Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, May 18, 2021


 "The Old, Old Story of How Five Men Went Fishing" by Stephen Leacock  (from his 1918 collection Frenzied Fiction)

This is more of a sketch than a short story because short stories usually have a plot.  But one, especially Leacock, does not need a plot to skewer those who are avid fishers.

The five men in the title are George Popley (a bank manager), Kernin (a lawyer -- does he deserve a first name?), Charlie Jones (a railroad man), Colonel Jack Morse (unspecified what he is a colonel of, but the rank is more than enough to give him certain gravitas), and the narrator.  All have vacation cottages on a lake.  All are members of a golf club that they frequent, not because they play golf (they don't), not because they dine there (no food is served), and not to drink (Prohibition, you know).  They go there to sit.  Sitting is something they do well and a golf club is a perfect place to do it.  While sitting there one day, it was suggested that they organize a fishing party.  And so it was done.

All five claimed to be avid fishermen even if they hadn't fished in eight or ten years.  Things just never worked out.  But they were still avid fishermen.  All of them remembered a particular fishing spot from there childhood where the fish -- large fish, mind you -- cooperated fully in being caught.  Each of these individual fishing spots were closely held secrets and no one wold ever be able to find them.

The fish that they have caught were huge.  Alas, there is a difference between caught and landed.  These large fish would rise to the surface, only to be lost.  "The number of huge fish that had been heaved up to the top of the water is our lakes is almost incredible.  Or at least it used to be when we still had bar rooms and little tables for serving that vile stuff Scotch whiskey and such foul things as gin Rickeys and John  Collinses.  It makes one sick to think of it, doesn't it?  But there was good fishing in the bars, all winter."

It is a scientific fact that fish do not bite between eight and twelve, nor from twelve to six in the afternoon, nor from six until midnght.  Logically, then, the only time to fish would be at dawn.  this means getting on the lake at five, which means rising at four -- a sacrifice fishermen are ready to make.  Our intrepid five decide against going out in a rowboat because it's uncomfortable and because the fish are apt to jump over the low sides into the boat on their own, and that's not sporting.  And so they desire to hire a launch.  No fish jumping willy nilly into the boat and thre's plenty of room to strech one's legs, back, shoulder, and neck and to lay back and (perhaps) close one's eye when the fish are not biting.  In addition to the launch, the five men decide to pay the launch captain extra to wake the up at five in the morning.   (Strangely, they specified five instead of four.)  The group then spent the night talking until two in the morning about the upcoming trip.  All claimed they did not need much sleep; they could function on three hours sleep -- provided it was the right kind of sleep.

"I heard Frank Rolls blowing his infernal whistle opposite my summer cottage at some ghastly hour in the morning.  Even without getting out of bed I could see from the windoe that it was no day to go fishing..."  There was no particular reason, "but a sort of feeling in the air that showed anybody who understands bass fishing that it was a perfectly rotten day for going out.  The fish, I seemed to know it, wouldn't bite.  When I was still fretting ove the annoyance of the disappointmentI hear Frank Rolls blowing his whistle in fron of the other cottages.  I counted thirty whistles all together."  It was clear to the narrator that the other men had decided not to get up and it was folly to go out lone, so he closed his eyes and didn't get up until ten.

Stephen Leacock (1869-1944) was a teacher, political scientist, political economist, writer, and humorist, born in England and emigrated with his family to Canada when he was six.  He was forced to drop out of University College at the Universtiy of Toronto after one year because of finances and turned to teaching.  Leacock detested teaching and began writing.  After four years, he was able to earn his degree through part-time studies in 1891, but it wasn't until 1899 that he stopped teaching and began graduate studies at the University of Chicago under Thorstein Veblen, who that year would publish his The Theory of the Leisure Class.  Gaining his doctorate in political science and political economy, Leacock returned to Canada, settling in Montreal, and eventually becoming he William Doe Professor of Political Economy and chair of the Department of Economics and Political Science at McGill University.  

Leacock's writing supplemented, and then surpassed, his regular income.  His humorous stories became very popular and by 1911 it was said that more people knew of Stephen Leacock than of Canada.  From 1915 to 1925, he was the most popular humorist in the world.  His approach was a unique blend of satire and absurdity.  Among those who greatly admired his work was Jack Benny and Groucho Marx.  Leacock wrote in other fields, including political science and economy, but these books were written with a light-hearted approach and, though highly readable, were not well received.  Leacock's work as a political scientist is mostly forgotten now.

In personal life, he was a conservative who strongly supported Britain and opposed women's sufferage.  Strangely, he was also a strong supporter of social welfare and economic distribution.  Sadly -- and perhaps typically of the times -- he was also a racist who deplored both blacks and indiginous people.  After fifteen years of marriage, he and his wife Beatrix has a son, Stephen Lushington Leacock, their only child.  Leacock doted on his son, who had a genetic defect that allow to grow only to four feet tall, but tended to treat him as a child, causing a rift between the two.  Beatrix Leacock died of breat cancer when the boy was ten.

Today Leacock remains one of the most popular and influential Candian writers.  

Frenzied Fiction, as well as many other of Leacock's works are available to read online.

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