Stephen Butler Leacock (1869-1944), Canadian author, will long be remembered for his best-selling book Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912)as well as the numerous awards and honours he received during his illustrious lifetime as author, professor, lecturer and humourist.
"The town, I say, has one broad street that runs up from the lake, commonly called the Main Street. There is no doubt about its width. When Mariposa was laid out there was none of that shortsightedness which is seen in the cramped dimensions of Wall Street and Piccadilly. Missinaba Street is so wide that if you were to roll Jeff Thorpe's barber shop over on its face it wouldn't reach half way across. Up and down the Main Street are telegraph poles of cedar of colossal thickness, standing at a variety of angles and carrying rather more wires than are commonly seen at a transatlantic cable station."--"The Hostelry of Mr. Smith", Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town
Stephen Butler Leacock was born on 30 December 1869 at Swanmore, Hampshire, England, the third of eleven children to Peter Leacock and Agnes Emma (née Butler). The Leacock family did a lot of travelling in their early years but finally emigrated to Canada in 1876 and settled near the village of Sutton, Ontario on a one-hundred acre farm. It was a difficult time, with harsh winters and hard work. It was only two years later that Stephen's father Peter travelled to Manitoba, leaving his large family behind. Leacock enrolled at the University of Toronto in 1887, studying modern and classical languages and literature with such exceptional talent and focus that he finished two years' worth of courses in just one. He graduated from University College in 1891with a Bachelor of Arts degree.
The 1890s heralded his early success as a humourist with articles published in various magazines such as the New York periodicals Truth and Life and Toronto's Grip magazine. But Leacock had his sights set on bigger things. His real interests lay in economics and political science. He had come across The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) by Thorstein Veblen. In 1899 his application was accepted at the University of Chicago to pursue graduate studies under Veblen. Shortly after this, on 7 August 1900 Stephen Leacock and actress Beatrix Hamilton married. Their son, Stephen Lushington, was born on 19 August 1915.
During Leacock's third year at the University of Chicago he accepted the position of special lecturer in political science and history with McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. 1903 saw his dissertation The Doctrine of Laissez-faire completed and he received his Ph.D. magna cum laude. He was then to become a full-time assistant professor with McGill and began public lecturing, primarily about the British Empire, under the patronage of the May Court Club. His first book, Elements of Political Science (1906) became a standard university textbook for the next twenty years. Leacock was appointed full-time professor at McGill in 1908.
Leacock published Literary Lapses in 1910, with the financial assistance of his brother George. It is a best-of compilation of his previously published writings. It sold out quickly and propelled Leacock into being known as one of the most popular authors in the English-speaking world. In 1911, Leacock's collection of parodies, Nonsense Novels successfully followed. 1912 saw the release of Leacock's satirical masterpiece, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. Based on his many summers spent in Orillia, Ontario and other childhood experiences, it was very popular in Canada, the United States and England. His satirization of city life, Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich was published in 1914.
On the 15th of December, 1925, Leacock's wife Beatrix (Trix) died of breast cancer. Leacock kept his sorrow private and returned to writing, teaching, and public speaking, and with his gift of public speaking spoke whenever he could about cancer and assisted with fundraising for cancer research.
In 1921 Leacock was a founding member of the Canadian Authors' Association. On the 31st of May 1936 he had to retire from McGill because of mandatory retirement at age sixty-five. My Discovery of the West: A Discussion of East and West in Canada won the Governor General's Award in 1937. Leacock was diagnosed with throat cancer and died on 28 March 1944.
The "Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour" has been awarded yearly since 1947 for the best humorous book by a Canadian author. In 1958, the Stephen Leacock Memorial Home on Old Brewery Bay was opened to the public and declared a national monument in 1968. To mark the centenary of Leacock's birth the Government of Canada, issued on 12 November, 1969, a six-cent stamp in his honour. In 1970 a mountain in the Yukon's Saint Elias range was named after him.
Other works of Stephen Leacock include:
Further Foolishness and Essays and Literary Studies (1916)
Last Leaves (1945)
Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc 2005. All Rights Reserved.
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