Register Monday | May 23 | 2022

The Lost Letter of Stephen Leacock

Well-loved humorist resolves long-standing grammatical dispute

Astonishing stuff falls out of second-hand books. Common, but always sobering—fluttering down as they do like banners of defeat—are the bookmarks of stores that have long since gone belly up. Always exciting is the paper money cleverly hidden in the pages by a previous owner wary of banks, spendthrift spouses or cash-poor delinquent children. (A recent estate sale’s library produced hundreds of dollars slipped in amongst the leaves; seems that spouse and offspring got to be the beneficiaries anyhow, in spite of the old skinflint’s best-laid plans . . . )


Besides the expected business cards, ticket stubs and holiday brochures are: little trickles of nail clippings; a barbershop’s variety of hair; dozens of photographs spanning a century’s worth of human record; numbers of mostly saccharine love notes, very neatly written. (Also several wild notes, passionately scrawled, evidently never meant to see the light of day.) Sometimes the ephemera is more elaborate: a filled-in but not mailed request for a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, neatly paper-clipped to a brochure for a junket to Las Vegas. Sociologically interesting, one might propose, as the measure of a lack of amatory imagination—or at least one of the more expensive ways to keep a marriage on track.


Most fun for the collector is a book autographed by the author—or, even better, signed and lengthily inscribed to someone of particular interest. But the best find of all (assuming the book is also a signed first edition, first printing) is to have fall from the book something written in the author’s own hand—particularly if the item is unpublished elsewhere.


I recently picked up a copy of Stephen Leacock’s Montreal: Seaport and City (Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1942), a common enough drab green hardcover (without dust jacket): several of my fellow book-scavengers at the estate sale, I note smugly, had already passed it by. I was about to wedge it back into the stack of books that gravestoned its final resting place. I hesitated: I have a collector’s soft spot for Leacock, author of some sixty books and arguably the best-known Canadian scribbler and teacher for close to half a century. Out of habit I checked to ascertain the edition and whether it was signed: oh, indeed it was! Then, like a card appearing from a magician’s deck, a letter eased up, having almost escaped my (again, habitual) riffling of the pages. Ah, what a little coquette of a note! Some sixty years sunk in a book, and here we have it.


The punctuation should follow the sense. If it is used in the ordinary way as a formal direction of what to do, the punctuation is a period. But if it is used as a real question, if for example the person has refused a reply and this is a real inquiry, then an interrogation. This would happen say one in 500 times.  S. L.