- Mr. Leacock Serious. A review of Essays and Literary Studies, by Stephen Leacock
- The Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber Ltd
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412 ] Mr. Leacock Serious1 A review of Essays and Literary Studies, by Stephen Leacock New York: John Lane, 1916. Pp. 310. The New Statesman, 7 (29 July 1916) 404-05 Although Mr. Leacock employs many Americanisms which may sound slipshod to an English ear, he succeeds, as most writers of his continent fail, in being amusing and at the same time conveying some hard, important, and unpopular truths. The truths are universal; the humour is American, and may not appeal to English readers. It gains its effect often by a trick of comic simplicity and bluntness (such as the author himself remarks in American humorists) rather than by a sudden penetration to the intrinsic absurdity of its subject matter. Thus, in ridiculing modern superstitiousness, he illustrates by reference to Nadir the Nameless, the Hindoo astrologer: By the waiting clients Nadir is understood to be in consultation with the twin fates, Isis and Osiris. In reality Nadir is frying potatoes. Presently he will come out from behind the curtain and announce that Osiris has spoken(thatis,thepotatoesarenowfinishedandonthebackofthestove) and that he is prepared to reveal hidden treasure at 40 cents a revelation.2 The humour of this episode is not found in the eternal comedy of the mountebank:itliesinthefactthatNadirisfryingpotatoes.Wearenotledto insight, through laughter; we are told of our superstition, then allowed to relax our minds in mirth. The great weakness of American humour is that it usually stands at most for the hearty laugh; the reader of Candide or Pickwick Paperscannotwhollyescapefromexerciseofintellectorfeelings;3 inAmerica theheartylaughtriumphs.ButMr.Leacock,unlikemostAmericanhumorists , has a sharp and serious meaning to insert between the roars. One could hardly read this book and be merely amused. In the essays entitled “The Apology of a Professor,” “The Lot of the Schoolmaster,” and especially “Literature and Education in America,” Mr. Leacock has exposed some of the essential faults of American education, some of the reasons for the insolvency of American literature. He draws a truthful picture of the American graduate student, the prospective Doctor of Philosophy: his [ 413 Mr. Leacock Serious specialisation in knowledge, his expansion in ignorance, his laborious dulness , his years of labour and his crowning achievement–the Thesis.4 Now it is not to be thought that this post-graduate work upon the preparation of a thesis, this so-called original scholarship, is difficult. It is pretentious , plausible,esoteric,cryptographic,occult,ifyouwill,butdifficult it is not.  This labour is fatal to the development of intellectual powers. It crushes originality, it kills style. Few, very few, of these “original contributions” are well written or even readable. At the other end of the scale, a product of the same social conditions, stands the “American Reporter, tireless in his activity ,omnipresent,omnivorous,andomni-ignorant”(89).Thereporterwrites no better than the Ph.D. Of this scandal of a continent the causes are first commercialism, and second, according to Mr. Leacock, American civilisation with its public school and the dead level of its elementary instruction, with its simple code of republicanism and its ignorance of the glamour and mystery of monarchy, with its bread and work for all and its universal hope of the betterment of personal fortune , contains in itself an atmosphere in which the flower of literature cannot live.  In the American scene Mr. Leacock finds material for ridicule. But his criticism, as the quotation above will show, is more than “horse-sense”; his diversions conceal a positive and formidable point of view. He upholds the classical, the Oxford education: Latin and Greek as “the starting point for a general knowledge of the literature, the history, and the philosophy of all ages” (76). His attitude is austere, pessimistic, almost mediaevalist. He believes in discipline, form, restraint; in a real contrast of good and evil not to be obscured by talk about “social evolution”; he believes furthermore in the importance of imagination. And he sees in the chaos of American life only an advanced stage of a disease which menaces Europe; the philosophy of comfort without ideals, the cheap and easy utilitarianism of popular education and the dead level. There are a few writers in America who share Mr. Leacock's views. Other essays in the volume show that Mr. Leacock is by no means blind to the merits of American literature. His essay on O. Henry should be an introduction in England for an author who is here still unappreciated and unknown.5 1916: journalism 414 ] Notes 1. Stephen Leacock (1869-1944), a Canadian political scientist and essayist at McGill...