28 January 2009

Davies on Leacock (Not a Happy Story)

Stephen Leacock
Robertson Davies
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1970

Robertson Davies interrupted his work on Fifth Business to write this long essay, 49 pages in length, for McClelland and Stewart's Canadian Writers series. It is, I think, the most honest and realistic appraisal of a gifted, prolific author who "often wrote when he would have done better to wait for an idea". Biographer Judith Skelton Grant tells us that the project was approached with reluctance, yet it would seem that Davies was pleased with the results; awaiting publication, he offered to send copies to several correspondents.

I suspect he never did.

The finished book was a disgrace: sections of text were missing, words had been substituted, one paragraph began in mid-sentence and a lengthy list of typographical errors caught by Davies at the proof stage had been ignored.

"The Leacock book is such a mess that I am ashamed to speak of it to my friends and could not dream of recommending it to my students", he wrote the publisher. McClelland and Stewart quickly reissued Stephen Leacock, incorporating the author's corrections. The proper text later served as the Introduction to Feast of Stephen, a collection of lesser-known Leacock pieces selected by Davies (clothed in a dust jacket better-suited, perhaps, to Joe Rosenblatt's The LSD Leacock).

Object and Access: A cheaply produced subseries of the New Canadian Library, Canadian Writers is pretty well forgotten today. That said, it did include a few fairly interesting titles, most notably Mordecai Richler by George Woodcock and the highly collectable Leonard Cohen by Michael Ondaatje. I dare say, Davies' Stephen Leacock is the best of the lot - and a bargain to boot. My well-read copy was lovingly priced by a Vancouver bookseller at C$3.95, though it can be found for even less. As with any book published with the student in mind, the trick is to find a copy that hasn't been coffee-stained, highlighted or underlined. The first printing is readily identifiable by glancing at the back cover: Samuel Marchbanks' Almanack is identified as "Marchbank's Almanack", just one of the errors that so angered the author.


  1. Just read Janet Friskney's "New Canadian Library" and reread your post. I have the "Feast of Stephen" but hadn't known it started life as such a messed up NCL.

  2. I, too, have read the NCL book... well, thumbed through it, really. Most interesting. I was particularly intrigued by the titles that at one time or another had been considered for the series. If memory serves, this included All Else is Folly (which I will continue to push) and John Glassco's The Deficit Made Flesh. Must add that it made me feel just a touch of nostalgia. Where once NCL was bringing forgotten books back into print, the series now appears to focus exclusively on books that need no reviving. In fact, I'd argue that every one of their current titles would be picked up and kept in print by others if NCL suddenly ceased to exist.