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1944: Humorist Stephen Leacock dies

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During his heyday, Stephen Leacock -- professor and author of 60 books -- was the best-selling English-language humorist in the world. His most famous novel was Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, published in 1912. Sketches was a fondly satirical portrait of Orillia, Ont., where Leacock spent many summers. In this audio clip from 1943, Stephen Leacock reads another of his humorous tales, "My Old College," written for the McGill Graduates' Society on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the university.

Leacock taught political economy at McGill University for 33 years. He was a beloved professor, with an eccentrically untidy, patched-jacket appearance and a ready wit. Fellow professor John Culliton wrote of him, "Leacock was not a legend on campus. He was the campus." And Leacock loved McGill and loved teaching: he fought his compulsory retirement in 1936. Happily, nobody could keep him from his humorous writings, which he continued until his death on March 28, 1944.
• Stephen Butler Leacock was born on Dec. 30, 1869, in Swanmore, Hampshire, England, the third of 11 children. The family moved to South Africa and Kansas before settling on a farm on the south end of Lake Simcoe, Ont., in 1876 when Leacock was aged six.

• Leacock's early family life wasn't easy. His father was an alcoholic who left the family in 1887 and was never heard from again. He lived out his life in Bedford, N.S., under the name "Peter Lewis."

• Leacock attended the University of Toronto for one year before leaving to help support his family. At Strathroy Collegiate in southern Ontario, he trained to teach high school. At Strathroy, Leacock was once asked to teach a class in place of the principal. An excellent mimic, he taught the class as if he were the principal.

• Leacock was later told his brains were better than his manners. Leacock said that was the day he learned "the need for human kindliness as an element in humour."

• Leacock taught high school at Uxbridge, Ont., and Upper Canada College in Toronto until 1899. His first book, Elements of Political Science, was a standard university textbook for 20 years. It was translated into 19 languages and made him more money during his lifetime than anything else he wrote.
• Leacock published his first humorous book, Literary Lapses, in 1910. It quickly sold out.

• In 1934, Leacock tried taking his stories to the radio microphone. His broadcast career was short-lived. Leacock's gift of humour, which came across so well on paper or at the podium, fell flat over the airwaves.

• John Lane, Leacock's publisher in London, England, advertised him as "The Canadian Mark Twain."

• Since 1947, the Leacock Society has annually awarded The Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour to the best book of humour published in Canada that year.

• Although Leacock insisted that Mariposa, the town in Sunshine Sketches, was not based on any particular village, the main inspiration was Orillia.
• Leacock's home in Orillia is now a national monument. A six-cent stamp was issued in his honour in 1969. An arts building at McGill University and a mountain in the Yukon Territory are named after him.

• In 1998, the University of Toronto published Leacock's PhD dissertation, 94 years after its submission to the University of Chicago.
Medium: Radio
Program: CBC Radio News Special
Broadcast Date: Jan. 1, 1943
Guest(s): Stephen Leacock
Duration: 7:24
Photo: Stephen Leacock photographed by Yousuf Karsh

Last updated: November 3, 2014

Page consulted on November 3, 2014

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