- On the Front Line of Life: Memories and Reflections, 1935-1944
This anthology contains twenty-four essays penned by the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock in the last decade of his life. Although he remained remarkably prolific in old age, Leacock's emotional outlook vacillated enormously between hope and disillusionment during this period. His essays are set against the background of the Depression and the inevitable conflict of the Second World War. To make matters worse, in 1936 Leacock was forced into retirement by McGill University, where he had been a professor of political economy for thirty-five years. 'Old age is the "Front Line" of life, moving into No Man's Land,' he quipped dismally in his essay 'Three Score and Ten: The Business of Growing Old' (1940). In the autumn of his life Leacock sought solace in humour but often found it wanting: 'All ends with a cancellation of forces and comes to nothing; and our universe ends thus with one vast, silent, unappreciated joke.'
Alan Bowker, the book's editor, has a doctorate in Canadian history. He has spent most of his career in the Canadian foreign service, including a position as high commissioner to Guyana. In 1973 he edited an interesting collection of Leacock's early serious essays entitled The Social Criticism of Stephen Leacock (reissued in 1996 with a postscript and supplementary bibliography). In his introduction to his first anthology, the youthful [End Page 322] Bowker maintained that Leacock's humour and social commentary became dated and increasingly irrelevant with advancing years. In the introduction to On the Front Line of Life, Bowker admits that his first judgment of the later Leacock was rash and mistaken. On the Front Line of Life can be regarded, therefore, as a gesture of editorial atonement and correction. In his introduction Bowker notes that as Leacock aged, his essays became informal in character. He adopted a conversational style, enlivened with wit and ripened with wisdom. On the one hand Bowker acknowledges that in the 1920s at the height of his fame, Leacock's humorous stories often appear hurried and sometimes lack pathos, subtlety, and irony. On the other hand Bowker states that by the 1930s Leacock tried to find a new voice as a social critic and sage. He addressed those issues that he cared about passionately in education, literature, economics, and Canada's place in the world. On the whole, Bowker's introduction is deftly crafted. He is quite aware that Leacock had his prejudices: his anti-feminism, his defence of the British Empire, and his interpretation of Canada built on two founding cultures to the exclusion of other nationalities. In spite of such character flaws, Bowker considers Leacock to be profoundly human and his views and sentiments still relevant to our contemporary age. In his role as editor, Bowker has added a useful chronology, some explanatory notes to the text, and a bibliographical checklist of the essays selected for inclusion.
The themes in On the Front Line of Life vary considerably. Many of Leacock's essays have an autobiographical element. There is an excerpt from The Boy I Left behind Me about his childhood on an Ontario farm, his rollicking account of E.P. Leacock ('My Remarkable Uncle: A Personal Document'), and a reminiscence of his schooling at Upper Canada College ('The Struggle to Make Us Gentlemen'). These are vintage pieces of Leacock's essay writing - touching, sometimes exaggerated, but always entertaining. The reminiscences extend to his character portrait of his friend and colleague Andrew Macphail and to his love of fishing on Lake Simcoe with the famous rower Jack Gaudaur. Many essays concern the conflicting patterns of modern education: Leacock's criticisms of classical languages, his scepticism of the soundness and utility of philosophy and economics, and his distrust of society's hankering for intellectual fads and of administrators who open up the curriculum to the commercial and practical arts. A number of essays are cranky or wistful in tone, reflecting Leacock's ambivalence towards old age and his resentment at McGill...