Humorous Writing in English | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Humorous Writing in English

One major factor inhibiting the early growth of a humorous tradition in Canadian literature was that most writing in the 19th century was dominated by a colonial mentality which looked to the "high seriousness" of English romanticism for its model.
Mordecai Richler, author
(photo by Martha Kaplan)
Leacock, Stephen
Leacock was the English-speaking world's best-known humorist in the years 1915-25. Painting by Edwin Holgate (courtesy National Gallery of Canada).
Thomas Chandler Haliburton, author and politician
Thomas Chandler Haliburton in a lithograph by E.U. Eddis (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-6086).

It is perhaps paradoxical that the first major work of Canadian humour - Thomas McCulloch's "Letters of Mephibosheth Stepsure" (1821-23) - should have been written by a man whose other credits included Popery Condemned and Calvinism. There has always been a perception of something dour, grim and northern about our national literature; critics seeking our defining images have talked of "survival" in a "harsh and lovely land." Our stories are often of failures and victims, our heroes freeze in snowdrifts, and our marriages (like most of our shipping) end up on the rocks.

One major factor inhibiting the early growth of a humorous tradition in Canadian literature was that most writing in the 19th century was dominated by a colonial mentality which looked to the "high seriousness" of English romanticism for its model. A poet who takes himself solemnly (which is not quite the same thing as taking himself seriously) finds it difficult to devote a whole poem to anything as trivial as a joke. One mark of an immature writer, or indeed of a whole literature which has not yet attained self-confidence, is the straining after big, "serious" topics. Robertson Davies comments that as late as 1920 to 1935, "we were not sufficiently sure of ourselves in this country to realize that a humorist may be a serious literary artist." The Canadian inferiority complex (which even today leads to much unprofitable anguish over the need to supply a recipe for "the Canadian identity") did not allow a writer the luxury of making a fool of himself in public.

The Canadian tradition of humorous writing has generally been stronger in prose than in poetry. McCulloch's satirical letters, which began appearing in the Halifax weekly Acadian Recorder in 1821, have been described by Northrop Frye as exhibiting a tone "quiet, observant, deeply conservative in a human sense, [which] has been the prevailing tone of Canadian humour ever since." McCulloch's use of a satirical persona - the "conventional, old-fashioned, homespun" farmer - places him in a classical tradition which reaches back to Addison and Swift, and forward to Davies's Samuel Marchbanks and John Metcalf's James Wells in General Ludd (1980). Whereas McCulloch's style was dry, subtle and understated, his immediate successor, Thomas Chandler Haliburton, proclaimed similarly conservative social values through the brash, colloquial, overstated persona of Sam Slick, the Yankee Clockmaker. From his first appearance in The Clockmaker (1836), Sam Slick proved immensely popular and ironically has influenced American humour as much as Canadian.

After these promising beginnings, however, Canada had to wait until 1910 for the appearance of its next major comic writer. That year Literary Lapses launched the national and international reputation of Stephen Leacock. Leacock's masterpiece, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912), was followed 2 years later by the finely satirical Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich. In Leacock's more than 30 books of humour there was much inferior work; Robertson Davies ascribes his failure to develop into a major comic novelist as due, at least in part, to his unwillingness to carry through the darker implications of his comedy. Critical debate on Sunshine Sketches continues to centre on the balance between its irony and its indulgence, and between Leacock's criticism of the townspeople and his nostalgic affection for them.

One of Leacock's more permanent legacies was the establishment of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, of which a most worthy early recipient was Paul Hiebert's Sarah Binks (1947). Hiebert offers a broad but telling pastiche of the academic biography, but the true genius of the book lies in the creation of what John Moss has called "some of the world's best bad poetry." The verses of the "sweet songstress of Saskatchewan" are fine parodies of Canadian poetry. Sarah Binks is a comic creation which derives from Canadian literature while simultaneously making a contribution to it. In this it has few rivals, though one may be George Bowering's A Short Sad Book (1977).

As we move into the period of the full maturity of the Canadian novel, we find an increasing use of humour, in many forms. There is the good-natured humour of W.O. Mitchell, a born teller of tall tales, as reflected in the conservative, traditional comic world of Who Has Seen the Wind (1947). A much sharper edge of satire is to be found in the work of Mordecai Richler, but even in a novel such as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959), the most memorable scenes are those - like the Bar Mitzvah movie or the epileptics' newsletter - in which the exuberance of comic exaggeration outstrips the strict necessities of satirical mordancy. A blacker, wilder, more fantastic strain of humour illuminates the novels of Leonard Cohen, especially Beautiful Losers (1966). And in novels such as Sheila Watson's The Double Hook (1959) humour deepens into a more profound sense of comedy as a redemptive vision of life.

Recent Canadian comic novels have moved towards an exuberant, overstated comedy of exaggeration and fantasy. This is evident in Ray Smith's Lord Nelson's Tavern (1974) and in Leo Simpson's The Peacock Papers (1973), in which an angel announcing the end of the world regrets particularly the demise of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. (Like Simpson, Robertson Davies, in The Rebel Angels, 1981, pays homage to the comic novels of Thomas Love Peacock.) The sharp satirical observation of Margaret Atwood's novels may not strike some readers as exaggerated at all. Robert Kroetsch, however, has elevated the Prairies' beer-parlour tall tale to mythic proportions in The Studhorse Man (1969). In Kroetsch's What the Crow Said (1978) the exuberance of invention attests the influence of S American novelists such as Gabriel García Márquez. The same influence may be traced in the equally extravagant comedy of Vancouver I's Jack Hodgins, especially in The Invention of the World (1977). The full range of a comic voice following the possibilities of inventive licence to their limit may be heard in the short stories of Leon Rooke and in his novel, Shakespeare's Dog (1982).

Although much 19th-century Canadian poetry may strike the contemporary reader as unintentionally comic, as W.A. Deacon proved in his satirical The Four Jameses (1927), this period contains few and scattered examples of truly humorous verse. The first major Canadian poet for whom humour formed an essential and serious part of his vision was F.R. Scott. "The Canadian Authors Meet" (1927) remains a wickedly accurate deflation of literary pretension and colonial mediocrity. Unlike the prose satirists, Scott operated from left of the political centre; his poetry was only one aspect of a most distinguished career in Canadian cultural and political life. During the Depression, Scott's satire, like that of Dorothy Livesay, was aimed against the "efficiency" of an economic system which left so many unemployed and impoverished. In his Trouvailles (1967), Scott also used the "found" poem to great satiric effect.

Scott coedited with A.J.M. Smith the first major anthology of Canadian "satire, invective and disrespectful verse," The Blasted Pine (1957). Although many of the poems in this collection are not necessarily funny, it was a milestone in the development of Canadian humour. Adopting a more eclectic editorial stance and insisting on the importance of "poetry" rather than "verse," Douglas Barbour and Stephen Scobie coedited the anthology The Maple Laugh Forever (1981).

Scott's tradition of acerbic classical wit has been notably carried on by George Johnston and Francis Sparshott, but the majority of Canadian comic poems are more boisterous or fantastic in tone. Earle Birney has twisted language into many ingenious and whimsical games, though his laughter often seems a thin disguise for his deeper pessimism. Irving Layton has used a loud and sometimes crude humour as part of his general assault on stuffy proprieties. Most impressively, Al Purdy has created a kind of comic persona for himself, shambling, expansive and all-embracing, which provides the ideal medium for his widespread range of poetic concerns.

Among younger poets, there is a similar use of the comic persona in Tom Wayman's creation of himself in the distanced third person of Waiting for Wayman (1973). The seemingly naive idealism of Bill Bissett is accompanied by shrewd irony and a poker-faced relation of the modern world's sometimes lethal absurdities (as in "Th Emergency Ward"), and Frank Davey has also exploited an apparently neutral style of description, which allows the material to reveal its own satiric potential, in his "War Poems" and in Capitalistic Affection! (1982). Dennis Lee has written whimsical children's poems which shade, as the age of the intended audience grows, into pointed political satire. The influence of Atwood's bitter satirical treatment of sexual relations in Power Politics (1971) is extended by younger women such as Sharon Thesen, in Artemis Hates Romance (1980), and Mary Howes, in Lying in Bed (1981).

For most Canadian poets, humour has now become one element in a wider and more complex view of the world. In his animal poems, Michael Ondaatje juxtaposes the "strange case" of his beagle's sexual proclivities with the stranger horrors of the animal man; in his "Letters & Other Worlds," the absurd eccentricities of his parents' characters are inseparable from the tragedy of their lives. The Martyrology (1972 and continuing), by bp Nichol, begins with a play on words: all words beginning in st are concealed saints' names (eg, stand is written as St And). On this is built a whole cosmology, a life-work-poem which stands at the centre of contemporary Canadian literature.

Humour in Canadian drama is less advanced than it is in either fiction or poetry, though comic elements were present in the complex poetic plays of James Reaney and in the multimedia extravaganzas of Wilfred Watson. Works such as Billy Bishop Goes to War (publ 1981), by John Gray and Eric Peterson, and Linda Griffiths's Maggie and Pierre (publ 1980) indicate a new willingness to get out on satirical limbs. Canada has a strong comic tradition in shorter dramatic forms, such as the review sketches of many years' Spring Thaw, and this tradition has found fertile ground in radio (Double Exposure) and television (Royal Canadian Air Farce and This Hour Has 22 Minutes). Next to Leacock, the Canadian comedians who were best known internationally in the early 1980s were SCTV's McKenzie brothers, whose precisely timed mockery of Canadian gullibility and boorishness ("Take off, eh?") harks back to the deepest roots of Canadian humour. Sam Slick was fully familiar with "hosers." After the dissolution of SCTV there was no one to step into the breach. The popularity of Canadian comedy at home, however, continues to grow.

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