In My Fashion
- David Staines (Editor)
The Letters of Stephen Leacock. Oxford University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Coral Ann Howells
David Staines’s superb edition of Stephen Leacock’s letters contains a portrait by Yousuf Karsh of the elderly author at his desk in his home at Orillia, caught in characteristic pose: “I have as I say been writing writing.” This staged image from the early 1940s represents an iconic figure of masculine authority, though Leacock’s smile as he looks up from his cluttered desk gives the portrait a disarming informality. Karsh’s photograph catches the many-sidedness of Leacock: “Humanist and humorist, educator and economist, professor and pundit” as Staines describes him, and these eight hundred letters, many never published before, amplify that single image into a story of the man’s professional and private life. The letters span the whole of Leacock’s career as Chair of the Department of Political Science and Economics at McGill for thirty years, as writer and popular lecturer, ending only on the day he went into hospital for his last operation. There are business letters to his publishers and magazine editors, letters on management of his Orillia farm, letters to family, friends, McGill colleagues and literary acquaintances, together with a miscellaneous selection including one to the Brockville magistrate expostulating over a traffic fine. Just as Leacock wrote across many genres, from humour and satire to political science, economics, social policy, education, and literary criticism, so his letters reflect that breadth of reference.
The challenge of researching and editing this vast mass of material has been met admirably by Staines, who worked for fifteen years on the project, collaborating with Barbara Nimmo, Leacock’s niece and literary executor, till her death in 1993. Names of correspondents are precisely annotated, the index contains a complete list of Leacock’s major and minor works, and the contextualising overviews are extremely helpful. This volume is more than a scholarly edition of the letters; it is also a literary biography. It is arranged with considerable narrative flair in ten chronological chapters of selected letters, prefaced by Staines’ s introductory commentaries which highlight important events in Leacock’s life and his central claim to international celebrity as a humorist, a design very similar to Leacock’s own book, The Greatest Pages of Charles Dickens (1934).
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the letters is their revelation of Leacock’s personality and his talent for writing to the moment, so that his letters read like good conversation. Typically for its time Leacock’s professional world was an exclusively masculine one and his tone, genial and direct, might be described as clubbable. His voluminous correspondence with publishers provides many instances of his “clearness in our business relations” and of his energetic engagement with the project at hand. “Do Rush the book and boom it” (all doubly underlined) is a typical exhortation, and to Thomas B. Costain at Doubleday while awaiting publication of Montreal, Seaport and City (1942) he writes enthusiastically about his next book: “(Our book, READ IT WITH ME) . . . I am at it, absorbed in it . . . but with various points to discuss.” Leacock’s negotiations over book contracts and increasingly complex copy- right arrangements involving Canada, the United States and Britain provide valuable insights into colonial publishing history.
It is, however, in his informal corres- pondence with family and friends that the Leacock of Sunshine Sketches is most evident, particularly in the travel letters written during his three extensive lecture tours—one across the Empire in 1907-08 to promote imperial development and trade (“I am an Imperialist because I will not be a Colonial”), one to England and Scotland 1921, and on his retirement from McGill in 1936 a final tour across Western Canada where he lectured often twice a day on topics from Social Credit to “edu- cational and literary things.” “Wonderful success—all records broken, but it’s hard,” he wrote to his niece Barbara, and on returning to Montreal he decided to give up on public lecturing—but not on writing. Honoured by the Royal Society of Canada with the Lorne Pierce Medal in 1937 and winning the Governor General’s Award for the book about his Western tour in 1938, Leacock, now in his early 70s, continued to produce a stream of books and articles, with no less than five books published in 1942-43. There is seldom a word about his failing health even in his detailed domestic letters to his niece and his close friend and research secretary Mrs Herbert T. Davis, for Leacock was extremely reticent about his private feelings. Even at the end of 1943 when finishing While There Is Time: The Case Against Social Catastrophe, he was still writing to publishers and magazine editors planning more new projects. But this was Leacock’s end game, played “in my own way and fashion”; he died of cancer early in 1944. Staines’s monumental volume is a fitting tribute to a significant figure in English-Canadian cultural history.
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Books reviewed: Where Are the Voices Coming From?: Canadian Culture and the Legacies of History by Coral Ann Howell
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Books reviewed: The Winnipeg Connection: Writing Lives at Mid-Century by Birk Sproxton and The State of the Arts: Living with Culture in Toronto by Jonny Dovercourt, Christina Palassio, and Alana Wilcox
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MLA: Howells, Coral Ann. In My Fashion. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 19 June 2013. Web. 19 Sept. 2014.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #205 (Summer 2010), Queerly Canadian. (pg. 189 - 190)
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