Leacock's Flying Circus

Stephen Leacock: His Remarkable Life

By T. F. Rigelhof

A review of Stephen Leacock: His Remarkable Life by Albert Moritz & Theresa Moritz

Published on October 1, 2002

Stephen Leacock: His Remarkable Life
Albert Moritz & Theresa Moritz

Fitzhenry & Whiteside
$34.95
cloth
432pp
1-55041-600-6

When I go into a bank I get rattled. The clerks rattle me; the wickets rattle me; the sight of the money rattles me; everything rattles me. The moment I cross the threshold of a bank and attempts to transact business there, I become an irresponsible idiot.

These are the opening words of “My Financial Career,” Stephen Leacock’s first book. There’s very little that was written and published in Canada in the first half of its 135 years that’s of anything other than antiquarian interest – Literary Lapses is the glorious exception, still crazed after all these years. Wickets may be long gone from banks but indiscreet employees will tell you that the irresponsible, the rattled, and the idiotic are all familiar customers.

Unable to find a North American publisher for a collection of sketches he wrote as after-dinner entertainments and published sporadically in literary magazines. Leacock hired the Montreal Gazette Publishing Company to print 3000 copies of Literary Lapses at his own expense, and the Montreal News Company to distribute and sell it at 35 cents a copy. His timing was impeccable. It was 1910, the year of Mark Twain’s death, and John Lane of The Bodley Head, Mark Twain’s London publisher, picked up a copy at a Montreal train station, and decided he’d just uncovered Twain’s successor.

Leacock was forty, a McGill professor of Economics and the author of Elements of Political Science (his bestselling book in his lifetime) when he was “discovered” as a comic writer. Stephen Leacock: His Remarkable Life is the second attempt by Albert and Theresa Moritz at getting his story right. In 1985, they published Stephen Leacock: A Biography but since then a great deal more has been learned about when and where Leacock published what, and other complexities of his life as a writer. Their new book is being touted by its publisher as “the most comprehensive and thoroughly researched biography” of “the most influential humourist of the 20th century.” It certainly does cover a lot of ground in minute detail and is nicely illustrated with archival photographs. The authors also do a thorough job in summing up what Leacock puts in each of his books and what reviewers had to say about them. It’s a useful book and is of particular interest to any reader interested in Leacock’ position at McGill and the place of McGill within his life. Unfortunately, it fails to give much sense of Leacock’s vibrancy and vitality, or of his extraordinary influence on cerebral radio and television comedy in the second half of the 20th century.

Albert and Theresa Moritz seem far more embarrassed than captivated by Leacock, and feel the need to explain him to their readers rather than give us as much of the man as can be caught in words. Leacock was “politically incorrect” in his own time and remains so in ours, and this bothers rather than delights them. They are too fastidious to quote his own words at any length and fuss much too much over the things that simply mark Leacock as a man of Falstaffian appetites and attitudes.

They are not the sort of writers who relish English humour at its most expansive, so they don’t quote the late great Spike Milligan on the crucial importance of Leacock’s style and substance to the writing of The Goons for radio in the ’50s, or John Cleese on the importance of Leacock via Milligan to the writing of Monty Python’s Flying Circus for television and the movies in the ’60s and ’70s. That’s where Leacock’s comic influence is living and keeping laughter alive, and the Moritzes just miss it. Only in Canada. Pity. mRb

Critic, memoirist and novelist T. F. Rigelhof's Montreal stories, Je t'aime, Cowboy, are available in English (Goose Lane) and French translation (Editions de la pleine lune).

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