Stephen Leacock was the most successful humorist writing in the English language, but his ideas about society were not so amusing.
In the autumn of 1919 the New York Times invited Stephen Leacock to write a series of articles presenting his views on the current political situation, in particular the challenge to the status quo being offered by the radical left. Leacock was writing in the middle of a “Red Scare,” a widespread fear on the part of government and the public that both the United States and Canada teetered on the verge of Bolshevik-inspired revolution. It may seem like a paranoid fantasy today, but this concern was very real to the readers who turned to the pages of the Times for information and reassurance. The revolution in Russia, which was only two years old, had established the precedent of a small group of well-organized “Reds” appearing out of nowhere to impose a radical new political and social order. People saw conspirators everywhere, funded by Lenin’s gang of ideological cutthroats and working to spread worldwide revolution.
“These are troubled times,” Leacock began his series. “As the echoes of the war die away the sound of a new conflict rises in our ears. All the world is filled with industrial unrest.” Making matters worse was the spreading “infection” of Bolshevism, he wrote. “Over the rim of the Russian horizon are seen the fierce eyes and the unshorn face of the real and undoubted Bolshevik, waving his red flag.”
It is indicative of Leacock’s reputation that America’s most prestigious newspaper figured that a Canadian humorist was the best person to explain these momentous events to its readers. At the time, he was the most popular funnyman writing in the English language. “His pieces were published in Canadian newspapers and magazines, of course, but also in New York and London,” explains the historian Margaret MacMillan in her new book, Stephen Leacock (Penguin Canada). “Publishers begged him for his latest work. Theatre producers in London suggested he write plays. Charlie Chaplin asked him for a screenplay. A young F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote from Princeton to say how much his own writing was influenced by Leacock. Audiences paid handsomely to hear his lectures.”
Leacock’s occasional pieces were collected almost annually into best- selling books, such as Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912 ) and Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich (1914 ), which gently satirized the foibles of everyday life. But for his articles in the Times, Leacock put on his academic hat. For as well as being a humorist, he was a trained political economist—a graduate of the University of Chicago, where he studied under the famed social theorist Thorstein Veblen, and a member of the Department of Economics and Political Science at McGill University in Montreal.
MacMillan, whose brief book is a sympathetic but not uncritical portrait, admits that Leacock was by most accounts an indifferent scholar with a surprisingly slight grasp of his specialty. “Humorists, it was said, thought him an economist, and economists thought him a humorist,” she writes. As she points out, Leacock did not really care that much about academia. Although he was an entertaining lecturer, beloved by his students, he preferred to address a broader public. He was, in modern parlance, a public intellectual. Business and government leaders sought his advice; people took his thoughts on public issues very seriously indeed.
So what did Leacock have to say in the Times about the “National Hysteria” (his phrase) that was gripping North America? He was sympathetic to the voices of reform. He conceded that economic inequality was rampant and inexcusable, that something had to change, that labour’s demands for a new deal were just. But he also warned that reform movements were being subverted by “the underground conspiracy of social revolution.” As a result, the forces of extremism were drowning out the voices of moderation, and society was sliding “nearer and nearer to the brink of the abyss.”
Leacock, MacMillan argues, was that familiar Canadian hybrid, a pink Tory. Or, to express it in modern political usage, he was a social liberal but a fiscal conservative. He was happy enough to entertain ideas of an old-age pension, a minimum wage and a shorter workday. But socialism was a pipe dream, “a bubble floating in the air.” If people made the mistake of taking it seriously, it would lead to chaos. “The blind Samson of labour will seize upon the pillars of society,” he fulminated, “and bring them down in a common destruction.” Leacock did not oppose change, but change had to come slowly and be measured against the more pressing need to maintain social stability.
In his articles in the Times (reprinted the following year in book form as The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice), Leacock reveals himself to be a man of his time, class and gender. As such he opposed equal rights for women, disapproved of immigration by Asians and Blacks, and disparaged Aboriginal cultures. It is a truism that we should not judge historical figures by the ethical standards of our own day. Leacock may have been a misogynist and a racist, the argument goes, but so was everyone else; it is unreasonable to condemn him for it.
Fair enough. Except that not everyone else was a misogynist and a racist. Leacock had contemporaries, men even, who supported women’s suffrage, who welcomed Asian immigrants, who did not think Aboriginals were inferior human beings. Such people may have been in the minority, but they existed and they spoke out, and Leacock was not among them. It is not holding him up to the standards of the present to point out that he could have had a better sense of which way the world was moving instead of trying to stop it.
MacMillan’s book appears in a series titled Extraordinary Canadians. Isn’t someone extraordinary if they rise above the standards of their day, if they hold opinions that are not simply conventional wisdom, if they do or think something that breaks with public opinion to espouse a more progressive point of view? No question, Leacock was successful (and funny). If he’d only transcended the prejudices of his audience instead of pandering to them, I’d be more willing to admit him to the ranks of the extraordinary.
But that’s not MacMillan’s fault. If the other books in this series are as sensible and well written as hers, Penguin will have performed a useful service by giving the general reader access to a set of Canadians who, if not always extraordinary, are at least provocative and important.