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Canadian humourist and economist Stephen Leacock is the subject of a biography by award-winning historian Margaret McMillan. ((Picture Post/Getty Images))

Unlike Jim Carrey and Mike Myers, Canada’s first comedy superstar became world famous without ever having to move away.

Reading Stephen: Essential stories in the Leacock canon

"My Financial Career"

Leacock’s classic story about one man’s pathological fear of banks: "When I go into a bank I get rattled. The clerks rattle me; the sight of the money rattles me; everything rattles me."

Sunshine Sketches of A Little Town

Leacock’s career-defining story collection pokes gentle fun at the denizens of Mariposa, a town that bears a striking resemblance to early 20th-century Orillia, Ont.

"How We Kept Mother’s Day"

A father and his four children try to spoil "Mother" on her special day by giving her a break from domestic duties. Unfortunately, everyone winds up going on a nice day trip except Mom, who stays at home and cooks the meal.

"The Awful Fate of Melpomenus Jones"

In this slightly darker tale, a young clergyman is invited to the home of friends, who insist he prolong his afternoon visit. Being so honest, he finds it impossible to fabricate an excuse to depart. This leads him to stay for a month, in which time he slowly loses his faculties and dies.

Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich

A kind of companion volume to Sunshine Sketches, this collection of inter-related short pieces is set among the social elite in an American city. Along with Sunshine Sketches, this is the closest Leacock ever came to writing a novel.

-- GD

Stephen Leacock catapulted into the front ranks of literary celebrity after the 1912 publication of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, his series of vignettes about a fictional community called Mariposa. Charlie Chaplin wanted him to write a screenplay; F. Scott Fitzgerald acknowledged him as an early influence. When Leacock arrived in England for a lecture tour in 1921, he had to hold a press conference. It’s the kind of international acclaim that Canadian writers would die for today.  

In her new biography of the humourist, Margaret MacMillan draws a direct line between his outsized fame and the vibrancy of modern CanLit.

"I think it’s like Alice Munro’s contribution, in a way. She gives Canadians the idea that you don’t have to go abroad to exotic locales; she will take what seems like a small incident in a small town, and there’s a huge human drama going on there," MacMillan says in a recent interview. "There’s that sense that you don’t have to write about knights in the Middle Ages, you can actually write about what’s on your doorstep. Leacock shows you can have humour in the local hotel in Mariposa. You have things happening there, and people are deeply engaged in them."

MacMillan’s bio is part of Penguin’s stellar Extraordinary Canadians series, in which editor John Ralston Saul matches high-profile authors with national icons (e.g., Adrienne Clarkson on Norman Bethune, Nino Ricci on Pierre Trudeau, M.G. Vassanji on Mordecai Richler). A Canadian academic who is now the warden of St. Antony’s College at Oxford, MacMillan is best known for non-fiction bestsellers like Paris 1919, Nixon in China and The Uses and Abuses of History — not exactly laugh-a-minute stuff.

MacMillan realizes that the author of amiable fluff like "When Fellers Go Fishing" might not seem like the most obvious subject for her to tackle. Saul "suggested an international figure, you know, a Canadian statesman or something, and I said, ‘Actually, I sort of do that all the time.’ I asked if I could do Stephen Leacock, because I’ve always thought he was very funny. And John, to my delight, said yes. Someone who mainly does international history writing about Leacock? It wasn’t as crazy as it sounds, because I’ve done a lot of Canadian history of that period and also imperial history, and [Leacock] was a great supporter of the British Empire."

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(Penguin Group Canada)

As you might expect, MacMillan’s taut biography is rich in historical detail. In addition to sketching the career path of the McGill economics professor who developed a lucrative sideline in humour, the book provides fascinating glimpses into Canadian life during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Leacock witnessed profound changes in the country: the building of the railway, electrification, industrialization and changing immigration patterns.

"He saw Canada becoming more and more conscious of itself and detaching from Britain," MacMillan says. "He was born two years after Canada became a country, and he died just before the end of the Second World War. So it’s a very long, interesting and formative period in our history."

Leacock’s initial success predates both radio and television. His folksy, almost chatty writing style was perfect for an era when people sat around in living rooms and read aloud to each other for entertainment — tough to imagine in this Twitter-obsessed age. 

"He had a very sharp eye for the absurdities of life," MacMillan says. "He also had a gentle humour, and people liked that. It wasn’t threatening, by and large. It was kindly, and Mariposa is a nice, kindly place. He has a wonderful way with words, a wonderful turn of phrase." When it comes to enduring comic lines, it’s tough to beat this oft-quoted Leacock chestnut from Nonsense Novels (1911): "Lord Ronald… flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions."

Leacock’s satirical style is almost anti-caustic; he certainly wasn’t Jonathan Swift. He tapped into the comic zeitgeist not by skewering his targets, but by gently mocking them. Sunshine Sketches was a thinly veiled parody of life in Orillia, Ont., where the author spent his summers. Although some of the residents took offence, it’s really an affectionate look at small-town life and the quirks of its citizenry, like the long-winded clergyman Reverend Drone, the self-important politicians and a temperance society (the Knights of Pythias) that goes on an ill-fated, booze-soaked boat trip.

"He didn’t like pomposity, he didn’t like hypocrites," MacMillan says. "He had mixed feelings towards the very rich. He knew a lot of very rich people. And he said, ‘I like mixing with the rich. I like what they mix.’ He poked fun at politicians, windbags, the sort of things that Canadian humourists still satirize."

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Author Margaret MacMillan. ((Penguin Group Canada))

MacMillan also explores lesser-known elements of Leacock’s life, including the writer’s heartbreaking relationship with his alcoholic son and his long tenure as a professor in Montreal. Leacock produced vast amounts of non-fiction, which sported turgid titles such as Our Heritage of Liberty and Economic Prosperity in the British Empire.

MacMillan depicts him as a mediocre academic who loved the university lifestyle. "His serious writing is very badly dated. He didn’t make any breakthroughs in politics or economics. He wasn’t someone who took a subject and transformed it. The academic world tended then – still tends, I think – to be a bit suspicious of members who become too wildly popular. Some of it is jealousy and some of it is a feeling that academics should be focusing on academic things."

Of course, Leacock is remembered mainly for his humour writing, even though his reputation and sales dipped in later life. Thanks in part to his retrograde views on empire, immigration and the role of women, he became perceived as old-fashioned. But his work has always been in print, even though humour doesn’t always travel well through the decades.

Leacock was the first in Canada’s long line of comedy exports, and his work was recognized as distinctly Canadian in other countries. "He took a small town and made it an interesting place," MacMillan says. "He made us interesting to ourselves."

Margaret MacMillan’s Stephen Leacock is published by Penguin Canada as part of its Extraordinary Canadians series. It is in stores now.

Greig Dymond writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.