How to rag on the maple leaf

Or, both halves of Robertson Davies

But where are the Canadians?

In my ongoing chronicle of the Lives of the Wits, there are plenty of Brits, a good sampling of Irish, some French and Italians, an Austrian and an Australian, and numerous Americans, but I’m acutely aware that I’m missing my people.

Perhaps it’s because I hail from what has historically been seen as a frozen wasteland of culture and thought, one that the French should have traded for Guadalupe when they had the chance. When Wilde was witting and Parker was punning, the muttonchopped white men who ran Canada kept the place conspicuously quiet. Maybe Voltaire was right about this being a few acres of snow.

But then, Samuel Marchbanks thought the same thing. And he told his fellow Canadians as much with aplomb and regularity.

Marchbanks was the pseudonym used by Robertson Davies when he edited and published The Peterborough Examiner, a small-town Ontario newspaper that, as of this week, still exists. Davies had not yet published Fifth Business, the first novel of his excellent trilogy-length explanation of why we never hide rocks in snowballs. He lived in Canada but had seen the world (defined here as London and New York) and he used his paper to mock his countrymen and women in a way they quite liked.

“It is a frequent complaint of the sort of person with whom complaint is an ingrained habit that the art of conversation is dead,” Samuel Marchbanks explained, though he noted in an unCanadian way that he was “not a bad hand at it myself.” 

“Who can explain our national passion for dowdy utility?” he asked in his columns. Why, he wondered, was there no such thing as an irresistible Canadian man?

I think that it is because a man, to be attractive, must be free to give his whole time to it, and the Canadian male is so hounded by taxes and the rigours of our climate that he is lucky to be alive, without being irresistible as well.

What was wrong with calling a woman wholesome?

This word suggests that a girl eats a lot of turnips, laughs too loudly at clean jokes, wears too much underclothing of the wrong kind, and has not heard about depilatories. 

And why was the wine so bad?

I talked to a man this morning who is financially interested in Ontario wines. I asked him why they were no better than they are, and he replied by telling me of the extreme care and cleanliness shown in manufacturing them. “But that’s just the trouble,” I said; “you make wine as though it were a disinfectant. … Cleanliness is the bugbear of this continent, and too much is sacrificed to it.” He goggled a bit, and then said that he didn’t know anything about it; he was a rye drinker himself. 

Having an alter ego, even a widely acknowledged one, gave Davies some much-needed room to groan at his homeland. Under his own name as a good Canadian, Davies played by the rules. The very top of his Wikipedia page notes that “He was one of Canada’s best known and most popular authors and one of its most distinguished ‘men of letters’, an unfashionable term Davies gladly accepted for himself.” 

In his private diaries, though, he had this to say about being Canada’s man of letters:

Am I so? The distinction is roughly that of the best rose-grower at the North Pole or the best architect of snow sculpture in hell. 

That’s much more Marchbanks than Davies, though he was always both men. His time and place demanded both a public and a real persona, and he managed the trick of cultivating both at once. In his 1985 compilation of the Marchbanks papers, he explained Canada’s reputation in much the the same way:

To be world’s champion at anything, even dullness, is a form of distinction. Our real character—witty, ebullient, laughter-loving—doesn’t matter: it’s the publicity that counts.


Quick quip; lightning

“For some reason, a glaze passes over people’s faces when you say Canada.”
— Sondra Gotlieb, a writer I had the pleasure of editing in my years at the National Post. This quote jumped out at me from the back cover of Wit, a 2003 quotation collection by Des MacHale —  in part because her surname was misspelled, an error no doubt caused by a copy editor’s glazed face.


Link link, nudge nudge 

“My respect for your sorry ass increased after I learned how cool your wife was.”
— Stanley Crouch, the late jazz curmudgeon, as nicely eulogized here by Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus. (h/t Blake) 

“Furthermore, my opponent does not believe in Canadian unexceptionalism.”
— Paul Noth’s 2014 New Yorker cartoon.

“The two most beautiful words in the English language are ‘Leave Meeting.’”
— Nikki Campo’s 2020 riffs on Dorothy Parker, via McSweeney’s.


That was No. 63 of GWQ, a weekly review of melted snow sculptures. Here’s a real Maple Leaf Rag. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting was sadly never translated into Canadian. Sorry, but can you please tap the ♥️ below?