Born in 1869, in Swanmore, Hampshire, writer and teacher Stephen Leacock moved to Canada at an early age and became one of the best known humorists of his time. His family had made their money from running plantations in Madeira and there was a strong history associated with the British Empire.
When Leacock was just 6 years old, his father decided to emigrate to Canada to work on a farm in Ontario. Unfortunately, the venture was not a success and the family had to be supported by their paternal grandfather when the farm failed. Leacock’s own father turned to drink and moved away shortly after, hoping to find his fortune in Manitoba.
The young Leacock was sent to public school by his grandfather and soon thrived. He was academically gifted and popular with the other children in the school. Once he had graduated, Leacock returned home with plans of going to university but his attempts to further his education were beset with financial difficulties. Leacock survived the first year at Toronto University on a small grant but could not continue thereafter.
He turned instead to teaching and took up a post at the Toronto College, a profession that he did not at first like. It did, however, allow him to simultaneously complete his university degree and it was during this time that he first began writing seriously. For a while he moved to Chicago where he studied politics and, after holding a number of academic posts, he finally became professor at McGill University in Montreal.
Leacock initially wrote to help supplement his meager income and would produce humorous stories and short essays, gradually moving onto novels. Whilst he was most widely known for writing prose, he did produce a number of poems including The Social Plan and Oh! Mr Malthus! He married Beatrix Hamilton in 1900 and the two would have one son together, almost 15 years later.
His popularity began to grow as his publications found a wider readership and by 1915 Leacock was known worldwide. Books such as Nonsense Novels and his more reflective Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town sold well on both sides of the Atlantic and he was often considered a lighter version of Mark Twain.
He did also write a number of more serious works that have been mostly forgotten over the years, including several political and academic treatises, and was awarded the Lorne Pierce Medal in 1937. Leacock’s humorous writing was an influence on the likes of comedians Jack Benny and Groucho Marks, and he became good friends with another well-known humorist Robert Benchley.
After his retirement in the late 1930s, Leacock embarked on a tour of the United States and wrote one of his final books, My Discovery of the West. He died in Toronto in 1944 at the age of 74. After his death, his niece published two posthumous works, Last Leaves and The Boy I Left Behind, and in 1947 an award was created in his name to highlight the cream of Canadian humor.