Leacock on Life

Leacock on Life

EDITED BY GERALD LYNCH
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 208
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/9781442676619
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  • Book Info
    Leacock on Life
    Book Description:

    Stephen Leacock's views on life provide a uniquely Canadian take on the world, an ironic perspective which continues to delight and instruct readers around the globe. An anthology of Leacock?s wit and wisdom.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7661-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. REFERENCE KEY
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. xv-2)

    Stephen Leacock (1869—1944), the English-speaking world’s best-known humorist from about 1910 till his death, Canadian cultural icon, needs no introduction. But of course Leacock dealt with this needs-no-introduction gambit, mock-petulantly showing disregard for the editorial need of shortcuts: ‘“Professor Stephen Leacock,” said the chairman, every chairman, from Fort William to Victoria, — “needs no introduction.” Owing to this bright thought, I never got any’ (MDW 1). More brightly then, I begin again: Stephen Leacock had something to say about everything (even his own introduction), and all of it is still entertaining and relevant.

    Leacock on Lifebegins properly with...

  5. HIS LIFE
    (pp. 3-12)

    I know no way in which a writer may more fittingly introduce his work to the public than by giving a brief account of who and what he is. By this means some of the blame for what he has done is very properly shifted to the extenuating circumstances of his life.

    I was born at Swanmoor, Hants, England, on December 30, 1869. I am not aware that there was any particular conjunction of the planets at the time, but should think it extremely likely. My parents migrated to Canada in 1876, and I decided to go with them. My...

  6. AMERICA
    (pp. 13-14)

    But we infer even from our hurried view of the outskirts of the capital that if any bull wants silk hosiery that neither rips nor tears, he is exactly in the right place for it; and that Washington is exactly in the centre of the yeast district, the canned soup area, that all the great modern medical inventions such as HUMPO, JUMPO, and ANTIWHEEZE are sold there, and that we can get all the soap we want; — in short, look about us — here are Rooms with Beds at $1.50! Meals à la carte, Suspenders, Garters, Ice Cream in...

  7. AUDIENCES
    (pp. 15-21)

    Most people tire of a lecture in ten minutes; clever people can do it in five. Sensible people never go to lectures at all. (MDE 148-9)

    Appreciation grows the more it is divided. (HTW 20)

    The city in which I live is overrun with little societies, clubs and associations, always wanting to be addressed. So at least it is in appearance. In reality the societies are composed of presidents, secretaries and officials, who want the conspicuousness of office, and a large list of other members who won’t come to the meetings. (MDE 150-1)

    ‘Gentlemen — if you are such, which...

  8. BUSINESS
    (pp. 22-29)

    When the business man is busy with the buzzing of his brain

    And his mind is set on bonds and stocks and shares,

    While he’s building up the country with his utmost might and main,

    Do you think it’s for the country that he cares?

    When he’s making us a railroad, when he’s digging us a mine Every philanthropic benefit he flaunts,

    When he says that he has blest us with his output of asbestos,

    It is nothing but our money that he wants. (CoD 127-8)

    The Business Man, to the ancient Greeks and Romans, was a crook.

    To the...

  9. CANADA
    (pp. 30-33)

    The name ‘Canada’ used to be just as bad [as ‘Britain’] but is now pretty well straightened out. Nobody knows where it came from. When Jacques Cartier came up the St. Lawrence in 1535 on his way to McGill University (then called Hochelaga), he came to the great river that we call Saguenay — in fact, the Indians told him that up this and beyond it, farther west, was the Kingdom of Saguenay, full of gold and diamonds; they were right in a way. Savage legend always has a background. They meant the Hollinger mine, and God’s Lake and Flin-Flon,...

  10. CAN-AM RELATIONS
    (pp. 34-37)

    It may be well to remind the reader at the outset of this article that Canada is in America. ... Canadian literature, — as far as there is such a thing [ca. 1916], — Canadian journalism, and the education and culture of the mass of the people of Canada approximates more nearly to the type and standard of the United States than to those of Great Britain ... This modest apology may fittingly be offered before throwing stones at the glass house in which both the Canadian and the Americans proper dwell. (ELS 65-6)

    We have long since decided that...

  11. CANADIAN CITIES
    (pp. 38-42)

    I pulled up the blind and looked out of the window and there was the good old city [Toronto ca. 1919], with the bright sun sparkling on its church spires and on the bay spread out at its feet. It looked quite unchanged: just the same pleasant old place, as cheerful, as self-conceited, as kindly, as hospitable, as quarrelsome, as wholesome, as moral and as loyal and as disagreeable as it always was. (FrF 147)

    So what they are saying over in England is that rebuilding the cities [post-WWII] will involve a lot of inner-city housing for those who won’t...

  12. CANADIAN POLITICS
    (pp. 43-45)

    Harsh is the cackle of the little turkey-cocks of Ottawa, fighting the while as they feather their mean nests of sticks and mud, high on their river bluff. Loud sings the Little Man of the Province, crying his petty Gospel of Provincial Rights, grudging the gift of power, till the cry spreads and town hates town and every hamlet of the country side shouts for its share of plunder and pelf. (GCA 136)

    Government, and ours at Ottawa especially, for we live in peace, is apt to grow complacent in office: alternating from a decorous ministry to a decorous opposition,...

  13. CANADIAN PROVINCES
    (pp. 46-48)

    I am also credibly informed that the theological essayists of Prince Edward Island challenge comparison with those of any age. It is no doubt not the fault of the Islanders that this challenge has not yet been accepted. (ELS 67)

    They’re strong on divinity. You have to be in a country as bleak as the Nova Scotia coast. (LaL 143)

    But human kind in the West before the white man came to America must have been infinitely rare, as far as the vast open prairie was concerned. Men couldn’t live there. Not till the Spaniards brought the horse to America,...

  14. CRITICS
    (pp. 49-51)

    Modern critics, who refuse to let a plain thing alone, have now started a theory that Cervantes’s work is a vast piece of ‘symbolism.’ If so, Cervantes didn’t know it himself and nobody thought of it for three hundred years. He meant it as a satire upon the silly romances of chivalry. (HH 129)

    The classical scholars have kept alive the tradition of the superiority of the ancient languages — a kaleidoscopic mass of suffixes and prefixes, supposed to represent an infinite shading of meaning. It is a character that they share with the Ojibway and the Zulu. (HTT 242)...

  15. DREAMERS
    (pp. 52-52)

    I have always felt that there must be something exhilarating, stimulating, superhuman in the rushing, upward life of a boom town, — A San Francisco of the 50’s, a Carson city of the 60’s, a Winnipeg of the 80’s. The life of the individual fits into the surroundings as into a glove – the ‘world’ no longer means something far away, something in the papers, – It is right there. In the life of the great cities of today [ca. 1937] the individual is crushed, lost, is nothing. In the boom town his life is life itself. There everybody is...

  16. ECONOMICS
    (pp. 53-57)

    Take enough of that mystification and muddle, combine it with the continental area of the United States, buttress it up on the side with the history of dead opinion and dress it, as the chefs say, with sliced history and green geography, and out of it you can make a doctor’s degree in economics. I have one myself. (TMC 120)

    The fault with economics was the assumption that whatcan only be done by the Spiritcould be done by material interest. (LaL 106)

    If the ability to produce goods to meet human wants has multiplied so that each man...

  17. EDUCATION
    (pp. 58-71)

    The beginning of learning is the urge to learn. The teacher and the class exercise are just a supplement and a help, but never can be the motive power. Wisdom cannot be poured into the pupil out of a jug. (TMC93-4)

    We are moved and stimulated to understanding far more by our imagination than by our intellect: more even than by our self-interest. (HoH 79)

    In my case I went into schoolteaching with my eyes wide open, as into something temporary on the way to a real career. To go into teaching was a matter of sheer necessity. My education...

  18. FAMILY
    (pp. 72-73)

    The family – the one institution in which the better side of human nature shines with an undimmed light. (UR 92)

    But then what father ever would want to speak angrily to such a boy as Neil Pepperleigh? The judge took no credit himself for that; the finest grown boy in the whole county and so broad and big that they took him into the Missinaba Horse when he was only seventeen. And clever, – so clever that he didn’t need to study; so clever that he used to come out at the foot of the class in mathematics at...

  19. FOOD AND DRINK
    (pp. 74-76)

    Eat what you want. Eat lots of it. Yes, eat too much of it. Eat till you can just stagger across the room with it and prop it up against a sofa cushion. Eat everything that you like until you can’t eat any more. The only test is, can you pay for it? If you can’t pay for it, don’t eat it. And listen — don’t worry as to whether your food contains starch, or albumen, or gluten, or nitrogen. If you are damn fool enough to want these things, go and buy them and eat all you want of...

  20. HISTORY
    (pp. 77-79)

    For all wise thinking, for all careful social control, it is necessary to see things as they have grown, to look on our institutions in the light of their past. Such dim vision as we can have of the future depends absolutely on this. Cut off the human race from the knowledge and comprehension of its history, and its government will just turn into a monkey cage. We need the guidance of history. (TMC 50-1)

    Historical rehabilitation is emphatically the order of the day, and it has become the peculiar province and the particular pride of the modern historian [ca....

  21. HUMOUR
    (pp. 80-87)

    Humour is the kindly contemplation of the incongruities of life, and the artistic expression thereof. (HH 15)

    The essence of humour is human kindliness. (HH unpaginated preface)

    Our sense of humour, like so much else about us, sprang from lowly and even discreditable origins. (HH 22)

    In doing this [practice teaching] I learned on the side a lesson on how not to be funny, or the misuse of a sense of humour which lasted me all my life. ... The principal of the Strathroy Collegiate was Mr. James Wetherell, the well-beloved ‘Jimmy’ Wetherell whose memory is still dear to the...

  22. LOVE
    (pp. 88-90)

    You cannot depict love inside a frame of fact. It needs a mist to dissolve in. You cannot tell a love story just as it is – because it isn’t. There is something else there, something higher than our common selves and perhaps truer. When a young man sees in his girl an angel, and a young girl sees in her lover a hero, perhaps they are seeing what is really there – the self we each might have but which we grasp only in our higher moments and too late. (HTW 106)

    All lovers — silly lovers in their...

  23. LUCK
    (pp. 91-91)

    A man called me the other day with the idea of insuring my life. Now, I detest life-insurance agents; they always argue that I shall some day die, which is not so. I have been insured a great many times, for about a month at a time, but have had no luck with it at all. (LL 90)

    To think of all these people so eager and anxious to catch the steamer, and some of them running to catch it, and so fearful that they might miss it, – the morning of a steamboat accident. And the captain blowing his...

  24. MARIPOSA
    (pp. 92-99)

    In regard to the present work [Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town] I must disclaim at once all intentions of trying to do anything so ridiculously easy as writing about a real place and real people. Mariposa is not a real town. On the contrary, it is about seventy or eighty of them. You may find them all the way from Lake Superior to the sea, with the same square streets and the same maple trees and the same churches and hotels, and everywhere the sunshine of the land of hope. ...

    The inspiration of the book, — a land...

  25. MODERN LIFE
    (pp. 100-103)

    There are many younger people now, so we are told, who do not read Dickens. Nor is it to be wondered at. We live in a badly damaged world [ca. 1933]. It is a world of flickering shadows, tossed by electric currents, of a babel of voices on the harassed air, a world of inconceivable rapidity, of instantaneous effects, of sudden laughter and momentary tragedy, where every sensation is made and electrocuted in a second and passes into oblivion. It is a world in which nothing lives. Art itself is as old as man, and as immortal. But the form...

  26. NONSENSE
    (pp. 104-114)

    The landlady of a boarding-house is a parallelogram — that is, an oblong angular figure, which cannot be described, but which is equal to anything. (LL 11)

    A little beyond the City and further down the river the visitor finds this district of London terminating in the gloomy and forbidding Tower, the principal penitentiary of the city. Here Queen Victoria was imprisoned for many years. (MDE 41)

    You know, many a man realises late in life that if when he was a boy he had known what he knows now, instead of being what he is he might be what...

  27. OTHER NATIONS
    (pp. 115-122)

    They [the Irish] make a Constitutional Amendment Act of their own (1936). By this the British King is King of Ireland; but not King of Ireland in Ireland, only outside of it. To find the solution, turn to the back of the book. That’s the sole connection of Ireland with the Empire, except its language. Even as to that, they’re working hard to restore the old Gaelic. If they’re not careful, they’ll learn to speak it and then they’ll be sorry. (LaL 53-4)

    First, the imaginary Frenchman, still seen on the comic stage and still used as the basis of...

  28. OTHER WRITERS
    (pp. 123-130)

    I know there are solid arguments advanced in favour of the classics. I often hear them from my colleagues. My friend the professor of Greek tells me that he truly believes the classics have made him what he is. This is a very grave statement, if well founded. Indeed, I have heard the same argument from a great many Latin and Greek scholars. They all claim, with some heat, that Latin and Greek have practically made them what they are. This damaging charge against the classics should not be too readily accepted. In my opinion some of these men would...

  29. PARODY
    (pp. 131-135)

    The Victorians needed parody. Without it their literature would have been a rank and weedy growth, over-watered with tears. A lot of their writing called aloud for parody. (HH 71)

    The Great Detective sat in his office ... Half a bucket of cocaine and a dipper stood on a chair at his elbow. (NN 16)

    With the Great Detective, to think was to act, and to act was to think. Frequently he could do both together. (NN 19)

    Lord Ronald said nothing; he flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions....

  30. POLITICS
    (pp. 136-141)

    Put into the plainest prose, then, we are saying that the government of every country ought to supply work and pay for the unemployed, maintenance for the infirm and aged, and education and opportunity for the children. (UR 140)

    While admitting all the shortcomings and the injustices of the régime under which we have lived [ca. 1919], I am not one of those who are able to see a short and single remedy. Many people when presented with the argument above, would settle it at once with the word ‘socialism.’ Here, they say, is the immediate and natural remedy. I...

  31. THE PRESS
    (pp. 142-144)

    But even when a journalist has become familiar with all these tricks and tags, the question still remains, can he write? And for this there is no royal academic road, and an alleged training in alleged journalism [one of the above-mentioned tricks being use of the word ‘alleged’], if it cuts the student out from a proper share in wider, deeper culture, is dearly bought. (TMC 147)

    ‘There is no doubt that the corruption of the press is one of the worst factors that we have to oppose. But whether we can best fight it by buying the paper itself...

  32. PROFESSORS
    (pp. 145-147)

    The professors whom I see about me to-day [ca. 1923], ordinary quiet men, with the resigned tranquillity that betrays the pathos of intellectual failure – how can I compare them with the intellectual giants to whom I owe everything that I have forgotten. The professors of my college days were scholars, – vast reservoirs of learning, into whose depths one might drop the rope and bucket of curiosity to bring it up full to the brim with the limpid waters of truth. Plumb them? You couldn’t. Measure their learning? Impossible. It defied it. They acknowledged it themselves. They taught, –...

  33. PROGRESS
    (pp. 148-150)

    The record of the age of machinery is known to all. But the strange mystery, the secret that lies concealed within its organization, is realized by but few. It offers, to those who see it aright, the most perplexing industrial paradox ever presented in the history of mankind. With all our wealth we are still poor. After a century and a half of labour-saving machinery, we work about as hard as ever. With a power over nature multiplied a hundred fold, nature still conquers us. And more than this. There are many senses in which the machine age seems to...

  34. RELIGION AND MORALITY
    (pp. 151-158)

    I have noticed that my clerical friends, on the rare occasions when they are privileged to preach to me, have a way of closing their sermons by ‘leaving their congregations with a thought.’ It is a good scheme. It suggests an inexhaustible fund of reserve thought not yet tapped. It keeps the congregation, let us hope, in a state of trembling eagerness for the next installment. (ELS 159)

    I once asked a Christmas Eve group of children if they believed in Santa Glaus. The very smallest ones answered without hesitation, ‘Why, of course!’ The older ones shook their heads. The...

  35. ROYALTY
    (pp. 159-159)

    To my mind there is something eminently pathetic in the twentieth-century king with his frock coat, his building trowel, his spade, his tree, his statues and the other paraphernalia of his office, his false magnificence and his actual impotence. He is colonel of ten regiments and does not command a single man, the head of a navy and has no power to fire a single gun, wears, in his days of grandeur, twenty uniforms in forty minutes and finds none to fit him. (ELS 292-3)

    I’m like that with my underlying Jeffersonian republicanism: back I slip to such crazy ideas...

  36. SCIENCE
    (pp. 160-161)

    What I want to say is that when the scientist steps out from recording phenomena and offers a general statement of the nature of what is called ‘reality,’ the ultimate nature of space, of time, of the beginning of things, of life, of a universe, then he stands exactly where you and I do, and the three of us stand where Plato did – and long before him Rodin’s primitive thinker. (LaL 38)

    There followed the researches of the radioactivity school and, above all, those of Ernest Rutherford which revolutionized the theory of matter. I knew Rutherford well as we...

  37. SELF-DEVELOPMENT
    (pp. 162-164)

    Here we have first of all the creed and cult of self-development. It arrogates to itself the title of New Thought, but contains in reality nothing but the Old Selfishness. According to this particular outlook the goal of morality is found in fully developing one’s self. Be large, says the votary of this creed, be high, be broad. He gives a shilling to a starving man, not that the man may be fed but that he himself may be a shilling-giver. He cultivates sympathy with the destitute for the sake of being sympathetic. The whole of his virtue and his...

  38. SOCIAL JUSTICE
    (pp. 165-166)

    Few persons can attain to adult life without being profoundly impressed by the appalling inequalities of our human lot. Riches and poverty jostle one another upon our streets. The tattered outcast dozes on his bench while the chariot of the wealthy is drawn by. The palace is the neighbor of the slum. We are, in modern life [ca. 1919], so used to this that we no longer see it. (UR 14)

    The human mind, lost in a maze of inequalities that it cannot explain and evils that it cannot, singly, remedy, must adapt itself as best it can. An acquired...

  39. SPECIALIZATION
    (pp. 167-168)

    It is my opinion that now-a-days we are overridden in the specialties, each in his own department of learning, with his tags, and label, and his pigeon-hole category of proper names, precluding all discussion by ordinary people. No man may speak fittingly of the soul without spending at least six weeks in a theological college; morality is the province of the moral philosopher who is prepared to pelt the intruder back over the fence with a shower of German commentaries. Ignorance, in its wooden shoes, shuffles around the portico of the temple of learning, stumbling among the litter of terminology....

  40. SPIRITUALISM
    (pp. 169-170)

    I do not write what follows with the expectation of convincing or converting anybody. We Spiritualists, or Spiritists – we call ourselves both, or either — never ask anybody to believe us. If they do, well and good. If not, all right. Our attitude simply is that facts are facts. There they are; believe them or not as you like. As I said the other night, in conversation with Aristotle and John Bunyan and George Washington and a few others, why should anybody believe us? Aristotle, I recollect, said that all that he wished was that everybody should know how...

  41. SPORTING
    (pp. 171-174)

    A sportsman is a man who, every now and then, simply has to get out and kill something. Not that he’s cruel. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. It’s not big enough. (RU 68)

    And just one word about fresh air and exercise. Don’t bother with either of them. Get your room full of good air, then shut up the windows and keep it. It will keep for years. Anyway, don’t keep using your lungs all the time. Let them rest. As for exercise, if you have to take it, take it and put up with it. But as long as...

  42. THINKING
    (pp. 175-176)

    A student says ‘I want to write’; he never says ‘I want to think.’ (HTW 3)

    The ability to think is rare. Any man can think hard when he has to: the savage devotes a nicety of thought to the equipoise of his club, or the business man to the adjustment of a market price. But the ability or desire to think without compulsion about things that neither warm the hands nor fill the stomach, is very rare. (ELS 19)

    Indeed, nobody deliberately wants to think except the heroine in a problem play, who frequently gasps out ‘I mustthink,’...

  43. TRAVEL
    (pp. 177-178)

    As a further precaution against accident, sleep with the feet towards the [train] engine if you prefer to have the feet crushed, or with the head towards the engine, if you think it best to have the head crushed. In making this decision try to be as unselfish as possible. If indifferent, sleep crosswise with the head hanging over into the aisle. (LL 71)

    The battle pictures and the Hall of Mirrors, and the fountains and so on, are, I say, the things best worth seeing at Versailles. Everybody says so. I really wish now that I had seen them....

  44. TRUTH
    (pp. 179-183)

    A half-truth, like half a brick, is always more forcible as an argument than a whole one. It carries further. (GF x)

    The half-truth is to me a kind of mellow moonlight in which I love to dwell. One sees better in it. (ELS 189)

    From the time of the Romans onward Art had of necessity proceeded by the method of selected particulars and conspicuous qualities: that this was the nature and meaning of art itself: that exaggeration (meaning the heightening of the colour to be conveyed) was the very life of it: that herein lay the difference between the...

  45. THE WELL-TO-DO
    (pp. 184-187)

    I mix a good deal with the millionaires. I like them. I like their faces. I like the way they live. I like the things they eat. The more we mix together the better I like the things we mix. (LL 17)

    The creed that was embodied in the wordsnoblesse obligehas vanished with the nobility. (DSP 15)

    St. Paul’s puzzling admonition that every man should pursue every other man’s wealth took on a new meaning. (HL 11)

    There are broad steps leading up to the club, so broad and so agreeably covered with matting that the physical exertion...

  46. WOMEN
    (pp. 188-190)

    There are no new girls, no new women. Your grandmother was a devil of a clip half a century before you were born. You telemark on skis; she cut ice in a cutter. You only knew her when she was wrinkled and hobbling, reading the Epistle to the Thessalonians in a lace cap and saying she didn’t know what the world was coming to. The young have always been young, and the old always old ... men and women don’t change. It took thousands, uncounted thousands, of years to make them what they are. The changes that you think you...

  47. WORK
    (pp. 191-193)

    Let me sing to you the Nothingness, the Vanity of Life,

    Let me teach you of the effort you should shirk,

    Let me show you that you never ought to make the least endeavour,

    Or indulge yourself in any kind of work. (CoD 125)

    Work is when you go in somewhere at seven or eight o’clock in the morning and the boss says ‘do this,’ and you do it until noon. He says ‘I want so and so’ and you mustn’t say ‘Do you?’ I have worked once or twice. It’s awful. The Indians were quite right about it: it’s...

  48. WRITING
    (pp. 194-198)

    Writing is thinking. (HTW 1)

    In a certain sense all literature begins with imitation. Divergence comes later. (HTW 25)

    You just jot down ideas as they occur to you. The jotting is simplicity itself— it is the occurring which is difficult. (Attributed)

    I claim that anybody can learn to write, just as anybody can learn to swim. Nor can anybody swim without learning how. A person can thus learn to swim up to the limits imposed by his aptitude and physique. The final result may not be worth looking at, but he can swim. So with writing. (HTW 15)

    You...

  49. THE END
    (pp. 199-209)

    With it [the universe] goes out in extinction all that was thought of as matter, and with that all the framework of time and space that held it, and the conscious life that matched it. All ends with a cancellation of forces and comes to nothing; and our Universe ends thus with one vast, silent unappreciated joke. (HTT 288)

    Cicero and the rest talk of the ‘serenity’ of old age — in fact, a ‘serene’ old age has been a phrase in all languages! Serene old Men! Have you ever seen one of them in a sudden temper, because he...