Wednesday, March 28, 2007

It is a Maxim of the Book Business

Stephen Leacock (1869-1941), pictured here in a youthful pose, wrote a very good book on Mark Twain (1932), and he begins this biography with two forceful truths of the time: "The name of Mark Twain stands for American humour. More than that of any other writer, more than all names together, his name conveys the idea of American humour." These statements of fact could equally be used for Stephen Leacock in relation to Canadian humour of the period. But like Twain, Leacock's seasoned wit can still make us laugh; can still make us see the bubbles he is trying to pop, and the human frailty and weakness too. One of my favourite stories is perhaps less known and perhaps on the silly side, but it deals with the book world: The Reading Public: a Book Store Study, found in his Moonbeams from the Larger Lunacy (1915). Here he lightly sends up the booksellers and readers of the day. When I read this piece I hear the voice of John Gielgud as the bookseller strangely enough. Such is the effect of his extraordinary performance as Charles Ryder's father in the BBC adaptation of Waugh's Brideshead Revisited which has stayed with me for so many years. It just seems to fit the character.

Not wanting to ruin it for anyone I shall hold my tongue, but early in this Leacock story his character, a professor, reflects that: "it is a maxim of the book business that a professor standing up in a corner buried in a book looks well in a store. The real customers like it." This story feels very much drawn from personal experience and I wonder, even though the story seems to be set in New York, which bookstore managers in Montreal during the early part of the last century may have seen themselves, or others, as the original of Mr. Sellyer the "sales manager"? The bookshops in Montreal during this period included The Montreal Book Room, A. T. Chapman, F. E. Phelan, the book department of Henry Morgan & Co. Ltd. and W. H. Scroggie Ltd. among many others. Perhaps there are descendants of these booksellers who still bring out the old story at family get-togethers of how their relative was the real Mr. Sellyer.
Stephen Leacock was born in Swanmore, Hamshire, England on December 30, 1869. In May of 1970, a commemorative plaque was placed on the house in Swanmore where he was born.

Stephen Leacock died on this date, March 28, 1941.

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