- On the Front Line of Life: Stephen Leacock: Memories and Reflections, 1935-1944
Not long ago I spoke to a group of retired people, trying to put the collapse of the 1990s stock market boom into historical perspective. Some of the illustrative material I chose came from two linked stories by Stephen Leacock: 'The Wizard of Finance' and 'The Arrested Philanthropy of Mr Tomlinson,' published in Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich (1914). Almost a century later, Leacock's shrewd and amusing take on wealth and the wealthy, and on speculation, continues to be relevant. [End Page 144]
Additional evidence of Leacock's lasting significance may be found in this fine collection of essays from Leacock's ten last years, selected and edited by Alan Bowker. Not all are of equal interest, and I would have replaced a snoozer like 'Bass Fishing on Lake Simcoe with Jake Gaudaur' with 'Academic Freedom,' published in Maclean's in 1936. (No doubt this betrays my déformation professionelle.) Almost all of the essays repay reading, though, and most are interesting not just for what they tell us about Leacock but what they say about the Depression and the war. We owe Bowker a debt of gratitude for making them available in this form.
Bowker's admirable introduction helps to interpret the autobiographical essays and to place all of the pieces in the context of their time. A political economist and a conservative (in both senses of the word), Leacock recognized that the Depression had definitively demonstrated the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of classical economics. Speaking to the Canadian Political Science Association in 1934, he asked, 'What Is Left of Adam Smith?' His answer, only the recognition that economic man is selfish. However, the belief inherent in Smith's 'invisible hand,' the conviction 'that the pursuit of the individual's own interest made for the welfare of mankind,' was mistaken. 'It does not. The welfare of mankind has got to be achieved against it and in spite of it.' This insight seemed startling to many Canadian economists at the time, and may startle some even today. 'The intellectual garage mechanics of Canadian capitalism,' Frank Underhill called them in 1935, and he was painfully close to the truth.
Leacock believed, though, that 'it is an equal error to base public policy on a system which does not acknowledge and allow for this individual selfishness.' Socialism, to him, was not the answer to the problems associated with free-market economics, an assessment that earned him Underhill's disdain. What the solution might be, Leacock did not presume to know, but he did believe that we needed not laissez-faire but faire-faire, that governments needed to counteract the effects of the economic slump. His ideas were not fully fleshed out, however, and Bowker comments, 'Fundamentally, Leacock drew back from any proposals that might really threaten the social order.' After all, he was a Conservative who was materially, though not morally, at ease in Zion.
Another fascinating essay, aimed at an American audience and published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1939, is 'Canada and the Monarchy.' It explains clearly what will lead Canada, though effectively an independent country, to go to war when Great Britain does. Himself born in England, Leacock understood, better than some of his academic acquaintances at the time and at least one prominent historian since, why English Canadians would line up with Britain. [End Page 145]
McGill forced Leacock to retire in 1936, and two of the essays deal with that experience. They are wryly humorous and a bit wistful, though less so than his essay about growing old. 'Three Score and Ten' begins with the line that gives this book its title: 'Old Age is the "Front Line" of life, moving into No Man's Land'; it should be compulsory reading in our schools.
This essay and the last two in the book, 'War-Time Santa Claus' and 'To Every Child,' show Leacock at his wisest and most humane. 'You can never have...