possesses unrivaled qualifications for translating into literature the raw material of Canadian characters and Canadian life—a task which involves many of the difficulties and hardships of the literary pioneer.  3
  His literary mechanism consists chiefly of a very easy and conversational, almost confidential, style, not unreminiscent of Dickens, but containing a suggestion also of the classic American humorists in its unexpected quips and turns of phrase. “The more I mix with the millionaires, the more I enjoy the things they mix,” is a typical example of this form of wit, both in its neatness and in the fact that it clothes a characteristically sardonic comment upon its subject-matter. Not infrequently these unexpected turns of phrase bring in a note of pathos in the midst of the most rollicking fun, a very fleeting note but the more effective for its suddenness. He is imperturbably good-humored, with the good humor of the detached and philosophical observer, convinced that all the world’s ills can be comfortably borne if one can only learn to laugh at them. There are no villains in his stories, and in his parodies the typical villains of ordinary moralizing fiction are reduced to their logical absurdity; for he has unbounded sympathy with everything that is human.  4
 
 
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