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Restoring faith in the media

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Back to Plutoria Avenue

Leacock’s Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich, a century later

Don Nerbas

Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier famously declared that the 20th century belonged to Canada. This heady prediction seemed to be coming true in the rapid economic growth of the early 20th century. Industry and agriculture boomed, and immigrants arrived in droves, although often to toil in the mines, factories and fields rather than on their own homesteads and family farms. The crescendo of this boom witnessed a major wave of business consolidation, and by 1914 the joint-stock company and monopoly capital were coming into their own. If the 20th century was supposed to belong to Canada, it often seemed that Canada belonged to the rich.

This was the historical context that Stephen Leacock’s Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich addressed when it was published 100 years ago in 1914. Generally considered among his best works, Arcadian Adventures offers a satirical account of the adventures—and misadventures—of the residents of Plutoria Avenue. In these pages we encounter the “winners” of the emerging urban-industrial society, people who embody the reality of the era’s hardening class divisions. It is no accident that Leacock begins the book with the images of “a little toddling princess … who owns fifty distilleries … [and] a child of four, in a khaki suit, who represents the merger of two trunk line railways.”

In a society where the transmission of wealth was becoming dynastic, the wealthy men and women of Plutoria Avenue confer upon themselves undeserved esteem and status and mistake their material wealth for personal merit, with the aid of ingratiating clergymen and university administrators, corruptible politicians and spiritual charlatans. Within this moneyed environment, moral judgements become elastic and appearance supersedes substance. The satirical voice of Leacock’s third-person narrator presents the world through the prism of the plutocrat, whose ignorance and disinterest—buttressed by a crude social Darwinism—renders social inequities and injustices invisible. Although all eight stories in Arcadian Adventures can be read separately, the book’s sum is greater than its parts. Characters reappear throughout, as Leacock weaves together a multi-layered community that invests, dines, attends church and goes on vacations together. From education to religion to politics, Leacock depicts a society where established institutions and values are under siege. Money conquers all and sweeps everything before it.

As a McGill University professor, Leacock had a good seat from which to observe the social striving and conspicuous consumption of the wealthy in Montreal, Canada’s largest city and pre-eminent business centre. Although Plutoria Avenue appears within an unnamed American city in Arcadian Adventures, the depiction of Plutoria Avenue draws considerable inspiration from Montreal. Moreover, Leacock also had a window into the social ambition of the super-rich through the example of his wife’s uncle, financier Sir Henry Pellatt, who built Casa Loma in Toronto, an immense gothic-styled mansion that is one of the iconic symbols of the Canadian age of moneyed excess.

But even before his arrival at McGill, Leacock was conditioned to look at this unfolding phenomenon with a skeptical eye. As a PhD student at the University of Chicago around the turn of the century, he was in contact with the famed economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen, one of the most imaginative and powerful critics of Gilded Age plutocracy. One of Leacock’s biographers has asserted that Veblen’s classic The Theory of the Leisure Class was “one of the most important books in Leacock’s life.” ((Ralph L. Curry, Stephen Leacock: Humorist and Humanist (George A. Vanderburgh, 2005 [1959]), page 63.)) And Claude Bissell has described Arcadian Adventures as “almost a fictional companion piece” to Veblen’s influential book. ((Quoted on page 21 in Robertson Davies, “Introduction,” in Feast of Stephen (McClelland and Stewart, 1970).))

The forethought, time and resources that the residents of Plutoria Avenue invest in leisure and consumption can be read as a dramatization of Veblen’s thesis: that leisure and conspicuous consumption were central to the assertion of class distinction and status among aristocratic plutocrats who strove to voice their independence and distance from the crude world of work. Unlike Veblen, however, Leacock did not portray idleness and efficiency as opposite social forces; Arcadian Adventures depicts a society where these qualities seem to coexist in an uneasy partnership. Although the rich may not impose efficiency upon themselves in their private affairs, they are purveyors of the narrow, technocratic world view that allows their factories to produce profits but that displaces real knowledge. A statue of a recent statesman, for example, arouses considerable interest not because of its historical or social relevance, but because “it is an example of the new electro-chemical process of casting by which you can cast a state governor any size you like, no matter what you start from.”

Above all, Leacock’s satire is rooted in old-fashioned, moralistic beliefs. He acquired his attitudes within a Canadian society that, as present-day McGill historian Suzanne Morton has shown, harboured considerable moral angst and suspicion about wealth acquired through financial speculation and stock manipulation. ((Suzanne Morton, At Odds: Gambling and Canadians, 1919–1969 (University of Toronto Press, 2003), pages 28–33.)) And indeed, the amoral materialism of the rich is Leacock’s principal target. For wealthy church parishioners, religion does not offer moral strictures but instead is therapeutic. The highly popular Reverend Edward Fareforth Furlong of St. Asaph’s could “explain away the book of Genesis more agreeably” than anyone else, and “there was nothing in the theological system of Mr. Furlong that need have occasioned in any of his congregation a moment’s discomfort.”

In politics, too, the residents of Plutoria Avenue transform themselves into leaders of the Clean Government League in order to defend their investments in public utilities. Deluded by their own rhetoric, they are incapable of recognizing their own hypocrisy when they imagine graft and corruption everywhere among lower middle class city councillors: “Think of it! In a city with a hundred and fifty deaths a week, and sometimes better, an undertaker sat on the council!” Ultimately, the Clean Government League carries the day and celebrations in Plutoria Avenue’s elite social club proceeded “till the slow day broke … and the people of the city—the best of them—drove home to their well-earned sleep; and the others—in the lower parts of the city—rose to their daily toil.”

Those are the closing lines of Arcadian Adventures. Alluding to the correspondence of topographical and socioeconomic location that was a prominent feature of Montreal’s social landscape, Leacock strikes a tone that is more serious than humorous. This was a society that degraded manual labour and those who survived by it, but valorized the accumulation of wealth and assumed the superiority of the wealthy. It was a society that produced vast social inequalities, and Leacock condemns the resulting moral corruption with all his skill both as a humorist and as a social critic. Instead of the kindly, even indulgent, humour of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, what we have here is earnest, old-fashioned satire.

Today we are living through an odd historical moment when the elements of Plutoria have been renewed and revitalized in Canada—think of the predatory celebrity of Kevin O’Leary and other “dragons.” But the critique of plutocracy offered up these days by public figures who purport to represent popular causes rarely comes close to matching the imagination and
force—and fun—of Arcadian Adventures. That this was the achievement of a Tory imperialist writing 100  years ago should cause us to reflect upon the Canadian intellectual tradition and its unexpected resources for thinking about our society today.

Don Nerbas is a professor of history at Cape Breton University and the author of Dominion of Capital: The Politics of Big Business and the Crisis of the Canadian Bourgeoisie, 1914–1947 (University of Toronto Press, 2013).