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December 16, 2017

Classic, Kindly Leacock

On this day in 1869, the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock was born. Twenty-five of Leacock's forty-odd books are in his comic mode, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town and Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich being most well-known; the others, mostly history and politics, arise from Leacock taking Canada and his PhD in Economics seriously. Leacock looked upon his double-life as an opportunity for crossfire, if not ambush -- for example, in 1936, the year he retired from McGill, he published both The Gathering Financial Crisis in Canada and Hellements of Hickonomics, in Hiccoughs of Verse Done in Our Social Planning Mill. Not that Leacock's satire was fired in anger, his own theory being that his humor, and "the humour of the highest culture, the humour of the future," is born of "kindliness ... and of the wide charity of mind that has come with the shattering of narrower ideals, not yet replaced."

Leacock's specialty is small-town life, the kind lived in "Mariposa," which is situated somewhere between The Old Homestead and The Big City, and whose inhabitants enjoy many illusions about all three places. "The Marine Excursion of the Knights of Pythias" is a summer picnic by steamer across Lake Wissanotti, and as "everybody belongs to the Knights of Pythias and the Masons and the Odd Fellows, just as they all belong to the Snow Shoe Club and the Girls' Friendly Society," a popular trip. Still, to the trained eye, the eager folk milling at the wharf on the appointed July morning can be categorized:
    In reality, the crowd is made up of two classes -- all of the people in Mariposa who are going on the excursion and all those who are not. Some come for the one reason and some for the other. The two tellers of the Exchange Bank are both there standing side by side. But one of them -- the one with the cameo pin and the long face like a horse -- is going, and the other -- with the other cameo pin and the face like another horse -- is not.
When, during the evening return and still some distance from shore, the Mariposa Belle begins to sink, enthusiasm is not much dampened. Some gain confidence from the lifeboat, not a few take courage from their refreshments, and all are aware that in this reedy stretch of the mighty Wissanotti the water isn't much over waist-high. Such sinking had been going on for so long that "if a person arrives late anywhere and explains that the steamer sank everybody understands the situation." Still, in accompaniment to a fresh round of tea and sandwiches, the rockets are fired and the lifeboat launched- bringing near-disaster somewhat nearer when it too sinks, those embarked being rescued back to the grounded steamer just in time.

The final image in Leacock's story is typical for him and iconic for many Canadians: that half of the town which did not picnic rescues by rowboat and canoe that half which did, all nonplused; the indomitable Belle rises from bottom of her own accord and chugs gamely for home; the Mariposa band, still on board, continues to pluck away at "O, Canada," serenading the moon and the star-struck night and those among the welcoming crowd at the wharf who care to listen.

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