The comical E.P., star of the title essay, “My Remarkable Uncle,” is a classic Leacock character. He is president of a railway with a letterhead but no rails, and he heads a bank that boasts credit but no cash whatsoever – all of which trouble E.P. not in the least.
My Remarkable Uncle, a wonderful smorgasbord of mirth served up by a master of comedy, includes several essays, a short story, a political parable, and personal reflections on a dizzying array of subjects.
Here, in rich abundance, are the inspired nonsense and the unerring eye for human folly that have made Stephen Leacock Canada’s most celebrated humorist.
About the Author
Even before he completed his doctorate, Leacock accepted a position as sessional lecturer in political science and economics at McGill University. When he received his Ph.D. in 1903, he was appointed to the position of lecturer. From 1908 until his retirement in 1936, he chaired the Department of Political Science and Economics.
Leacock’s most profitable book was his textbook, Elements of Political Science, which was translated into seventeen languages. The author of nineteen books and countless articles on economics, history, and political science, Leacock turned to the writing of humour as his beloved avocation. His first collection of comic stories, Literary Lapses, appeared in 1910, and from that time until his death he published a volume of humour almost every year.
Leacock also wrote popular biographies of his two favourite writers, Mark Twain and Charles Dickens. At the time of his death, he left four completed chapters of what was to have been his autobiography. These were published posthumously under the title The Boy I Left Behind Me.
Stephen Leacock died in Toronto, Ontario, in 1944.
Read an Excerpt
MY REMARKABLE UNCLE
A PERSONAL DOCUMENT
The most remarkable man I have ever known in my life was my uncle Edward Philip Leacock – known to ever so many people in Winnipeg fifty or sixty years ago as E.P. His character was so exceptional that it needs nothing but plain narration. It was so exaggerated already that you couldn’t exaggerate it.
When I was a boy of six, my father brought us, a family flock, to settle on an Ontario farm. We lived in an isolation unknown, in these days of radio, anywhere in the world. We were thirty-five miles from a railway. There were no newspapers. Nobody came and went. There was nowhere to come and go. In the solitude of the dark winter nights the stillness was that of eternity.
Into this isolation there broke, two years later, my dynamic Uncle Edward, my father’s younger brother. He had just come from a year’s travel around the Mediterranean. He must have been about twenty-eight, but seemed a more than adult man, bronzed and self-confident, with a square beard like a Plantagenet King. His talk was of Algiers, of the African slave market; of the Golden Horn and the Pyramids. To us it sounded like the Arabian Nights. When we asked, “Uncle Edward, do you know the Prince of Wales?” he answered, “Quite intimately” – with no further explanation. It was an impressive trick he had.
In that year, 1878, there was a general election in Canada. E.P. was in it up to the neck in less than no time. He picked up the history and politics of Upper Canada in a day, and in a week knew everybody in the countryside. He spoke at every meeting, but his strong point was the personal contact of electioneering, of bar-room treats. This gave full scope for his marvellous talent for flattery and make-believe.
“Why, let me see” – he would say to some tattered country specimen beside him glass in hand – “surely, if your name is Framley, you must be a relation of my dear old friend General Sir Charles Framley of the Horse Artillery?” “Mebbe,” the flattered specimen would answer. “I guess, mebbe; I ain’t kept track very good of my folks in the old country.” “Dear me! I must tell Sir Charles that I’ve seen you. He’ll be so pleased.” . . . In this way in a fortnight E.P. had conferred honours and distinctions on half the township of Georgina. They lived in a recaptured atmosphere of generals, admirals and earls. Vote? How else could they vote than conservative, men of family like them?
It goes without saying that in politics, then and always, E.P. was on the conservative, the aristocratic side, but along with that was hail-fellow-well-met with the humblest. This was instinct. A democrat can’t condescend. He’s down already. But when a conservative stoops, he conquers.
The election, of course, was a walk-over. E.P. might have stayed to reap the fruits. But he knew better. Ontario at that day was too small a horizon. For these were the days of the hard times of Ontario farming, when mortgages fell like snowflakes, and farmers were sold up, or sold out, or went “to the States,” or faded humbly underground.
But all the talk was of Manitoba now opening up. Nothing would do E.P. but that he and my father must go west. So we had a sale of our farm, with refreshments, old-time fashion, for the buyers. The poor, lean cattle and the broken machines fetched less than the price of the whisky. But E.P. laughed it all off, quoted that the star of the Empire glittered in the west, and off to the West they went, leaving us children behind at school.
They hit Winnipeg just on the rise of the boom, and E.P. came at once into his own and rode on the crest of the wave. There is something of magic appeal in the rush and movement of a “boom” town – a Winnipeg of the 80’s, a Carson City of the 60’s. . . . Life comes to a focus; it is all here and now, all present, no past and no outside – just a clatter of hammers and saws, rounds of drinks and rolls of money. In such an atmosphere every man seems a remarkable fellow, a man of exception; individuality separates out and character blossoms like a rose.
E.P. came into his own. In less than no time he was in everything and knew everybody, conferring titles and honours up and down Portage Avenue. In six months he had a great fortune, on paper; took a trip east and brought back a charming wife from Toronto; built a large house beside the river; filled it with pictures that he said were his ancestors, and carried on in it a roaring hospitality that never stopped.
His activities were wide. He was president of a bank (that never opened), head of a brewery (for brewing the Red River) and, above all, secretary-treasurer of the Winnipeg Hudson Bay and Arctic Ocean Railway that had a charter authorizing it to build a road to the Arctic Ocean, when it got ready. They had no track, but they printed stationery and passes, and in return E.P. received passes over all North America.
But naturally his main hold was politics. He was elected right away into the Manitoba Legislature. They would have made him Prime Minister but for the existence of the grand old man of the province, John Norquay. But even at that in a very short time Norquay ate out of E.P.’s hand, and E.P. led him on a string. I remember how they came down to Toronto, when I was a schoolboy, with an adherent group of “Westerners,” all in heavy buffalo coats and bearded like Assyrians. E.P. paraded them on King Street like a returned explorer with savages.
Naturally E.P.’s politics remained conservative. But he pitched the note higher. Even the ancestors weren’t good enough. He invented a Portuguese Dukedom (some one of our family once worked in Portugal) – and he conferred it, by some kind of reversion, on my elder brother Jim who had gone to Winnipeg to work in E.P.’s office. This enabled him to say to visitors in his big house, after looking at the ancestors – to say in a half-whisper behind his hand, “Strange to think that two deaths would make that boy a Portuguese Duke.” But Jim never knew which two Portuguese to kill.
To aristocracy E.P. also added a touch of peculiar prestige by always being apparently just about to be called away – imperially. If some one said, “Will you be in Winnipeg all winter, Mr. Leacock?” he answered, “It will depend a good deal on what happens in West Africa.” Just that; West Africa beat them.
Then came the crash of the Manitoba boom. Simple people, like my father, were wiped out in a day. Not so E.P. The crash just gave him a lift as the smash of a big wave lifts a strong swimmer. He just went right on. I believe that in reality he was left utterly bankrupt. But it made no difference. He used credit instead of cash. He still had his imaginary bank, and his railway to the Arctic Ocean. Hospitality still roared and the tradesmen still paid for it. Any one who called about a bill was told that E.P.’s movements were uncertain and would depend a good deal on what happened in Johannesburg. That held them another six months.
It was during this period that I used to see him when he made his periodic trips “east,” to impress his creditors in the West. He floated, at first very easily, on hotel credit, borrowed loans and unpaid bills. A banker, especially a country town banker, was his natural mark and victim. He would tremble as E.P. came in, like a stock-dove that sees a hawk. E.P.’s method was so simple; it was like showing a farmer peas under thimbles. As he entered the banker’s side-office he would say: “I say. Do you fish? Surely that’s a greenheart casting-rod on the wall?” (E.P. knew the names of everything.) In a few minutes the banker, flushed and pleased, was exhibiting the rod, and showing flies in a box out of a drawer. When E.P. went out he carried a hundred dollars with him. There was no security. The transaction was all over.
He dealt similarly with credit, with hotels, livery stables and bills in shops. They all fell for his method. He bought with lavish generosity, never asking a price. He never suggested pay till just as an afterthought, just as he was going out. And then: “By the way, please let me have the account promptly. I may be going away,” and, in an aside to me, as if not meant for the shop, “Sir Henry Loch has cabled again from West Africa.” And so out; they had never seen him before; nor since.
The proceeding with a hotel was different. A country hotel was, of course, easy, in fact too easy. E.P. would sometimes pay such a bill in cash, just as a sportsman won’t shoot a sitting partridge. But a large hotel was another thing. E.P., on leaving – that is, when all ready to leave, coat, bag and all – would call for his bill at the desk. At the sight of it he would break out into enthusiasm at the reasonableness of it. “Just think!” he would say in his “aside” to me, “compare that with the Hotel Crillon in Paris!” The hotel proprietor had no way of doing this; he just felt that he ran a cheap hotel. Then another “aside,” “Do remind me to mention to Sir John how admirably we’ve been treated; he’s coming here next week.” “Sir John” was our Prime Minister and the hotel keeper hadn’t known he was coming – and he wasn’t. . . . Then came the final touch – “Now, let me see . . . seventy-six dollars . . . seventy-six. . . . You give me” – and E.P. fixed his eye firmly on the hotel man – “give me twenty-four dollars, and then I can remember to send an even hundred.” The man’s hand trembled. But he gave it.
This does not mean that E.P. was in any sense a crook, in any degree dishonest. His bills to him were just “deferred pay,” like the British debts to the United States. He never did, never contemplated, a crooked deal in his life. All his grand schemes were as open as sunlight – and as empty.
In all his interviews E.P. could fashion his talk to his audience. On one of his appearances I introduced him to a group of college friends, young men near to degrees, to whom degrees mean everything. In casual conversation E.P. turned to me and said, “Oh, by the way you’ll be glad to know that I’ve just received my honorary degree from the Vatican – at last!” The “at last” was a knock-out – a degree from the Pope, and overdue at that!
Of course it could not last. Gradually credit crumbles. Faith weakens. Creditors grow hard, and friends turn their faces away. Gradually E.P. sank down. The death of his wife had left him a widower, a shuffling, half-shabby figure, familiar on the street, that would have been pathetic but for his indomitable self-belief, the illumination of his mind. Even at that, times grew hard with him. At length even the simple credit of the bar-rooms broke under him. I have been told by my brother Jim – the Portuguese Duke – of E.P. being put out of a Winnipeg bar, by an angry bar-tender who at last broke the mesmerism. E.P. had brought in a little group, spread up the fingers of one hand and said, “Mr. Leacock, five!” . . . The bar-tender broke into oaths. E.P. hooked a friend by the arm. “Come away,” he said. “I’m afraid the poor fellow’s crazy! But I hate to report him.”
Presently even his power to travel came to an end. The railways found out at last that there wasn’t any Arctic Ocean, and anyway the printer wouldn’t print.
Just once again he managed to “come east.” It was in June 1891. I met him forging along King Street in Toronto – a trifle shabby but with a plug hat with a big band of crape round it. “Poor Sir John,” he said. “I felt I simply must come down for his funeral.” Then I remembered that the Prime Minister was dead, and realized that kindly sentiment had meant free transportation.
That was the last I ever saw of E.P. A little after that some one paid his fare back to England. He received, from some family trust, a little income of perhaps two pounds a week. On that he lived, with such dignity as might be, in a lost village in Worcestershire. He told the people of the village – so I learned later – that his stay was uncertain; it would depend a good deal on what happened in China. But nothing happened in China; there he stayed, years and years. There he might have finished out, but for a strange chance of fortune, a sort of poetic justice, that gave E.P. an evening in the sunset.
It happened that in the part of England where our family belonged there was an ancient religious brotherhood, with a monastery and dilapidated estates that went back for centuries. E.P. descended on them, the brothers seeming to him an easy mark, as brothers indeed are. In the course of his pious “retreat,” E.P. took a look into the brothers’ finances, and his quick intelligence discovered an old claim against the British Government, large in amount and valid beyond a doubt.
In less than no time E.P. was at Westminster, representing the brothers. He knew exactly how to handle British officials; they were easier even than Ontario hotel keepers. All that is needed is hints of marvellous investment overseas. They never go there but they remember how they just missed Johannesburg or were just late on Persian oil. All E.P. needed was his Arctic Railway. “When you come out, I must take you over our railway. I really think that as soon as we reached the Coppermine River we must put the shares on here; it’s too big for New York. . . .”
So E.P. got what he wanted. The British Government are so used to old claims that it would as soon pay as not. There are plenty left.
The brothers got a whole lot of money. In gratitude they invited E.P. to be their permanent manager; so there he was, lifted into ease and affluence. The years went easily by, among gardens, orchards and fishponds old as the Crusades.
When I was lecturing in London in 1921 he wrote to me: “Do come down; I am too old now to travel; but any day you like I will send a chauffeur with a car and two lay-brothers to bring you down.” I thought the “lay-brothers” a fine touch – just like E.P.
I couldn’t go. I never saw him again. He ended out his days at the monastery, no cable calling him to West Africa. Years ago I used to think of E.P. as a sort of humbug, a source of humour. Looking back now I realize better the unbeatable quality of his spirit, the mark, we like to think just now, of the British race.
If there is a paradise, I am sure he will get in. He will say at the gate – “Peter? Then surely you must be a relation of Lord Peter of Tichfield?”
But if he fails, then, as the Spaniards say so fittingly, “May the earth lie light upon him.”
Table of ContentsSOME MEMORIES
My Remarkable Uncle
The Old Farm and the New Frame
The Struggle to Make Us Gentlemen
The British Soldier
The Mathematics of the Lost Chord
The Passing of the Kitchen
Come Back to School
What’s in a Name?
Who Canonizes the Classics?
Among the Antiques
What Is a Sport?
Why Do We Fish?
When Fellers Go Fishing
STUDIES IN HUMOUR
The Saving Grace of Humour
Laughing Off Our History
War and Humour
MEMORIES OF CHRISTMAS
War- time Santa Claus
War- time Christmas
Cricket for Americans
Our American Visitors
A Welcome to a Visiting American
Why Is the United States?
The Transit of Venus
Migration in English Literature
Three Score and Ten
Index: There Is No Index
L’Envoi: A Salutation Across the Sea