24 July 2023

Average Leacock for the Average Man

Winnowed Wisdom
Stephen Leacock
New York: Dodd, Mead, 1926
300 pages

The author's sixteenth book of humour in as many years, one wonders how he managed; it's not as if Professor Leacock had no day job.

Winnowed Wisdom came in mid-career with the best of his writing in the past. Look no further than the six-page italicized preface for evidence:

It is the especial aim of this book to make an appeal to the average man. To do this the better, I have made a study of the census of the United States and of the census of Canada, in order to find who and what the average man is.
     In point of residence, it seems only logical to suppose that the average man lives at the centre of population, in other words, in the United States he lives at Honkville, Indiana, and in Canada at Red Hat, Saskatchewan. 
     In the matter of height the average man is five feet eight inches, decimal four one seven, and in avoirdupois weight he represents 139 pounds, two ounces, and three pennyweights. Eight-tenths of his head is covered with hair, and his whiskers, if spread over his face... 

You get the idea. Still, this made me laugh:

The percentage of women in the population being much greater in the eastern part of the country, the average woman lives one hundred and five miles east of the average man. But she is getting nearer to him every day. Oh yes, she is after him, all right!

The thing with Leacock is that even his most middling work has something that catches the light and shines. The same might be said of the collections themselves; Winnowed Wisdom may be weak, but three of its essays – 'How We Kept Mother's Day,' 'The Laundry Problem,' and 'How My Wife and I Built Our Home for $4.90' – were included in Laugh With Leacock: An Anthology of the Best Work of Stephen Leacock (1930).

Deservedly so.

This early passage from 'The Laundry Problem' had me sold:

In the old days any woman deserted and abandoned in the world took in washing. When all else failed there was at least that. Any woman who wanted to show her independent spirit and force of character threatened to take in washing. It was the last resort of a noble mind. In many of the great works of fiction the heroine's mother almost took in washing.
This comes later:
In the old days if you had a complaint to make to the washerwoman you said it to her straight out. She was there. And she heard the complaint and sneaked away with tears in her eyes to her humble home where she read the Bible and drank gin.
J.B. Priestley looked at Winnowed Wisdom and selected 'Our Summer Convention' and 'At the Ladies Culture Club' for 1957's The Bodley Head Leacock (aka The Best of Leacock).

I wouldn't have chosen either. 

My Winnowed Wisdom favourites have never featured in a Leacock anthology, so I thought I'd share. Each is as relevant today as a century ago.

The first, 'The Outline of Evolution,' is the second of Prof Leacock's 'The Outlines of Everything' essays.

It begins:
It seems that recently there has been a lot of new trouble about the theory of evolution in the schools. Either the theory is being taught all wrong or else there is something the matter with it. For years it had seemed as if the doctrine of Evolution was so universally accepted as to lose all its charm. It was running as a close second to Spherical Trigonometry and Comparative Religion and there was no more excitement about it than there is over Anthropology.
     Then suddenly something seems to have happened. A boy in a Kansas public school threw down his book and said that the next time he was called a protozoon he’d quit the class. A parent in Ostaboola, Oklahoma, wrote to the local school board to say that for anyone to teach his children that they were descended from monkeys cast a doubt upon himself which he found intolerable.
I never experienced such a fuss, but then I attended school in Montreal.

Sounds smug, I know. Given what's going on in the republic to the south, I can't help it.

My second favourite essay is titled 'Are We Fascinated with Crime?'

I've never been much fascinated myself, though I once made a good living writing true crime books published under a nom de plume. This was a decade ago. The books were sold around the English-speaking world – French and Polish translations appeared in other spheres – and I got a fair cut.

There's been talk about the rising interest in true crime, but I don't buy it. The fascination pre-dates London's Police Gazette. Montreal had Police Journal, and, in my day, Photo Police and Allo Police

Allo Police, 16 September 1984
As a younger man, I watched 48 HoursUnsolved Mysteries, America's Most Wanted, and...

Mea culpa.

I was fascinated with crime. We are all fascinated with crime. In 1926, Leacock recognized as much, all the while questioning our interest: 
If a rich man is killed by his chauffeur in Tampa, Florida, and his body hidden in the gasoline tank, why should you and I worry? We don’t live in Tampa and we have no chauffeur and gasoline is too expensive for us to waste like that.
     Yet a whole continent will have to sit up and read a column of news about such a simple little event as that.
I read the professor's article as BBC and New York Times reports on the arrest of the Long Island Killer vied for my attention. 

The Montreal Gazette, 7 December 1957
Busby? Preistley? You tell me who chose better. Winnowed Wisdom can be read online here courtesy of the fine folks at the Faded Page.

Whatever you decide, I guarantee the average man will something that amuses, as will the average woman.

Object: One of the many Leacocks purchased up over the years at the McGill Book Fair. I'm fairly certain this one, a first American edition, was picked up in the early 'nineties. Price: $2.  

Access: First published by Macmillan (Canada), Dodd, Mead (United States) and John Lane (United Kingdom). The Macmillan and Lane editions feature the same dust jacket illustration by John Hassall.

The cover of the Dodd, Mead edition is by Jazz Age illustrator John Held, Jr.

In 1971, Winnowed Wisdom was added as #74 to the New Canadian Library. It holds the distinction of being the first NCL title without an introduction. It survived long enough to benefit from the third series design.

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18 July 2023

The Body on Mount Royal: The Audiobook

Summertime and the listenin' is easy. What better time to enjoy David Montrose's The Body on Mount Royal, the very first Ricochet audiobook. Newly released, it features the complete text, along with Kevin Burton Smith's forward. Reader Tim Machin gives voice to hero and narrator Russell Teed. 

The moment I heard Tim's voice I knew we had our man.

You can find it at Audible, Audiobooks Now, Kobo, and other audiobook sources.

The book itself is available at the very best bookstores. It can be ordered online through the usual vendors, but I suggest going through this link to the publisher's website.

10 July 2023

The Witch is Back; or, Cousin Cousine Cousine

A Daughter of Witches: A Romance
Joanna E. Wood
[n.p.]: Luminosity, [n.d.]
241 pages

Of all the books read these past twelve months, not one haunts so much as Joanna E. Wood's 1894 debut novel The Untempered Wind. It tells the story of Myron Holder, an unwed mother who dares raise a child in Jamestown, a provincial village located somewhere in the Niagara Region. To this reader, it is earliest example of Southern Ontario Gothic, holding every characteristic of the sub-genre; Protestant morality and hypocrisy are paramount.

Types of Canadian Women
Henry J. Morgan, ed.
Toronto: William Briggs, 1903

A Daughter of Witches, is Wood's third novel. It's set south of the border in the New England community of Dole, but make no mistake, this is Wood Country. The accents may differ, but the townsfolk of Dole are every bit as narrow-minded-minded and judgemental as those of Jamestown.

Dole is something akin to a closed community. Its families go back generations, stay put, and generally keep to themselves (see below). From time to time, someone will leave the village and strike out for Boston, the most recent being young Len Simpson.

And now he's dead... so there you go.

Old Lansing has this to say:

"Yes the buryin's to-morrow, and it seems Len was terrible well thought of amongst the play-actin' folk, and they've sent up a hull load of flowers along with the body, and there's a depitation comin' to-morrow to the buryin' and they say there's considerable money comin' to Len and of course his father'll get it. I don't know if he'll buy that spring medder of Mr. Ellis, or if he'll pay the mortgage on the old place, but anyhow it'll be a big lift to him."

No one in Dole is the least bit curious as to how Len acquired such wealth. The general consensus is that he was a disgrace to his family. It's whispered that he drank. 

News of Len Simpson's death coincides with the arrival of Sidney Martin, son of Sid Martin. Decades earlier, Sid left Dole to make a life for himself in Boston. He did something there, no one knows just what, but it is known that he married a woman from a moneyed family.

Sidney Martin's mother and father are now dead. Frail and pale, their son isn't looking too good himself. His countenance and weak physique contrast with raven-haired Vashti Lansing, whose Amazonian beauty and strength – she's first seen wrestling a runaway horse – captures the young man's heart.

The Canadian Bookseller, August 1900

Sidney falls hard for Vashti, but Vashti is in love with her cousin Lansing "Lanty" Lansing. Lanty loves another cousin, fair Mabella Lansing. Cousin Mabella returns his love.

The author passes no judgement on this bizarre love triangle, though she does torture Vashti in having her witness the moment in which her two cousins declare their love for one another.

Vashti is the central character in this romance, yet she is one of least realized characters. I believe this is intentional. Wood describes Vashti as acting on instinct; her will is not entirely her own:

Long ago they had burned one of her forbears as a witch-woman. They said she caused her spirit to enter into her victims and commit crimes, crimes which were naively calculated to tend to the worldly advantage of the witch. Vashti thought of her martyred ancestress often; she herself sometimes felt a weird sensation as of illimitable will power, as of an intelligence apart from her normal mind, an intelligence which wormed out the secrets of those about her, and made the fixed regard of her large full eyes terrible.  

Sidney Martin is so smitten, yet so blind, that he proposes marriage to Vashti on the very same spot Lanty and Mabella become engaged. Vashti's acceptance, which came as something of a surprise to this reader, comes with two conditions, the first being that once married they will live in Dole. The second condition, odd in the extreme, is that Sidney, an agnostic, will become an ordained minister so as to take over from old Mr Didymus, the village pastor.

What is Vashti up to? She does not know herself.

Sidney leaves Dole to study theology in Boston, returning years later as Didymus is dying. The elderly preacher's final act is to marry fiancé and fiancée. 

As the bride had long intended, the newlyweds move into the parsonage and Sidney takes over the ministry. If anything, he is more popular than his predecessor. Sidney's sermons, focusing on the majesty of the natural world, go over well in what is essentially a farming community. This is not to suggest that Sidney and Vashti are immune to town gossip.

As the preacher's wife, Vashti draws resentment in lording over the local ladies, attending their weekly sewing circle in gowns made in Boston. Then there's cousin Lanty – secret object of her affection – who has fallen into drink. Harsh words are spoken of Ann Serrup. "Left at thirteen the only sister among four drunken brothers much older than herself," like Myron Holder in The Untempered Wind, Ann is an unwed mother. Might Lanty be the father?

All this poisonous talk exhausts the patience of Temperance Tribbey, Old Lansing's housekeeper. In one of the novel's many memorable scenes, she takes down Mrs Abiron Ranger:

Temperance spoke with a knowledge of her subject which gave play to all the eloquence she was capable of; she discussed and disposed of Mrs. Ranger's forbears even to the third generation, and when she allowed herself finally to speak of Mrs. Ranger in person, she expressed herself with a freedom and decision which could only have been the result of settled opinion.
     "As for your tongue, Mrs. Ranger, to my mind, it's a deal like a snake's tail it will keep on moving after the rest of you is dead."

Vashti's instinct brings what I believe is intended as the climax. My uncertainty has to do with the scene being nowhere near as memorable as others. It should haunt, but it does not haunt. 

And so, the spoiler:

One Sunday morning, Sidney takes to the pulpit and delivers a sermon unlike any other. More brimstone than pastural, he admonishes his parishioners, pointing out their duplicity, dishonesty, deceit, and deception. Sidney repeats town gossip going back decades, but his words are not his own; they belong to Vashti, a daughter of witches. 

Not a spoiler: 

Vashti's fate is not deserved, nor is Wood's fate as a forgotten novelist.


"Lanty will take it terribly hard," said the old man musingly. "He and Len Simpson ran together always till Len went off, and Lanty never took up with anyone else like he did with Len." 

Object and Access: A Daughter of Witches first appeared serialized in the Canadian Magazine (November 1898 - October 1899). In 1900, Gage (Canada) and Hurst & Blackett (England) published the novel in book form. I've yet to find a copy of either edition for sale, and so bought this print-on-demand edition.

The Gage edition can be read online here at the Internet Archive.

Related posts:

06 July 2023

Lac-Mégantic: Ten Years

Ten years ago today, American multinational Rail World brought hell to this country. It's thought that the corporation killed forty-seven people; some were vaporized, so we can't know for certain. They died in an inferno caused by six million litres of oil that spilled onto the sidewalks, streets, and sewers of Lac-Mégantic.

I wrote this piece in the days that followed. It originally appeared on John Baglow's blog.
Every major horror of history was committed in the name of an altruistic motive. Has any act of selfishness ever equaled the carnage perpetrated by disciples of altruism? —Ayn Rand
Who is John Galt? The answer is Ed Berkhardt, Chairman of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway. Look to the Objectivists of the Atlas Society for confirmation. Hell, look to Berkhardt himself, a man who blamed government employees for the derailment in Lac-Mégantic: “I think the fire department played a role in this. That’s incontrovertible.”

Ed Berkhardt believes his thoughts are incontrovertible… which is why we haven’t heard him apologize for laying false blame.

I don’t think I’m being a shit in drawing attention to a fifteen-year-old article published in the Atlas Society’s magazine; after all, they’ve still got the thing up on their website. ‘A Better Way to Run a Railroad’ by Frank W. Bryan writes of Berkhardt and the group of unnamed investors “who mortgaged their homes, withdrew personal savings, and arranged additional financing” in building the multinational corporation known as Rail World Inc.

Okay, so they didn’t build it exactly – pretty much everything, including the track, the rolling stock, and the real estate, was sold cheap by governments hell-bent on privatization – but they did have some late nights.

Bryan gives a good account of Berkhardt’s story, including his struggles to slash workers by introducing that contradiction in terms known as the “one-man train crew."

“Inevitably, the success of Wisconsin Central attracted the animosity of those who resent achievement”, writes Bryan. He’s referring here to those who dared comment on the 1996 derailment of sixteen cars carrying liquefied petroleum gas, propane and sodium hydroxide. “One car exploded, but the heroic efforts of the train’s conductor minimized the extent of the fire”, writes Bryan. The conductor, of course, being the very same position that Berkhardt had been working to eliminate.

Avert your eyes, look instead toward government bureaucrats who evacuated 1700, and “in a power play impervious to any rational risk/benefit analysis, refused to allow the railroad to take steps that would have minimized the disruption to the public.” Yes, look at the “rational risk/benefit analysis” – there was a better than fifty percent chance that those people would’ve been fine if they’d stayed put. And, hey, that fire burnt for only fourteen days.

“In any case, all of this has a price”, writes Bryan. He’s referring here to the detrimental effect that the derailment had on fourth-quarter earnings.

Yes, all of this has a price. Wisconsin Central was sold to CN in 2001. As a retired guy who liked to play with model trains, convinced of the commercial viability of his plastic 1:48-scale corporation, Bryan knew value. He wrote only one other piece for the Atlas Society. It has just as much to do with trains, but even more to do with Atlas Shrugged. I’m certain he would recognize this John Galt quote:
“No one’s happiness but my own is in my power to achieve or destroy.”
Remember that one when you think of the people who sat in Musi-Café last week.

I’m betting Frank W. Bryan also knows these words of wisdom from fantasy man Galt: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

In those early hours of July 6, Lac-Mégantic’s volunteer firefighters risked their lives for the sake of others.

On this day, ten years after the tragedy, Ed Berkhardt remains Rail World's President and Chief Executive Officer. The Rail World website, informs that "its purpose is to promote rail industry privatization by bringing together government bodies wishing to sell their stakes with investment capital and management skills."

The Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway has been scrubbed from its pages.

It's one thing to take ownership of a company, and quite another to take ownership of its actions.

04 July 2023

The CNQ Dusty Bookcase (2010 - 2023)

The most recent issue of Canadian Notes & Queries landed late last week. Since then, Canadians have been sending notes and queries regarding the future of the Dusty Bookcase.

It will continue, but not on paper.

It was in 2010, when I was focussed on completing my biography of John Glassco, that editor Alex Good invited me to contribute the Dusty Bookcase as a regular column. Naturally, I chose Glassco's grand hoax The Temple of Pederasty as my subject. My review, of sorts, appeared in CNQ 80.

The next thirteen years saw twenty-five more: 

The Miracle Man - Frank L. Packard (CNQ 81)
The Errand Runner - Leah Rosenberg (CNQ 82)
Love is a Long Shot - Alice K. Doherty [Ted Allan] (CNQ 83)
The Abolishing of Death - Basil King (CNQ 84)
John Glassco: A Personal and Working Library (CNQ 86)
Tan Ming - Lan Stormont [Morse Robb] (CNQ 87)
The Bumper Book and Carry on Bumping - John Metcalf (CNQ 88)
St. Cuthbert's of the West - Robert E. Knowles (CNQ 90)
The Land of Afternoon - Gilbert Knox [Madge Macbeth] (CNQ 92)
The Wine of Life - Arthur Stringer (CNQ 93)
There Are Victories - Charles Yale Harrison (CNQ 94)
Don't You Know Anybody Else? - Ted Allan (CNQ 97)
The Treehouse - Helen Duncan (CNQ 98)
Lust Planet - Olin Ross [W.E.D. Ross] (CNQ 101)
The Shapes That Creep - Marjorie Bonner (CNQ 102)
A Lover More Condoling - Adrian Clarkson (CNQ 103)
The Arch-Satirist - Frances de Wolfe Fenwick (CNQ 104)
Christie Redfern's Troubles - [Margaret Murray Robertson] (CNQ 105)
Hotter Than Hell - Mark Tushingham (CNQ 106)
The Master of the Microbe - Robert W. Service (CNQ 107)
The Terror of the Tar Sands - Edmund C. Cosgrove (CNQ 108)
An African Millionaire - Grant Allan (CNQ 109)
East of Temple Bar - Joan Suter [Joan Walker] (CNQ 111)
Behold the Hour - Jeann Beattie (CNQ 112)

Added to these were reviews written for the CNQ website. They're online still:

Not every Dusty Bookcase took the form of a review. There were columns devoted to correspondence between of Norman Levine and Jack McClelland (CNQ 85), Montreal's post-war pulp novels (CNQ 89), the career of Ronald J. Cooke (CNQ 91), Pierre Berton and Charles Templeton's Tour de Force board game (CNQ 95), an interview with Formac Fiction Treasures series editor Gwendolyn Davies (CNQ 96), Brian Moore's Intent to Kill on film (CNQ 99), my hunt for Kenneth Ovis (CNQ 100), and the career of Garnet Weston (CNQ 110).

A selection of books featured over the years.
Cliquez pour agrandir.

The early columns benefited from Alex's red pen, the latter were made whole under his successor Emily Donaldson. I had such fun working with Emily, which made last issue's column, a review of Jeann Beattie's entirely forgotten novel Behold the Hour, something of a challenge. We all knew CNQ 112 was to be her last as editor, despite our pleading.

Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered...

Well, not really. 

I will continue in the role of Contributing Editor, which means that I'll still be contributing, but not as a columnist. Emily joins me at the large oak editorial boardroom table as a fellow Contributing Editor. Alex is by her side. 

My thanks to Alex for inviting me into the room, to Emily for not showing me the door, and to publisher Dan Wells who has gone so far as to host me at his home. Drinks were served. CNQ continues because of their dedication to a book and literary culture that is more than ever preyed upon by foreign vultures. 

As everyone surely knows, vultures have bad breath.

The latest issue of CNQ can be purchased through this link.