After reading a couple non-Canadian titles, I’ve been getting geared up to roll through the choices for Canada Reads 2015 so I can pick a horse. Before that though, I wanted to knock off another title in the Extraordinary Canadians series. Canada Reads is a celebration of Canadian writing and the particularities that make it unique; in that vein, I decided to read Margaret MacMillan’s entry in the series, Stephen Leacock. Why is Leacock worthy of being named an extraordinary Canadian? Simple, he was one of the most important writers in Canadian cultural history and is one of the fathers of the CanLit movement. Additionally, he is the father of Canadian humour (Haliburton being the grandfather) and his sketches paved the way for comic and satirical writers like Robertson Davies, Mordecai Richler, Stuart MacLean, Terry Fallis, and the list goes on. Without Leacock, 20th century Canadian literature would look a lot different.
In terms of the book, I was very much looking forward to reading it. I’ve read a reasonable amount of Leacock and know of his importance to our literature, but I really knew very little of the man himself. Margaret MacMillan, the acclaimed Canadian historian/academic and author of the well-known volume Paris 1919. Stephen Leacock is a mix of the standard and the interpretive forms of biography. In the first few chapters, MacMillan lays out the overarching legacy of Leacock, an overview of his life and career, and of course his writing. The subsequent chapters follows a more chronological telling of his life with enough detail that you can really sense what made Leacock tick. And finally, a short chapter at the end details the legacy of the great humourist.
The strength of this biography is the way MacMillan weaves in quotes from Leacock’s writing and her unflinching honesty about much of his writing and his personality in general. Leacock has legendary books – Literary Lapses, Sunshine Sketches, Arcadian Adventures, My Remarkable Uncle – but he also wrote a lot of rather dull pieces and much of his humour, especially his later works, haven’t aged well, if they were ever funny to begin with. But, the great works produced an international celebrity on the lines of Stephen King today. The author also does a great job tracking his rise as a public intellectual, his mediocre career as an academic, and his rather unremarkable personal life.
The central thesis of this biography is this – Leacock was arrogant, he was greedy, and he carried many of the sexist and racist views of his time. Ultimately though, who cares? He was a paradigm changing writer who is an essential cornerstone of CanLit who’s still widely in print today.
Margaret MacMillan’s short book gets to the major points quickly, is highly readable, and really explores his writing in an accessible and non academic-ese language. Like Maurice Richard, the book also does a great job or outlining why Leacock is, in fact, an extraordinary Canadian. This is the second book in the Penguin Extraordinary Canadians series that I have read, and so far I’m very pleased. As I mentioned before, I wouldn’t read a huge multi-volume biography of most of the subjects in the series, including Leacock. But, because of this series and MacMillan’s pared-down book, I now know the essential story of an important Canadian.
Northrop Frye was, and still remains, one of Canada’s true national treasures. He was one the most prolific academics and thinkers this country has ever seen. He was a master in so many fields, literary criticism, philosophy, Biblical scholarship, cultural criticism, and was an able observer of the visual arts. On top of this, he was a skilled writer who could succinctly make a point and disseminate obscure concepts to the general reader. His contributions to literary studies were numerous: he literally changed the paradigm in English literary criticism with his signature book, Anatomy of Criticism; he defined the overarching thematic thread in early CanLit in his conclusion to W.H. New’s History of Canadian Literature; he wrote one of the great contemporary pieces of Shakespearian scholarship with his 1986 Governor General Award winning Northrop Frye on Shakespeare; and he wrote The Great Code, a masterful book examining the influence of the Bible over every aspect of Western artistic culture. It is really impossible to overstate the contribution of Frye to Canadian culture; he really was one of the greatest Canadians.
The Educated Imagination is Frye’s 1962 contribution to the CBC Massey Lectures – only the second set delivered. Still in print, this book is a regular title you’ll see stocked in the miniature section called “Literary Studies” at your local bookstore. This is a thin book; I read the Kobo edition which was only about 160 screens, so the paper version would be around 100 pages. Despite its small size, not since Margaret Atwood’s Survival have I been so affected by a single book. This little book should be required reading for every university English major in their first week and then be re-read every year. Additionally, everyone who teaches English, from elementary school through to PhD programs should be reading this book regularly.
This series of essays attempts to answer two questions: Why study literature? And How do we best teach literature?. Frye uses his strong and fluent prose to answer these questions. He contrasts the study of literature with that of physical sciences to demonstrate the power and importance of the human imagination. The Educated Imagination looks at so many topics: different levels of imaginative communication, use of metaphor and simile, censorship and free-speech, teaching methodologies, the importance of knowing Biblical and classical stories, and the interplay of the arts, social sciences, and physical sciences.
There was nothing revelatory about this book. By that, I mean there wasn’t any new Earth-shattering notions that hadn’t crossed my mind before in the abstract. This book affected me the way it did because of how it articulated concepts and ideas that have vaguely occurred to me over my many years of academic study and general reading. Frye lays out, in clear and eloquent language, the argument for the study of literature and the arts.
Massey Lecture titles are always very engaging reads. Northrop Frye’s books are always a highly pleasurable experience. The two combined is something almost too overwhelmingly great to put into words. Ironically, this book was only Frye’s third published volume of work and his first following his seminal Anatomy of Criticism. Even this early in his career, he shows off his intellectual muscle. Now, not to sound elitist or “snobby”, but this book is not for everyone because, honestly, a lot of people will not connect with the topics or even understand them. This book is a must read though for anyone who has formally studied literature (and wondered why as we all have), anyone who writes seriously, or anyone who reads to be enlightened or to expand the intellect, not just to pass the time.
The Educated Imagination is one of the best books in that large fuzzy “non-fiction” category, and the best literary studies book, I have ever read. Full stop. Go read it.