07 June 2016

Am I the Only One Laughing with Leacock?

The Hohenzollerns in America; 
     With the Bolsheviks in Berlin and Other Impossibilities
Stephen Leacock
Toronto: S.B. Gundy, 1919

Robertson Davies hated this book. "Leacock at his worst," he wrote in his ill-fated tribute to the man, adding: "Nevertheless, we may not dismiss it; he wrote it, and if we accept the sunshine, we must not shrink from a peep into the dank chill of his shade."

Centring on the lengthy title story, Davies' disgust is anything but unique. Biographers David M. Legate, Albert Moritz and Theresa Moritz express similar opinions, while Ralph L. Currie, the first to pen a life of Leacock, chooses to simply ignore it. In her Leacock book, Margaret MacMillan complains that the story is "too broad and too crude." Writes the author of Paris 1919:
The title piece of his 1919 book, The Hohenzollerns in America, starts from the amusing conceit that the German royal family takes refuge in the United States as penniless refugees after Germany's defeat in the First World War but goes downhill because Leacock cannot keep his light touch. "The proper punishment," says Leacock in his preface, "for the Hohenzollerns, and the Hapsburgs, and the Mecklenburgs, and the Muckendorfs, and all such puppets and princelings, is that they should be made to work."
I'm breaking in here with a couple of comments, the first being that the title piece does not begin with a "light touch," but is heavy from the start. Note that MacMillan contradicts herself by quoting the story's preface.* And while it's true that Leacock can be relied upon for a goodnatured, inoffensive chuckle, his touch was not always light. Teetotals will confirm.

MacMillan continues:
The resulting sketch is nasty and not at all funny. At its end, the former Kaiser, now a ragged street peddler in the Bowery, dies of his injuries after a traffic accident.
I myself found "The Hohenzollerns in America" nasty, funny and fun. Anticipating Sue Townsend's The Queen and I, it imagines the German
royal family stripped of wealth and trappings, and forced to work "as millions of poor emigrants out of Germany have worked for generations past." The piece is presented in the form of a diary – Townsend would approve – kept by Princess Frederica, niece to the deposed emperor, beginning with her first day in steerage on a ship bound for New York. Once in America, the Hohens, as they are now known, do their best to reinvent themselves. A couple become waiters. Uncle Henry, once a Grand Admiral, finds a job as a stevedore while studying to become a Barge Master. Meanwhile, untrustworthy Cousin Ferdinand makes a killing in the schmatta trade, as reflected in the vaguely anti-semitic dust jacket of the first British edition. One of their number, Cousin Willie, becomes an out and out thief.

The deposed Kaiser loses his mind and ends up hawking pins, ribbons and bobbles to amused folk who see him as a something of a character. In the princess's account, he doesn't die after a traffic accident, as MacMillan claims, but of injuries sustained by running into a line of cavalry horses at the unveiling of a monument "put up in memory of the people who were lost when one of our war boats fought the English cruiser Lusitania." Princess Frederica finds true love with Mr Peters, a very nice iceman.

"What makes us cringe as we read it is that Leacock has plainly aimed it at minds inferior to his own to feed a nasty kind of patriotism and mean triumph," writes Davies. Come now, most readers of Leacock can't quite match the man's intellect. This dimwit detected not so much as a dash of nasty patriotism, but savoured the stewing of the aristocracy. Such is my taste. Any country's aristocracy will do. I'm also happy to eat the rich, though Davies doesn't share my appetite:
Even when we try to consider it ["The Hohenzollerns in America"] as a part of an hysterical post-war relief, it is still bad Leacock, and the other things in the book, including the satire on plutocrats who profited from the war but sent their chauffeurs to fight, is no better.
No better? The piece to which Davies refers, "The War Sacrifices of Mr. Spugg," is just about the best thing Leacock ever published. This is fine satire:
Although we had been members of the same club for years, I only knew Mr. Spugg by sight until one afternoon when I heard him saying that he intended to send his chauffeur to the war.
     It was said quite quietly, no bombast or boasting about it. Mr. Spugg was standing among a little group of listening members of the club and when he said that he had decided to send his chauffeur, he spoke with a kind of simple earnestness, a determination that marks the character of the man.
     "Yes," he said, "we need all the man power we can command. This thing has come to a showdown and we've got to recognise it. I told Henry that it's a showdown and that he's to get ready and start right away."
     "Well, Spugg," said one of the members, "you're certainly setting us a fine example."
You won't find "The War Sacrifices of Mr. Spugg" in any Leacock anthology, nor "War and Peace in the Galaxy Club" in which a series of
ill-conceived fundraising events meant to aid the Red Cross only bring increasing debt. By the Armistice, the Club faces insolvency:
Peace has ruined us. Not a single member, so far as I am aware, is prepared to protest against the peace, or is anything but delighted to think that the war is over. At the same time we do feel that if we could have had a longer notice, six months for instance, we could have braced ourselves better to stand up against it and meet the blow when it fell.
Both pieces come from the middle section of the book: "Echoes of the War". Given the title, should we really be expecting a light touch? It leads with "The Boy Who Came Back," an account of young nephew Tom's first dinner party as a returning war hero. The host is at concerned that Tom will disturb the other guests with gruesome accounts of the war, and is then disappointed when he doesn't.
Tom had nothing to say about the Hindenburg line. In fact, for the first half of the dinner he hardly spoke. I think he was worried about his left hand. There is a deep furrow across the back of it where a piece of shrapnel went through and there are two fingers that will hardly move at all. I could see that he was ashamed of its clumsiness and afraid that someone might notice it. So he kept silent. Professor Razzler did indeed ask him straight across the table what he thought about the final breaking of the Hindenburg line. But he asked it with that same fierce look from under his bushy eyebrows with which he used to ask Tom to define the path of a tangent, and Tom was rattled at once. He answered something about being afraid that he was not well posted, owing to there being so little chance over there to read the papers.
When Tom finally breaks his silence it is to talk about how his French comrades had really taken to baseball, his great passion in life.
It grieved me to note that as the men sat smoking their cigars and drinking liqueur whiskey (we have cut out port at our house till the final peace is signed) Tom seemed to have subsided into being only a boy again, a first-year college boy among his seniors. They spoke to him in quite a patronising way, and even asked him two or three direct questions about fighting in the trenches, and wounds and the dead men in No Man's Land and the other horrors that the civilian mind hankers to hear about. Perhaps they thought, from the boy's talk, that he had seen nothing. If so, they were mistaken. For about three minutes, not more, Tom gave them what was coming to them. He told them, for example, why he trained his 'fellows' to drive the bayonet through the stomach and not through the head, that the bayonet driven through the face or skull sticks and, but there is no need to recite it here. Any of the boys like Tom can tell it all to you, only they don't want to and don't care to.
Dismiss The Hozenhollers in America? Never. I've enjoyed the sunshine, but within the dank chill of his shade exists a depth that makes me appreciate the man all the more. It's Leacock at his best.

A favourite light passage to cleanse the palate:
Mr. Peters came over to my chair and took hold of the arm of it and told me not to cry. Somehow his touch on the arm of the chair thrilled all through me and though I knew that it was wrong I let him keep it there and even let him stroke the upholstery and I don't know just what would have happened but at that very minute Uncle William came in.
Object: A dull-looking 222-page book with olive green boards, lacking dust jacket. I bought my first Canadian edition twenty-six years ago in Montreal. Price: $6.00. I probably could've got it cheaper.

Access: The Hohenzollerns in America is one of the few early Leacocks to have been excluded from the New Canadian Library. The collection has been out of print over nine decades, which isn't to say that it is at all difficult to find. Dozens of copies are being offered online at prices ranging from one American dollar to US$521. At the low and high end are jacketless copies of the John Lane British first, the difference being that the latter is being sold by crooks. The one to own comes courtesy of bookseller Ian Thompson, who offers an inscribed and dated copy of the John Lane first in uncommon dust jacket. Price: US$400.

Leacock being Leacock, the book is available at our big city libraries and nearly every university in the land.

A German translation, Die Hohenzollern in Amerika und andere Satiren, was published in 1989 by Fackelträger-Verlag!

* MacMillan limits herself to the beginning of what just might be Leacock's longest published sentence. It is worth quoted in full:
The proper punishment for the Hohenzollerns, and the Hapsburgs, and the Mecklenburgs, and the Muckendorfs, and all such puppets and princelings, is that they should be made to work; and not made to work in the glittering and glorious sense, as generals and chiefs of staff and legislators, and land-barons, but in the plain and humble part of laborers looking for a job; that they should carry a hod and wield a trowel and swing a pick and, at the day's end, be glad of a humble supper and a night's rest; that they should work, in short, as millions of poor emigrants out of Germany have worked for generations past; that there should be about them none of the prestige of fallen grandeur; that, if it were possible, by some trick of magic, or change of circumstance, the world should know them only as laboring men, with the dignity and divinity of kingship departed out of them; that, as such, they should stand or fall, live or starve, as best they might by the work of their own hands and brains.
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  1. Mr Spugg's equivalent appeared in the next world war: An entry in George Orwell’s War-Time Diary for 3 June 1940:

    From a letter from Lady Oxford to the Daily Telegraph, on the subject of war economies: “Since most London houses are deserted there is little entertaining… in any case, most people have to part with their cooks and live in hotels.”

    1. Brilliant. I don't mean to suggest anything nefarious, but can't imagine that Orwell hadn't read Leacock (such was the man's popularity).

      Right from the start, Spugg is offered support by a fellow club member whose insurance company offers a special rate on chauffeurs, footmen and house-servants:

      "It is our little war contribution," he added modestly. "We like to feel that we're doing our part, too. We had a chauffeur killed last week. We paid for him right off without demur, - waived all question of who killed him."

    2. Orwell was quoting Lady Oxford, though.
      Mind you, she may have read Leacock and - as Margot Asquith - had a sense of humour herself so may not have been entirely serious in her remarks.

    3. Of course, Lady Oxford! This is what happens when one reads and responds on one's phone.

      A fascinating figure - even more so than her husband (which is really saying something).

  2. Thanks for the reminder -- it's far too long since last I read any Leacock.

    1. I don't think I've oversold it, John, though there are a few duds. Every Leacock is a bit of a grab bag in my opinion. That said, a favourite pieces is one I think you'll find interesting: 'The Discovery of America; Being Done into Moving Pictures and Out Again'. Laughed out loud, I did (and I rarely do!)

      I should add that Hohenzollerns is available gratis at the Internet Archive.

    2. Every Leacock is a bit of a grab bag in my opinion.

      That's been my experience, too. I did have Priestley's Best of vol at some point, but it's long lost now.

      I found Hohenzollerns at Faded Pages, along with quite a number (most? all?) of his other books.

    3. I think Leacock's treatment of the problem of the Kaiser et al is quite sophisticated and was really surprised to read MacMillan dismissing this particular story. By making him an object of mockery, Leacock was helping to allay the genuine concern about what should be done with German leadership at the end of the war, and helping to dissipate some of the public's pent-up rage.

      During the German offensive in the spring of '18, the Jerries were simply overwhelmed by the number of Allied prisoners they took, and this led to huge problems within their prison camps. POWs were starving and hygiene collapsed. When these men were released, the British public was rightly furious about the treatment of their boys, and calls to "hang the Kaiser" were a mainstay of public discourse that winter.

      There was a general election right after the armistice, and both Asquith and Lloyd George played to the public's mood. Both men mused openly about putting the Kaiser on trial; in fact, Lloyd George alluded to the beheading of Charles I about a week after the war.

      Others felt that he should be exiled to some far corner of the empire, like the Falklands or St. Helena. But that raised the prospect of creating a myth about him, and nobody wanted to create another 'Napoleon returned from exile.'

      Calls for a war trial petered out after the Americans put their foot down in Paris in 1919, but this of course happened after Leacock's book was published.

      Getting the reading public to smirk at other's follies, a la "Sunshine Sketches" was where Leacock was at his most charming, and nobody is going argue "Hohenzollerns" is his best writing. But I do think it's a sophisticated use of his comedic talents to present characters who were the symbols of public rage and turn them into subjects of mockery. That's why I think the nastiness is so crucial to "Hohenzollerns" (and most critics miss the point). "Hohenzollerns in America" (or at least the title story) is a war book and cannot (or should not) be read as merely another volume in the Leacock canon.