''Stephen Leacock And T.S. Eliot: A Meeting Of The Minds'', By Ron Dart

Posted on Monday, January 13 at 14:57 by JaredMilne

Leacock brought together a collection of timely essays on education, literature, politics, morality and history in 1916---the book, Essays and Literary Studies, sold well, and, true to form, went after the strange gods of the era. Essays and Literary Studies was neatly divided into nine inviting and charming chapters: 1) The Apology of a Professor, 2) The Devil and the Deep sea, 3) Literature and Education in America, 4) American Humour, 5) The Woman Question, 6) The Lot of the Schoolmaster, 7) Fiction and Reality, 8) The Amazing Genius of O. Henry and 9) A Rehabilitation of Charles II.

 

 

 

Each of the essays brim with gracious yet insightful criticisms of the emerging liberalism at the turn of the 20th century and the consequences of uncritically doffing the cap to such a creed and dogma. In each of the chapters, Leacock probes and plies his literary and historic trade, doing what he can to find a centre that can and will hold. A Tory is, above all, in search of the solid, permanent and sound things and the application of such principles to the fleeting world of time and history. Essays and Literary Studies is on a quest to find a worthy ship to sail across the turbulent and oft uncharted waters of time. Leacock has, true to form, an uncanny and puckish habit of making us see by coaxing us into laughter. The moral and metaphysical quest, in short, is always served up on the plate of good stories and laughter holding both its sides. Leacock, in this sense, has much affinity with Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly.        

 

 

 

 

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) was a younger contemporary of Leacock (1869-1944), but he was drawn to Leacock. Peter Ackroyd, in his biography, T.S. Eliot (1984), said, “1915 was the year which marked the beginning of Eliot’s career as a poet”. Eliot saw into and through the wasteland of the modern world, and he was ever in search, like Leacock, of something that would and could slake the thirst for meaning. Much of Eliot’s early poetry and prose both exposes the emptiness and mirages of modern thought and culture, and, equally so, points the way to the places of soul rest and refreshment on our short and all too human journey. Essays and Literary Studies, as I mentioned above, was published in 1916, and it was at this time that Eliot was doing a book review for The New Statesman---Leacock was 47 at the time and Eliot was 28. Eliot turned to Leacock’s Essays and Literary Studies with much interest and delight, and, in many ways, he found in Leacock an elder Tory brother and kindred spirit.    

 

 

 

 

 

The New Statesman (June 1916) has a review by Eliot of Leacock’s Essays and Literary Studies. The review is positive and supportive, and there is nary a critical word written. Eliot saw in Leacock someone who was further down the path and who spoke what needed to be said to a culture that was losing its way, compass and north star. In fact, Eliot thought that Leacock was one of the few writers and activists in North America that still embodied an older and deeper grasp of the important things. Eliot says in the review, “There are few writers in America who share Mr. Leacock’s views”. Both Leacock and Eliot were aware that what they stood for was passing away, was being clear cut like the ancient forests, and they knew that serious cultural, social, economic and political problems would arise when the forests of old had been slashed and burned. Both men stood like sentinels and guardians of a way of life, thinking and education that was about to be destroyed by the juggernaut of an ideological liberalism.

 

Leacock and Eliot have often, in the more popular understanding, been reduced to literary critics or writers of poems, plays or novels. Both men were much more than such a limited understanding of them. Both men, for different reasons, lived from the depth and fullness of the Anglican way. Such a tradition (as a magisterial way), at its noblest and best, is committed to the commonweal of the people and the role of state and society in bringing into being such a commonwealth. Leacock taught in the department of political economy all his teaching life at McGill University, and he was an unflagging conscience of the Conservative Party when it veered to the blue tory right of centre on the political spectrum. Eliot was no different. Eliot served on a variety of committees after he moved to England that articulated how and why church, state and society should work together, in an organic way, for the good of the country. Just as Leacock lauded Archbishop William Temple’s political vision in one of his final books, The Case Against Social Catastrophe, Eliot worked closely with Archbishop Temple’s political and economic insights (largely inspired by R.H. Tawney—see Religion and the Rise of Capitalism as but a primer to Tawney’s emerging vision) after WWII. Leacock and Eliot, therefore, never separated their interests in literature, culture and religion from the pressing social, economic and political issues of their time. The connections between Leacock and Eliot have often been ignored, but their High Tory Anglican affinities cannot be denied, and Eliot’s review of Essays and Literary Studies offers us hints and pointers about a meeting of minds.

 

Leacock and Eliot, like prophets of old, spoke against the thinness and errant ways of their ethos and pointed the way to a fuller clearing. Eliot, by disposition, was more sober and serious than Leacock (although even he had his puckish side). Leacock saw the darkness much as Eliot did but humour was his weapon to ward it off. The perennial twinkle in Leacock’s eyes spoke both sunshine and sadness and neither dominated the day (although they often competed to do so). Eliot scholars rarely if ever compare Leacock and Eliot. Leacock scholars simply never discuss the affinities between Leacock and Eliot. There is little doubt that Leacock’s Essays and Literary Studies and Eliot’s review of the book in The New Statesman is a good place to begin. Such a meeting of minds can and will tell us much about a Tory way of being that we ignore to our cultural, intellectual and political peril. It was the passing away of such a time tried vision that George Grant lamented in Lament for a Nation (1965). Those who sense what Grant called “intimations of deprival” or what Charles Taylor called the “malaise of modernity” can find much insight and wisdom in addressing such issues in the writings of Leacock, Eliot and Grant.

 

 

-Ron Dart                

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. Wed Jan 15, 2014 3:20 am
    Once again Mr. Dart seems to be tilting his lance at the Enlightenment. I really find my self wishing that I could get of sense of where he sees the individual Canadian and his personal decision-making power in this dance of church, state and society.

  2. by RickW
    Fri Jan 17, 2014 5:54 pm
    One cannot "get a sense" where none exists. Imagine, if you would, being tossed into a whirlpool. One seldom has much control over where one ends up without help.



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