Stephen Leacock, the early 20th century Anglo-Canadian humourist, seems almost forgotten now, a century later… until you start to look around a bit. Admired by the likes of Jack Benny and Groucho Marx, among others, Leacock was incredibly popular in America in the first twenty to thirty years of the last century. In many ways, he seems to me to be in an analogous position to that of Christopher Morley, whose Shandygaff I recently read: admired by a devoted core of discerning readers, but larger forgotten by wider audiences. This strikes me as unfair.
I had never read any of his work, but had recently encountered references to him on multiple occasions, and decided, as I was at a loose end and trying to figure out what book to finish next, to give Frenzied Fiction a go. Indeed, at first blush, it appears to share a good deal with Shandygaff: both were published in the final years of 1910s, against the backdrop of the Great War.
Here are some thoughts on the individual “fictions” which Leacock engaged in:
I. My Revelations as a Spy: a whimsical little spy fiction, witty and droll.
II. Father Knickerbocker: a Fantasy: a stroll through the historical imagining of New York City, on the cusp of America’s – late – 1917 entry into the Great War. Made me curious, once again, about the history of New York, before the filth and the glory, when it was a more pastoral sort of place.
III. The Prophet in Our Midst: an “expert” explains the complicated entanglements which were woven around the various empires and alliances which descended into the Great War. A satire on expertise, which now requires some substantial footnoting, unless you’re an historian of the period, but the thrust of the satire is as fresh as if it were written about today’s crop of “experts”.
IV. Personal Adventures in the Spirit World: a satire on Spiritualists. It’s good to see that these nonces weren’t taken seriously, even then. In this short tale, an intrepid narrator goes from contacting the spirit of his dead great-grandfather, to finding that the combined intelligences of great leaders of the past appear to have plummeted upon moving “to the other side”, from which place they are mysteriously able to communicate by telephone. Oh, and Napoleon forgets how to speak French. Brilliant.
V. The Sorrows of a Summer Guest: Imagine, if you will, the world of P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, or Lord Emsworth, and then turn it on its head with a guest who really, really doesn’t want to be spending his month’s holiday in the company of “bright young things”.
VI. To Nature and Back Again: proving to your jaded early twenty-first century reader that there’s nothing new under the sun, this satire on what appears to have been a “back-to-naturism” craze in the 1910s is drily witty, especially the description of the protagonist’s combinations (or “union suit” – long pyjamas, for you moderns) which “bristled with rage from head to foot” and the realisation that the animals of the forest were, in fact, other back-to-nature types.
VII. The Cave Man as He is: a visit with a cave man, and his wife and small child. Not terribly witty or amusing, slightly droll.
VIII. Ideal Interviews:
A. With a European Prince: the prince is vague and dismissive, pockets the interviewer’s money, and steals his fountain pen.
B. With Our Greatest Actor: the actor broods, and is convinced that performing Hamlet without speaking the soliloquies is the measure of his acting genius. Oh, and brown velvet, not black.
C. With Our Greatest Scientist: somewhat cringe-inducing, this perception of the oracular scientist pronouncing incomphrensibly is risible, but not really funny.
D. With Our Typical Novelists: appears to reveal that this husband and wife duo of “typical novelists” are unmitigated prats, over-interested in ridiculously immersive research and animal husbandry.
IX. The New Education: the earliest instance I’ve read of mockery of curriculum which steered away from “greats”, into more banal and useless things, like sociology.
X. The Errors of Santa Clause: apparently, children and parents want each other’s presents, and grandfather keeps the whiskey for himself.
XI. Lost in New York: a second meditation on Gotham, this one revolving around the differences between a hotel visit of the 1880s, and one in the 1910s. What a difference thirty years can make.
XII. This Strenuous Age: a meditation on the onset of what would eventually be enshrined in law as Prohibition (a dark chapter in American history indeed), the change in the sense of “work”, and the onset of “diet”. Again, this essay seems oddly prescient.
XIII. The Old, Old Story of How Five Men Went Fishing: I tried, but I’ll admit it: I simply cant abide fishing stories. Read a few pages, skipped the rest. Callow of me, I know. Some blokes went fishing. The fish were / weren’t biting. Finis.
XIV: Back from the Land: with the planting of Victory gardens during the Great War, Leacock deftly satirises the propensity to begin a garden with enthusiasm, only to have it decay and die, unattended.
XV: The Perplexity Column as Done by the Jaded Journalist: agony aunts and “for your information” columns, beware.
XVI:Simple Stories of Success, or, How to Succeed in Life: a deft satire on the pursuit of succes, and how elusive it can be.
XVII: In Dry Toronto: a temperance / Prohibition satire, wherein Toronto, although not allowing the sale of alcohol, is still exporting it to Montreal and elsewhere.
XVIII: Merry Christmas: a somber reflection on three years of the Great War, as seen through the eyes of Father Christmas.
Overall, I found Leacock to be surprisingly modern in his expression,despite the clearly century-old subject material. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised after all. Has the world really changed so much in a hundred years? Well, yes. But in Leacock, we don’t so much hear the change as hear the things that have stayed the same.
Originally reviewed 9 November 2011.
Find your copy of Frenzied Fiction, available from booksellers around the world, at AbeBooks.com (title links directly to search results).