Stephen Butler Leacock usually gets the credit for being the Canadian culture-maker. Whether he deserves all the credit is a matter for the next two entries in our series, but he is definitely an excellent place to start. 

First, however, a few key details about the man and his life are in order. Because Leacock is often compared to Mark Twain, some assume he was a self-made man from humble origins like Twain. He was decidedly not. For one thing, he was born into old English money and he wasn’t even born in Canada. He attended Upper Canada College, which was and still is the premier prep school for Canada’s first families. He spent time teaching and learning at the University of Toronto and McGill University, the two most prestigious universities in English Canada, and studied under socialist academic Thorstein Veblen at the University of Chicago. He was a lifelong Canadian Tory, advocating for the monarchy, for tradition, and for the presence of whatever passed for religion in public life. 

With these facts in mind, I present to you the first sentences of what is far and away his best known work, the “Sunshine Sketches Of A Little Town:” 

I don’t know whether you know Mariposa. If not, it is of no consequence, for if you know Canada at all, you are probably well acquainted with a dozen towns just like it. 

There it lies in the sunlight, sloping up from the little lake that spreads out at the foot of the hillside on which the town is built. There is a wharf beside the lake, and lying alongside of it a steamer that is tied to the wharf with two ropes of about the same size as they use on the Lusitania. The steamer goes nowhere in particular, for the lake is landlocked and there is no navigation for the Mariposa Belle except to “run trips” on the first of July and the Queen’s Birthday, and to take excursions of the Knights of Pythias and the Sons of Temperance to and from the Local Option Townships.

Here Leacock consciously sets himself up as the definitive expert on all that is Canada, and to do it he focuses not on the big cities, but one of many indistinguishable country villages. And what does he choose to tell you about, right off the bat? An old boat, destined to sit around except for two days a year where it floats a group of alcohol-fearing “Knights of Pythias” to and from other hamlets on the water. Yet that old boat still has pretensions to being the Lusitania, or else why would they use the ropes “of about the same size” as that famous vessel? 

But if you think Leacock has overpromised and undelivered, you still don’t quite understand Mariposa, and Canada by extension. If you did, you would immediately break into the easy laughter of recognition. Of course Canadian rustics would putter about the local water hole with the utmost solemnity on the Queen’s Birthday, for is this not the proper and natural order of things? Doesn’t, or shouldn’t, everyone, live this way? But no matter, because Leacock is going to spend the rest of the Sunshine Sketches hammering away at details like this until you do get it. 

Leacock was definitely a product of his time and place, but even that can only excuse so much of the long-winded detail and the humour that doesn’t cut deep enough. His writing has influenced everything from Letterkenny to Essex County to Red Green to Corner Gas to the Wingfield Cycle of plays, so he clearly hit the mark. 

In his defence, there is another work of his that fewer people know today, the “Arcadian Adventures With The Idle Rich,” a much more biting satire of early 20th-century America, which captivated the nascent Soviets and inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s own Gilded Age caricatures. Clearly, Leacock was capable of weightier stuff, but even these Arcadian Adventures are not what you would call emotionally stirring literature. 

Perhaps a woman’s touch is what is needed here, and that’s why, next week, we will travel to the Maritime idyll of Prince Edward Island and meet Lucy Maud Montgomery, creator of Anne of Green Gables. 

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See the previous installments in the Canadian Culture series:

Part 1 on Heroes: ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs The World’ Vs Terrance Denby and ‘Sidequest’

Part 2 on “Humour”: The Libertarian Fantasy of ‘Letterkenny’

Part 3 on Graphic Novel Nihilism: The Harsh Truths of ‘Essex County’

Part 4 on Spawn and Wolverine: Banished From The Promised Land: A Tale of Two Canadian Anti-Heroes

Part 5 on Science Fiction Dystopias: Inside Quebec’s – and Canada’s – Replicant Culture

Part 6 on Animation: The Garrison Mentality: More Than Meets The Eye

Part 7 on Music: How To Build A Successful Canadian Musical Act

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image via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain