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Stephen Leacock

(30 December 1869 – 28 March 1944 / Hampshire, England)

Biography of Stephen Leacock

Stephen Leacock poet

Stephen Butler Leacock, FRSC was an English-born Canadian teacher, political scientist, writer, and humorist. In the early part of the 20th century he was the best-known humorist in the English-speaking world.

Leacock was born in Swanmore, near Bishop's Waltham, Hampshire, England, and at the age of six moved to Canada with his family, which settled on a farm in Egypt, Ontario, near the village of Sutton and the shores of Lake Simcoe. While the family had been well off in England (the Leacocks had made a fortune in Madeira and lived on an estate called Oak Hill on the Isle of Wight), Leacock's father, Peter, had been banished from the manor for marrying Agnes Butler without his parents' permission. The farm in the Georgina township of York County was not a success and the family (Leacock was the third of eleven children) was kept afloat by money sent by Leacock's grandfather. Peter Leacock became an alcoholic; in the fall of 1878, he travelled west to Manitoba with his brother E.P. Leacock, leaving behind Agnes and the children. E.P. Leacock was the subject of the title sketch in Stephen's 1942 work My Remarkable Uncle. Stephen Leacock, always of obvious intelligence, was sent by his grandfather to the elite private school of Upper Canada College in Toronto, also attended by his older brothers, where he was top of the class and was chosen as head boy. Leacock graduated in 1887, and returned home to find that his father had returned from Manitoba. Soon after, his father left the family again and never returned.There is some disagreement about what happened to Peter Leacock; some suggest that he went to live in Argentina, while other sources indicate that he moved to Nova Scotia and changed his name to Lewis. In 1877, seventeen-year-old Leacock started at University College at the University of Toronto, where he was admitted to the Zeta Psi fraternity. His first year was bankrolled by a small scholarship, but Leacock found he could not return to his studies the following year because of financial difficulties. He left university to work as a teacher — an occupation he disliked immensely — at Strathroy, Uxbridge and finally in Toronto. As a teacher at Upper Canada College, his alma mater, he was able simultaneously to attend classes at the University of Toronto and, in 1891, earn his degree through part-time studies. It was during this period that his first writing was published in The Varsity, a campus newspaper.

Academic and political life
Disillusioned with teaching, in 1899 he began graduate studies at the University of Chicago under Thorstein Veblen, where he received a doctorate in political science and political economy. He moved from Chicago, Illinois to Montreal, Quebec, where he eventually became the William Dow Professor of Political Economy and long-time chair of the Department of Economics and Political Science at McGill University.He was closely associated with Sir Arthur Currie, former commander of the Canadian Corps in the Great War and principal of McGill from 1919 until his death in 1933. In fact, Currie had been a student observing Leacock's practice teaching in Strathroy in 1888. In 1936, Leacock was forcibly retired by the McGill Board of Governors—an unlikely prospect had Currie lived.Leacock was both a social conservative and a partisan Conservative. He opposed giving women the right to vote, disliked non-Anglo-Saxon immigration and supported the introduction of social welfare legislation. He was a staunch champion of the British Empire and went on lecture tours to further the cause.Although he was considered as a candidate for Dominion elections by his party, it declined to invite the author, lecturer, and maverick to stand for election. Nevertheless, he would stump for local candidates at his summer home.

Literary life
Early in his career, Leacock turned to fiction, humour, and short reports to supplement (and ultimately exceed) his regular income. His stories, first published in magazines in Canada and the United States and later in novel form, became extremely popular around the world. It was said in 1911 that more people had heard of Stephen Leacock than had heard of Canada. Also, between the years 1915 and 1925, Leacock was the most popular humorist in the English-speaking world. A humorist particularly admired by Leacock was Robert Benchley from New York. Leacock opened correspondence with Benchley, encouraging him in his work and importuning him to compile his work into a book. Benchley did so in 1922, and acknowledged the nagging from north of the border. Near the end of his life, the American comedian Jack Benny recounted how he had been introduced to Leacock's writing by Groucho Marx when they were both young vaudeville comedians. Benny acknowledged Leacock's influence and, fifty years after first reading him, still considered Leacock one of his favorite comic writers. He was puzzled as to why Leacock's work was no longer well known in the United States.During the summer months, Leacock lived at Old Brewery Bay, his summer estate in Orillia, across Lake Simcoe from where he was raised and also bordering Lake Couchiching. A working farm, Old Brewery Bay is now a museum and National Historic Site of Canada. Gossip provided by the local barber, Jefferson Short, provided Leacock with the material which would become Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912), set in the thinly-disguised Mariposa. Although he wrote learned articles and books related to his field of study, his political theory is now all but forgotten. Leacock was awarded the Royal Society of Canada's Lorne Pierce Medal in 1937, nominally for his academic work. “The proper punishment for the Hohenzollerns, and the Hapsburgs, and the Mecklenburgs, and the Muckendorfs, and all such puppets and princelings, is that they should be made to work; and not made to work in the glittering and glorious sense, as generals and chiefs of staff, and legislators, and land-barons, but in the plain and humble part of laborers looking for a job. (Leacock 1919: 9 )”

Personal life
In 1900 Leacock married Beatrix ("Trix") Hamilton, niece of Sir Henry Pellatt (who had built Casa Loma, the largest castle in North America). In 1915 — after 15 years of marriage — the couple had their only child, Stephen Lushington Leacock. While Leacock doted on the boy, it became apparent early on that "Stevie" suffered from a lack of growth hormone. Growing to be only four feet tall, he had a love-hate relationship with Leacock, who tended to treat him like a child. His wife Beatrix Hamilton died in 1925 due to breast cancer. Stephen Leacock, one of Canada’s leading humor writers, was born in England in 1869. His father, Peter Leacock, and his mother, Agnes Emma Butler Leacock, were both from well-to-do families. The family, eventually to consist of eleven children, immigrated to Canada in 1876, settling on a one hundred-acre farm in Sutton, Ontario. There Stephen was home-schooled until he was enrolled in Upper Canada College, Toronto. He became the head boy in 1887, and then entered the University of Toronto to study languages and literature. Despite completing two years of study in one year, he was forced to leave the university because his father had abandoned the family. Instead, Leacock enrolled in a three-month course at Strathroy Collegiate Institute to become a qualified high school teacher. His first appointment was at Uxbridge High School, Ontario, but he was soon offered a post at Upper Canada College, where he remained from 1889 through 1899. At this time, he also resumed part-time studies at the University of Toronto, graduating with a B.A. in 1891. However, Leacock’s real interests were turning towards economics and political theory, and in 1899 he was accepted for postgraduate studies at the University of Chicago, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1903. In 1900, Leacock married Beatrix Hamilton, an aspiring actress; the couple had one son, born in 1915. Leacock was offered a post at McGill University, where he remained until he retired in 1936. In 1906, he wrote Elements of Political Science, which remained a standard college textbook for the next twenty years and became his most profitable book. He also began public speaking and lecturing, and he took a year’s leave of absence in 1907 to speak throughout Canada on the subject of national unity. He typically spoke on natural unity or the British Empire for the rest of his life. Leacock began submitting articles to the Toronto humor magazine Grip in 1894, and soon was publishing many humorous articles in Canadian and American magazines. In 1910, he privately published the best of these as Literary Lapses. The book was spotted by a British publisher, John Lane, who brought out editions in London and New York, assuring Leacock’s future as a writer. This was confirmed by Nonsense Novels (1911), and probably his best book of humorous sketches, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912). Leacock’s humorous style was reminiscent of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens at their sunniest. However, his Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich (1914) is a darker collection that satirizes city life. Collections of sketches continued to follow almost annually at times, with a mixture of whimsy, parody, nonsense, and satire that was never bitter. Leacock was enormously popular not only in Canada but in the United States and Britain. In later life, Leacock wrote on the art of humor writing and also published biographies of Twain and Dickens. After retirement, a lecture tour to western Canada lead to his book My Discovery of the West: A Discussion of East and West in Canada (1937), for which he won the Governor General’s Award. He also won the Mark Twain medal and received a number of honorary doctorates. Other nonfiction books on Canadian topics followed and he began work on an autobiography. Leacock died of throat cancer in Toronto in 1944. A prize for the best humor writing in Canada was named after him, and his house at Orillia on the banks of Lake Couchiching became the Stephen Leacock Museum.

Death and tributes
Predeceased by Trix (who had died of breast cancer in 1925), Leacock was survived by Stevie, who died in his fifties. In accordance with his wishes, after his death from throat cancer, Leacock was buried in St George the Martyr Churchyard, Sutton, Ontario. Shortly after his death, Barbara Nimmo, his niece, literary executor and benefactor, published two major posthumous works: Last Leaves (1945) and The Boy I Left Behind Me (1946). His physical legacy was less treasured, and his abandoned summer cottage became derelict. It was rescued from oblivion when it was declared a National Historic Site of Canada in 1958 and ever since has operated as a museum called the Stephen Leacock Memorial Home. In 1947, the Stephen Leacock Award was created to recognize the best in Canadian literary humour. In 1969, the centennial of his birth, Canada Post issued a six cent stamp with his image on it. The following year, the Stephen Leacock Centennial Committee had a plaque erected at his English birthplace and a mountain in the Yukon was named after him.A number of buildings in Canada are named after Leacock, including the Stephen Leacock Building at McGill University, a theatre in Keswick, Ontario, and schools in Toronto and Ottawa.

Screen adaptations
Two Leacock short stories have been adapted as National Film Board of Canada animated shorts by Gerald Potterton: My Financial Career and The Awful Fate of Melpomenus Jones. Sunshine Sketches, based on Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, aired on CBC Television in 1952-1953; it was the first Canadian broadcast of an English-language dramatic series, as it debuted on the first night that television was broadcast in Toronto. In 2012, a screen adaptation based on Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town was aired on CBC Television to celebrate both the 75th anniversary of the CBC and the 100th anniversary of Leacock's original collection of short stories. The recent screen adaptation featured Gordon Pinsent as a mature Leacock.

Stephen Leacock's Works:

Elements of Political Science (1906)

Baldwin, Lafontaine, Hincks: Responsible Government (1907)

Practical Political Economy (1910)

Literary Lapses (1910)

includes "The New Food"
Nonsense Novels (1911)

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912)

Behind the Beyond (1913)

Adventurers of the Far North (1914)

The Dawn of Canadian History (1914)

The Mariner of St. Malo (1914)

Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich (1914)

Moonbeams from the Larger Lunacy (1915)

Essays and Literary Studies (1916)

Further Foolishness (1916)

Frenzied Fiction (1918)

The Hohenzollerns in America (1919)

Winsome Winnie (1920)

The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice (1920)

My Discovery of England (1922)

College Days (1923)

Over the Footlights (1923)

The Garden of Folly (1924)

Mackenzie, Baldwin, Lafontaine, Hincks (1926)

Winnowed Wisdom (1926)

Short Circuits (1928)

The Iron Man and the Tin Woman (1929)

Economic Prosperity in the British Empire (1930)

The Economic Prosperity of the British Empire (1931)

The Dry Pickwick (1932)

Afternoons in Utopia (1932)

Mark Twain (1932)

Charles Dickens: His Life and Work (1933)

Humour: Its Theory and Technique, with Examples and Samples (1935)

Hellements of Hickonomics in Hiccoughs of Verse Done in Our Social Planning Mill (1936)

Funny Pieces (1936)

The Greatest Pages of American Humor (1936)

Here Are My Lectures (1937)

Humour and Humanity (1937)

My Discovery of the West (1937)

Model Memoirs (1938)

Too Much College (1939)

Our British Empire (1940)

Canada: The Foundations of Its Future (1941)
My Remarkable Uncle (1942)

Our Heritage of Liberty (1942)

Montreal: Seaport and City (1942)

Happy Stories (1943)

How to Write (1943)

Canada and the Sea (1944)

While There Is Time (1945)

Last Leaves (1945)

The Boy I Left Behind Me (1946)

Wet Wit and Dry Humor

Laugh with Leacock

Back to Prosperity

The Greatest Pages of Charles Dickens

Essays and Literary Studies

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Oh! Mr. Malthus!

"Mother, Mother, here comes Malthus,
Mother, hold me tight!
Look! It's Mr. Malthus, Mother!
Hide me out of sight."
This was the cry of little Jane
In bed she moaning lay,
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All because her small Existence

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